Friday, 1 September 2006

Vale Martha

Today is the 92nd anniversary of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). Once found in such mind-bogglingly large numbers across the eastern United States that they were shot to make agricultural fertilizer, the species became extinct in the wild in 1900. Martha became an ex-pigeon fourteen years later, dropping off the perch at Cincinnati Zoo at the age of 29—the end of a long and lonely life.

In Birds of America, ornithologist John James Audubon said of them:
In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, on my way to Louisville. In passing over the Barrens a few miles beyond Hardensburgh, I observed the Pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; 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 wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.

The story of the passenger pigeon's demise is a cautionary tale that is barely heeded. Hunting finished off what land clearing started. Habitat fragmentation reduced breeding populations. Guns took care of the rest. Despite the rapid decline in the population, laws brought in to protect the birds were not enforced. When people got serious about them, it was too late.

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