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Martha and Her Message to the World

Martha and Her Message to the World

Martha the last passenger pigeon, whose race humans had slaughtered into oblivion, is now considered to be the icon of extinction.

Martha the last passenger pigeon in taxidermied form at Smithsonian Museum.
Martha the last passenger pigeon in taxidermied form at Smithsonian Museum. Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

By Mithu Das   November 23, 2015

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, is considered to be the icon of extniction. Her race, namely Ectopistes migratorius, was by far the most abundant bird species ever lived in the planet earth. It has been estimated that in the early nineteenth century there were more than five billion passenger pigeons lived in North America. Unfortunately, humans slaughtered them into oblivion. (Read The Sad Story of Passenger Pigeon)

Martha in life at Cincinnati Zoo.
Martha in life at Cincinnati Zoo. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

After the last wild passenger pigeon was killed in 1900, there were still a few dozens survived in the aviaries and zoos. Unfortunately, after a few years, these pigeons also started to die, one after another, due to illness or old ages. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, the second oldest zoo in the United States, had housed twenty passenger pigeons—since the opening of their zoo in 1875. By 1909 seventeen of these pigeons had died and there were just three left. Martha was among these three pigeons. It is believed that she was the last of her species. She was named after first lady Martha Washington and her mate, after George Washington. In 1910 George died but Martha lived four more years, alone, in a cage measured eighteen by twenty feet. (It is said that her caretaker announced a reward of $1000 to capture a mate for Martha but nobody was able to find one.) Martha died on September 1, 1914. Immediately after her death, Martha was packed in a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian Museum, where taxidermist Nelson Wood mounted her skin for display. She is now in the bird collections in the Smithsonian Museum.

Martha leading a flock of passenger pigeons
John Ruthven created his painting 'Martha leading a flock of passenger pigeons' for the centenary observance of the death of the species. It has been recreated on the side of a building next to Cincinnati Zoo's public library. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

Last year Cincinnati Zoo commemorated the 100 years of Martha's death and marked the 2014 as the year of passenger pigeon. A group of conservationists, artists and writers gathered together to carry on Martha's message to the world. At the centenary, Project Passenger Pigeon was launched by a group of conservationists 'to raise awareness of current issues related to human-caused extinction, explore connections between humans and the natural world, and inspire people to become more involved in building a sustainable relationship with other species.'

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