Extinction: 100 Years Since Martha

I remember reading the story in the Scholastic News as a kid – a species of bird so numerous that when it migrated it completely blotted out the sky, sometimes for days.  An abundant species so hounded by hunters that within a human lifespan they were completely gone.  100 years ago today Martha, the very last known living passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

All around the story is interesting – there are a lot of things I’ve learned in the last couple days that I didn’t know.  At the time, the passenger pigeon was the most numerous bird species in North America, with billions of individuals, and may have been the most numerous bird species in the world.  Martha lived to be somewhere between 17 and 29 years old (Wikipedia claims that 29 is the most commonly accepted age), which just blows me away.  Is it common for birds to be that old?  Martha was frozen in a block of ice after her death and sent by train to the Smithsonian where she was photographed, skinned, mounted, dissected, preserved, and put on display for most of the next 85 years.

I didn’t understand all of the social and ecological issues when I read that article all those years ago – thinking about the age I was, it was probably the 75th anniversary of Martha’s death.  Even though the extinction of the passenger pigeon was a horrible tragedy, it was also the catalyst for many of the fundamental protections we have today.  It’s interesting to think of myself sitting in school learning about an extinct bird (I think we also learned about California Condors at the same time – an issue that was big then), never knowing that 25 years later my career would be focused on endangered species restoration.

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