|Martha in 1911. From Arbor Day and Bird Day (1922).|
In truth, Passenger Pigeons had been extinct in the wild for some time. The last recorded sighting was a wild pigeon shot in Ohio in 1900. By then the species had already been scarce for about a decade.
This was all the more shocking because Passenger Pigeons had once been so abundant, with a total North American population numbering in the billions. Early ornithologists such as John James Audubon remarked on the vast migratory flocks that could take days to pass. The pigeons bred around the Great Lakes region in vast communal nesting colonies. As late as the mid-19th century, Passenger Pigeons were still abundant. However, changes in technology made it easier for market hunters to locate flocks and nesting colones and ship thousands of carcasses to cities for sale as food.
The rapid decline and extinction of the Passenger Pigeon that followed was one of several events that inspired the early conservation movement. Federal laws such as the Lacey Act of 1900 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 were too late to help the Passenger Pigeon but have protected other birds since then. They, along with the Endangered Species Act, can continue to protect birds (and other wildlife) as long as their protections remain in place and are enforced. The anniversary of Martha's death should serve as a reminder that no matter how secure or abundant a species may appear, it can disappear rapidly under the right combination of circumstances.
Some links on Passenger Pigeons:
- The American Bird Conservancy names the Passenger Pigeon as their bird of the week.
- John Riutta has a review of Mark Avery's A Message from Martha.
- Mark Avery has his own essay on the occasion.
- Here is an account of the Passenger Pigeon's natural history and extinction.
- Audubon Magazine has another account of the species's extinction.
- The National Museum of Natural History has a rotating 3D image of Martha.
- There are discussions of the Passenger Pigeon in New Jersey at NorthJersey.com and mocosocoBirds.
- Rick Wright covers Martha's preparation as a museum specimen.
- Carl Zimmer covers the role of technology in the species's extinction (and in its slim chance at revival).
- Update: Here is also an essay written on the subject by Aldo Leopold.