Remembering Martha

The Passenger Pigeons was once the most numerous bird species in North America, perhaps in the world. Early colonists were amazed by the vast flocks of the birds, which sometimes darkened the sky for days. On a trip from Louisville to Henderson, Kentucky, John James Audubon wrote, “The air was literally filled with Pigeons”, and that “The light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of the wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.”

PassengerPigeonThese flocks of Passenger Pigeons could contain hundreds of millions, if not billions, of birds. By the 1870s, Passenger Pigeons could still be seen in large numbers, but a mere 40 years later, only two of the birds remained, Martha and George (named after President and Mrs. Washington). After George died, Martha was the only bird of the species left.

In 1899, her caretakers at the Cincinnati Zoo offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could find a mate for her, but no-one ever succeeded. Martha lived to be 29 years old, but on September 1, 1914 (100 years ago today), she was found dead in her enclosure — the very last of her species.

Martha, mounted, is now on display at the Smithsonian‘s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, as part of the exhibit, “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America”, from now until October 2015, to commemorate the centennial of her death. The exhibit includes mounted specimens of three other extinct avian species — the Great Auk, Carolina Parakeet, and the Heath Hen. Running in conjunction with “Once There Were Billions” is “The Lost Bird Project” by artist Todd McGrain, at the Smithsonian Libraries and Smithsonian Gardens, from March 27, 2015 through May 15, 2015.

It’s nearly impossible to understand that these birds were so plentiful at one time, but habitat loss and overhunting was too much for the species. It’s so sad to think that we humans were the main cause that led to the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, a species that migrated in flocks of billions, now not a single living bird left on the planet. Interestingly, especially with this year’s centennial, there has been discussion and even some progress about a “de-extinction” program for the Passenger Pigeon, and perhaps for other species, such as the Mammoth. But it concerns me to think that such a program might cause people to be less concerned, rather than more concerned, about species conservation and the threat of extinction, and it also does not take into account an environment that has been without billions of one species for more than a century. There are many questions to ask ourselves now, as we remember Martha and the billions of other Passenger Pigeons who filled our skies.


Some of my favourite quotes about bird conservation, as we remember the legacy of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon:

“They were here when we came, the birds which are a part of the American picture. They watched the cabins going up in the clearing at Plymouth, knew the secret of the lost people of Roanoke, clung in wide-eyed silence in the woods during the battles for freedom, moved out when cities grew, moved back again when gardens and bird pools and feeding stands said ‘welcome’ and meant it. These birds are as much a part of America as its trees, its plains, its waters, its history, its shores, its hills, yet they are only as permanent as we choose—only as permanent, in fact, as the trees, the waters, the soil itself. They all are linked in the great picture of the American whole—a picture which is determined by the preserving or the squandering of the land and its inhabitants.”

Virginia S. Eifert, from her essay, “These Birds Are America”, 1945

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“Out of the blending of human and animal stories comes the theme that I hope is inherent in all my books: that man is an inescapable part of all nature, that its welfare is his welfare, that to survive, he cannot continue acting and regarding himself as a spectator looking on from somewhere outside.”

Fred Bodsworth (1918-2012), Canadian naturalist and author of Last of the Curlews

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“Birds should be saved for utilitarian reasons; and, moreover, they should be saved because of reasons unconnected with dollars and cents. . . [T]o lose the chance to see frigate-birds soaring in circles above the storm, or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, …. why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time.”

Theodore Roosevelt

*  *  *  *

“Without birds, nature would lose her voice and the planet its most engaging envoys. Birds matter precisely because they matter to us. Environment is a concept. Nature a label. Birds are real, elements that live within our sensory plane. They spread their wings and bridge the gap between our world and the natural world.”

Pete Dunne, author and birding ambassador/former longtime director of the Cape May (NJ) Bird Observatory, in reply to the question posed by Audubon Magazine editors, “Why Do Birds Matter?”, March 2013

*  *  *  *

“It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Birding News #81

For this week’s installment of Birding News, I have something a bit different — a few news stories but for the most part a round-up of articles remembering the Passenger Pigeon and the largest-scale human-caused extinction in history:

Mercury contamination in the environment affects birds‘ songs and feather colour

From now until the end of October, British nature and bird lovers have the chance to vote on a national bird

The state of Mississippi’s Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks accidentally banned backyard bird feeders last week.

The Madagascan Pochard, already the world’s rarest bird, is in danger of dying out because of human threats to the one wetland the duck calls home.

The University of Kansas Libraries has digitized 6,000 bird illustrations by 19th century ornithologist John Gould, considered by
some as “the greatest figure in bird illustration after Audubon”

A “poor innocent pelican is off the hook” after court officials found that a sports car aficionado who drove a Bugatti into a saltwater marsh and totalled the vehicle was not distracted by the bird but behind an insurance scam.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Remembering Martha and the legacy of hunting a species into extinction:

“Saving Our Birds” by John W. Fitzpatrick, executive director of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times

“A Century of Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert, in The New Yorker

“Century After Extinction, Passenger Pigeons Remain Iconic—And Scientists Hope to Bring Them Back” by science writer and blogger Carl Zimmer for National Geographic

“Post-pigeon: 100 years since most common bird’s extinction” by Mark Avery, author of A Message from Martha (Bloomsbury, July 2014), in The Guardian

“How America’s most plentiful bird disappeared”, an interview by Shannon Heffernan for WBEZ with naturalist Joel Greenberg, author of A Feathered River Across The Sky, The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury, January 2014)

“One Hundred Years after Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon” by Jon McCracken, director of national programs for Bird Studies Canada (BSC), in the Summer 2014 issue of BSC’s magazine, BirdWatch Canada

