Sunday's for the Birds: Here's to Martha: Gone But Maybe Not for Long

A hundred years ago tomorrow Martha died alone at the Cincinnati Zoo. She was twenty-nine years old and the last of her species. Her death marked the extinction of the passenger pigeon, once the world's most abundant bird. In the early 19th century, their flocks still numbered in the millions. But by the mid-1890s, they were almost gone. Hunting and habitat destruction led to their diminished numbers.

John James Audubon wrote:
I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time, finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose... Before sunset I reached Louisville, distance from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.

The last wild passenger pigeon was shot in 1899. A monument to this glorious bird overlooks a valley in Wisconsin where the Wisconsin River spills into the Mississippi.
To read more about Martha and her monument, click onto one of my earlier blogs:

The passenger pigeon is considered the poster child of quick extinction, but recently it has been given a new label. With the founding of the Revive & Restore project, the passenger pigeon has become R & R's flagship species. The project involves changing the genome of the band-tailed pigeon, closest relative to the extinct species, to passenger pigeon's genetic code, or at least as close as the scientists can get in. Question is not "well it work?" but "what if it does?"

For a thorough account of this genetic engineering feat, read Lessons: From Billions to None by Barry Yeoman in the May-June 2014 issue of Audubon Magazine.

I'd love to hear your comments.

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