The living wind stilled

One hundred years ago, the once mighty species Ectopistes migratorius lost its final survivor.  Alone in the Cincinnati Zoo, on 1 September 1914,  Martha was found dead at the bottom of her cage, the last of the passenger pigeons which had outnumbered humans more than 3-to-1 a century earlier (by some estimates)[1].   Her kind had vanished from the wild fourteen years earlier [2].

The death-of-birth among the passenger pigeons was one part of the ongoing Sixth Great Extinction.  It may not have been exclusively the fault of Homo sapiens, but there can be no doubt that our species contributed and it is likely we were the deciding factor. And it’s quite likely that the loss of this species, once so abundant that a passing flock could darken the sky for days, contributed to the steep decline of the once mighty American chestnut tree, whose loss in turn contributed to the rise of moonshine and tobacco in the American southeast.

So take a moment on September 1st to contemplate the loss of this bird: fleet and gregarious flyer, shaper of continental ecosystems, a feathered message penned with a last breath a century ago.

RIP Martha | ca. 1900 – 1 September 1914

Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.  ~ Aldo Leopold, 1947

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