13 Memories of Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon

Exactly a century ago, the last Passenger Pigeon died. Here are some memories—and tips for how to celebrate—Martha’s life.

One hundred years ago this Monday, the only Passenger Pigeon left on earth cooed her last. Martha, as she was known to her adoring public, died at the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914 after spending nearly all of her life there. She spent her final years alone as an aging spinster with no hope for baby pigeons of her own—most male pigeons had kicked it by then and Passenger Pigeons didn’t really get it on in captivity, anyway.

Once numbering in the billions and pervasive throughout the country, Passenger Pigeons went extinct in the start of the 20th century, following voracious hunting by humans. Today, Martha’s memory reminds us that just because you can kill 50,000 birds a day doesn’t mean you should.   

To remember Martha and her fellow brethren, check out these interesting facts about her life and her species. We also give you with some ways to commemorate the day.  

1. Martha was named in honor of our very first First Lady—Martha Washington. 

2. During Martha’s lifetime, her caretakers offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could capture a mate for her. No one ever succeeded. 

3. Martha had an apoplectic stroke several years before her death, which left her weak and frail. She survived, but never fully recovered. 

4. As Martha grew older and weakened, her keepers had to continuously lower her perch-—until it was just a few inches above the ground—so she could climb up onto it, rather than fly. 

5. She lived to the ripe old age of 29, which is ancient by pigeon standards—most modern wild pigeons only live to be about 15 at the oldest. Of course, not many pigeons received medical care like Martha. 

6. After her death, Martha’s body was immediately packed in an enormous block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian to be mounted.

7. Martha was mounted for display by Smithsonian taxidermist Nelson Wood. 

8. In the 1980s, John Herald, a bluegrass singer, wrote a song dedicated to Martha titled, “Martha (Last of the Passenger Pigeons).”

9. Four years after her death, Incus—the last Carolina parakeet—also died in the Cincinnati Zoo. It is rumored that he died in Martha’s “death cage.”  

10. Between 1956 and 1999, Martha has left the Smithsonian only twice. Both times she flew first class and was escorted by a flight attendant.  

11. Until this year, preserved Martha has spent the last 15 years filed away in a specimen cabinet. To commemorate the centennial of her death, this year she stands mounted in a Smithsonian exhibit. 

12. Back in the nineteenth century, there were so many Passenger Pigeons that when they migrated you couldn’t see the sky.

13. People often mistook the Mourning Dove—a bird with a very similar appearance—for the Passenger Pigeon. This continued to happen even after the Passenger Pigeon was officially extinct.

Activities to Mark the Anniversary: 

Martinis with Martha” at the Cincinnati Zoo, Friday, August 29  

This event will include guest presentations and musical performances. The Cincinnati Zoo will also be hosting related events all weekend, including a lineup of guest speakers on Saturday, August 30, the assembly of an origami passenger pigeon flock on September 1, and the dedication of a newly renovated passenger pigeon memorial on September 1.   

Eclipse” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, ongoing through spring 2015

This exhibit, which includes video, sound, and text elements, examines species extinction through the passenger pigeon’s demise. 

Final Flight” at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, ongoing through Dec. 28, 2014  

This exhibit features one of the world’s last mounted passenger pigeon specimens, and includes information about the species’ extinction and how we can learn from it.  

Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America” at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, ongoing  

This exhibit, by the Smithsonian Libraries, includes information not only about the passenger pigeon, but about its other extinct brethren, the Great Auk, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Heath Hen.  

Reading to Mark the Anniversary:

If you can’t make it to any of the above events, brush up on your passenger pigeon knowledge with these Audubon Magazine articles:  

Why the Passenger Pigeon Went Extinct

A Comeback for the Passenger Pigeon?

Project Passenger Pigeon

The Lost Bird Project