The Last Passenger Pigeon

August 24, 2014
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Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon (Photo: Elizabeth O’Brien/Smithsonian Institution)

In the Spring of 1860, a flock estimated at 3.7 billion Passenger Pigeons flew over Ontario. Eleven years later, some 136 million breeding pairs nested in Wisconsin, with birds landing in such large numbers that limbs were often sheared off the trees. With numbers like that, it’s hardly surprising that the bird was a staple on the tables of North America. But by 1914, they were all gone, extinct in full public view.

Martha, who was born in a captive flock, never lived in the wild and breathed her last in a dusty cage at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens on September 1st 1914. According to researchers at The Smithsonian Institute (where her preserved body is on display as part of an exhibition called ‘Once there were Billions’), in her final days her cage had to be roped off to prevent members of the public from throwing sand at her to make her move.

Passenger Pigeons were considered attractive birds; the makes sported bright copper coloured breasts and blue-grey wings and backs. Females like Martha were a duller colour. In recent times, there has been talk of re-creating the Passenger Pigeon using DNA from preserved specimens and close relative the band-tailed pigeon.

Male Passenger Pigeon

Male Passenger Pigeon

A memorial to Martha stands in the grounds of the Cincinnati Zoo. Bluegrass singer John Herald wrote a song about her. And you can get a 360 degree view of her here.

A young Passenger Pigeon

A young Passenger Pigeon

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