Saturday, August 30, 2014

Remembering Martha

   There is an anniversary this week, much forgotten and not one to celebrate. It is one of the most important anniversaries in North American history.
   One hundred years ago, on September 1, 1914, a bird named Martha died at Cincinnati Zoological Garden.  She was earth’s last surviving passenger pigeon.
   The story of the passenger pigeon, whose numbers went from an estimated high of 3-5 billion to zero in a matter of decades, is a shocking warning that any species, including humans, can become extinct.
   The passenger pigeon was a bird similar to the mourning dove, except it was larger. The average passenger pigeon was about sixteen inches long with a slate blue head and rump and slate gray back. Its breast was dusty rose and the eyes a distinguished scarlet.
   Their numbers were something difficult to comprehend today. During migrations, passing flocks blacked out the sun. When they roosted in trees for the night the weight of their numbers broke branches.
   John J. Audubon, ornithologist and painter wrote after viewing thousands of migrating passenger pigeons:  “ . . . they take to wing, producing by the flapping of their wing a noise like the roar of distant thunder . . . “
   A noticeable decline in the bird’s numbers began in the mid 1800s when they were shot, clubbed, netted, or gassed with sulphur fires by professional hunters. They were sold for fifty cents a dozen. A Smithsonian article says that in Petoskey, Mich. In 1878 market hunters killed as many as 50,000 passenger pigeons a day.
   Hunting was not the only factor in the bird’s extinction. Passenger pigeons needed huge forests for survival and the clearing of huge tracts of forest for farming made survival impossible.
   The passenger pigeon’s extinction led to laws protecting migratory birds and a better public awareness of the need to protect wildlife and the environment.
   Whenever I walk the highway fronting my bush lot in Central Ontario I wonder about public awareness. Every day brings to the roadside a new beer or pop can, plastic bottle or cardboard carton tossed from a car window. Some people are just too stupid to ever get it.
   More on the passenger pigeon can be found at: 
or in my book The Decoy (Key Porter Books).

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