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Flight to Extinction – The Story of the Passenger Pigeon

Exhibit Marks Anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon’s Extinction

On September 1, 1914, the last remaining passenger pigeon, named “Martha” after Martha Washington, died in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden. Martha’s death at 1 p.m. that day is the only documented instance when the precise time of the extinction of a species has been recorded.

With a display in the “Back to Nature” exhibit, the Maine State Museum marks the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon in 2014. Featured in the display are two rare and well-preserved passenger pigeon specimens, eggs, and a beautiful 1850s painting of a passenger pigeon that was transferred to the museum from the Northern Maine Museum of Science at the University of Maine – Presque Isle.

Numbering in the billions, the passenger pigeon was once the most numerous bird species in North America and possibly the world. “It is hard to imagine now the great impact that the huge numbers of passenger pigeons once had in Maine,” notes Curator of Zoology Paula Work. “Accounts from the 1790s describe flocks so large and long that the two ends were not in sight at the same time. A description from 1825 laments that a farmer’s annual task was to guard crops from the ‘feathered avalanche’ as thousands of passenger pigeons descended on fields of corn, wheat, and barley and after an hour, had devoured every kernel.”

The extinction of the species is largely linked to habitat loss and markets for food brought by the growth of major eastern and midwestern cities in the mid-1800s. By 1855, 300,000 pigeons per year were hunted in the Midwest and sent to New York City as a source of cheap meat for the expanding human population. At the height of massive hunts to supply eastern markets in the 1870s, an army of 500-1,000 professional hunters, or “pigeoners” used telegraph and rail to track and pursue flocks to well-known roosting sites. The “great killing” in Michigan in 1878 yielded 300 tons of passenger pigeons, packed 55 dozen to a barrel and shipped by rail to New York.

Mainers also hunted pigeons to sell locally and elsewhere for food, but on a smaller scale. As in other states at the time, sports hunters in Maine also frequently participated in passenger pigeon shooting tournaments, such as one in Lewiston in 1878 when 800 birds were shot over a two-day period.

In highlighting the incredible story of the passenger pigeon’s great profusion and precipitous decline, the Maine State Museum joins many other museums nationwide in examining the ecological path and cultural impact of the bird’s extinction. Even the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History participated in this commemoration with a display of the specimen of “Martha,” which was on public view for the first time since 1999.

Above right: A c. 1854 painting of a passenger pigeon, done by a student of Portland artist and teacher John Cloudman, is a recent addition to the museum collection and is featured in the display commemorating the anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction.

Maine State Museum