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Is This the Year of the Passenger Pigeon?

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 13, 2014

Passenger pigeon diorama (Photo:Curious Expeditions/Flickr/Creative Commons License)

Passenger pigeon diorama (Photo:Curious Expeditions/Flickr/Creative Commons License)

A hundred years ago this September, humans achieved the impossible, catastrophically.  Passenger pigeons had numbered in the billions just 54 years earlier.  But senseless slaughter had now reduced the species to a sole surviving female, named Martha, in the Cincinnati Zoo, and on September 1, 1914, at 1 p.m., she died.  Henry Nicholls writes about Martha today in The Guardian.  He quotes a vivid eyewitness description of the passenger pigeon migration at Niagara, NY, in 1860:

“I was perfectly amazed to behold the air filled and the sun obscured by millions of pigeons, not

Martha in her final resting place

Martha in her final resting place

hovering about but darting onwards in a straight line with arrowy flight, in a vast mass a mile or more in breadth, and stretching before and behind as far as the eye could reach,” he wrote in The Sportsman and Naturalist in Canada.

The flock took 14 hours to pass overhead and, based on a flying speed of 60mph, King estimated that “the column … could not have been less than three hundred miles in length”.

And he describes what happened to Martha’s preserved body,  on display at the National Museum of Natural

History.  He also writes:

The plight of “last individuals” – think Lonesome George – is always going to move people, especially when the hand of humankind has been so heavily involved in the extinction. So it seems likely that 2014 will be the year of the passenger pigeon as people mark the centenary of Martha’s death.

In addition to Greenberg’s excellent book, which devotes a chapter to Martha and boasts a terrific appendix of passenger pigeon-related miscellany, we can also look forward to A Message to Martha by Mark Avery, former conservation director at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Martha herself will be the star turn in a special exhibition at NMNH. Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America will run from 27 June 2014 to 14 June 2015 and tell the story of the passenger pigeon and other extinct birds, including the great auk, the Carolina parakeet and heath hen.

Check out the full article–including an unsolved biological puzzle–here.

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