Remembering Martha—the last passenger pigeon
Posted by on August 29, 2014

Louis Agassiz Fuertes, the prolific bird artist at the turn of the last century, painted the passenger pigeon in 1906. His beautiful rendering of a juvenile, an adult male and female of the species has become one of the most commonly seen—along with John James Audubon’s—in recapturing the bird in art, and was probably painted in the year 1906.

But this rendering was not “drawn from nature,” as some prints from this time read.

Fuertes painted this image at a moment between the two extinctions this bird suffered, one in 1900 (in the wild) and one in September, 1914 (when Martha, the last of her kind, died in the Cincinnati Zoo). Fuertes “may have likely painted the bird from specimens or studies at hand.” As with many artists of this time, he made literally thousands of paintings and sketches, often from details of specimens taken in the field.

Photo credit: http://www.bookofdaystales.com

Photo credit: http://www.bookofdaystales.com

A century earlier, Audubon documents the bird of flight that was sometimes called “the blue pigeon,” for its color—though the blue is sometimes mixed with gray, red, copper, and brown. Audubon documents this mix of colors in his first simple yet colorfully rendered depiction of the brighter male passenger pigeon in 1809.

Just a few years after his first rendering, Audubon would describe the pigeons as “wonderfully abundant,” as would other ornithologists and wildlife artists of the early nineteenth century such as Alexander Wilson who wrote of a breeding ground in Kentucky that had a hundred nests, and of a flock of more than two billion of the pigeons flying overhead.  Later Audubon would write at length on the passenger pigeon, including a more fully drawn painting of a male and a female for his first volume of Birds of America. During the first half of the nineteenth century, not many predicted the demise of the passenger pigeon, but yet its populations were soon decimated.

Martha—the last of the passenger pigeons who died in lonely captivity at a Cincinnati Zoo at 1 p.m. Sept. 1., 1914—has a message for us today when one in eight bird species is threatened with global extinction.

Part of that message: pay attention, or don’t wait to take action.

Some conservationists did try to save the passenger pigeon—but it was too late. The Ohio State Legislature dismissed one such petition in 1857, saying “the Passenger Pigeon needs no protection.” It was “wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds” and “no ordinary destruction can lessen them.” Even if approved, however, such measures might not have had much impact at the time.

In becoming a symbol of loss, Martha already became a vanguard of conservation in 1918, with the passing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. On the eve of this centenary, I hope she can again help promote efforts to conserve and protect birds and their imperiled habitats.

— Posted by Roger

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  • Photo by Tyler Malone