The Last Passenger Pigeon

September 1, 2014

This is Martha the passenger pigeon. She was an endling, the last individual of her species. On September 1, 1914—one hundred years ago today—she was found dead on the bottom of her cage at the Cincinnatti Zoo. And that was it: the planet had run out of passenger pigeons. In this image Martha is already a museum piece: she was stuffed and perched. The photo is an old-fashioned wet plate, but it’s fairly recent, fitting for a subject that cries out for a do-over and still resonates after a century.

Martha’s death was one of the first instances where we could mark the precise endpoint of a species, but what makes the story of the passenger pigeon so regrettable and strange is the numbers. This wasn’t a furtive bird scratching out a life on a lonely mountain somewhere. Passenger pigeons covered America from Montana to Florida, and were awesomely, nearly mythically numerous. Early New York settlers gaped at a sky filled from edge to edge with a rustling tapestry of passing birds; Dutch colonists reported in 1625 that they “shut out the sunshine.”

They were good eating. When Hudson and his crew dined with the local Native Americans, they were served passenger pigeon. The supply of this ready food source was judged at roughly infinite. You could bring down a dozen birds with one blast of shot. Adventurer and wildlife painter John James Audubon, one of my favorite New Yorkers, makes this description:
In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio River, on my way to Louisville... The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse.

Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardinsburgh fifty-five miles. The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river.

Alexander Wilson (the “Father of American Ornithology”) wrote in 1829 that the vast flocking of passenger pigeons had “no parallel among any other of the feathered tribes, on the face of the earth.” He found a breeding area in Kentucky where every tree was nested for forty miles, and described a flowing column of migrating pigeons with no visible end or beginning, “so that the whole, with its glittery undulations, marked a space on the face of the heavens resembling the windings of a vast and majestic river.”

In the 1870s these undiminished numbers were reduced to millions; then to thousands; then to one—and then none. Dying out is the main theme of natural history. But this was the largest-scale extinction caused by humans, ever.

Read about it in today’s Times. See Martha at the Smithsonian.

Or learn about Revive and Restore, the god-unfearing effort to resurrect the passenger pigeon through genetic engineering. If you like folk music with your biotech (who doesn’t), click below and listen to John Herald’s “Martha Last of the Passenger Pigeons” while you do.