She was 29 years old, with a coat of pale brown fur. Her name was Martha and she died on September 1, 1914 at one o’clock in the afternoon, found lying on her back in her cage. Her corpse was then frozen in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped across the country from Cincinnati to Washington, D.C., to be displayed in the Smithsonian. She was the last of her kind, the final passenger pigeon, named after the matriarch of the United States — Martha Washington.
Martha will go down in history not as the matriarch of her species, but as the end of her line — an icon of extinction.
Today, you can find three of Martha’s distant relatives on display at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The museum marked the 100-year anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction with an exhibit, which at once honored their memory and provided a sobering reminder of the power of human destruction. From Sept. 1 to Oct. 12, museum visitors had the opportunity of viewing three pigeon specimens, along with an egg and a pigeon nest — a rare opportunity, since the exposure to light can bleach the plumage of the birds.
However, the exhibit curator Kristof Zyskowski said it was worth the risk to put the specimens on display, so as to teach the public about a pivotal moment in environmental history.
Richard Prum, a MacArthur Genius and William Robertson Coe professor of ornithology, ecology and evolutionary biology who helped curate the Peabody exhibit, believes the story of the passenger pigeon is important because of the bird’s devastating decline. Prum explained that in the mid-nineteenth century the population was estimated to be about five billion birds. But in under 50 years, the species went from billions to zero.
“The story of the extinction of the passenger pigeon … is a very American story,” Prum said. “It was one of the most abundant birds on the planet and rivals that of the migration of the buffalo in spectacle.”
Prum explained that the extinction of the passenger pigeon inspired people like Teddy Roosevelt to pioneer the conservationist movement with projects like the National Park Service and the Audubon Society.
In 1813, John James Audubon reported that “the light of noon-day was obscured by an eclipse” when a flock of passenger pigeons was seen overhead. Director of Public Programs at the Peabody Richard Kissel said that one flock was reported to be a mile wide and 300 miles long. The skies of North America back then are unimaginable to society today, he added.
Biologists still debate the causes of the bird’s extinction, but the consensus holds that a combination of overhunting, deforestation and pigeon social behaviors led to the bird’s demise.
On Oct. 11, Prum organized a daylong symposium about extinction inspired by the passenger pigeon anniversary. The event culminated with an evening performance by the Yale Symphony Orchestra with a piece that embodied the sounds and birdsong of the passenger pigeon.
Research Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science David Sepkoski spoke at the symposium. Before Darwin, he said, many scientists denied the concept of mass extinction. Even during the Darwinian era extinction was seen as a natural phase in the survival of the fittest. Only the weakest species went extinct.
This mentality changed with the passenger pigeon, said Sepkoski. For the first time, society could not deny human influence on nature.
The passenger pigeon revolutionized the way evolutionary biologists view extinction, yet the average Yale student is still unaware of the species’ existence even in this year of commemoration. Seven out of 10 students interviewed said they were unaware of what a passenger pigeon was and that it was in fact extinct.
Tom McCoy ’17, who took Professor Prum’s course on ornithology, said that in class they learned that once the population of the passenger pigeon dipped below a critical mass, the pigeons could not muster the numbers they needed for their communal breeding.
“The most famous human-caused extinctions are of animals like the dodo or the elephant bird, which only had small populations confined to single islands,” McCoy lamented. “The passenger pigeon, though, was the most common bird in North America.”
Tali Perelman ’17 had never heard of the pigeon until she took Environmental History. Perelman said she was amazed by the abundance of these creatures and the way flocks darkened the skies.
“I think it’s really sad that I didn’t know of their existence, even less of their extinction, until my environmental history class,” Perelman said. “It should be common knowledge. It’s impossible to separate environmental history from human history, and I think stories of our interactions with nature, not just our interactions with people, should be taught in schools.”
What can the future hold for a species that is already dead?
Ben Novak, lead researcher of “The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback” at The Long Now Foundation, is working to promote the de-extinction of the passenger pigeon and other species. By cloning the gene sequences of passenger pigeon specimens in museums and using other doves or pigeons as surrogate parents, Novak’s team hopes to bring the passenger pigeon back from the dead.
Novak, who spoke at the extinction symposium on Saturday, explained that the endeavor is not only possible with innovative science measures, but also a worthwhile endeavor. Since the passenger pigeon extinction, no other species of pigeon has filled their role in the ecosystem of the Northeast.
Novak finds our hand in their demise so intriguing because passenger pigeons can be considered “our genetic mirror in bird form.” They had the same amount of genetic diversity as humans.
However, other scientists and researchers are unsure whether de-extinction could actually work.
“I think people should realize that these efforts of cloning are far from the real thing,” Zyskowski said. “These attempts at de-extinction through cloning are not the answers to the global biodiversity loss.”
Meanwhile, others, like UCLA professor of English Ursula Heise, question the current conversations about extinction. She explained that narratives of extinction are abundant, but often one-sided.
“The problem is that a lot of these stories are stuck in a template of mourning and loss,” Heise said. “There may be other ways of talking about natural change. You have to be careful about only telling decline stories.”
Heise wonders whether we should continue doing what amounts to triage work with endangered species or focusing on those species we deem salvageable and necessary. Society cannot save all of the endangered species and maybe it is time that we learn which losses we can deem acceptable, Heise argued.
At the YSO’s performance, conductor Toshiyuki Shimada told the audience that the performance was their artistic attempt at resurrecting the beauty of the passenger pigeon. They played the Columbiad, or The Migration of the Passenger Pigeon, by Anthony Philip Heinrich. Saturday’s show was the North American premiere of the piece, whose sole performance took place in Prague in 1857. Heinrich was inspired to compose the piece after witnessing one of the bird’s immense migrations. The 12 movements of the music represent everything from the “thunder-like flapping of a passing phalanx of American wild pigeons” to the “cooing” of the pigeons and even a “conflict over Beech nuts.”
On Saturday, after 150 years, the notes of Heinrich’s music traveled from Europe to the ancestral land of the passenger pigeon, playing to over 1,000 audience members in Woolsey Hall. True to the American story Prum spoke of, the song ended with a rendition of Yankee Doodle Dandy.
On stage with over 80 members of the Yale Symphony Orchestra stood an unusual soloist: a passenger pigeon specimen from the Peabody Museum. Heinrich wanted the piece to embrace what he considered the undying glory and triumph of the species. Ironically, the audience knew the true ending of the passenger pigeon — one not of triumph, but of demise. As the notes of Yankee Doodle Dandy rang through the hall with the gusto of a patriotic anthem, the passenger pigeon stood silent on an artificial branch.
YSO celloist Robert Wharton ’17 said, “I thought it was pretty cool piece. I don’t know if it resurrected the pigeon though. Before we started, Conductor Shimada suggested the pigeon would take off and fly away.”
Although the sounds of Heinrich’s long-lost piece took flight, the passenger pigeon remained still.
Meanwhile, at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Martha the passenger pigeon sits on display, a 100-year-old symbol of extinction, the final member of a community that was once five billion in number, extinct before she even died.
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