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It has been over a century since the last passenger pigeon graced the skies. Thanks to bird enthusiasts and scientists, the passenger pigeon may get to see the light of day again. Not exactly brought back from the dead in the Frankenstein sense, but more as an exhibit to be put on display in a new Smithsonian Institution exhibition set to premiere this month.
Best known to the scientific world as Martha, the passenger pigeon was the last living member of her species that once numbered in the billions. Martha’s death was an example of humanity’s power to wipe out an entire species in the span of decades. Although there is no direct reason for the extinction of the passenger pigeon species, scientists believe that the sporadic fluctuation of population is due to human expansion. Best known for her signature red eyes, grey and brown feathers, and red-orange feet, Martha made her last “coo-coo” in 1914.
Now, a century later, Martha gets a chance to show off her beautiful physique and characteristics for a new generation of onlookers. In an interesting and, somewhat, creepy turn of events, Martha’s remains have been preserved since her passing. Scientists hope that they can one day return the bird to nature by replicating and cloning from the remaining DNA of the passenger pigeon.
Although this is the first time that Martha has made the headlines, the existence of her species has been well documented throughout the 18th and 19th century. Centuries ago the passenger pigeon was just as common as the robin or sparrow. Unlike its cousin the domesticated carrier pigeon, these birds were wilder. Naturalist John James Audubon described the massive migratory flock of the passenger to be over 300 miles long and one mile wide. In one report, the flock of pigeons was so large that it darkened the skies for days in 1813, and quickly brought the residents of Louisville, KY to the rivers to go hunting.
As residents took aim, the population decreased exponentially. The passenger pigeon was considered a poor man’s food because its nature to stay in large flocks made it an easy catch with a large reward. Easier to take down than the duck’s in Nintendo’s Duck Hunt, it was not long before the pigeon became an endangered species as human expansion continued. Although scientists believe that it was a combination of climate changes, scarce food and other factors, human involvement did not help the fluctuating passenger pigeon population grow in numbers.
By the early 1900s, the passenger was a mere myth. The last living pigeon left was Martha. Reported to be 29 years old, Martha (named after Martha Washington) was a reminder of the power and danger that human excess and expansion can have on nature. At the time, Martha was placed on display at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden for the world to see. A star was born that day, and continued to shine until her untimely passing on September 1, 1914, when she was found lying at the bottom of her cage.
Until the days of cloning, humanity will have to witness the effects of their involvement in the passenger pigeon’s extinction in the return of Martha’s stuffed body.
By Tyler Cole
The Seattle Times