One hundred and two years ago - at 1 p.m. on Sept. 1 to be exact - someone walked past the Cincinnati Zoo bird cage and saw Martha on the cage floor, drumsticks up.
Martha died of old age at 29. She was the last living passenger pigeon, North America’s most abundant bird species, once numbering three to five billion.
Early European settlers described flocks of passenger pigeons so large they blacked out the sun. When they roosted in trees for the night, branches often snapped under the weight of their numbers.
Martha’s passing confirmed the species extinction and helped to bring about another important event two years later. On Aug. 16, 1916, 100 years ago this week, Canada and the United States signed the Migratory Bird Convention in which both countries agreed to uniform systems of protecting migratory birds.
The agreement was aimed at stopping the “indiscriminate slaughter” of the billions of birds that made their remarkable journeys north in the spring, and south in the autumn.
Indeed, the slaughter had been indiscriminate. Ducks, geese, pigeons and others were shot by the thousands and shipped in barrels to markets and restaurants in big cities such as Toronto, New York and Chicago. Thousands upon thousands were packed in crates destined for factories where their feathers were used in fashionable clothing.
There is one story of one million bobolinks and rails killed in one month near Philadelphia to provide feathers for women’s hats.
Until late in the 1800s it seemed impossible that North America’s huge numbers of birds could become extinct or see their populations dramatically reduced. As the 20th century approached, however, people began to realize what was happening.
Organized hunt clubs were diligent in recording kills in club registers. Entries from the register of the Winous Point Club near Port Clinton, Ohio show what was happening.
Year Canvasbacks Mallards Blue-winged Teal
1880 665 1,319 2,110
1885 237 943 1,019
1890 697 394 603
The migratory bird convention brought some sanity into a society that believed wildlife resources were limitless and existed solely for human satisfaction. It led to prohibition of hunting non-game birds, closed seasons for hunting game birds, limits on the length of hunting seasons and bans on the sale of any birds, eggs or nests.
The convention could not bring back the Marthas that once blackened the skies. It was a start, however, to changing attitudes about wildlife and slowed the possibility of other extinctions.
Extinction still threatens many species today. The latest North American Bird Conservation Initiative report notes that without significant conservation action 37 per cent of our bird species are at risk of extinction.
Nearly 20 per cent of wetland birds are on a Watch List indicating extinction concerns. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says wetland losses have increased 140 per cent since 2004.
Habitat loss and climate change have replaced uncontrolled harvesting as the biggest threats to birds. Both, of course, are the result of a soaring human population.
Bird Life International reports that 150 bird species are facing world extinction. Also, it lists 197 species as critically endangered.
Populations of common birds seen in urban areas also are decreasing. Various bird organizations have reported declines in common species once considered widespread. Bird surveys have reported that some common species have lost more than half of their populations over the past 40 years.
Declining numbers of birds show that diversity of life on our planet is shrinking. Earth continues to fall behind in the struggle to regenerate from the beatings we humans give it.
Three-quarters of the world’s fisheries now are fully or over exploited. (You probably already figured that out if you bought those mushy farm-raised trout that have been raised on pellets).
More than 350 million people do not have guaranteed clean water to drink every day. (And, if you think that’s just a far-off problem, read up on the roughly 100 Canadian First Nation communities that are without potable water).
So all this is not just about the birds. There is a good chance that sometime off in the future it won’t be just Martha lying drumsticks up in her house. It will be humankind.