The last known individual of the species, a female named Martha (after Martha Washington), died 99 years ago today at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden in Ohio.
People once scoffed at the notion that the species might vanish. After all, the Passenger Pigeon was believed to make up 25-40 percent of the total bird population of the United States. A single nesting area here in Wisconsin covered no less than 850 square miles; the number of birds nesting in it was estimated at 136 million.
The numbers are so huge, they’re impossible to picture. Even more difficult to imagine, by the early 1900s, no wild Passenger Pigeons could be found. From 1909 to 1912, the American Ornithologists’ Union offered $1,500 to anyone able to locate a nest or nesting colony, but no payment had to be made.
Martha died two years later, on September 1, 1914.
According to the National Museum of Natural History, she lived her entire 29-year life at the Cincinnati Zoo. Aware of the significance of her death, conservators packed her remains in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped it to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Her skin was mounted for display, her internal parts preserved as part of the fluid or “wet” collections of the National Museum of Natural History.
She’s now one of about 1,500 Passenger Pigeons preserved in museum collections. You will see and hear lots about her and them in the year ahead, the centenary of the species’ extinction. (This mural, painted in Cincinnati by celebrated wildlife artist John A. Ruthven, is an example.)
We’ll mark the event in upcoming issues of the magazine, and our friends at Project Passenger Pigeon have a documentary film, a new book, social-media happenings, curricula, and a wide range of exhibits and programming in the works. If you or your group is planning an event marking the anniversary, won’t you let us know about it? Please add it to our online calendar. — Chuck Hagner, Editor