Martha the Last Passenger Pigeon


Imagine if you made a mistake. You’d hope at best for there to be minimal damage, but most of all you’d hope for a second chance. A shot at redemption - a chance to wrong a right. Imagine you got that chance. Not once, not twice, but three billion times.

And you still got it wrong.

Martha was an endling, the last known individual of a species and when she died in a zoo, aged 29, the Passenger Pigeon became extinct. Even in the midst of our world now, full of accelerating risk for our planet’s birds amongst climate change, it’s a story that seems unbelievable to hear. I had to double check to make sure I read the number of Passenger Pigeons right: 3-5 billion, all living in North America before the turn of the 20th century. It was possibly the worlds most abundant bird.

Deforestation was a part of their decline, but mostly it was us hungry carnivores killing the pigeons for food. Passenger Pigeons had enormous nesting sights. These were frequented by hunters and before they died off in the wild in the 1800’s, records show that at one nesting site in particular, near the Great Lakes in the U.S., that 50,000 were killed each day for several days.

Depiction of a shooting in northern Louisiana, Smith Bennett, 1875

Depiction of a shooting in northern Louisiana, Smith Bennett, 1875

As the human population of the United States in the 1800’s exploded, cities began to sprawl west and the plight of the Passenger Pigeon became more urgent. Extinction was an alien thought of these settlers and the conservation movement was just getting started. Although protected by law in the end, these social birds dwindled until there were none left in the wild.

Martha, the last known Passenger Pigeon was named after the very first, First Lady of the United States, Martha Washington. How unfitting it was for her, a bird named after the first, to be known as the last. She lived at the Cincinnati Zoo and by November 1907, she and two male Passenger Pigeons at the two were the last known survivors of the species. The two male birds died a year apart, in 1909 and 1910. A $1,000 reward was placed for anyone that could find Martha a suitable mate. She became a celebrity at the zoo for all the wrong reasons.

Since her death, she’s been a warning beacon to us all, an alarm that sounded, yet was never heeded. She is a symbol for extinction. As she lived, so she died, a message to us all to fight for the present.



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