Monday, September 1, 2014

Remembering Martha and her Kind

Martha probably never knew how special she was.  She probably never knew she was the last of her kind and no more of her family existed anywhere.  She spent most of her life in the Cincinnati Zoo where she passed away on September 1st, 1914, exactly 100 years ago.

Martha, stuffed, in 1921
Photo by Robert W. Shufledt  

Passenger pigeons once filled the sky in various areas east of the Mississippi River.  They traveled in one huge flock from food source to food source and nesting site to nesting site.  They were often seen flying over in large groups for days.  People often described the loud beating of their wings as they massed in such a large flock.  Europeans often considered them a pest, native people considered them a blessing from the creator.  No one ever thought they could go extinct.  Then, one day, they were gone pretty much all of a sudden.

For at least a few thousand years, perhaps longer, native peoples lived alongside the pigeons with no problem.  The pigeon squabs were collected by the native people before they fledged.  The people used an almost unlimited number of squabs for food.  But,  they never seemed to have affected the population despite the heavy harvest.  One thing native people's tended not to do is hunt the adults during nesting season (though some tribes didn't totally ban hunting the nesting birds, they did hunt them less at this time).

The white man, however, hunted them at any time all the time whenever he saw them.  The market hunters in the 1800s would wipe out large numbers of adult birds at one time.  They also cleared more and larger tracks of the forests that supplied the pigeons with food.  This led to a rapid decline of the pigeons as well as other species, like the Eskimo curlew, the most numerous shorebird in the world at that time.  After about forty years, all that was left was Martha.  People killed them all off.

People tried to save the pigeon, but many people saw the pigeon as a pest and in abundance, so they didn't think it really needed saving.

One thing Martha has taught modern people is that you shouldn't take advantage of any species just because they're abundant to the point of being a pest.  For example, Canada geese, at one time, were so reduced that people rarely saw them.  Now, they're everywhere.  The same with white-tailed deer.

I am reading A Feathered River Across the Sky.  It's a bit wordy, but contains a lot of information on the passenger pigeon and it's relationship with human beings.  You can buy it by clicking the link below.

Band-Tailed Pigeon by Tyler Karaszewski
The band-tailed pigeon is a local relative of the passenger pigeon.  It doesn't live in large flocks, but does like to gather in the mountain forests of the west.  There are efforts to clone and re-create a passenger pigeon and the band-tailed pigeon will be both the host for the clone and a source of DNA to fill the gaps in the DNA already extracted from mounted specimens.

I once came across the band-tailed pigeon who had accidentally strayed west of the mountains.  They are a large pigeon and usually solitary or in pairs.  It, promptly flew off.

I found this interesting article while researching Passenger Pigeons.  It explains more about them than I can say in this blog:

A Feathered Tempest

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