“Martha,” the last known passenger pigeon.
The passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, was once the most common bird in the United States, numbering in the billions. Passenger pigeons lived in enormous colonies, with sometimes up to 100 nests in a single tree. Migrating flocks stretched a mile wide, turning the skies black. Bird painter John James Audubon, who watched them pass on his way to Louisville in 1813, described “the continued buzz of wings,” and said “the air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse…” When he reached his destination, 55 miles away, the birds were still passing overhead, and “continued to do so for three days in succession.” The passenger pigeon, a wild bird, is not to be confused with the carrier pigeon, a domesticated bird trained to carry messages.
With such abundance, it seemed unimaginable that the passenger pigeon could ever become extinct. But due to overhunting, habitat loss, and possibly infectious diseases that spread through the colonies, they became increasingly rare by the late nineteenth century. The last confirmed sighting of a wild passenger pigeon was in 1900. After that, only a few survived in captivity. “Martha,” who lived her whole 29-year life in the Cincinnati Zoo, was the last.