“For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us.” – Aldo Leopold
Just over one hundred years ago, a bird that no longer exists flocked in such great numbers they blocked the sun turning day into night. The extinction of the passenger pigeon is a tale often told by historians of nature. It is a parable of wasted American abundance. Felled for food and feathers, wasted by sport hunters and nest-robbers, these pigeons, remarkable only for the immensity of their migration, existed as a handful of individuals in zoological parks.
Still, some optimists kept looking. They scanned the skies and wandered hopefully through former nesting grounds. In 1909, the American Ornithologists’ Union launched a comprehensive hunt, offering prizes of over $2000 to anyone who located passenger pigeon nests or nesting sites. Though the contest continued through 1912, no sightings reported held any credible evidence of their existence.
Despite such denial of loss, the remaining individuals became living (and then stuffed) memorials to their species. The last living passenger pigeon spent her days at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha, after the nation’s first lady. When her mate, George, passed in 1910, she lived another four years as an unlikely and unfortunate celebrity. Her pagoda cage labeled her the last of her kind. She was, according to Christopher Cokinos who chronicles avian exintctions in Hope is the Thing with Feathers, the first endangered species specimen to garner such attention.
When Martha died on September 1, 1914, the zoo immediately iced her body and shipped her to the Smithsonian. At the pagoda where people once pilgrimaged to see the last of a species, stands a memorial. A statue remembers Martha herself near the building’s entrance. Inside, an exhibit tells the story of passenger pigeon extinction and has several stuffed birds on display. The contrast of living animals outside and dead inside is unusual for a zoo and is a powerful juxtaposition.
At the Smithsonian, Martha’s body was preserved and then put on display. In the halls of the U.S. National Museum, Martha’s body served as a reminder and a warning against the excesses of American culture. Though Martha is no longer on display, her body still lies in the Smithsonian’s collections, at the National Museum of Natural History, underlining her importance in the stories Americans tell about themselves.
Another memorial lies far from the site of Martha’s demise, in the woods of Wisconsin where it is thought an Ohio boy with a BB gun shot the last wild passenger pigeon. There, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology installed a bronze plaque on an oak tree engraved with the following words: “Dedicated to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.”
When the plaque was dedicated in 1947, naturalist and nature-writer Aldo Leopold spoke eloquently of the event’s significance. “We meet here to commemorate the death of a species,” he began. “This monument symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the on-rushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.” Leopold painted a pastoral picture of the landscape with its now-extinct wildlife and called attention to its place in that environment. Its disappearance changed a visual marker of the seasons. Not only was a bird species lost, but a rhythm, an aesthetic.
But why, Leopold asked, do we mourn the loss of a species? “Perhaps, we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange.” More poignantly, Leopold wondered how lost species could be remembered: “There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather; they live forever by not living at all.”
Indeed, Martha in the museum, her pagoda, the statue of her likeness, keeps the passenger pigeon alive. But no longer are they signals of seasons; they stand as harbingers of extinction. They warn of the ability of human activities to be both destructive and protective. In embodying the pigeon with such meanings, we tell an emotional history of lost abundance. But Leopold warned of the hubris of telling pointed parables: “We who erect this monument are performing a dangerous act. Because our sorrow is genuine, we are tempted to believe that we had no part in the demise of the pigeon.” But, he continued, it was people just like us who brought about the death of this species. They believed that is was “more important to multiply people and comforts than to cherish the beauty of the land in which they live. What we are doing here today is publicly to confess a doubt whether this is true.” Leopold concluded: “This then, is a monument to a bird we have lost, and to a doubt we have gained.”
This is part of an ongoing series, Understanding Extinction, with research supported by the Animals & Society Institute Fellowship.