Remembering Martha

The Passenger Pigeons was once the most numerous bird species in North America, perhaps in the world. Early colonists were amazed by the vast flocks of the birds, which sometimes darkened the sky for days. On a trip from Louisville to Henderson, Kentucky, John James Audubon wrote, “The air was literally filled with Pigeons”, and that “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 the wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.”
Pigeon3These flocks of Passenger Pigeons could contain hundreds of millions, if not billions, of birds. By the 1870s, Passenger Pigeons could still be seen in large numbers, but a mere 40 years later, only two of the birds remained, Martha and George (named after President and Mrs. Washington). After George died, Martha was the only bird of the species left.

In 1899, her caretakers at the Cincinnati Zoo offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could find a mate for her, but no-one ever succeeded. Martha lived to be 29 years old, but on September 1, 1914 (100 years ago today), she was found dead in her enclosure — the very last of her species.

Martha, mounted, is now on display at the Smithsonian‘s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, as part of the exhibit, “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America”, from now until October 2015, to commemorate the centennial of her death. The exhibit includes mounted specimens of three other extinct avian species — the Great Auk, Carolina Parakeet, and the Heath Hen. Running in conjunction with “Once There Were Billions” is “The Lost Bird Project” by artist Todd McGrain, at the Smithsonian Libraries and Smithsonian Gardens, from March 27, 2015 through May 15, 2015.

It’s nearly impossible to understand that these birds were so plentiful at one time, but habitat loss and overhunting was too much for the species. It’s so sad to think that we humans were the main cause that led to the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, a species that migrated in flocks of billions, now not a single living bird left on the planet. Interestingly, especially with this year’s centennial, there has been discussion and even some progress about a “de-extinction” program for the Passenger Pigeon, and perhaps for other species, such as the Mammoth. But it concerns me to think that such a program might cause people to be less concerned, rather than more concerned, about species conservation and the threat of extinction, and it also does not take into account an environment that has been without billions of one species for more than a century. There are many questions to ask ourselves now, as we remember Martha and the billions of other Passenger Pigeons who filled our skies.


Some of my favourite quotes about bird conservation, as we remember the legacy of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon:

“They were here when we came, the birds which are a part of the American picture. They watched the cabins going up in the clearing at Plymouth, knew the secret of the lost people of Roanoke, clung in wide-eyed silence in the woods during the battles for freedom, moved out when cities grew, moved back again when gardens and bird pools and feeding stands said ‘welcome’ and meant it. These birds are as much a part of America as its trees, its plains, its waters, its history, its shores, its hills, yet they are only as permanent as we choose—only as permanent, in fact, as the trees, the waters, the soil itself. They all are linked in the great picture of the American whole—a picture which is determined by the preserving or the squandering of the land and its inhabitants.”

Virginia S. Eifert, from her essay, “These Birds Are America”, 1945

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“Out of the blending of human and animal stories comes the theme that I hope is inherent in all my books: that man is an inescapable part of all nature, that its welfare is his welfare, that to survive, he cannot continue acting and regarding himself as a spectator looking on from somewhere outside.”

Fred Bodsworth (1918-2012), Canadian naturalist and author of Last of the Curlews

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“Birds should be saved for utilitarian reasons; and, moreover, they should be saved because of reasons unconnected with dollars and cents. . . [T]o lose the chance to see frigate-birds soaring in circles above the storm, or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, …. why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time.”

Theodore Roosevelt

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“Without birds, nature would lose her voice and the planet its most engaging envoys. Birds matter precisely because they matter to us. Environment is a concept. Nature a label. Birds are real, elements that live within our sensory plane. They spread their wings and bridge the gap between our world and the natural world.”

Pete Dunne, author and birding ambassador/former longtime director of the Cape May (NJ) Bird Observatory, in reply to the question posed by Audubon Magazine editors, “Why Do Birds Matter?”, March 2013

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“It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Birding News #17

:: A hiker fell 1,000 feet to her death in the Pyrenees Mountain range and within 40 minutes Griffon Vultures ate her remains

:: The American Birding Association has launched “Birder’s Marketplace“!

