At 1pm today exactly 100 years ago, Martha, the last passenger pigeon in all of existence, died at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Only a century or so earlier, perhaps up to two thirds of all birds in North America were passenger pigeons. Their population literally numbered in the billions. Following the harvest of the beech mast in the cathedral-like old growth forests of the continent, the pigeons and their squabs were said to have smothered the trees like feathered wallpaper, unbroken for miles, branches often buckling under the sheer weight of the birds upon them.
On the move, their flocks were legendary. Blocking out the sun, this great dark rift in the sky zoomed across the sky – and if watched from the same point, there would’ve been a continuous stream of pigeons above your head for about three days, maybe more.
But they’re all gone now. Dead as a dodo, the better known pigeon species to have gone extinct in historic times. But while the dodo was a flightless bird from a tiny island, passenger pigeons were one of, if not the, most numerous birds in the world on one of the world’s largest continents. Deforestation of the forests so crucial for their beech crop, massacres from hunters greedy for the seemingly bounty-less supply of birds and their slow reproductive rate, unable to catch up with these environmental changes, would’ve played their part.
But regardless of citing the reasons, the sheer fact this bird is now extinct is at once disgusting, tragic and terrifying. No matter how rare or common a species may seem, it’s never completely safe from the human race.
However, we can make the best out of a bad situation. In terms of its legacy, the passenger pigeon holds the most relevant for conservationists today. We can learn from Martha just how fragile all life on Earth really is, and how we should never get complacent. Let’s use this guilt as the best motivation to protect everything else we still have today, from Polynesian island snails to African elephants.
At 1pm today, have a moment’s silence or thought for Martha. If you’re reading this after that time, have one anyway. And then go out into your future, and make sure other species never have to have a Martha at the end of the line.
To learn more about the passenger pigeon and its extinction, my friend Mark Avery’s book A Message from Martha is out now.