Remembering a Pigeon

via Retort & Iain Boal:

To: Retort

From: GS

[Geoffrey Sea sends us this dispatch from Ohio on the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Martha was reputedly the ‘endling’, the last of her species, as most certainly Benjamin was the relict Tasmanian tiger, dying in Hobart Zoo on September 7th, 1936. John James Audubon, in 1813, describes his encounter with a flock of passenger pigeons, whose roosts were staggering in scale, often covering hundreds of square miles: “As I traveled on, the air was literally filled with pigeons. The light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses. Before sunset I reached Louisville, Kentucky. The pigeons passed in undiminished number, and continued to do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys, incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which flew lower as they passed over the river.  Multitudes were thus destroyed.” The notion that this of all birds in North America might be exterminated was hard to conceive; its passing prompted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and – together with the writings of the philologist George Perkins Marsh on the effects of deforestation – helped to usher in modern ecological consciousness and the idea of profound anthropogenic impact. IB]

A Passenger Pigeon Centennial Meditation

Geoffrey Sea

1 ix 14


Today, September 1, 2014, marks one hundred years since Martha died. Martha is said to have been the last passenger pigeon on earth, but the truth is a bit more complicated, because “Martha”, in symbol and substance, continues to be naught but a projection of ourselves. This was especially evident at “Martinis for Martha”, part of a passenger pigeon commemorative weekend I have just attended at the Cincinnati Zoo, where Martha expired.

This was a coming full circle for me personally, because it’s been thirty-one years since I first saw “the Sargents Pigeon” mounted in a glass case at the Cincinnati Zoo. That bird, long said to be the last passenger pigeon seen in the wild, was vandalized and grotesquely battered soon after I saw it. So she has been transferred to the Ohio Historical Center in Columbus, where she has become known by the cutesy name “Buttons” – the name that her assassin gave the specimen, which had been outfitted with black shoe-buttons in place of the living pigeon’s brilliant red eyes.

Much of this drama occurred in the house that I now own and occupy in Sargents Station, Pike County, Ohio, a place to which I was led by sleuthing out the story of the Sargents Pigeon. It was in this house that Blanche Barnes, a twenty-three year old then six months pregnant, stuffed and mounted the bird and sewed shoe-buttons into the eyes. Both Blanche and her son, Isaac Newton Barnes II, died soon after childbirth, probably from arsenic poisoning, since arsenic was then the common taxidermist’s tool.

Joel Greenberg, who organized and spoke at the commemoration, has dethroned the Sargents Pigeon as the “last wild specimen” – or thinks he has – by finding two other members of the species that seem to have also been shot in the Ohio Valley at slightly later dates, one in Indiana and one in Illinois. And Joel calls me a “purist” in his new book, A Feathered River In the Sky, for insisting that the Sargents Pigeon be called by its rightful name.

But the real truth is that none of these “facts” has meaning outside of the human tendency to project our own anxieties and neuroses upon the Passenger Pigeon – especially evident as complicated national alliances veer toward world war in southeastern Europe, exactly as they did just one hundred years ago. And that may be the real reason that “Martha” was dubbed “the last one” – that is, the inauspicious date on which she passed.

Sorry to get technical, but Martha was probably not a full-blooded passenger pigeon. As authorities have pointed out, she lacked the prominent cranium of the super-smart female passenger pigeon, so she likely was a half-breed result of last-ditch efforts to save the species by cross-breeding with other pigeon species that did not require gargantuan flocks to reproduce.

The actual date of extinction is better placed around the turn of the century, when the last survivors in the wild were exterminated with lead shot, or even more than a decade earlier, when the last breeding colonies were recorded in the wild.

My intent is not to defrock Martha as “the last”, rather it is to emphasize that the importance of Martha and the Sargents Pigeon does not lie in technical details, but in the symbolic roles that both birds have played for conservation efforts and for grappling with the whole issue of anthropogenic extinction. Both birds have become characters in a whole genre of ecology books for children, and the Sargents Pigeon was featured as the speaking host in probably the first-ever ecological radio program, broadcast out of Columbus in the 1940s.

And both these specimens, which now reside in Columbus and Washington DC, represent pride of place. The Cincinnati Zoo lies near the confluence of the two Miami Rivers with the Ohio, “Miami” being the name, in the indigenous Miami language, for the Passenger Pigeon. The Sargents Pigeon was shot by a boy less than a mile from the Barnes Works earthwork complex of Sargents Station, a complex that was, according to our best understanding, built to guide the pigeons in migration as the carriers of human souls.  When the Bureau of Ethnology surveyed these earthworks in the 1880s, their chief informant was Isaac Newton Barnes, the grandfather and namesake of the baby who died as a result of the stuffing and mounting of the Sargents Pigeon.

There was a time when religious folk would refer to such pigeon happenings as “signs”.

The last event on the schedule of the Martha commemorative weekend was a talk given at the Fernald Preserve, on the banks of the Great Miami River. Fernald is the remnant of the former federal nuclear fuels facility that became infamous for spewing uranium dust all over southwestern Ohio.

Now dominating the site, taking up a large segment of the horizon outside the presentation venue, is a 70-acre rectangular mound containing the radioactive remnants of the uranium factory. Jason Krupar of the University of Cincinnati has likened this mound to the area’s ancient Indian earthworks, and hypothesizes that, as part of our legacy, archaeologists of the future may dig into one of these mounds expecting to find Adena artifacts, but uncovering radwaste instead. As fate would have it, the US government would now like to build a second similar waste mound, this one even larger, outside the massive former uranium enrichment complex that was built on part of the former Barnes estate in Sargents Station.

Much was said at the Passenger Pigeon commemoration about learning the lesson of that extinction. I dare to suggest that the unlearned lesson is staring us Ohioans in the face.

