Martha - Passenger Pigeon Memorial Hut
It's been 100 years since anyone has seen a live Passenger Pigeon -- but you can still see the place where the last one died.
Only 200 years ago, Passenger Pigeons numbered in the billions. They were perhaps the most populous bird ever to inhabit the Earth. One nesting area in Wisconsin alone reportedly covered 850 square miles with an estimated 136 million birds.
Unfortunately for Passenger Pigeons, they lived in a part of America where Americans also wanted to live. The forests where they would eat and roost were cut down. Farm crops became a substitute food supply, which made Passenger Pigeons a locust-like threat to farmers. Professional exterminators were hired to slaughter the birds. Since Passenger Pigeons only lived in huge flocks, they were easy to kill in staggering numbers. In 1878, for example, a flock of Passenger Pigeons in Petoskey, Michigan, were shot and clubbed to death at a rate of 50,000 birds a day, every day, for nearly five months.
This slaughterhouse efficiency couldn't last, and it didn't. By 1900 the billions of wild Passenger Pigeons had been reduced to one last survivor -- and it was shotgunned by a 14-year-old Ohio farm boy who saw it eating his corn.
That left only a handful of Passenger Pigeons in zoos. The last one to go was "Martha" -- named for Martha Washington -- who fell off of her perch and died on September 1, 1914, at the advanced age of 29.
Martha spent her last years in the Cincinnati Zoo, in a pagoda aviary that was restored and opened to the public in 1974. It's an official National Historic Landmark, currently wedged between Gorilla World, Cat House, and World of the Insect. Perched on a rock in front of the hut is a life-size bronze likeness of Martha. Inside are three stuffed Passenger Pigeons and a number of informative signs guaranteed to make you feel bad. Also here is the stuffed carcass of the last Carolina Parakeet, "Incus," who died in Martha's death cage on February 21, 1918. That makes this place a uniquely bad spot in the history of bird extermination (And, unfortunately, always makes the Carolina Parakeet an afterthought to the story of the Passenger Pigeon).
Two things are missing from the hut. One is an "X" on the floor to mark the spot where Martha fell. If that seems in poor taste, remember that the state capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has a helpful "X" on the floor where governor Huey Long was assassinated.
The other missing thing from the hut is Martha. When she died, her body was immediately frozen in a 300-pound cake of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Martha became the celebrity exhibit in its Birds of the World Hall -- until recently, that is. She has now been placed, as museum people say, "in a non-public area." Maybe Martha needs a good cleaning, or perhaps current political ideology would rather not remind us of the Passenger Pigeon.
The Passenger Pigeon shotgunned by that farm boy, however, is still on display. It's at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. It's called "Buttons" because the woman who prepared the carcass used black shoe buttons for its eyes.