Last Passenger Pigeon Dies Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The death of the last passenger pigeon, once among the most numerous birds in North America, marked the extinction of the species.

Summary of Event

The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was once a common bird in the eastern United States, one of the most populous of American bird species. Recorded accounts of the passenger pigeon date to as early as 1534. Early accounts describe flocks of thousands of birds, so numerous in flight that they blocked the sun, like a giant cloud extending as far as the eye could see. Birds, protection Wildlife conservation Passenger pigeons Extinction;passenger pigeon Conservation;wildlife [kw]Last Passenger Pigeon Dies (Sept. 1, 1914) [kw]Passenger Pigeon Dies, Last (Sept. 1, 1914) [kw]Pigeon Dies, Last Passenger (Sept. 1, 1914) Birds, protection Wildlife conservation Passenger pigeons Extinction;passenger pigeon Conservation;wildlife [g]United States;Sept. 1, 1914: Last Passenger Pigeon Dies[03570] [c]Environmental issues;Sept. 1, 1914: Last Passenger Pigeon Dies[03570] Stephan, Sol Whitman, Charles O. Whittaker, David W.

Distribution of the passenger pigeon extended from northern Florida through Canada and from the eastern seaboard through the Midwest region of the United States. A migratory species, the birds ranged throughout the whole eastern half of the United States and Canada, except for the southern tip of Florida and the northern edge of Canada. Their nesting area was in the region south of the Great Lakes and throughout most of New England. The species was given a number of common and scientific names over the years, but the one that remained is the one referring to its migratory habit.

Artist’s rendering of a passenger pigeon from a volume on pigeons published in 1920.

(Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Like the buffalo, once an extremely common mammal in North America, the passenger pigeon suffered a significant decline in its population; unlike the buffalo, which survived thanks to a captive propagation and reintroduction effort, the bird became extinct. The very fact that the passenger pigeon was so commonplace was part of the problem, as it was hard for people to believe that such a populous species could possibly vanish. Hunters continued to pursue the birds even after it was known that their population was declining.

A somewhat gradual decline occurred up through the late 1800’s. A serious increase in the rate of decline began in the 1870’s, brought about by the fact that the commercial trade in passenger pigeons became viable as a result of improvements in rapid rail transportation to the urban marketplaces on the East Coast. In 1855, the market for game birds in New York City consumed about 300,000 pigeons annually. By 1871, 300,000 pigeons were being shipped east in a single month. The number of birds killed each year for the market was in the millions.

Other factors also contributed to the decline of the passenger pigeon. Perhaps most significant was the loss of the bird’s forest habitat as a result of the destruction of a substantial portion of the eastern forest from colonial times through the 1800’s. Some passenger pigeons were killed as agricultural pests, and some were trapped alive (accounts of tame pigeons that had been trapped have been found from as early as 1748).

Attempts to breed passenger pigeons were few, which is understandable considering how numerous the birds were in the wild. John James Audubon took some to England, where they bred at the London Zoological Gardens in 1832. A few other individuals are also known to have bred them, especially in the later 1800’s, when they were becoming seriously depleted in the wild. The prospector and naturalist David W. Whittaker had about fifty passenger pigeons, which he raised in Wisconsin from a pair given to him in 1888 by a Native American. By 1896, fifteen passenger pigeons remained in this flock, one of the last known captive flocks, which was sold in 1897 to Charles O. Whitman at the University of Chicago; some were returned the following year. The last of these birds died in 1907.

Soon after its opening in 1875, the Cincinnati Zoo, under superintendent Sol Stephan, included passenger pigeons in its collection. They bred, but not successfully. In 1875, the zoo had twenty-two passenger pigeons. It captured about seventeen in 1876, and in 1878 it purchased six pair. The birds began to breed in 1878 or 1879. By 1881, the zoo had twenty passenger pigeons, and by 1885, another fourteen had hatched. Nevertheless, the captive population continued to decline, and by 1907, only two males and a female were left. One male died in 1909 and another in 1910, and the sole remaining female, Martha, died on September 1, 1914, at the age of twenty-nine.

It is believed that Martha (who was named after Martha Washington) was one of a trio of birds obtained from Whitman’s flock in 1902, and thus that she was descended from Whittaker’s Wisconsin pigeons. She was not only the last passenger pigeon at the Cincinnati Zoo but also the last one in captivity, given that those in the Whittaker and Whitman flocks had died. She was also, apparently, the last of the species, as the wild population had completely disappeared. After 1899, the Cincinnati Zoo made a standing offer to pay one thousand dollars—a large sum of money at the time—to anyone who could provide it with another pair of passenger pigeons. No one ever claimed that payment. Martha’s body was given to the Smithsonian Institution and displayed at the U.S. National Museum.

