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How Martha, Cincinnati's celebrity passenger pigeon, shaped conservation in America

How Martha, Cincinnati's celebrity passenger pigeon, shaped conservation in America
Posted at 10:51 AM, Apr 17, 2017

CINCINNATI -- When the most famous bird in the country died at the Cincinnati Zoo, it was more than the extinction of a species: an American way of life was gone.

Every local schoolkid thinks they know the story of Martha, believed to be the world's last passenger pigeon: She was born in captivity, then lived with a flock here until her death on Sept. 1, 1914.

Found on the floor of her cage that afternoon, the zoo had her carcass frozen into a 300-pound block of ice, then shipped her to the Smithsonian Institution to be preserved.

Martha, the last passenger pigeon known in existence, died at the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914. (Photo courtesy Cincinnati Zoo)

"By the time she arrived, the ice I think was pretty much gone," said Dan Marsh, the zoo's director of Education and Volunteer Programs. "That's the best they could do in those days. It can still be pretty hot in September."

Marsh became the zoo's in-house expert on passenger pigeons leading up to the 100th anniversary of her death.

Martha became one of the Smithsonian's "most treasured possessions" because of how she'd shape the future of American conservation. She's now part of a new exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, chosen from 145 million artifacts and specimens to show how they help scientists understand nature and human culture.

For Martha, the story is much bigger than many people realize.

Filling American skies... and bellies

When Americans first moved west of the Alleghenies, passenger pigeons numbered in the billions. Stories about them covering the skies aren't just tall tales; they also came from credible sources such as John James Audubon. Frontier reports told of flocks so huge they blacked out the sun, and so loud you couldn't hold a conversation.

"Early settlers thought it was an apocalyptic event -- 'this is it, the world is ending,'" Marsh said.

The highly communal, highly social birds formed huge flocks to mate, mostly in the Midwest. One nesting event in Wisconsin was 850 square miles, a sort of long and narrow L-shape in the Dells.

If you tried to find those numbers today, Marsh said you'd have to take all America's starlings, pigeons and robins combined -- and then multiply that by four.

"Whole branches would just be broken out of trees," Marsh said. "Feces would cost forest floors."

Once they figured out the end was not nigh, settlers realized the birds made a pretty easy source of meat. In a forest, you could apparently knock them out of the air with a long pole, Marsh said. You might be covered in pigeon droppings, but you'd have your dinner.

They were agricultural pests, too, particularly damaging to grain crops.

But you can't blame farmers and frontiersmen for wiping out passenger pigeons. Two technological advances of the 19th century ultimately did them in: telegraphs and trains.

Before the mid-1800s, you'd have to be in the right place at the right time to get that cheap meal. Once telegraphs became widespread, you could find out almost instantly where the flocks had gathered.

And trains meant they could be shipped long distances, to big cities in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

Huge commercial operations followed the flocks, and pigeon meat ended up on dinner tables all over the country.

"We (Americans) knew passenger pigeons really well," Marsh said.

The industry had no limits; an Ohio bill to regulate hunting was "laughed out of the Statehouse" in 1857, Marsh said. No one believed billions of birds would ever disappear.

Cincinnati's celebrity

By the time Martha hatched in Chicago, likely sometime in the late 1890s or early 1900s, the massive flocks were long gone. Commercial hunters had wiped them out. The Midwest's forests -- where pigeons gorged on acorns and beechnuts -- were disappearing, too.

A boy killed the last known wild passenger pigeon near Sargents, Ohio, in about 1900 or 1901.

Martha never flew free, spending her whole life under the care of zoo staff. Once her male companions died, she was the last known animal of her kind.

A male passenger pigeon was up for auction in in Billingshurst, England in November 2015. Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images

She became Cincinnati's celebrity.

The zoo's breeding efforts failed. Martha never laid a fertile egg. The situation was so desperate there was a reward of $1,000 for anyone who could provide a mate.

It's not clear how old she was when she finally died. Record-keeping wasn't great, and the zoo's administration building -- along with any existing records -- burned in the mid-20th century.

THEN & NOW: See how the zoo has changed

"All we can do is take a guess, and it's an educated guess based on other species of doves and pigeons, but that widely varies," Marsh said.

He put her at 12 to 15 years "tops;" the Smithsonian guesses she was as old as 29.

Once she arrived in Washington, experts got to work preserving the remains. For any other bird, that may have been the end of the story: skin stuffed and mounted, guts preserved in glass.

Martha wasn't any other bird.

Increasing protections for wildlife

Passenger pigeons weren't the first known species to go extinct at the hand of man, but Marsh said it was the first to be really relatable -- thanks to all that pigeon meat.

"Because it was known by everyone, at all levels of society, it was a real wake-up call," he said.

Experts say Martha's death gave the conservation movement its momentum. Here's a timeline from The Audubon Society:

  • In 1900, Congress passed the nation's first wildlife-protection law, the Lacey Act, which banned anyone from shipping unlawfully killed game across state lines. The bill's sponsor -- U.S. Rep. John F. Lacey, R-Iowa -- lamented the disappearance of passenger pigeons in a speech on the House floor.
  • In 1913, Congress passed an even tougher law called the Weeks-McLean Act.
  • In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act added protection for eggs, nests, and feathers.

The outcry didn't just help birds. Whitetail deer were vanishing, too; they were gone from Ohio by 1909. Now they're common. Bobcats, another native species, have been returning since the middle of last century.

A trail camera captured a bobcat Nov. 28, 2013, at Fernald Preserve near Ross, Ohio. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

Ohio now has more forest land than it did when Martha died, Marsh said.

The state's Department of Natural Resources began tracking endangered wildlife in 1974. Its most recent list -- which also includes animals that might not be endangered but are still under threat -- has 368 species.

A native species hasn't gone extinct in nearly 50 years; the most recent was the blue pike, which vanished from the Great Lakes in 1970.

"Ohio is a better place for wildlife now than it was 100 years ago, " Marsh said.

Where to see her now

Martha was on display in the Smithsonian's Bird Hall in the 1920s through the early 1950s, and in the Birds of the World exhibit that ran from 1956 until 1999.

She returned home, once, when the Cincinnati Zoo opened its memorial to her in 1974. She'd also gone out west for the San Diego Zoological Society's Golden Jubilee Conservation Conference in 1966. Both times she flew first class -- the only times Cincinnati's celebrity bird took to the skies.

The Cincinnati Zoo renovated Martha's memorial and education exhibit to honor the 100th anniversary of her death. In Washington, the Smithsonian commemorated the centenary by putting her back on display and creating a 360-degree interactive.

Helen James, a research zoologist and the Smithsonian's curator of birds, said Martha spent about a year off display before returning for the March 10 opening of a special exhibit, Objects of Wonder.

The exhibition, which runs through 2019, showcases prized gemstones, fossils, Native American artwork, deep-sea corals and more. All tell a story.

Marsh said he hopes people don't take away doom and gloom from Martha and the earlier Americans who destroyed her kind.

The past 103 years, he said, show otherwise: "We also are agents of order and reclamation and restoration."

If you go

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
10th Street at Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC

Open daily (except Christmas)
10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Free admission