– by Ben Novak
The passenger pigeon was once the world’s most plentiful bird. September 1 is the centenary of the bird’s extinction. Martha, the last pigeon of the species, died at the Cincinnati Zoo and now can be viewed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
There is no limit to the alluring curiosities of living things, and no end to the mysteries of those gone.
Contrary to the poetic nature of “righting past wrongs” that some attribute to the de-extinction of passenger pigeons, I view the de-extinction of the passenger pigeon as a project seeded in our present and future; it is a pivotal exercise in thought stressing the recognition that we are the drivers of change on this planet and that we have the cognitive ability to take responsibility for the direction of that change. If anything can be said of the past, it is that had we been conscious of this long ago, Martha would not have been the last of her kind. Visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo would not enter a memorialized tomb of a species, but perhaps view the elegant beauty of North America’s greatest species, once unmatched in number by any other living thing.
I do not often think of Martha. Martha died in an undignified manner, in a cage. But this indignant view is only placed
Ben Novak studying Martha, the last passenger pigeon in the world (left). She died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. She was preserved in ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, where she is occasionally displayed with a male (on right). Note the red eye, iridescent neck feathers, red feet, and (in the male) peach-colored breast and blueish back.
Photo credit Ryan Phelan.
upon her by the afterthought of the casual dismissal of her kind’s disappearance. The grand flocks of passenger pigeons, such blue meteors streaking through the sky, did not die in a cage. Martha’s legacy of conservation is not to be found in that tomb at the zoo; it is in the beating heart of every buffalo, pronghorn, egret, alligator, whooping crane, and condor. It is in every species that lives today thanks to the conservation movement that gained traction from her death. A movement that now seems at the height of its vitality. Conservation is at a turning point for both the proponents and opponents to the value of biodiversity on this singular planet. A turning point that the de-extinction of the passenger pigeon can sway towards the value of life, just as the extinction of the passenger pigeon did so powerfully a century ago.
The de-extinction of the passenger pigeon is about the pigeon’s place in the forests of tomorrow. To know how to proceed we must explore the past. My thoughts in the pursuit of de-extinction are to the great flocks of passenger pigeons and how they shaped the forests. My imagination bends to the blue backed miniature dinosaurs rustling through the forest floor for fallen acorns and beechnuts. Martha never had the chance to truly know what she was. She was never among the great flocks of passenger pigeons. She never flew hundreds of miles in a day, streaking through branches at 60 mph “passing like a thought” as John James Audubon once so perfectly wrote. None of this belittles her worth to history or her intrinsic value as a living being, it merely gives perspective which I believe many do not consider. I am often asked about Martha in relation to de-extinction, and I am always at a loss for the right form of reverie, since I do not see an individual passenger pigeon – I see a species.
An individual identity though is what catalyzed such a presence to the conservation community. For the first undeniable time extinction had a face; extinction had a name. Today the dodo bird is an icon of extinction and the mammoth a giant of de-extinction prospects, but during the 19th century there were people that believed the dodo bird was a myth and that mammoths would be discovered still alive in the unexplored reaches of America. Extinction, even for these emblems of the notion, was as debated as climate change is today. When the giant flocks disappeared, the title of “endling” fell to Martha. And with her passing a revolution occurred. Extinction was real. It was humankind’s fault. And it wasn’t an isolated incident. Bison were practically gone, turkey endangered, and beaver on the brink of extirpation. Many animals we see as common today were shadows at the turn of the 20th century. Imagine if we can develop protocols to take advantage of the best of technology and build on the most efficient proven practices so that species on the edge of extinction today are recovered a century from now. The passenger pigeon’s unique advantages and challenges for de-extinction can make that future a reality.
The realm of study that builds de-extinction may very well recapitulate the elegance of the bird; the regal rusty-peach breast and wind-cutting tail can be engineered. A new passenger pigeon may cause an internal debate in the on-looker, but when the piercing red iris meets the on-looker’s gaze, in a moment of deep connection, it will remove all doubt, as if to say “I am the passenger pigeon reborn.”
The spirit of this animal will be as vibrant as Martha. Unlike Martha, this new bird’s story doesn’t have to end in a cage. With a generation behind it, these new birds can grace the forests again and enrich the dancing cycles of the trees; they will enrich our souls if we open our hearts to them. The renaissance of their newfound proliferation will change the world, the way Martha has already. We ultimately write the story. Martha’s story is a call to action still, a century after her death. Her story is far from over.
Learn more about the extinction of the passenger pigeon:
A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction by Joel Greenberg.
From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, a documentary which will be shown widely on PBS stations.
The Royal Ontario Museum events and collections.