NOV 16, 2017
On September 1, 1914, an old, trembling passenger pigeon named Martha died at Cincinnati Zoo. With her demise, her entire species slid into extinction. But in many ways, the species was already gone, for a solitary passenger pigeon is almost not a passenger pigeon at all. This is an animal that existed in gestalt. Its essence was in the flock.
Passenger pigeons were once the most abundant bird in North America, and quite possibly the world. At their peak, there were a few billion of them, traversing the continent in gargantuan, nomadic flocks that would blacken the sky for hours as they passed overhead. Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi author and leader, described them as “the grandest waterfall of America” and their sound as that of “distant thunder” or “an army of horses laden with sleigh bells.”
And then, people started shooting them. They poisoned them, netted them, gassed them, hit them with sticks. In a matter of decades, the continent’s most common bird has been completely wiped out, down to the last individual. “It’s always astounded me how something could have that large a population and entirely disappear,” says Beth Shapiro from the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Why didn’t tiny populations survive somewhere in refugia? I mean, we are pretty good at murdering things, but how did we kill every one of them?”