An Extinct Individual

Living passenger pigeon 1913

If that title made my readers, all two of them, look twice — Good.

Individuals die; the grand word extinction can be properly applied only to the passing from existence of species and other populations.

But at the same time, of course, that passing from existence can take place only with the death of the last individual of the species. And on today’s anniversary, the one hundredth September 1 we have seen come without the passenger pigeon, birders are recalling both: the extinction of that once wildly abundant species and the sordid death of its last member, the zoo bird Martha.

The indelible image in everyone’s mind is of Martha all tidied up, her skin stuffed and mounted and (once again) on display in Washington.

We’ve seen a lot of that specimen 223979 the past few days, but there are other pictures of Martha, grainy, slightly grisly pictures that perhaps drive home the finality of extinction — for her and for her species — better than any glass-cased relic could.

When Martha dropped on September 1, 1914, her corpse was frozen into a great block of ice for shipment to the Smithsonian.

Photo: Moebelle, Zoochat
Photo: Moebelle, Zoochat

The package arrived on September 4, and Charles Richmond immediately telephoned Robert Shufeldt, the anatomist and pioneering photographer (etc.). Around 11:00 that morning, the bird had sufficiently thawed for Shufeldt to take three photographs of it in the flesh.

Corpse of passenger pigeon

Shufeldt, Martha, and the museum preparator William Palmer then — who would have expected this? — left the Smithsonian for Shufeldt’s house on 18th Street; how they transported the still intact corpse I do not know. Shortly after 1:15 pm, in a back room on the third floor, Palmer began to skin the last of the passenger pigeons.

Passenger pigeon Martha

Immediately after Shufeldt took this photograph, showing the skin still attached to the carcass at the front of the skull, he placed the eyes and brain in alcohol, and Palmer finished removing Martha’s skin.

The two men then went downstairs for a late lunch. As 4:00 approached, Palmer went home “with the skin in his possession,” and Shufeldt ascended the stairs to deal with the body.

Screenshot 2014-08-25 12.47.31

Oddly, Shufeldt found the bird’s internal organs badly disturbed and displaced, “as though it had been done with some instrument”; the intestine was “missing altogether” and the right lobe of the liver “in scattered fragments.” His hopes for a full, photographically documented dissection were frustrated, but Shufeldt provided detailed notes on all of the physical structures present in the carcass, from the nerves to the tongue. There was more to say even about this damaged specimen than the pages of the Auk could accommodate:

Were I to go as far as I could into this subject of the anatomy of the Passenger Pigeon, my collected observations would afford material for several good-sized volumes.

Shufeldt stopped short of dissecting the heart

preferring to preserve it in its entirety — perhaps somewhat influenced by sentimental reasons, as the heart of the last “Blue Pigeon” that the world will ever see alive.

The skin would eventually be mounted by the Smithsonian taxidermist Nelson Wood.

Martha mount passenger pigeon

Neat and pretty, isn’t she? A lot neater, a lot prettier, than extinction — or than her own death, a hundred years ago today.