And so I remain a “purist” about the name of the Sargents Pigeon, and suggest this appropriate brief meditation on this centennial day:  Go to a quiet place outdoors, where you can see the clear-blue pigeonless sky, hear the sound of running water, and feel the late summer breeze on your skin. Then focus your thoughts for one full hour on this single question:  Do you want to be known for all eternity by the cute nickname bestowed on you by the boy who blows out your brains?


10620640_10202763153264686_5651488854277840200_nMartha at the Cincinnati Zoo

10354826_10202763155904752_2326616095529915213_nFull-blood passenger pigeon female

[Note the distinct difference in the shape of the cranium, first pointed out to me by Stephanie Canzanella. GS]

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1 Response

  1. Poo says:

    Since the beginning of time, animals, birds, fish and plants have become extinct at the rate of .01 to .10% per year. Not great and in some cases undesirable but there you have it. On the other hand, nearly 2 million species have been identified since 1758. Who knows how many came on board unnoticed prior to that time? It is further estimated that an additional 10 million plant and animal species remain undiscovered out there somewhere. It has also been speculated that up to 20 million new marine microbial species may still be discovered. Win some, lose some I guess.

    With the death of Martha, age 29 at the Cincinnati Zoo, the inspirational Passenger Pigeon became the icon for extinction. They were no match for humans and the steady advance of their technology in weaponry, telegraph and trains. As a purist, I am sure Mr. Sea will not be mollified by the news that one hundred years later, new technological advances may bring back Martha’s forefathers and mothers, or reasonable facsimiles thereof. One team of scientists is trying to bring the species back from extinction, using genetic engineering and cloning. Still others are analyzing bits of Passenger Pigeon DNA to reconstruct its lost ways of life. (see “Bringing Them Back to Life”, National Geographic magazine.) Back 100 years ago, biologists and scientists had no idea that genes are encoded in DNA. Today, the technology exists to extract DNA from preserved Passenger Pigeons in museum collections wherever they may be. Oh I know, this is awful. My advice is don’t look. Most of us would rather have cloned Passenger Pigeons than none at all. Some of us never even saw them in the wild. Maybe soon we will.

    In 2012, the Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback Project was established to create cloned Passenger Pigeons or, at the very least, birds genetically engineered to have Passenger Pigeon traits. No date has yet been set for the first test flight. But can the red-breasted American Passenger Pigeon, hunted to extinction a century ago, really be revived from museum specimens? Yes, say geneticist George Church of Harvard University and his colleagues. Unable thus far to extract an intact Passenger Pigeon genome from museum specimens, they’re hoping they can do the next best thing: retool the genome of a living bird species so that it gives rise to a Passenger Pigeon.

    Band-tailed pigeons, native to the western United States, are the closest living relatives of Passenger Pigeons. Project scientists hope their museum DNA fragments will include some unique sequences that play important roles in producing Passenger Pigeon’s distinctive wedge-shaped tail, its red breast or its ultra-social behavior. It may also be possible to look at living bird species with some of these traits to pinpoint their genetic basis.

    Once scientists have created a Passenger Pigeon-like genome, they will insert the altered DNA into reproductive cells in band-tailed pigeon embryos. The birds will mature, mate and lay eggs. Out of those eggs will emerge Passenger Pigeons, or at least birds that are a lot like the Passenger Pigeons of old. It’s possible.

    The very act of ‘de-extinction’ clearly takes project scientists into uncharted waters. The scientists must first build a roadmap showing the location and sequence of all band-tailed pigeon genes. No such map currently exists. Nor has anyone ever so much as cloned a bird.

    If, in a few years, the scientists end up with a brood of Passenger Pigeon chicks, they will still be a long way from successfully re-establishing the species. The natural history of the birds is largely a blank. Perhaps early naturalists spent more time shooting Passenger Pigeons than studying them. They left a lot of open questions. Is the bird’s social behavior instinctive from birth? How much must the chicks learn from older birds within an established flock? How big must a Passenger Pigeon population be in order to sustain itself? What range of ecosystems can support Passenger Pigeons?

    “We are interested in figuring out when Passenger Pigeons reached their highest numbers,” says Ben Novak, a project member at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

    How much did Passenger Pigeon DNA vary among individuals over time? The answer can give scientists clues to the size of the pigeon population over the past few thousand years. It is possible, for example, that the giant flocks that early naturalists wrote about were a peak in a long-term cycle of giant booms and busts. Animal populations, like climate, tend to vary.

    David Blockstein, a senior scientist at the National Council for Science and the Environment and a founder of Project Passenger Pigeon, sees many lessons in the disappearance of the Passenger Pigeon that apply to protecting threatened species today.

    “The endangered species category is really all based on numbers, rather than biology,” he explains. “Even a species with billions of members may have a biological Achilles’ heel that makes it vulnerable to human pressure.”

    In the 1800s, the new technology included the telegraph and trains. Now it includes global positioning systems, cell phones and huge fishing vessels.

    “We have factory ships that can vacuum up the ocean,” says Blockstein.

    A few years ago, Blockstein got a chance to meet Martha. After Martha died, she was packed in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution. There where she was dissected, stuffed, and mounted. She was moved around over the years and taken off public display in 1999. This summer, Smithsonian curators brought her out again for a new exhibit called “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America.” The exhibition will be on view until October 2015.

    “You’re filled with awe to see the last of its species,” says Blockstein. “But there’s so much more to the Passenger Pigeon than this last individual that ended up living out her time in a cage.” Well said.

    We cannot reverse the errors of the past but in those areas where we can try, we should. Even if what ends up flying is not 100% Martha, isn’t it better than 0%?

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