September 1, 1914: Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon, Dies (100th Anniversary!)

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A Brief History

On September 1st, 1914, Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, was found dead in her cage by her keepers at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Digging Deeper

Now extinct, passenger pigeons were once the most abundant bird in the entire world.  Native to North America, it is estimated that there were 3-5 billion of them when Europeans first arrived.  Today their closest living relative is the smaller mourning dove.

Their demise was caused by deforestation and the commercialization of their meat.  Losing more and more of their natural habitat, they were easy game for hunters.

Their numbers already dwindling by the 1800s, the Ohio State Legislature brought forth a bill in 1857 seeking protection for the species.  A committee determined though that the passenger pigeon needed no protection, as there were vast forests it could flock up in.  The passenger pigeons’ tendency to flock, however, made them especially vulnerable to hunters.

By the 1890s, passenger pigeons had just about vanished, and legal measures were finally passed, but it was too little too late.  The remaining individual birds were too few to reproduce successfully and to establish new populations.  One reason was that passenger pigeons courted and mated within their flocks and then formed nesting colonies.  Though they paired with partners, nesting outside of the colony was not common.  Another reason was that passenger pigeons usually only produced one offspring per year – not enough to compensate for the high numbers killed.

And that is the story of how the passenger pigeon went the way of the dodo.

But back to Martha… Named after First Lady Martha Washington, Martha belonged to Professor Charles Otis Whitman of the University of Chicago who kept pigeons and doves of all sorts to study them.  After failed breeding attempts, he gave Martha and her partner George to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1902.  George died in 1912, leaving Martha as the last remaining passenger pigeon.  Following her own death two years later at the age of approximately 29, her carcass was sent to the Smithsonian Institution where it was stuffed and mounted.  Normally in the museum’s archived collection and not on display, she is now being taken out of storage for the public to view on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the extinction of an entire species.

Although DNA from these birds exists, the reintroduction of the passenger pigeon following possible cloning would again be nearly impossible for the aforementioned reasons.  So, despite mankind’s progress and conservation efforts, species are still being pushed to extinction, and the small numbers that are left may not be enough to reestablish breeding populations.  For the passenger pigeon, all help came too late, but hopefully other species will be more lucky.  What are your thoughts on this topic?  Can you think of any extinct animals you wish were still around?

For other interesting events that happened on September 1, please see the History and Headlines articles: “10 Longest Reigning Monarchs and Heads of State” and “10 Great Sea Stories.”

Historical Evidence

For more information on this topic, please see the following resources:

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About Author

Beth Michaels

Beth Michaels attended a private college in Northeast Ohio from which she earned a Bachelor’s degree in German with a minor in French. From there she moved to Germany where she attended the University of Heidelberg for two years. Additional schooling earned her certifications as a foreign language correspondent and state-certified translator. In her professional career, Beth worked for a leading German manufacturer of ophthalmological medical instruments and devices as a quality representative, regulatory affairs manager and internal auditor.