By Maggie Turqman
Manager of Research, National Geographic Library
Have you heard of Martha Washington? Not the first lady, married to George. This Martha lived in the Cincinnati Zoo, and died 100 years ago, on September 1, 1914.
Martha was a passenger pigeon. In fact, she was the very last one—when she died at age 29, her species officially went extinct.
What’s in a name?
Are you wondering how passenger pigeons got their name? Did they carry passengers? The answer is no, of course not. How about messages? No again, that’s the carrier pigeon or homing pigeon.
The name “passenger” comes from the bird’s passage, or travel, around North America. They were nomads who moved often, ranging over much of eastern and central U.S. and Canada, looking for a good meal, or a place to stay a few weeks and have pigeon babies, called squabs.
When Europeans first arrived in North America, there were somewhere between 3 billion and 5 billion passenger pigeons—some 25%-40% of the continent’s entire bird population!
And when they were on the move, people noticed. In fact, they stopped and stared.
There would be so many birds overhead that the sky would be dark for hours, or even days. A description from Ontario, Canada, in 1860 recorded a band of birds more than a kilometer wide and 480 kilometers (300 miles) in length flying overhead, visible for several days.
They were pretty speedy too. Observers calculated their speed at at up to 97 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour)! Other historical accounts commented on how loud it was when a flock passed over—and how much destruction, and bird dung, they left behind.
In the wild, passenger pigeons liked to eat nuts such as beech and acorns. They also snacked on earthworms, snails, locusts, ants, insect larvae, as well as strawberries, cherries and other fruit.
As more forests were cleared to make way for farmland, the pigeons discovered they liked seeds, especially buckwheat, wheat, corn, rye, and hemp. This was not good news for the farmers, since a passing flock would strip a field of all its seeds before it could be scared off.
How did the species go from billions to a handful in such a short period of time? Loss of habitat and overhunting get most of the credit. As America moved west, forests were cut down to make way for farmland, and pigeons were killed both to protect crops, and, increasingly, as a source of food that was easy to catch, plentiful, and could be shipped by the expanding railroad system. Squabs were particularly easy to kill, and were in high demand as food. By the last decade of the century, few wild pigeons were seen.
Last Pigeon Standing
Unlike the wild pigeons that migrated for thousands of kilometers each year, Martha was raised in captivity. She was part of a flock maintained by a biologist named Charles Otis Whitman, who had a collection of some 30 species of pigeon.
While Martha was part of Whitman’s flock, she and the other birds traveled by train each year from Chicago to Massachusetts during the summer. Yes, a bunch of migratory birds traveled three days by train twice a year to spend summers in Woods Hole. And despite their name, the passenger pigeons had to travel in the cargo cars.
Eventually Martha moved to the Cincinnati Zoo, where there was a small flock of passenger pigeons—including George Washington. But the birds did not breed successfully in captivity, so as they died off in Cincinnati and elsewhere, people could see the end coming. George died in 1910, leaving Martha as the last of her species.
When Martha finally fell from her perch in 1914, she was frozen in a 136-kilogram (300-pound) block of ice and sent by train to Washington (one last migration!), stuffed, and put on permanent exhibit for many years before retiring to storage. She is currently on display again at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
- The experts at Cornell University discuss bird migration.
- National Geographic News looked at how climate change is threatening more bird extinction – and what it means for humans.
- National Geographic News also explored the possibility that scientists could bring the passenger pigeon back from extinction.
- A Message From Martha: The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and its Relevance Today, by Mark Avery. Bloomsbury, 2014.
- A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, by Joel Greenberg. Bloomsbury, 2014.