Telling Martha’s Story: The Very Last Passenger Pigeon on Earth
My mother will proudly confirm that my first word was “bird”.
In my early days of tree climbing, I would drape myself across a branch in our Japanese maple tree and wait for birds and squirrels to come close. I decided that if they could see how kind-hearted I was, they would come closer, let me pet them, and be my friends. Having seen my share of animated movies, I knew it was definitely, definitely possible.
But no matter how still I sat, how sweetly I whispered, or how hard I wished, the birds flushed at the sight of me. I scared them. Why? I thought. Their fear felt like personal rejection. But I would never hurt you, I said to them in my thoughts.
Thirty years later, while volunteering in wild bird rehabilitation at Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, I fulfilled my childhood dream of handling wild birds. Raising orphaned baby songbirds from hatchlings to fledglings, I came to understand and respect their wildness. The instinct has developed over hundreds of thousands of years of bad experiences. To birds, we are predators, no different from any other. As soon as they realize we’re not their mother birds, they want nothing to do with us.
Plus, “evolved” as we are, we constantly invent, use, and produce new hazards to wildlife (and ourselves): Guns. Powerlines. Energy byproducts. Cars, planes and trains. Fishing lines and nets. Windows. Chainsaws. Warfare. Pest controls. Fires. Toxic waste. Poison. Garbage (well, some birds do like trash). Even violent weather.
Many of these dangers have been developed within the past century and a half—far too quickly for wildlife to adapt. What about before that? Were any North American birds already extinct before the industrial revolution?
In August 2012 I asked myself these questions for the first time. In my web search for endangered extinct North American birds, I met the passenger pigeon—almost exactly 100 years after it had met its demise. Its journey to extinction was swift, and the details of its death were painful—almost too hard to bear. What was more unfathomable was the fact that I had never heard of this bird before. Why hadn’t I been told its story when I was in school? Was I home sick that day? Did everyone else know about it but me?
I began to ask around. “Have you ever heard of the passenger pigeon?” The answers I got were a mixture of “no” and, “yeah, like carrier pigeons, right?” Nobody in my family or amongst my friends ever heard of the actual bird, or how it was wiped off the face of the earth in just a few decades. No one knew how there once were billions in North America, and now none. Nor did they believe me when I spouted out the horrid details of their annihilation. No wonder, I thought. It is an unbelievable, gruesome story. One that needs to be told. Not just to grown-ups, but to kids, too.
It’s a story that ends with a little old bird named Martha. I‘m working on it.
So are others. Learn more right now via #ProjectPassengerPigeon. Or check out the next issue of Birding, featuring my pigeon illustrations and an article by Father Passenger Pigeon, otherwise known as my friend, Joel Greenberg.
Passenger Pigeon, adult male by Kate Garchinsky
Winner Honorable Mention for Works on Paper at the “Drawn From Nature” juried art exhibit at the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Audubon, PA, April 2014