They Covered the Sky, and Then…

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Lakeshore Museum Center, Muskegon, Michigan
Lewis Cross: Passenger Pigeons in Flight, painted in 1937

The very last passenger pigeon on earth was a female named Martha who lived at the Cincinnati Zoo. She was born sometime in 1895 or 1897, or perhaps 1900 or 1902, maybe at the zoo or maybe one state over, in Illinois; over the years, many different versions of her story have been offered. (As a Wisconsin naturalist once put it, “It would be difficult to find a more garbled history than that of Martha.”)

Like all passenger pigeons, Martha was a slim, elegant bird, with long tapering tail feathers and a narrow black bill—a far cry from the crumb-fed rock pigeons of urban America. (Had she been male, she would have sported greenish-blue display feathers; as it was, she was mostly brown.) Just a few decades before her birth, Martha’s was the most common bird species in North American—perhaps in the world—with individual flocks containing up to or even beyond a billion members.

Martha became the last of her kind upon the death of her companion, George, who also lived at the Cincinnati Zoo. The two occupied a cage ten feet wide by twelve feet long and were fed on cracked corn, wheat, and cooked liver. Whether or not they ever mated is unknown; like the Washingtons, they remained without issue. After George passed away, in July 1910, officials at the Bronx Zoo tried to convince officials at the Cincinnati Zoo to send Martha to New York. They refused.

Martha lingered on in Cincinnati, growing weaker at the same time that she grew more famous. A reporter who visited her in her final, solitary years described her as “atremble with the palsy of extreme old age.” Zoo-goers who came to see the elderly bird were disappointed because she barely moved. To prod her to get up and walk around, they tossed sand at her. To give her some peace, her keepers roped off her cage. They lowered her perch to within inches of the ground.

On August 29, or possibly three days later, on September 1, 1914, Martha died. It’s been claimed that at the moment of her death she was “surrounded by a hushed group of distinguished ornithologists,” but it’s more likely that she expired alone and was later found lying on the floor. The zoo director’s son delivered her fifteen-inch-long body to the Cincinnati Ice Company, where it was frozen into a three-hundred-pound block. The bird cube was then sent by rail to the Smithsonian, where Martha’s internal organs were removed and her skin preserved. In time for the centennial of Martha’s death—whenever, exactly, that was—Joel Greenberg, a Chicago-area naturalist and avid birder, has written a new account of the passenger pigeon’s demise, A Feathered River Across the Sky. As Greenberg relates it, in calm, measured prose, it’s a story of unremitting, wanton, continental-scale destruction: in a matter of about …

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Letters

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