Passenger Martha

Young Bloggers  /   /  By Sierra Glassman
Stone Soup Magazine
March 2019

Image of Passenger Pigeon via WikiMedia

River of feathers Crossing the sky
May not see it ever again
Beating wings
Whoosh up high
May not hear that ever again

A winding brown-blue cloud of Passenger Pigeons covered the sky, wings whirring in a roaring river of sound. Less than 50 years later, the last passenger pigeon fell to the ground, heart still, from her perch four inches above the ground. In the 1800s, 40% of all North American birds were Passenger Pigeons. Passenger Pigeons, or simply Wild Pigeons, were the most plentiful bird in North America by far, and were easy to shoot. Their squabs, or fledglings, were served in pigeon pies. Most people thought these social birds were protected by their numbers, until the last pigeon, Martha.

Martha was bred and raised in captivity by Charles Whitman, a zoologist. He had a collection of various species of pigeons and doves that were initially kept for studying their behavior. Martha was named after George Washington’s wife, Martha Washington. One of the males Martha was kept with was named George.

Whitman partnered with the Cincinnati Zoo, recognizing the Passenger Pigeon numbers were on a sharp decline. Whitman’s collection of Passenger Pigeons were the only known surviving pigeons. Martha and the males she was kept with were sent to the zoo. In 1907, Martha and the two males were the only surviving Passenger Pigeons. Attempts to breed Martha were unsuccessful, and both males died in the following years. Martha was the only Passenger Pigeon, an endling. The zoo frantically tried to find mates for her, offering $1,000 to anyone who could capture a live male pigeon. No one ever found Martha a mate, and Martha got older each year. Visitors crowded around her pen, eager to get a glimpse of the last Passenger Pigeon, who was often perched on a branch in her enclosure. What were the visitor’s thoughts when, not long before, farmers would draw their guns at the sight of thousands of birds descending upon their crops, devouring all the grain in a matter of hours?

In 1911, Martha suffered an apoplectic stroke, and she was severely weakened. In the following months, worried zookeepers had to lower her perch for her to be able to flap up to it. In the end, Martha’s perch was barely above the ground. On September 1, 1914, at 1pm, Martha breathed her last, and fell lifelessly onto the cage floor. The Passenger Pigeon was extinct.

Martha lived an astounding 29 years; most pigeons in captivity live up to 17 years. As soon as the zookeepers found her dead on the cage floor, she was brought to the Cincinnati Ice Company and packed into a 300 pound block of ice. She was sent by an express train to the Smithsonian, and arrived there three days after her death. Martha was molting when she died so she was missing some of her long tail coverts. William Palmer skinned the pigeon and Nelson Wood mounted her skin. Four years after Martha’s death, in her previously vacant cage, was the last Carolina Parakeet, Incus. Incus died in the same cage as Martha. In observance of the Passenger Pigeon’s day of extinction, September 1, 2014, Martha’s mount was brought out on public display at the museum.

There are many questions to be asked about Martha and the Passenger Pigeons in general. Why didn’t Martha breed? Were the captive pigeons somehow negatively affected by not seeing many other pigeons? Why didn’t the pigeons survive in smaller flocks?

First, the nature of Passenger Pigeons should be discussed. They lived in huge flocks, up to half a billion strong. John James Audubon, a nationally renowned Ornithologist, describes the flock as, “The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow.” Ironically, there is a saying that “The ornithologist’s greatest tool is a gun.” Audubon shot and killed all the birds he painted, including Passenger Pigeons.

Passenger Pigeons bred near the Great lakes. The male had a pale blue head, nape and wings. Its chest and was peach, and it had an iridescent bronze patch on the sides of its neck. Its secondaries, or innermost flight feathers, were dotted with black and its primaries, or outermost flight feathers were dark gray. It had dark gray tail coverts, or top-of-the-tail, and a white undertail feathers. The female was a brownish shade, but overall the color patterns were similar to the male. Passenger Pigeons fed on fruits and insects and could fly up to 62 miles per hour.

At the population’s peak there were about five billion pigeons, more than humans at that time. Since so many were shot, about 50,000 birds each day, and their habitat was being destroyed, evolution couldn’t keep up with the pigeon’s ever-shrinking population. Eventually, when there were only small flocks left, this hyper-social bird did not know what to do. Before they were all killed, they were used to being protected by numbers and since the population had been sectioned into small flocks, other predators like Peregrine Falcons could pick the birds off easily. So, is this why no small flocks remained? We can’t know for sure, but it is the most probable answer.

Why didn’t Martha breed? In the wild, there were many male Passenger Pigeons to one female. A plausible answer is that Martha had a mutation that prevented her from breeding. It could also be that captive pigeons were somehow affected by not seeing many other pigeons, making them behave unlike wild pigeons. But the most likely answer lies in…flamingos.

Flamingos’ mating drive does not trigger if the flock is too small. No one knows why this happens, but it could be to prevent inbreeding.

This might have been the case with Passenger Pigeons. Martha was in a group of only three pigeons, but in the wild, each flock is over a million strong. Like flamingos, this may have been the cause of why Martha didn’t breed, and so became the last of the Passenger Pigeons.

Now that humans have the ability to clone animals, we could probably bring the pigeons back. But should we? Would they just go extinct again? Though Passenger Pigeons closely resemble Mourning Doves, the closest relative of Passenger Pigeons is the Band-tailed Pigeon. The Band-tailed Pigeon does not live in enormous flocks, but in pairs. Cloning a Passenger Pigeon would create a hybrid of the Band-tailed and Passenger Pigeon, so not actually a full Passenger Pigeon. Hopefully, if scientists clone them, the chicks will resemble the currently extinct Passenger Pigeons.

However, many people are concerned that cloning an extinct animal will make people think less of already endangered species and spend money on cloning instead of spending it to save endangered animals. Nevertheless, if humans were the main cause of the creature’s extinction, shouldn’t humans should try to bring the wild pigeons back?

Imagine 20 years from now, scientists successfully cloned and released Passenger Pigeons. A journalist of the future would look up and write, “The empty blue sky once again was filled with an ever-flowing stream of birds. No one raised a gun to shoot them, letting the birds migrate through to the restored forests of the Great Lakes. Though not as numerous as they once were, the whirring of wings could be heard across the country.” While this is idealistic, if we tried hard enough, perhaps these extinct birds will once again be a common sight. This time, they would be more appreciated and respected for what they mean to North America: a mistake that was corrected, a living symbol of perseverance. However, if this never happens, Martha is one of the many passengers on the flight to extinction.

Epilogue

I took a walk outside one afternoon and saw an Eurasian-collared Dove. After looking at so many Passenger Pigeon pictures, for a second I thought the dove was a female passenger pigeon. After Martha’s death, many people probably “sighted” Wild Pigeons. People’s sighting of the pigeons shows how people were so used to them that they could not truly accept their disappearance. But, in the end, they became the iconic symbol of anthropogenic extinction, or extinction by man. We have to learn from Martha and all the other endlings to not allow an extinction like the Passenger Pigeon’s happen again.
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