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article imagePassenger pigeons, once in the billions, commemorated this week

By Karen Graham     Sep 4, 2014 in Environment
On September 1, the London Zoo stopped the clock outside the Victorian Bird House at noon. At the Cincinnati Zoo, a commemorative ceremony was held. Bird lovers around the world stopped to remember Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon who died 100 years ago.
At one time, long ago, passenger pigeons, or wild pigeons, were the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly the world. It has been estimated that at their peak, there were over 10 billion of these wild pigeons. They were indeed nature's abundance.
The Passenger pigeon gets its name from the French, passager, meaning "passing-by." Early European settlers would record that massive flocks of these wild pigeons would darken the sky, sometimes taking hours or even days to pass. The Native American tribes revered the pigeon, with the bird playing a role in the religious ceremonies of many of the Northern tribes.
The Seneca only hunted juvenile pigeons, and only after offering a gift of wampum and brooches to the older adult pigeons so they would not desert the nests. They also believed a white pigeon was the leader of the colony and that a council of the colony had met and decided the pigeons had to give their bodies to the Seneca because they were important to the tribe. For this reason, the tribe only took the juveniles out of the nests, and only what was needed.
Newcomers to North America's shores looked on the pigeons as a cheap and very plentiful source of meat. At first, settlers ate the juvenile birds because they tasted best, and kept some in cages to be fattened up. The pigeon fat was used as butter, and the feathers were used in bedding. In a paper published in 1955 by the University of Wisconsin Press, it was reported that in 1822, a family in Chautauqua County, New York, slaughtered 4,000 passenger pigeons in one day, just for the feathers.
 Passenger Pigeon Net  St. Anne s  Lower Canada . Watercolour and pen and black and brown ink on wov...
"Passenger Pigeon Net, St. Anne's, Lower Canada". Watercolour and pen and black and brown ink on wove paper.
James Pattison Cockburn, watercolor, 1829
Because passenger pigeons were so prolific, their breeding success eventually lead to their demise. They lived in large colonies, and after people realized they were good to eat elaborate means were used to hunt and catch them. For the Native Americans, the pigeon was second only to the wild turkey as a food source.
To the colonists, especially the common man and the poor, the pigeon was a major source of protein, and to settlers on the frontier, the pigeon was often the only source of protein. Not only did people decimate the pigeon colonies, they often killed the trees the birds nested in, chopping them down or setting fire to the trees in order to get the juveniles.
Although the passenger pigeon's demise could be partly blamed on habitat loss because of farming and land clearing, it was hunting that did them in. The ultimate result was the fastest extinction rate ever seen, and it was primarily caused by humans. By the mid-to-late 1800s, the passenger pigeon population had declined to the extent that it was impossible for the species to make a comeback. Naturalist Paul R. Ehrlich wrote that its extinction "illustrates a very important principle of conservation biology: it is not always necessary to kill the last pair of a species to force it to extinction."
Passenger pigeon in flight.  Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University 1900 Benjamin Franklin...
Passenger pigeon in flight. Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway Philadelphia, PA 19103 March 18, 2013
Jim, the Photographer from Springfield PA, United States of America
And this sad story brings us to Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon in the world, she was given to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1902. By 1907, Martha, along with two male companions, were the last surviving passenger pigeons in the world. One male died in April of 1909, and the other male pigeon died on July 10, 1910. This left Martha, who was named after Martha Washington, the nation's first lady.
Martha became an international celebrity of sorts, except that instead of being the first lady of passenger pigeons, she was the last. Martha suffered an apoplectic stroke several years before her death, and became quite weak. Her perches were lowered to make it easier for her, but on September 1, 1914 at 1 p.m. in the afternoon, she was found dead on the bottom of her cage. It was agreed that she had died of old age. It is generally believed she was 29 years old.
Martha's body was taken to a Cincinnati ice company and frozen into a 300 pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Martha is on display at the Smithsonian through September 2015 for the exhibit, "Once There Were Billions."
More about passenger pigeons, Martha, Cincinnati Zoo, Extinction, mancaused extinction
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