Through August 1914 Martha sat, dying. Many people visited her in that last month, and she watched, and listened from behind bars.
“I heard they’re shipping it off to the Smithsonian as soon as it dies . . .”
“Is is true- is it really the last? . . .”
“Just forty years ago flocks of those birds would fly over us, millions of them . . .”
On September 1st, 1914 she died, she was shipped in an ice cube from the Cincinnati zoo to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. She was stuffed, and put on display. A large sign was attached to the wall beside her, proclaiming her species extinct. In less than a century the passenger pigeons went from being the most abundant bird in the U.S.- maybe even the world- to becoming extinct.
Martha’s great-grandmother had nested in flocks of billions of birds, on the way to school in the spring and fall you might see them flying over you, one flock, one mile wide, 100 miles long; she was in there somewhere. The sky would darken. Walking home from school, you look up wonderingly, flying sixty miles an hour, and they still haven’t passed. Martha’s grandmother could’ve gone by six hours ago, it could be another six hours- or maybe, that was her right there. You weren’t thinking about that. You didn’t even know there would be a Martha, you didn’t know there would ever be a last passenger pigeon, you didn’t think it possible. No one did. Few people alive today have seen a live passenger pigeon, and Martha is in the Smithsonian’s archived collection, stuffed, and no longer on display. Extinct. We have no recordings, not even a description, of the call of Martha, of her great-grandmother.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, when the passenger pigeon populations were peaking, a passenger pigeon nesting site was a hunter’s paradise, 3,000,000 pigeons densely packed into an area spanning hundreds of square miles. People rode more than a hundred miles in horse drawn carriages to shoot as many Pigeons as they could. Millions of pigeons were shipped by train each day and sold for a cent a bird at markets. The passenger pigeons flourished, they were in no danger, they were reproducing faster than ever.
The passenger pigeons were followed constantly; they were used as live targets for commercial hunters, they were fed to slaves, three meals a day, they were used as agricultural fertilizer.
Hundreds of miles of forest were cleared, Passenger Pigeon habitat. They could no longer breed together, they were forced to disperse, and without they’re numbers they could not survive long.
And how did they kill them? They had many methods. They killed as many birds at a time as they could, they were constantly inventing new methods of killing. These included soaking grain in alcohol, fire and sulfur were used to suffocate them, poking sticks into the nests and knocking out the young birds, and, shooting. Gunners could up to 50 birds in a single shot. A particular method, they got much amusement from as well as killing many at a time: sewing a live bird’s eyes shut with needle and thread, dropping it from six feet, and when the blinded bird tried to land, it was used as a decoy, and many birds were attracted, they flew confusedly around the victim. A net was thrown over them, now that they’d caught them they took a long time to kill them. Slowly, deliberately, one by one, they crushed each bird’s head between thumb and forefinger. Estimations claim up to 1,000 men were netters after 1860.
In 1896 the last large flock was wiped out. 50,000 birds were killed a day, and by the end of five months there were none left. By the spring of 1900 there was only one passenger pigeon left in the wild, a 14- year old boy killed it. Naturalist Charles Dury described the last passenger pigeons he saw.
“One foggy day in October 1884, at 5 a.m. I looked out of my bedroom window, and as I looked six wild pigeons flew down and perched on the dead branches of a tall poplar tree that stood about one hundred feet away. As I gazed at them in delight, feeling as though old friends had come back, they quickly darted away and disappeared in the fog, the last I ever saw of any of these birds in this vicinity.”