:: A statewide survey last month showed that numbers of nesting Bald Eagles in Massachusetts have increased after the species was reintroduced between 1982 and 1988

:: Birds in Britain are benefitting from climate change because of milder winters and longer nesting seasons, but there are other considerable disadvantages

:: More disadvantages to climate change — birds in Scotland such as the Eurasian Dotterel, Snow Bunting, and the Rock Ptarmigan, could become extinct by the end of the century because climate change, experts warn

:: Earlier this week Common Loons were grounded in Wisconsin after late spring storms

:: Even though California Condors are endangered, private companies will not be prosecuted if their wind turbines accidentally kill a condor

Great posts in birding blogs this week:

:: From David at a Calgary Birder: Mega-Rarity Purple Sandpiper at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary 

:: From Nicholas at Hipster Birders: Thrushed with Excitement in Forsyth Park!

:: From Nancy, co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Saratoga Springs, NY, who blogs at The Zen Birdfeeder: 5 Tip to Attract Orioles into your Yard

:: From Tim, beat writer for Birding is Fun: Vermilion Flycatcher — A True Beauty 

:: From John at Two Birders and BinocularsHow to Attract More Warblers to Your Backyard

:: From Josh at Ontario Birds and Herps: Point Pelee — May 11

“Driven to Extinction”

Instead of my usual Feathers on Friday post, I have my 4H speech which I’m going to give this evening.


“Birds should be saved for utilitarian reasons; and, moreover, they should be saved because of reasons unconnected with dollars and cents. . . [T]o lose the chance to see frigate-birds soaring in circles above the storm, or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, …. why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time.”

— Theodore Roosevelt

I started birdwatching three years ago, when I was eleven. Besides compiling my life list and year list, I’ve also started reading about birds that are now extinct. It’s informative but also very sad,  thinking about bird species, such as the Carolina Parakeet, that no-one will ever see again. Even sadder is how quickly most of these birds were exterminated, and how quickly they have been forgotten, unlike the Dodo and Passenger Pigeon which almost everyone still knows about. The only way I can think of to bring back a bird like the Carolina Parakeet, at least for a short while, is to tell you about it today.

The Carolina Parakeet was the only parrot native to the United States, and could be found through most of the midwest and southeast, in forests and wooded river bottoms. It was a beautiful bird, possibly the most colorful ever to live in North America, with a green body, yellow head, and orange cheeks, and lived in large, chattering flocks. In the wild, before settlers came, parakeets ate fruits and seeds from many trees and plants, including thistles, grasses, maple, elm, and pine. But as Americans began to tame the frontier, cut down trees for farm land, and plant fruit trees and crops, the birds found themselves without their usual food source. The resourceful parakeets soon adapted, discovering apples and other fruits which they tore apart to get at the seeds, as well as corn and other grains. But a flock of parakeets could include 200 to 300 birds, and could decimate a crop or orchard quickly, so farmers soon came to consider them an agricultural pest, killing them in large numbers. It didn’t help the parakeets either that their meat was considered tasty, or that the birds had a  habit, like many parrots, of returning to aid a wounded flock member in response to a distress call. This made it possible for a farmer to destroy whole flocks of the social birds. However, some farmers found the parakeets useful because they ate the seeds of, and thus controlled, invasive cockleburs, a noxious weed American farmers and gardeners have battled since colonial times. And in fact no other animal has been known to consume the cocklebur seed which contains a toxic glucoside. The celebrated bird painter John James Audubon reported as early as 1831 that the parakeet’s numbers had dropped dramatically in the previous 10 years. The population fell even more starkly in the mid-1800s.

One of the very last populations of Carolina parakeets was located in Florida. The birds had been healthy, with good habitat, and weren’t persecuted by shooting or trapping and yet still died. Researchers have hypothesized that the parakeets might have fatally contracted a poultry disease from chickens at nearby farms, roaming free through barnyards, fields, and woods. The last known Carolina living in the wild died in 1905 in Missouri, and the last known living Carolina in captivity died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918.  The Carolina Parakeet was declared extinct by the American Ornithologists Union in 1939.  There are no native parakeets of any species left in the United States.

This is a sad story, but it’s also an educational one. What happened to the Carolina Parakeet is similar to other North American birds that have become extinct in the last 100 years. In many cases,  the birds lived and flew in large flocks, were mostly unafraid of humans and slow to flee. Until the arrival of European settlers in North America, these characteristics weren’t a problem for the birds. But the settlers arrival meant a need for more food, which brought overhunting, and loss of habitat as settlers spread through the continent clearing forests and native prairie grasses for more farmland. These story of the Carolina Parakeet shows us again how everything is interconnected. As the American poet Robert Frost said, QUOTE “Nature is always hinting at us. It hints over and over again. And suddenly we take the hint.” UNQUOTE I hope in the case of birds that are now on the edge of extinction, we can start paying attention to the hints.