THE LATEST
PASSING ON
100 years ago, the last passenger pigeon died. Her name was Martha.

By Stefany Ann Golberg

In the last years of her life, Martha began to lose her feathers. Sol Stephan, General Manager of the Cincinnati Zoo, where Martha spent most of her years, began collecting the feathers in a cigar box without much idea of what he would do with them. Martha lived a sedentary life at the zoo. Her cage was 18 feet by 20 feet — she had never known what it was to fly free. When Martha’s last friend George (who was also named for a Washington) died in 1910, Martha became a celebrity. She watched the people passing by, alone in her enclosure, and they watched her. Martha ate her cooked liver and eggs, and her cracked corn, and sat. On the outside of her cage, Stephan placed a sign announcing Martha as the Last of the Passenger Pigeons. Visitors couldn’t believe that Martha really was the last. They would throw sand inside the cage to make her walk around.

Martha died on a September afternoon in 1914, one hundred years ago. Her elderly body was sent to the Cincinnati Ice Company and frozen in a 300-pound block of ice. They put the frozen Martha on a train to the Smithsonian, where she could be mounted and stuffed. Martha was displayed at the Smithsonian between the 1920s and 1950s. For a while, she sat next to an unnamed male passenger pigeon that had been shot in 1873. Later, she was displayed alone. In her current arrangement, Martha’s feathers look nice. Her head is turned in the gentle, curious way of pigeons. She stands on a branch, as if wild. Martha never stood this way in life, but in death she has taken on a new role: She is Martha the Last Passenger Pigeon. The specimen made from Martha’s remains is among the Smithsonian’s most treasured possessions.

The fall migrations of the Wild Pigeons, wrote the naturalist Charles Dury in 1910, were an impressive sight. In Cincinnati, he wrote, the birds liked to come out in the afternoon and evening, and generally when the day was cloudy. They flew in long columns or strings, side by side, very high in the sky. 

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