A TRIBUTE TO MARTHA: THE LAST PASSENGER PIGEON
By Scot Bastian
Lost in the turbulence of history, overshadowed by the beginning of the “Great War” known as World War I, was a momentous event in the chronicles of ecology: the extinction of the last known passenger pigeon, The last known individual of her kind, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo 100 years ago on September 1st 1914, exactly 100 years ago on the last day of this year’s Burning Man.
Passenger Pigeons were a force majeure in the Eastern landscape. Once numbering in the billions, they were quite possibly the most numerous bird species in the world. When Europeans arrived in North America, population estimates ranged from 3 to 5 billion, approximately 25 to 40% of the total North American birds. They traveled in huge flocks, one of which was described as a mile wide and three hundred miles long, and taking 13 hours to pass overhead. The flocks were so dense in number that they were said to eclipse the sun. Passenger pigeons were named for the French word passenger, which translates as “passing by.” They were half again as large as their cousin the mourning dove, and resembled its Western relative, the band-tailed pigeon. The range of the passenger pigeon extended north into Canada and west to Eastern Texas and Eastern Montana. When these immense flocks roosted hundreds of millions of birds would leave a swath of destruction, scouring the landscape for food, and crushing trees with their collective weight. The largest recorded nesting colony was 850 square miles. In spite of their enormous numbers they are gone. Gone forever. Why did they disappear? The basic problem was that they were delicious. The young birds, called squabs, were particularly prized. Their undoing was the density of their flocks and their propensity for colony breeding. The density of the nesting communities made them easy prey—a discharge from a double-barreled shotgun blast could kill dozens of birds. They were collected by the thousands using nets.
The last confirmed wild passenger pigeon was observed in Indiana in 1902. Martha, was named after the First Lady, Martha Washington. After the death of her cage companions (including George) a reward was offered for finding a potential mate—but none was ever found. Martha, the last of her kind, an endling, died of natural causes at the probable age of 29 years. Her remains are on display at the Smithsonian Museum.
Other than the fortuitous date marking the centenary since the extinction of passenger pigeons, what does this have to do with Burning Man? I think that Burners have a special appreciation for the transience of all things. Our “roost” on the Playa can be compared to the crowded passenger pigeons that are now gone. Many do not realize that, for most species, extinction is the norm. Nearly 99% of all the species that ever lived are believed to be extinct. Humans are the most prolific primates on the planet, but as evidenced by the passing of the passenger pigeon and the dinosaurs, being multitudinous provides no guarantee for survival. Burners, like passenger pigeons, live a bold, noisy existence, thriving in groups, and like Martha and her kin, Burning Man will vanish without a trace. Let’s hope the same fate doesn’t await the human race.
More information is available about Passenger pigeons and Martha from Wikipedia, and from Project Passenger Pigeon. There is an excellent new monograph about the species A Feathered River Across the Sky, by Joel Greenberg.
A couple of vids for your enjoyment.
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