The lonely life and mysterious death of the last passenger pigeon

Written by: Lisa Stelzner

Primary Source: Daily Dose of Science Blog

Poor Martha.  The last passenger pigeon that we know of in existence died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, after living her last four years alone and barely moving in her cage.  I have been fascinated with extinct North American animals since I was a child, and the passenger pigeon was no exception.  I had heard the stories of how their flocks used to darken the skies because they were so large, and how humans hunted them to extinction in a very short time.  This article is not about some of the other passenger pigeon stories in the news lately (including efforts to resurrect the species through de-extinction, or how the abundant chestnuts they ate were threatened by the outbreak of chestnut blight in the first decade of the 1900s). Instead, the article is about how passenger pigeons such as Martha ended up in captivity at a time when there was no conservation movement like there is today to save endangered species.

There were only three captive flocks of passenger pigeons being bred by 1900, raised under very different conditions.  Only one flock was ever studied by scientists. The Cincinnati Zoo had one of these flocks with possibly 22 birds when they opened to the public in 1875, and although the pigeons reproduced successfully at first, they all eventually died until Martha was the only one left, and the zoo could not find any more over the years to add to their flock.

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/03/passenger_pigeon_extinction_martha_the_last_passenger_pigeon_died_in_1914.html

Joel Greenberg wrote a book about the passenger pigeon’s extinction, and wrote this shorter article adaptation.

A stuffed Martha at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
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Lisa Stelzner
I'm a plant biology PhD student studying monarch butterflies in Michigan, but I'm interested in lots of other types of science, too. I am interested in how breeding monarch butterflies choose their habitat based on floral species richness and abundance. Few studies have been conducted on optimal foraging theory when it involves an organism searching for two different kinds of resources, and butterflies are an ideal study system to investigate this, since many species are ovipositing specialists and only lay eggs on one species of hostplant, but are feeding generalists and nectar from a broad variety of flowering forbs.