Martha was the last passenger pigeon who ever lived. She died November 1st, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo. passenger pigeons used to be extremely common in the United States; in fact, they were the most common bird in the united states, and possibly in the world. There were so many passenger pigeons that, reportedly, when flocks would fly overhead, they would make a thunderous noise, and when close enough, the ground would shake. Current estimates of their peak population numbers hover around 4 billion!
Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon, designed by John A. Ruthven and executed by students in the Artworks Summer Apprentice Program seen at 15 East Eighth Street in Cincinnati, Ohio.
However, the bird's gargantuan numbers proved to be its downfall. There were so many of the pigeons, and they flew so tightly together, that one could shoot a single shotgun shell into the air and get up to 40 birds at once. This quickly lead to overhunting; especially since this was before any environmental protections existed within the US, like the EPA or Migratory Bird Act. People would hunt and hunt these birds because they could, essentially. This hunting quickly grew into a thriving trapping industry. The pigeon trappers would capture a live pigeon, sew its eyes shut, and put it inside a large net. The cries of the bird would lead whole flocks into the trap, and then they would kill the birds. Some of these birds were eaten, and some had their feathers plucked to make pillows. They eventually killed so many pigeons through trapping and hunting that they ran out of uses for their bodies, and started throwing their bodies in the streets to rot.
Figure 1: James Pattison Cockburn painting, 1829.
Figure 2: Passenger Pigeon Net, La Crosse County Historical Society.
“We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.” - Aldo Leopold
Many scientists worked to try and save the pigeons, but by time they had noticed the decline, it was already too late. People went from seeing thousands in one flock to mere dozens. Soon there was just two: Martha and George Washington. One male, one female. They tried to pair the two of them to mate, but they didn't particularly like eachother, and any attempts to make them bond were largely unsuccessful. Eventually George died, and it left Martha completely and utterly alone, the last of her kind. She sat in her cage in the Cincinnati Zoo. The zoo tried their best to make her life as good as they can, and the zoo now has a memorial garden in her honor. When she inevitably died in 1914, the Smithsonian and the Cincinnati Zoo worked together to take her body by train from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Washington, DC. The whole trip, someone was appointed to stay with her body, making sure that the ice was an appropriate temperature to keep it in good condition for study.
Yeoman, B., & 2014, M.-J. (2021, April 27). Why the passenger pigeon went extinct. Audubon. Retrieved November 12, 2022, from https://www.audubon.org/magazine/may-june-2014/why-passenger-pigeon-went-extinct
Vach, A. (2020, October 4). Passenger pigeon net. La Crosse County Historical Society. Retrieved November 12, 2022, from https://www.lchshistory.org/things-that-matter-2019/2019/8/12/passenger-pigeon-net
The Field Museum. (2014, September 10). Year of the passenger pigeon. YouTube. Retrieved November 12, 2022, from https://youtu.be/FPRpX25L5DU