The ignoble end of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon

Just over 100 years ago Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died. The story of Passenger Pigeons captured my imagination (and sorrow) when I was a child, and – knowing that they would have filled the skies over my home today in Southern Ontario – it still does.

John James Audubon’s description of an immense flock of Passenger Pigeons in flight is gorgeously evocative:

I cannot describe to you the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions, when a Hawk chanced to press upon the rear of a flock. At once, like a torrent, and with a noise like thunder, they rushed into a compact mass, pressing upon each other towards the centre. In these almost solid masses, they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent.

It must have resembled this murmuration of Starlings on an unimaginable scale:

And what about this moving description, by a Potawatomi tribal leader named Simon Pokagon, in 1850:

“I have stood by the grandest waterfall of America,” he wrote, “yet never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven.”

In 1831 Audubon was convinced that “nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease”. And he was right – although it wasn’t gradual, it was catastrophic. Vast areas of the Passenger Pigeon’s habitat and the trees that supplied their food were cleared beginning around 1860. People harvested millions of Passenger Pigeons on an industrial scale. By1890 the bird that had darkened the skies for days on end was an unusual sight indeed.

As an aside, the botanist in me wonders what impact the dung produced by these flocks must have made on the soil ecology of forests and grasslands. I imagine we’ll never know how these ecosystems were affected, but it must have been far-reaching.

Extinction was an undignified and humiliating business. Errol Fuller, in this book “The Passenger Pigeon” wrote:

Martha was on her own, and she lived on in solitary confinement for four more years…. During this period of her life Martha got steadily slower and more infirm. At times she became so immobile that during busy periods her enclosure was roped off to prevent visitors from getting too close; otherwise they would throw sand and other objects to encourage her to move.

Poor Martha died on September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

More: Why the Passenger Pigeon went extinct