Famous Lasts The Last Passenger Pigeon to Die

About the famous last passenger pigeon to die in America, history and information.

THE LAST PASSENGER PIGEON TO DIE

The last passenger pigeon died peacefully at 1:00 P.M. (EST) on Sept. 1, 1914, aged about 12 years, in the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha. The extermination of the passenger pigeon is one of man's greatest crimes against nature.

A native of North America, the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) numbered between 5 and 9 billion by the middle of the 19th century. They made up between 25% and 40% of the entire bird population of the U.S. Their flocks literally darkened the sky. When naturalist Alexander Wilson saw a flock pass over him in 1808, he reported a truly awesome sight:

They were flying with great steadiness and rapidity, at a height beyond gunshot...from right to left, as far as the eye could see, the breadth of this vast procession extended.... I took out my watch to note the time and sat down to observe them. It was then half past one. I sat for more than an hour... [until] anxious to reach Frankfort, I rose and went on. About four o'clock in the afternoon, I crossed the Kentucky River, at which time the living torrent above my head seemed as numerous and extensive as ever.

Wilson later estimated that there were 2,230,272,000 birds in the flock.

Pioneer ornithologist John James Audubon reported seeing a flock--also in Kentucky--in 1813 which took three hours to pass and blotted out the sun. He also saw a roost on the ground that was 40 mi. long and 3 mi. wide. Trees were collapsing under the weight of the roosting birds.

At first, people killed the passenger pigeon to use as the main ingredient of "pigeon pie." The unfledged birds were particularly tasty, and these were destroyed in such numbers that the females, which laid only one egg per season, couldn't maintain the flocks. Adult pigeons were slaughtered in such quantity that many wound up as hog food or were simply pulped into fertilizer.

As agriculture spread across the Midwest, farmers waged war on the birds, because a single flock could strip a field of corn in a few hours. Owing to their habit of flying and nesting in huge colonies, the birds were easy targets. A Michigan hunter claimed he often killed 70 birds with one shot as they flew overhead. He could kill 1,000 birds before breakfast. Other hunters netted or poisoned the birds in a nationwide orgy of destruction.

The last wild passenger pigeon was killed by a young boy in Pike County, O., on Mar. 24, 1900. Stuffed and mounted, this specimen has been preserved in the Ohio State Museum. Although one of the most numerous birds known to history--the largest flock of birds ever seen consisted of passenger pigeons--the species was declared extinct in 1911.

A few tame passenger pigeons lived on in captivity. Martha, who was caught in 1902 in Wisconsin, was among them. When she died, her carcass was frozen in a 300-lb. block of ice and shipped to Washington, D.C., where her stuffed remains can be seen today at the Smithsonian Institution.

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