Cautionary Anniversary: Last Passenger Pigeon Died 100 Years Ago

by AMNH on

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On September 1, 1914, Martha, the last-known living Passenger Pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her death, at 29 after a lifetime in captivity, marked the disappearance of her once-abundant species from the world. And it made her name synonymous with species extinction at human hands, not unlike Lonesome George, the last of his species of Galapagos tortoise, who died in 2012 and has become a symbol of biodiversity under threat. 

The Museum's exhibition case of passenger pigeons in leaf litter.

Difficult as it is to comprehend, there was a time when the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was the most common bird in the United States, numbering in the billions. But victim to overhunting and habitat destruction, Passenger Pigeon populations began to decline in the second half of the 19th century and the species was considered extinct in the wild by the turn of the century. Learn more about the history of Passenger Pigeons in America and their ultimate extinction.

Visitors to the Museum have two opportunities to see a Passenger Pigeon. In the Hall of New York City Birds on the third floor, one of the Museum’s earliest displays showcases a flock of Passenger Pigeons foraging for acorns. Displays such as this one, created in the 1880s by Museum ornithologist Frank M. Chapman to educate the public on the plight of endangered birds, were precursors of the Museum’s famed habitat dioramas. 

A Passenger Pigeon specimen perched on a stand.
Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) Catalog no. 461042
© AMNH/C. Chesek

A specimen of Passenger Pigeon also appears in the “Firsthand Observer” section of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, on the Museum’s lower level. It was Roosevelt who, as President, and at Chapman’s urging, established the first Federal Bird Reserve in 1903. An avid bird watcher since childhood, Roosevelt felt the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and other bird species deeply, writing in a letter to Chapman, “the destruction of the wild pigeon and the Carolina paraquet [sic] has meant a loss as severe as if the Catskills or the Palisades were taken away.” 

Today, some scientists are attempting to mitigate extinctions by combining genetic material from extinct species with cells from living species. In the video below, Curator Ross MacPhee talks about these efforts—including the possibility of reviving the Passenger Pigeon using closely related Band-tailed Pigeons as surrogates—and the ethical issues they raise.