The Lonely Life and Mysterious Death of the Last Passenger Pigeon

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March 9 2014 11:45 PM

The Lonely Life and Mysterious Death of the Last Passenger Pigeon

Her name was Martha. She died 100 years ago.

Martha at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.
Martha at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.

From the collection of Garrie Landry; photographer unknown

Adapted from A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction by Joel Greenberg, out now from Bloomsbury.

By 1900 there were three captive flocks of breeding passenger pigeons. Martha, the last of her species, was the progeny of one flock, born in a second, and spent most of her life in the third. The entities that maintained them—an interested amateur, a distinguished academic, and the nation’s second-oldest zoo—were very different, of course, as were the reasons they acquired and kept the birds in the first place. If events had proceeded differently, it is possible Martha may not have been the last of her species. But “what if?” runs through this entire saga and can never be answered.

Milwaukee

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One of the captive passenger pigeon flocks was created and maintained through the efforts of David Whittaker. As a young man, he and his wife, Maria, searched for gold in California and then the Yukon. After more years prospecting in Ontario and the upper Midwest, they eventually settled in Milwaukee, on a bluff above the Milwaukee River.

Wandering around the wilderness looking for minerals enabled him to develop and strengthen his fascination with nature. He evidently spent a lot of time looking up as well as toward the ground. Once he settled down, he sated this long-standing avian interest by raising birds and acquired a small aviary that housed passenger pigeons. The first occupants arrived in the fall of 1888, when Whittaker obtained two pairs of passenger pigeons captured in Shawano County, Wis., by a “young Indian.” One pair was of mature birds, while the other was of birds less than a year old. Unfortunately, the two older pigeons did not last long: “One ... scalped itself by flying against the wire netting and died,” while the other escaped.

Whittaker proved himself a patient and skilled aviculturist. After several fruitless years, his flock of two began to grow, eventually reaching 15. The slow, tedious process required close observation and care.

When the adults fed young, Whittaker showed great astuteness by augmenting the regular diet of grain with worms and insects. These high-protein foods were released into a box of soil: “At times the earth in the enclosure is moistened with water and a handful of worms thrown in, which soon find their way under the surface. The Pigeons are so fond of these tidbits, they will often pick and scratch holes in their search, large enough to almost hide themselves.”

Even after lives of confinement, the birds remained timid and wary. To observe them closely, one had to approach the cage slowly and deliberately, lest they scatter in a panic. And when storms approached, traits born of their genetic inheritance manifested themselves in yet another way: “The old birds will arrange themselves side by side on the perch, draw the head and neck down into the feathers and sit motionless for a time, then gradually resume an upright position, spread the tail, stretch each wing in turn, and then, as at a given signal, they spring from the perch and bring up against the wire netting with their feet as though anxious to fly before the disturbing elements.”

Chicago

Now the scene shifts a hundred miles south, to the University of Chicago and biologist Charles Otis Whitman.

Born in Maine in 1842, Whitman seemed to lack interest in most everything as a young child, for one researcher says of him, “there is no hint from any of those I interviewed that young Whitman had any desire to play, draw, paint, climb mountains, travel, or build boat, engine, or carriage.” He was rescued at the age of 12 from a life of apathy by developing a strong interest in birds, a sure sign of exceptionalism. When his pet blue jay died, he stuffed it. While at Bowdoin College, all anyone recalled of him was that he devoted his spare time exclusively to the collecting of birds.

Whitman received a doctorate from the University of Leipzig and taught at the Imperial University of Tokyo. He then spent some time at the Zoological Station in Naples, Italy, before returning to the United States. His research delved into such fields as animal behavior, embryology, evolution, and anatomy.  

One of Whitman’s true loves was pigeons. He amassed a large collection that eventually reached 550 live birds of about 30 species. These were housed in small cotes situated around his house in Hyde Park, a few blocks from the university. At least a few were always kept inside his home, serenading the human occupants with constant cooing. His goal was to study behavior, evolution, and genetics, and by working with such a wide variety of subjects he hoped to buttress his support of orthogenesis, a view that holds evolution to be “a directed and progressive process” determined by the characteristics of the species rather than the more random effects imposed by environment. This position had few adherents.

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