The last Passenger Pigeon to roam the earth was named Martha. She has a colorful history with a few tales of how she came to be. Some believe she came from a flock of birds at the University of Chicago under Professor Charles Otis Whitman’s care. Others believe that Martha was hatched at the zoo in order to give locals a closer look at native wildlife. A less romantic story has Martha coming from a zoo purchase. Regardless of how Martha came to be at the Cincinnati Zoo, today we’re honoring her life, death, and the end of a species.
The migratory birds became officially extinct when Martha died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.
- Martha was molting when she died, so she was missing a number of feathers.
- She was reportedly named after Martha Washington.
- It was common for Passenger Pigeons to live to be 15 years old in captivity. Reports indicate that Martha was 28.
- Ironically, the bird’s natural predators did not play a big role in the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction. Instead, excessive exploitation by humans reduced the size of the passenger pigeons' population, such that they became vulnerable to extinction.
- The Passenger Pigeon numbers dwindled to three (two males and Martha) in 1907. One of the males died in 1909 and the other in 1910. Scientists began to get desperate and offered a $1,000 reward for anyone who could find a mate. This made Martha a bit of a celebrity at the time.
After she died on September 1, 1914, her specimen was immediately frozen and shipped by train to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, where curators stuffed her and put her on display.
- Since Martha's death, she became a symbol of two opposing human natures—driving species to extinction and our occasional desire to do something about it. Following the extinction of the entire species, a certain group is now looking to use modern science to clone the species, although this may not be possible.