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September 1st is a sad anniversary for a special bird

This Monday is Labor Day, but it’s also a sad anniversary as well. September 1st, 2014 is also the anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, Martha. She was a resident of the Cincinnati Zoo for several years, though her exact history is a bit garbled. It is said that she hatched in captivity in 1885 and was originally displayed to for people to get a closer look at a native species, not because they were getting rare.

Stuffed specimen of Martha taken in 1921
Shufeldt, Robert W, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

After Martha passed away, she was mounted and displayed at the Smithsonian. In 1966, she made a rare trip outside of the Smithsonian to San Diego to be displayed at the Zoological Society’s golden jubilee in an exhibit about conservation. Martha’s body will be displayed at the Smithsonian for her anniversary, but put back into storage next year to keep her preserved.

Martha is an example of how a species, no matter how abundant, is vulnerable to human influence and extinction. Passenger pigeons were the most numerous birds on Earth, perhaps the most numerous of any species before and after. They were considered a huge pest, often destroying large sections of forests by nesting and roosting. Their primary foods were acorns and chestnuts, but as the forests began to be cleared, they went after crops.

Like modern feral pigeons, many people expressed a dislike for these pigeons as well. Darwinism was also in play and the attitude was that anything that couldn’t adapt, even to mass killing by humans, deserved to go extinct. The pigeons were also a cheap and easy source of protein. Most people ate them at least at one point or another. Even as the birds were showing an obvious decline, few thought they would go extinct or tried to save them.

Currently, there are projects to bring back the passenger pigeon through cloning and genetic manipulation. Their closest relative is a San Diego native, the band-tailed pigeon, who live out in the mountain forests. Band-tailed pigeon DNA will be used to fill in gaps in any lost passenger pigeon DNA and the eggs given to the extant species for incubation and rearing.

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