Martha, the last passenger pigeon, is back on public display for the first time since 1999, this time in an exhibition titled Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America that opened in the Smithsonian Libraries Exhibition Gallery of the National Museum of Natural History on June 24. Martha died on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo; she was immediately frozen into a 300-pound block of ice and shipped by fast train to the Smithsonian in Washington. There her body was carefully preserved as a taxidermy mount and an anatomical specimen. She had been recognized in the last years of her life as the only surviving individual of a species that was the most abundant bird in North America only decades earlier. In death, she has become one of the Smithsonian’s most treasured specimens. Martha’s story was a wake-up call for our nation regarding its unregulated harvesting of natural resources and contributed to the development of our modern conservation ethic and laws protecting wildlife.
Martha was taken off display when our Birds of the World Hall was displaced by the new Behring Family Hall of Mammals. As the Curator-in-Charge of the Smithsonian’s scientific collection of birds, I knew that we had to get her back before the public in 2014, the centenary of her death. But where to put her? Thankfully, Susan Frampton of the Smithsonian Libraries and Gilbert Borrego of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) recognized the opportunity for public education about recent extinctions that Martha’s centenary represents. They proposed to integrate the story of the passenger pigeon and other recently extinct species into an exhibition about BHL. This was a natural fit, because the extinct birds featured in the exhibition had all been well described and illustrated in natural history books before their respective extinctions. And those books are aged enough not to be protected by copyright any longer. The exhibition features beautiful, rare natural history books dating back to the 1700s, the scans of which have been made freely accessible on the BHL website (biodiversitylibrary.org). We were able to interweave the story about bird extinctions with the revelation that the old knowledge in natural history books is now readily available online.
We settled on four iconic species of extinct birds from eastern North America to feature in the exhibit: the great auk (extinct in the 1840s or 50s), passenger pigeon (extinct in 1914), heath hen (actually a distinctive subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken, extinct in 1932), and the Carolina parakeet (extinct in the 1920s or 30s). Along with written accounts and illustrations of these birds from first-hand observations before they became extinct, we displayed rare specimens of them from the Smithsonian’s scientific collection. A theme of the exhibition is that extinction doesn’t just affect far-away tropical species but has removed species that our forebears took for granted, right in this region. Another theme is that extinction can happen to widespread, abundant species, not just rare ones with limited ranges. Accounts of these species in life made by luminaries like the artist and naturalist John James Audubon serve well to drive home those themes. Audubon wrote that in 1813 he observed a day-long flight of migrating passenger pigeons in Kentucky that obscured the light of the noonday sun as if there was an eclipse. Although he judged that the passenger pigeon could not become extinct owing to its vast numbers and, as he perceived it, high reproductive rate, he did issue an early warning about the Carolina parakeets, which tended to disappear soon after Western settlement of new regions.
Archives of human encounters with these extinct birds are not limited to natural history books. As examples, ships logs recorded sightings of great auks, newspapers reported large nestings or roostings of the pigeons, early explorers reported seeing flocks of colorful parrots in the southeast, and hunters kept journals recording their annual take of heath hens on Martha’s Vineyard. To show some of the ways that people depleted the populations of these birds, Once There Were Billions features illustrations of great auk and passenger pigeon hunts and a photograph of a parrot adorning a lady’s hat. It also displays Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book by Sarah Tyson Heston Rorer (1886) and Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book by Mary J. Lincoln (1904); the two cookbooks contain pigeon recipes.
When it became clear, around 1895-1900, that passenger pigeons were no longer nesting in the wild, a fevered correspondence took place among ornithologists and pigeon fanciers trying to locate any birds surviving in captivity and unite them in hopes that they would breed. The search turned up very few surviving birds, and soon a small flock at the Cincinnati Zoo contained the only ones left. For a time Martha had two male companions, but they passed away in 1910. She lived on for four more years as a lonesome celebrity at the zoo, the last known individual of her species.
Our nation’s first federal law protecting wildlife, the Lacey Act, was signed into law in 1900. The law made the selling of illegally obtained wild birds and game birds in a different state from where they were procured a federal offense. Most of our network of state, federal and international regulations to protect wildlife have grown up since then, partly instigated by disappearance of these formerly common birds which caused a shift in our thinking about our relationship to birds in nature.