Joel Greenberg On Martha The Passenger Pigeon


If you’ve visited the shrine to Martha the passenger pigeon, you know the story. In the mid-1800s passenger pigeons covered North America; in 1914 the last of the species, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. On the 100th anniversary of Martha’s passing, Joel Greenberg has published the excellent A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury USA). Greenberg spoke about human folly and a bird.

What makes Martha’s story so powerful? That there was one bird [and] she had a name. It is rare that we can know with certainty when the last of a species died. It conjures feelings of such profound loneliness—you are the last of your kind, when decades before there were billions of you. That touches people. They knew she was a special bird. People came from all over to see her.

How could you bear to write this? Her keeper found her dead about 1 p.m., September 1, 1914. If you end the story there then it would be really sad. The fact is that the loss created a different attitude toward birds in this country—we no longer slaughter birds for commercial purposes like that; we no longer drive them to extinction. It led to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

How many were there in the mid-1800s? Probably billions. It was the most abundant bird in North America and maybe the world—the passenger pigeon often gathered in huge flocks impossible to imagine today. John James Audubon wrote about a flock that eclipsed the sun for three entire days over Louisville.

They went extinct so quickly. Was the public aware it was happening? There was concern starting in the 1870s. Even as they were on the spiral to extinction there would still be a place or two where the birds seemed to be doing OK. In the face of an inconvenient truth, people offer denials. Henry Ford said they all drowned in the Pacific as they were fleeing to Asia.

Don’t we still have plenty of pigeons living in our cities? The passenger was the only member of its genus. There are 300 living species of pigeon in the world, all very different one from the other—to say that all pigeons are alike is to say that the tabby napping on your sofa is the same as a tiger.

Originally published in the September 2014 issue

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