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.

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.”

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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.

Cincinnati

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.

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

Joel Greenberg is a research associate of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. Visit his blog at Birdzilla.

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