Nets like this one painted by James Pattison Cockburn in 1829 could capture hundreds of pigeons at once.

Passenger Pigeon: From Billions to One, Then None

Guest blogger: Sophie Williams, Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP) student and consultant on the Passenger Pigeon Memorial renovation

Despite once numbering in the billions and traveling in flocks that blotted out the sun,  the entire passenger pigeon species was diminished to a single bird by the early 1900s. Martha died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, and with her death, the passenger pigeon went extinct.

Once an inexhaustible resource, the passenger pigeon’s numbers were quickly reduced. A range of human actions—overhunting and commercial-scale harvesting of the birds, along with deforestation associated with advances in technology as rail and telegraph lines spread across the country—had an insurmountable impact on the species. Though few believed the passenger pigeon could ever be eliminated, by the dawn of the 20th century, only a handful of captive birds remained.

Nets like this one painted by James Pattison Cockburn in 1829 could capture hundreds of pigeons at once.
Nets, like this one painted by James Pattison Cockburn in 1829, could capture hundreds of pigeons at once.

Martha, the last of her kind, was one of these few, an aged bird who lived at the Cincinnati Zoo from 1902 until her death in 1914. During her time in Cincinnati, many attempts were made to breed Martha, including with two male passenger pigeons also housed at the Zoo. These breeding attempts failed, perhaps due to the gregarious nature of the passenger pigeon; they typically mated in huge breeding flocks. By 1910, each of the males had died. A reward of $1,000 was offered to anyone who could supply a mate for Martha, but none was found.

In the early 1900s, a concerted effort was made to protect the passenger pigeons that remained. Despite these breeding and protection efforts, it was simply too late to make a difference. Those who had been concerned about the fate of the passenger pigeon had not been heeded in time, and by the time it was obvious the species was to go extinct, it was too late to save it. The “thoughtlessness and insatiable greed of man” had driven one of the most abundant species on the planet to extinction  (Schorger, as cited in A Passing in Cincinnati, 1976).

In this year before the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction, the unimaginable loss of one of the most common bird species in the world weighs heavy on our minds. During this year, we recognize the importance of this story as an impetus for positive change in the world of wildlife conservation. In the years immediately following Martha’s death, great strides were made to protect species in the United States and beyond, and these efforts continue today.

We at the Zoo are proud of our place in the history of the passenger pigeon and mankind’s last efforts to save them, and recognize our responsibility to honor not only Martha’s memory, but also her role as a catalyst in the protection of other species. We look forward to a future in which we as humans are aware of our power, both for bad and for good, and are able to add more success stories of wildlife conservation to the ranks of the white-tailed deer and American bison. For more on these species conservation success stories, tune in next month!

American bison (Photo: Jack Dykinga)
American bison (Photo: Jack Dykinga)

To read the first two posts in this series, click here and here.