Significance

The most immediate effect of the passenger pigeon’s decline and extinction was the passage of the first federal wildlife protection law, the Lacey Act of 1900, Lacey Act (1900) which was followed by several other wildlife protection and endangered species conservation laws. The loss of the passenger pigeon and the declines observed in other species resulted in the first serious efforts at conservation in the United States during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The expanded role of the federal government in protecting wildlife eventually led to the passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Endangered Species Act (1973)

A more gradual consequence of the passenger pigeon’s extinction was the improvement of captive propagation efforts to conserve endangered species. Endangered species Conservation had been an aim of zoological parks since the end of the nineteenth century, but their ability to conserve species effectively was limited. The earliest zoos Zoos, breeding programs at Philadelphia (1874), Cincinnati (1875), Washington, D.C. (1889), and New York (1899) led the way with breeding and conservation efforts. Most zoos, however, were small and poorly funded, and such efforts did not become common in the United States until after the 1950’s. Zoos’ ability to establish serious coordinated propagation programs was not very strong until after the 1960’s, and the biotechnology and reproductive biology knowledge needed to support successful efforts was not available until after the 1980’s.

The passenger pigeon was by no means the only species to become extinct in North America. The Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), the only parrot species to nest in the United States, was another example. In 1886, the Cincinnati Zoo purchased several from Florida and bred them, but not successfully. Some months after its mate died, a male named Incas—the last of its species—died at the zoo on February 21, 1918. Despite a beleaguered attempt to breed the last specimens of the dusky seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens) in captivity and to provide the species with the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990 declared the species extinct and removed it from the official list of endangered species. Many other species have had a slightly happier fate, remaining extant in captivity while becoming extinct in the wild. Still others remain extant in the wild because of captive propagation programs.

In 1980, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) designated conservation as the highest priority of its member institutions, and since that time efforts at conservation have intensified. AZA and its member institutions have established species survival plans for individual species, taxon advisory groups for groups of species, and fauna interest groups for species within geographic regions, among other groups and committees. Studbooks (breeding records) have been established for rare or endangered species, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has formed species-recovery teams. As of 2005, 416 recovery programs for endangered or threatened animal species were operating in the United States. At the same time, Congress was considering a bill amending the Endangered Species Act that critics argued would weaken its ability to protect threatened species.

On the international level, the World Zoo Organization has devoted eleven sections of its global plan to the role of zoological parks in conserving the world’s endangered species. The organization’s strategy emphasizes the use of integrated conservation programs that involve the captive propagation and reintroduction of specimens into their natural habitats. As of December, 1992, 138 reintroduction projects were operating, involving 120 species and more than 14 million captively bred specimens. Of these, 40 percent involved bird species. Zoological parks were involved in 52 percent of all the reintroduction projects, and some 9,000 of the reintroduced specimens were born in zoos. As of 2005, in addition to those in the United States, 560 species were considered endangered or threatened throughout the rest of the world.

One aspect of modern captive propagation that was not available at the time the passenger pigeon became extinct is improved biotechnology. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, scientists had developed genetic and reproductive techniques that could be used to increase numbers of offspring and improve reproductive success. Greater knowledge of genetics at both the individual and the population levels and improvements in small population biology, veterinary medicine, and animal management also contributed to the development of successful propagation programs. Birds, protection Wildlife conservation Passenger pigeons Extinction;passenger pigeon Conservation;wildlife

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrlinger, David. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden: From Past to Present. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, 1993. Presents a history of the zoo, including a section on the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, and the zoo’s memorial to these two species.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Merchant, Carolyn. The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Discusses how humans and environment have interacted throughout American history, including human impacts on animal species. Includes an environmental history time line and an extensive guide to resources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, H. D. M., W. V. Holt, and G. M. Mace, eds. Biotechnology and the Conservation of Genetic Diversity. Symposium of the Zoological Society of London 64. London: Zoological Society of London, 1992. A relatively technical book on the use of biotechnology in reproductive biology, especially in captive propagation programs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petersen, Shannon. “Congress and Charismatic Megafauna: A Legislative History of the Endangered Species Act.” Environmental Law 29, no. 2 (1999): 463-472. Examines the expectations attached to the Endangered Species Act when it was passed in 1973 and how interpretation and enforcement of the act have evolved.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saikku, Mikko. “The Extinction of the Carolina Parakeet.” Environmental History Review 14, no. 3 (1990): 1-18. Discusses the natural history, decline, and extinction of this species, which are similar to those of the passenger pigeon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schorger, W. A. The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction. 1973. Reprint. Caldwell, N.J.: Blackburn Press, 2004. A well-researched and well-documented account. Explains clearly how a species can be brought to the brink of extinction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walters, Mark J. A Shadow and a Song. Post Mills, Vt.: Chelsea Green, 1992. An account of the natural history, decline, and extinction of the dusky seaside sparrow. Focuses on the conservation and captive propagation efforts to save this subspecies.

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