Publish date:



Martha was her name, and she lived to the age of 29, which is quite old for a pigeon. Martha had good reason for hanging on to life so long; she was the last of her kind.

Martha emerged from her egg in 1885 at the Cincinnati Zoo. She was kept there, not as a rarity but so that visitors who had seen passenger pigeons only in the sky or on their plates could admire her handsome plumage at close quarters. For most of her life Martha did not live alone; others of the same breed shared her cage, secure there from the guns, nets and other devices men used to kill millions of Martha's relatives each year—until there were no more of them.

There are numerous accounts of the extraordinary fun to be had with a gun at the expense of passenger pigeons. Their traveling habits were quite unpredictable, but when a flock passed through an area it yielded kills on a scale exceeding all but the most lavish of English pheasant battues.

At Woodstock, Ontario, about 1870, Dr. A.B. Welford found himself well placed under the path of a huge flock of passenger pigeons. He started shooting early in the morning, using a double-barreled muzzle-loader. By 10 a.m. he had run out of ammunition after killing more than 400 birds. The pigeons continued to stream low over a fence behind which the doctor was hiding, so he grabbed a long rail, held it aloft and found he could easily bring down more birds. The doctor was proud of his exploit, and since the supply of game seemed inexhaustible—the flight lasted for several days—he allowed his experiences to appear in The Ibis, a magazine for bird lovers.

The passenger pigeon was instantly recognizable, with its slate-blue head, gray back and wine-colored breast. It existed in greater abundance than any bird in the world's history. At its peak, during the 1860s, passenger pigeons were estimated to number between three and nine billion. To put such figures in perspective, the population of the earth today is a mere four billion. At one time, as many as 40% of all American birds were passenger pigeons. No one alive today can conceive of the masses of birds that used to be seen from Ontario to the Carolinas. John James Audubon saw a flock in Kentucky in 1813 and calculated that it contained 1,115,136,000 birds. "The air was literally filled with Pigeons," he wrote. "The light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse...and with a noise like thunder, they rushed into a compact mass."

Although most animals require space to survive, the passenger pigeon apparently thrived on crowded slum conditions. It was happy only when jammed into the smallest possible area with several million of its cousins. When a suitable section of forest was found for roosting, devastation set in. If branch space ran out, bird stood on bird to form pyramids a yard high; saplings bent over with the weight of their tenants; huge branches broke off because of overloading. The ground was covered with six inches of droppings.

The sport, food and feathers provided by the birds were ample recompense for the damage they did. Pigeon meat was firm and sweet, and the feathers provided stuffing for beds. A superstition held that no one ever died in a pigeon-feather bed—the chore of killing and plucking the 144 dozen birds needed to make a mattress was a small price to pay for everlasting life. Even the gizzards were valued, as a cure for gallstones, while powdered pigeon stomachs were considered invaluable against dysentery.

The passenger pigeon laid only one egg at a time, and both parents lavished attention on the lone offspring, stuffing it with beech mast and other delicacies. Within 14 days of hatching, the young pigeon was as big as an adult. At this stage it was abandoned, eventually to flutter to the ground. There it stayed for a week, learning to feed and fly.

During this time, predators moved in. A fat, flapping squab was the easiest prey for wolves, foxes, lynx, mink, hawks and man. Sometimes there was such a surplus of squabs on the ground that farmers turned their hogs out to eat the birds as they fell from their nests.

Pigeon harvesters worked on a bigger scale, scooping up squabs by the hundreds or netting adult birds by the thousands for sale at a penny apiece. They would light sulphurous fires below trees to bring the birds down, and they felled the trees in which the birds nested. News of a flight or a nesting was flashed to professional pigeoneers by telegram, and they would swarm to the site to earn thousands of dollars in a week. During a 40-day nesting in Van Buren County, Mich., three carloads of pigeons were shipped East every day, a total of about 11 million birds.

More profitable still was the capture of live pigeons to be dispatched to shooting matches, some of which needed as many as 20,000 birds. They would be released one at a time from traps to test the skill of the city dweller standing behind with his gun at the ready.

The captive Martha and her companions in the Cincinnati Zoo were lucky indeed to be safe from the passenger pigeons' many enemies. Ten years before Martha was hatched the species had been at its most numerous; by the end of the 1870s observers noted that large flights seldom were seen anymore. Even at the time of Martha's emergence, commercial pigeoning had become barely profitable; 10 years later it had stopped completely. There were no big flocks, merely small, lonely bands. The sighting of a few dozen birds was big news by 1895.

Many states passed laws instituting closed seasons and forbidding shooting near roosts and nests. But the laws were too late. Through some quirk of pigeon physiology, the existence of the species depended on enormous numbers and thick crowds. Reduced to small flocks, the birds lacked the urge to breed. It was all over very quickly: in March 1900 a small boy in Ohio sighted his BB gun at an unfamiliar bird, squeezed the trigger and killed the last wild passenger pigeon known to exist.

By 1908 the total stock of a bird that 40 years before had greatly outnumbered the world's people included four captive males in Milwaukee and two males and one female—Martha—in Cincinnati. That winter all four Milwaukee birds died. In 1909 one of the Cincinnati males died; the following year so did the other. The zoo offered large sums of money for replacements, but none came.

For another four years Martha waited for a mate. Then, at 1 p.m. on Sept. 1, 1914, Martha died. For no other species are the time and place of extinction so precisely known.