On March 4, 1896, Whitman bought three passenger pigeons from David Whittaker. Over the next few years, the overall number of pigeons in Chicago increased so that by the beginning of 1902 there were 16, evenly divided between males and females. Whitman noted the hardiness of the passenger pigeons: They fared well in their outdoor enclosures and resisted disease much more effectively than many of their neighbors. This flock of passenger pigeons would be the only ones ever studied by scientists. He called the species “my special pets.”
From the high number of 16 passenger pigeons at the beginning of 1902, the flock began an irreversible downward spiral. The fate of Whitman’s collection might be seen as a microcosm of the entire species. Eggs were laid, a few hatched, but not one young bird survived. Over the same time, the adults began to disappear: Two escaped, two fell victim to tuberculosis, and others succumbed to causes unknown. One hen was given to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1902. Five years later tuberculosis claimed the last of Whitman’s birds, a pair of females.
Although Whitman expressed his desire to have perpetuated the passenger pigeons under his care, conservation seemed of little interest to him. In this he was typical of the majority of academics and indeed his countrymen. Several more decades would have to transpire before a formal push began to enlist academicians in promoting the preservation of biodiversity.
Whitman dutifully answered letters about his passenger pigeons and was generous in providing photographs of them for use in numerous publications, but he never published anything on their plight. Even worse, he failed to read the available literature that would have enlightened him that the pigeons did eat animal matter. When Whitman finally made the discovery on his own, he was sorry for not having furnished additional protein to his birds earlier, for they would probably have been healthier and produced more young.
By 1907 Whitman’s flock was gone except for that one female he had sent to the Cincinnati Zoo.
The Cincinnati Zoological Gardens, now formally named the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, commenced serving the public on Sept. 18, 1875, thus becoming the nation’s second-oldest zoo. Passenger pigeons were part of the zoo’s holdings from early on, and Martha, its last one, died on Sept. 1, 1914. That is known with certainty, but further details on the history of the species at the zoo are hopelessly confused. For any given account, there is apt to be at least one other that contradicts it. What follows, then, is my best attempt at telling the story. Others have told it differently.
A year before the zoo opened, a patron gave two passenger pigeons to the zoological society. The zoo may have held 22 of the birds when it opened. Whether they were actually on display at the zoo opening is not known for sure, although it seems likely they were. The zoo then added three more pairs in 1877 at the cost of $7.50 for the lot. Soon the birds became amorous, and early in March of either 1878 or 1879, zoo director Frank Thompson observed his wards mating: “A single egg was soon laid in each nest and incubation commenced.” Despite temperatures as low as 14 degrees and the fall of so much snow that the nesting birds became completely covered, both the eggs hatched and young fledged. Thompson wrote in an 1881 article that the flock stood at 20 despite the death of one old-timer.
Martha’s early time at the zoo is impossible to trace with any great confidence. This has plagued everyone who has tried to document her life. Most of the problem here arises from Salvator “Sol” Stephans, a former circus-elephant handler who took over the affairs of the zoo in 1878 and would stay for nearly half a century. He did a masterful job building the zoo into one of the country’s finest, but he seemed to have little concern for consistency in answering questions about Martha. At times he said she hatched in the zoo. In 1907 he stated that the zoo’s last female had been the bird conveyed by Whitman five years earlier. And don’t even ask when the last surviving passenger pigeon was born. Poet and nature writer Christopher Cokinos wryly handled the difficulty: “Sometime in 1902, 1900, 1897, 1896, 1895, 1894, 1889, 1888, 1887, 1886, or 1885, inside an egg … a female passenger pigeon tucked her bill between her body and a wing.”
Martha settled in. She fed, she rested, and she fluttered a bit. In her younger days, she might have tried her bill at nest building. It is possible she laid some infertile eggs. As the passing years took their toll, she watched the members of the flock slowly disappear. Stephans tried to augment the flock, but no pigeons were to be had.
Martha had sole reign of her environs for four years or so. Her fame grew, and people made her aviary a destination. The New York Zoo is said to have done all it could to get Stephans to part with his unique experiment. Protected from the violence that would have claimed her in nature, Martha’s vitality slowly ebbed. Keepers lowered her perch so it was mere inches from the floor. She rarely moved anymore, hardly the performance expected by the crowds. Joseph Stephans, Sol’s son, said that “on Sundays we would rope off the cage to keep the public from throwing sand at her to make her walk around.”
Due to Stephans, even details of her death are in dispute. Most accounts say she died on Sept. 1, 1914. Almost certainly, this was some time after the noon hour, most probably closer to 1, although it might have been four hours later. Keeper William Bruntz might have discovered her crumpled body, or perhaps the Stephanses kept her company as her life force reluctantly flickered to its conclusion, bringing closure to the feathered whirlwind that defied human understanding, if not the human capacity to destroy.
Adapted from A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction by Joel Greenberg, out now from Bloomsbury.