“13 Memories of Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon” by Chelsea Harvey and Elizabeth Newbern for Audubon Magazine

“100 Years After Her Death, Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon, Still Resonates: The famed bird now finds itself at the center of a flap over de-extinction” by William Souder for Smithsonian Magazine

“A Centenary for the Last Passenger Pigeon”, an op-ed by Steve Zack, co-ordinator of Bird Conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society

GrrlScientist’s new books party/”mini” review in The Guardian — as she writes, “A more detailed review of this book is forthcoming, so I won’t tell you any more here, except to say that this book is worth buying and reading” — of Errol Fuller’s The Passenger Pigeon, to be published next week, September 7th, by Princeton University Press

“Ancient DNA Could Return Passenger Pigeons to the Sky” by David Biello for Scientific American

“A silver lining in the passenger pigeon’s demise” by Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, for The Cleveland Plain-Dealer

Feathers on Friday

If you would like to join me for my Feathers on Friday meme, please put the link to your blog post in the comments and I’ll add the link to my post.

The American Goldfinches are still around and enjoying the black-oil sunflower in our feeders,


More Feathers on Friday Posts:

Blueberries and Ospreys

Last week, my parents and I headed up to Moose Lake to pick up my brothers from 4H camp. The landscape around the lake is quite different from home as the lake area is part of the northern boreal forest. The habitat around the lake includes paper birch, poplars, jack pines, white spruce, sand dunes, and lots of wild blueberries!


There were quite a few of other berry pickers in the woods, but there were lots of berries go around. My family picked three ice cream pails of blueberries and so far, my mom has made jam, and a blueberry crumb cake, and I made blueberry-cream muffins.


There weren’t very many birds in the woods, but there were quite a few squirrels,


This squirrel was nibbling on a pine cone,


More blueberries,


I was walking through the woods and came across this active Osprey nest. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of the Ospreys on the nest as they flew away as I approached, but I watched them circle the nest for quite some time,


A close-up of the very large nest,


The Ospreys were a Year Bird for me, putting my 2014 Year and Alberta lists at 162 species,


There was a flock of Black-capped Chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding in the the pines. There were also a few small songbirds mixed in with the chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers that I wasn’t able to identify as they were difficult to see in the trees.

Here’s my eBird checklist from our adventure of blueberry picking.

Here’s one of the three Dark-eyed Juncos that were feeding in the low shrubs,


Some of the beautiful trees that surround Moose Lake,


Birding News #80

:: A US national wildlife protection group, the Center for Biological Diversity, plans to sue two federal agencies for failing to protect the federally Endangered Yuma Clapper Rail from being harmed at industrial-scale solar power projects in California.

:: San Francisco’s planning department has launched a program to document, with the help of volunteers, the number of birds that die by crashing into windows in an effort to reduce such collisions.

:: The US Fish & Wildlife Service is participating in a groundbreaking study of shorebird migration patterns, using cutting-edge technology such as nano tags (lightweight radio transmitters) instead of the traditional bands to track the birds and record their data.

:: A new study is making use of pollen analysis on migrating birds‘ heads to see where the species are taking breaks from migration to refuel, and what food sources they are using, and shows that commercial and garden tree species might be more important as a food source for migrating birds than previously thought.

Great posts in birding blogs this week:

:: From Andrew at Birding Dude: Annual Shorebird Festival at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

:: From Wallace at Our Florida JournalConfusion In The South

:: From Mia at On Wing Photography: A White Ibis and the reflections from mangroves

:: From Sharon at BirdchickBirdFair: Produces, Passion and Conservation 

:: From Rick at the ABA BlogDo You Remember Your First Rufous Hummingbird?

:: From Maureen at Hipster BirdersHoJo Birding



Feathers on Friday

If you would like to join me for my Feathers on Friday meme, please put the link to your blog post in the comments and I’ll add the link to my post.

Here’s a comparison photo of a Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs I took earlier this week (the Greater is in the back with the Lesser in the front).,


More Feathers on Friday Posts:

Birding News #79

Scientists report that the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster caused genetic damage, a decline in the population, and other changes to the birds, insects, and plants in the area.

DDT continues to kill birds in a Michigan town.

The misunderstood and maligned Magpie

Archaeologists have discovered that toward the end of his life, King Richard III apparently ate more water birds — such as swans, cranes, herons, and egrets — and drank more wine.

A New Jersey airport has found that letting the weeds grow deters birds from gathering, and so lowers the risk of bird strikes, and an Ohio airport is doing something similar, planting tall prairie grasses.

US Fish & Wildlife Service officials are searching for the person who shot at least one Osprey and one Barred Owl, both species of which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. An adult male Osprey was shot in the wing and had to be euthanized; he was the father of two hungry chicks discovered several days later one of jumped 60 to 80 feet from its nest, into traffic, and died. The mother osprey’s body was later found nearby, and officials also believe it was shot.

A pair of pigeons interrupted the recent Detroit Tigers vs. Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service is proposing to designate 546,335 acres in nine western states as critical habitat for the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, now under consideration as a Threatened Species.

Nudists are scaring off the birds at a small Florida island wildlife refuge.

Great posts in birding blogs this week:

:: From Noah at The ABA Blog: Cell Phone Bird Photography

:: From Alex at Flight of the Scrub-Jay: Late July on Cape Cod

:: From Julie at Birding is Fun: The Midwest Woodpecker Drill Team

:: From Alex at Nemesis Bird: Alcids of the Olympic Peninsula

:: From Sharon at Birdchick: BirdFair Bound & A Collins App

:: From Nicholas at Hipster Birders: Of Hawks and Hummers

:: From Josh at Ontario Birds and Herps: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Toronto