The Death of Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon on Earth


On September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon on earth passed away. The passenger pigeon once was the most numerous species in North America and perhaps the world. In the mid and late 1800s, there were millions of passenger pigeons in the United States, but the species dwindled down from hunting and other reasons, until on this date a passenger pigeon named Martha died in the Cincinnati Zoo.

According to a New Yorker book review of Joe Greenberg’s A Feathered River Across the Sky, the last pair of passenger pigeons, George and Martha, lived in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. After George died in 1910, Martha lived on four more years as a sad attraction, reminding visitors of the destruction of a once widespread species. Although officials offered a $1000 reward for a male passenger pigeon, no more were found. And Martha passed away in 1914, ending the species. (Jonathan Rosen, “The Birds,” New Yorker 6 Jan. 2014: 62)

Below is a short video about passenger pigeons, featuring a song about Martha called “Martha (Last of the Passenger Pigeons),” written and sung by singer-songwriter John Herald.

Singer John Herald was one of the founders of the bluegrass group Greenbriar Boys, and he worked as a session guitarist for a number of artists like Bonnie Raitt and Doc Watson. He wrote the classic song about a drunk racehorse, “Stewball,” which was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. Herald passed away in 2005.

As for Martha, after her death, she was frozen in ice and sent by train to Washington, D.C., where she was stuffed and put on display at the Smithsonian. She is now part of a special exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. Meanwhile, Project Passenger Pigeon works to educate about the loss of the species. Although Martha has died, we have kept her body to forever haunt humans and remind us that nobody — and no species — survives forever.

Photo of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, via public domain.

What species extinction do you think most about? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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