When Europeans began settling in the New World, billions of passenger pigeons flew in giant flocks up to a mile long, darkening the American sky with their passing. By 1914, they were all gone.
Why this particularly plentiful type of wild pigeon barreled toward extinction in such an alarming plummet is no mystery. Simply put, the New World attracted Europeans, and the Europeans brought guns. While deforestation made its own dent in the pigeon population, hunting was the main source of their demise. Shot both for food and sport, the pigeons were picked off in astounding numbers, their largest decline taking place in the late 1800s. Up to a quarter of a million of the birds were reportedly shot in a single day in 1886.
Starting in 1900, the American Ornithologist’s Union, along with other conservationists, attempted to save the species, but it was too late. Few of the birds that were located and captured fared well in captivity, and those that survived were hard-pressed to reproduce. On September 1, 1914, the last known passenger pigeon passed away at her home in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden. Her name was Martha, and she was 29 years old.
Named after Martha Washington, Martha the pigeon was hatched in captivity in 1885. Her attempts to breed were unsuccessful, and she was finally sent to retire peacefully in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1902. By 1907, she was the only passenger pigeon left, which made her quite the zoo celebrity. Martha’s final years were spent basking in the glow of thousands of visitors.
When Martha finally joined the rest of her pigeon people in the great big sky above the sky, the zoo leapt into action. Her corpse was quickly whisked away to the Cincinnati Ice Company where she was frozen into a 300-lb. block of ice, and then it was off to the Smithsonian by express train. Once she arrived, she was skinned, stuffed, and her insides were dissected and then relocated to the National Museum of Natural History.
Martha has been on quite the display circuit since her demise. The little bird has been part of several different Smithsonian presentations, as well as making guest appearances (flown first class!) at the Zoological Society of San Diego’s Golden Jubilee Conservation Conference, and the Cincinnati Zoo’s dedication of the Passenger Pigeon Memorial. Once the Smithsonian retired its Birds of the World exhibit, Martha ended up in the archives, no longer viewable. However, the Cincinnati Zoo still remembers their sweet pigeon friend with a memorial statue and a mural that was commissioned for the 100th anniversary of her death.
Know Before You Go
Martha's case is located on the second floor in the Objects of Wonder exhibit.