Just over a century has passed since the death of the Earth’s last remaining passenger pigeon. She had the name “Martha” and lived at the Zoo in Cincinnati. Martha was a unique species’ final holdout. Once their numbers were the highest on the planet.
However, they also became one of the most popular extinctions in the animal kingdom. And everything had happened in a couple of decades. Many scientists presently agree that the early phases of the 6th mass extinction of Earth played out then.
The Sorry Tale Of Passenger Pigeons
On 1st September 1914, Martha the passenger pigeon was discovered lying lifeless on her cage’s floor. She was 29. The passenger pigeon was bred in captivity in 1885 at the Zoo in Cincinnati. Scientists had worked desperately to mate her when her species’ plight was made clear.
However, time had run out by then. 1st September is now recognized as the day passenger pigeons went extinct. The animal was one of the most iconic ones in the eastern part of North America. In 2010, WildEarth Guardians, a conservation group, declared 1st September as the “Passenger Pigeon Day” in remembrance of the passing of Martha.
Once upon a time, passenger pigeons accounted for a whopping 40% of all the birds in the United States. The Smithsonian Institute estimated that between 3 billion and 5 billion passenger pigeons occupied North America at the time explorers from Europe first arrived.
Many accounts of the explorers report seeing “infinite multitudes” and “countless numbers” of the birds flying overhead. They said that passenger pigeon flocks were so dense and large that sometimes the sun was blocked out for hours as they passed by.
However, in the early decades of the 1900s, the species were nowhere to be found. They had almost disappeared from the planet. All of a sudden, Martha possibly became the very last bird of her species.
The relatives of Martha had lost their lives to a very familiar pair of threats that exist till today: habitat loss and overhunting. Since passenger pigeons formed dense, big flocks when they flew, they were easy targets for settlers and colonists with their guns. Then, when the 1900s began, professional hunting brought nets to kill and trap them in huge numbers. The city markets were supplied with the pigeons’ feathers and meat.
Meanwhile, the vast forests in the East were being cleared rapidly to make place for new cities and farms. These were the nesting areas of the passenger pigeons. As a result, the population was further decimated. However, back then, there were no laws of conservation existing to keep the species protected.
Too Little Too Late
By the time the 1890s ended, passenger pigeons were scarcely found in the wild. Government officials would finally take heed of the long-time clamoring of conservationists. Among the largest passenger pigeon nesting colonies were in Michigan’s Petoskey. The Legislature of Michigan banned netting the birds within 2 miles of any nesting areas.
However, Encyclopedia Smithsonian recounts how weak enforcement of the law was, and only a few arrests were made. In 1897, the state banned all passenger pigeon hunting for 10 years. But it was too late by then anyway. Hunters would hardly find any to shoot.
Between 1909 and 1912, there was a $1500 reward for anyone who could locate a passenger pigeon colony or nest. But, there were no reports, and Martha passed away after 2 years. Since then, the extinction crisis has snowballed.
The 5 other mass extinctions took place much earlier than humans were ever alive. However, in this one, we probably have a direct hand. Martha’s species might be lost forever, but we can still save others from a similar fate.