Passing On

100 years ago, the last passenger pigeon died. Her name was Martha.

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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. Sometimes the flocks would come together, he wrote, and would stretch from horizon to horizon. In seasons when the beechnuts were abundant, the passenger pigeons would come to the ground. They would eat the nuts until the nuts were gone, while other birds kept watch up above. Here, they were much easier to shoot, wrote Dury, though one could never slaughter so many as the professional pigeon trappers. For several years in succession, he wrote, a great flock came to the Blatchley woods, where he bagged as many as he could carry. Their method of eating the beechnuts was very interesting and peculiar, wrote Dury. The birds seemed to swallow them whole.

I have seen the birds sell as low as 25 cents per dozen on the Cincinnati market, wrote Dury in his Reminiscence, but 50 cents to $1.00 per dozen was the usual price. When the Cincinnati Zoo opened in 1875, they had a fine bunch of passenger pigeons — about 22 birds. Now, in 1910, wrote Dury, there are but two veritable patriarchs. The zoo tried to breed more pigeons, but they were not successful.

“One foggy day in October 1884, at 5 a.m.,” wrote Dury, “I looked out of my bedroom window, and as I looked six wild pigeons flew down and perched on the dead branches of a tall poplar tree that stood about one hundred feet away. As I gazed at them in delight, feeling as though old friends had come back, they quickly darted away and disappeared in the fog, the last I ever saw of any of these birds in this vicinity.”

At some point in your life, a bird will come to you. Looking at this bird will help you to see all the other birds. It was a brown bird that came to nest on my fire escape in Brooklyn, maybe nine years ago. The bird built a nest on my window ledge and put two white eggs inside. I did not see this nest construction; the nest just appeared. Later that day, the bird came to be with the nest. She didn’t do anything to the nest, just stood alongside it, and when she looked at me looking at her, I really saw, for the first time in my life, a bird. And what I noticed too, when I looked at the brown bird (which I later understood to be a mourning dove — that is to say, a pigeon) was its silent way. It is their abundance and their silence that makes the pigeons invisible.

There is a difference between the rock pigeon and the passenger pigeon. The passenger pigeon was in America before we were; the rock pigeon was Europe’s gift. The rock pigeon dwells in our cities and is mostly left alone. The passenger pigeon flocked everywhere, and was brought to the cities dead. The word “passenger” – as in passenger pigeon – was once interchangeable with “wild”. Rock pigeons are wild too, only wild like the streets. They drift around parks and thoroughfares, looking for scraps and bones.

“Passenger” was derived from the French word “passager,” which means to pass on by. The passenger pigeon was a nomad; the entirety of America was its home. We named them passenger pigeons because of the way the birds would leave and then suddenly come together in a great mass to breed. Every year, the pigeons turned up someplace new and by the billions. They say it was a spectacular sight. In autumn of 1813, along the banks of the Ohio River, the birdist John James Audubon sat down on a rock to study passenger pigeons. He took out a pencil and marked a dot for every flock that passed. In twenty-one minutes, Audubon realized the absurdity of his task. One hundred and sixty-three dots in twenty-one minutes — a “countless multitude” of pigeons. “I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded,” he wrote. “The air was literally filled with Pigeons.” The afternoon sun was blotted from the sky; the bird dung fell like snow. By sunset Audubon had traveled fifty-five miles and the clouds of pigeons kept passing. They continued to pass without stopping for three more days.

A passenger pigeon could be used for just about any commodity; every part was useful. Its feathers made decent bedding; its blood was good for the eyes. Its dung could cure a headache and, for dysentery, a dose of powdered pigeon stomach. The plentiful meat of a pigeon was served to the slave, and after slavery, the poor, and to pigs.

The gregarious passenger pigeon would only court in flocks, in the company of fellow birds. It’s the reason that captives refused to breed — they disliked private love. Perhaps if the birds had been more discreet they would have been harder to shoot. Some say the passenger pigeon was a rare sight when the European arrived, and grew in number with the devastation of Native Americans. The birds were no longer eaten by the Natives and no longer had to compete with them for food.

In ancient times, you could decipher the will of the gods by studying the ways of the birds. Every aspect of a bird guided people to act in accordance with the divine. The quality of sound a bird made — the pitch of its voice or the direction it was coming from — the way the birds were eating that day, the tilt of their heads from this way to that, the subtle shifts of feathers and peeps; all of these were signs. Each species of bird had something different to say — owls and ravens were particularly prophetic, as were eagles and woodpeckers and vultures. The Roman armies carried sacred chickens in the field, to watch the chickens eat. When the chickens ate so much the food fell out of their faces, the soldiers knew fortune was smiling.

The bird priest, the augur, paid close attention to the sky, to watch how the birds were flying. Were they gathered or alone? Did they fly up or across? Were the birds at rest and if so, where? Which parts of the sky were the birds in today? How did the birds seem to feel?

On the morning of New Years’ Day in 2011, around 4,000 blackbirds fell from the sky. Dead birds lay twisted in the streets of Beebe, Arkansas, in church parking lots and backyards. Later, after they had collected the fallen birds, autopsies showed the cause of death as blunt force trauma. Something in the night had terrified the birds. In the dark, they left the trees. They flew blindly into cars and buildings and telephone poles and each other. Authorities blamed the mass death on fireworks at first, though no one knew for sure. Maybe a lightning storm spooked the birds, some said, or a colossal torrent of hail. The residents of Beebe picked up the birds and moved forward. Only, the following New Year’s, the birds fell again, and again by the thousands. The weather that New Year’s evening had been calm in Beebe, and the police placed a ban on fireworks. And no one could explain why, a few days after the initial blackbird deaths in Beebe, hundreds of birds had also dropped dead on a highway in Baton Rouge. Some Americans conjectured about the end of days. Some about poisoned air. Some said that birds get together and die en masse all the time.

In ancient times, the augur never advised what action should be taken after reading the signs of the birds. Nor could an augur say what the outcome of any action would be. Augury was a form of divination, but the augur couldn’t tell the future. The birds told the augur whether the decisions human beings had already made would please or anger the gods. It was then up to people to choose whether they wanted to trust or ignore the birds.

“Not a whit, we defy augury,” Hamlet tells Horatio, after Horatio warns Hamlet he will lose his duel with Laertes. “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?” We can’t escape fate, says Hamlet. When the sparrow falls, why not accept the message, and therefore accept providence, whatever it be? The readiness is all.

On the morning before the great sea-battle of Drepanum between Carthage and the Roman Republic in 249 BC, the chickens refused to eat. The horrified Roman crew looked to their general, who scrambled for a different interpretation. “Then let them drink,” said Publius Claudius Pulcher, and threw the chickens overboard. The Romans went into battle in spite of the birds and, naturally, were defeated.

Placed between Gorilla World, Cat House, and World of the Insect at the Cincinnati Zoo is an aviary pagoda. That’s where Martha spent her final days. There are three stuffed passenger pigeons on display in the pagoda, alongside Incas, the last captive Carolina Parakeet. Incas died at the museum in 1918, inside Martha’s cage. On the path to the pagoda, a bronze memorial statue of Martha stands frozen on a rock. Her head is cocked and she’s walking toward something. Or, she could be walking away. • 17 September 2014

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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