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Sep
01

The Treadmill of Survival

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Writes Louis-Pierre Vieillot,

The passenger pigeons have their own unique way of plucking acorns: they climb continuously up and down the oak trees; they ascend one after another, and each beats its wings two or three times to knock off then descends to eat its own or those that the others have knocked down. The activity of ascent and descent creates a perpetual motion.

And one we’ll never see again.

Frisch, Vorstellung

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Sep
01

An Extinct Individual

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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.

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Aug
31

An Early False Alarm, Unheeded

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One of those Michigan pigeons of 1889.

In August 1901, when that famous pigeon Martha was in her mid-teens, the New York Times Magazine published a premature — but no less appropriate — eulogy for her species. Ed Mott wrote that the pigeon was

to-day extinct, so far as anyone has been able to discover, although less than fifteen years ago it was abundant on this continent and to the people of this State was as familiar as sparrows now are.

Mott even knew exactly when the end had come:

One day in 1889 these birds were apparently as numerous as they had ever been within the memory of man. The next day they had disappeared, and no one has seen or heard positively anything of them since.

No one, he reported, could say exactly what had happened, but one thing was certain. In spite of the efforts of “netters, gunners, squabbers,” and other hungry, curious, or gratuitously murderous humans, there were in every case

more pigeons in the woods when the colony abandoned them than when the birds came in. This remarkable fact was noticeable invariably at all pigeon roosts, so that the theory that the wild pigeon has become extinct, like the buffalo, through ruthless slaughter, will not hold.

Instead, their passing was “sudden and mysterious,” a curious phenomenon worthy of mention in the Times, yes, but without connection to us except for the loss of “a source of great pleasure and profit to the sportsman and pothunter and snarer.”

There was no online “Comments” section back then, but Mott’s animadversions struck a chord with some of his readers.

One wrote from The Bahamas with encouraging news of “large flocks of wild pigeons coming from the West,” which “darkened the air in their flights” — familiar words, those — and provided both locals and visitors from the mainland with “much sport.” Could these be, Mott’s correspondent wondered, “the American wild pigeon … who has sought for his Winter sojourn more remote and sparsely settled lands”?

Another recalled having read, some two years before, “a long account of the reappearance of the pigeon in a Western town — in Iowa or Minnesota, I forget which.”

Such hearsay and speculation were trumped a week later, when Robert Barbour of Montclair, New Jersey, reported his own sighting of two passenger pigeons in Caldwell in September 1900. Barbour wrote to Frank Chapman at the American Museum about his sighting, but received no reply.

And that was the end of the discussion in the pages of the Times. No outcry of regret and remorse, no calls for habitat conservation. The bird would go unmentioned in the paper for another five years, when it was once again conjectured that “the bird [had] sought new resting and breeding places,” this time “perhaps somewhere in the southern part of South America.”

Today, a hundred years after certainty was attained, we’d react differently.

Right?

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You can read my newly published Nebraska Bird Review article about a pigeon collected by none other than Ferdinand V. Hayden here.

Many thanks to the World Museum, Liverpool, for permission to publish the photographs of the skin. 

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Aug
29

What Have We Learned?

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In the autumn of 1915, local hunters boasted to W. Lee Chambers of “how easily” they killed a favored local gamebird:

The method was to fasten a dead or half-dead pigeon on a stick or wire in the top of one of the oak trees where the birds commonly congregated…. This decoy would lead flock after flock to the slaughter, the market hunter being able to kill all he wanted without moving from the tree.

Sounds familiar.

This “simple device” had long been used to decoy the passenger pigeons, extinct just a year before. This time around, though, the victim was the band-tailed pigeon, in San Luis Obispo County, California, and Chambers warns “against a repetition of this former disgraceful method of slaughter.”

Band-tailed pigeon

Sad history had already begun to repeat itself two years before, when Chambers found the Sunday trains packed with “game hogs” who came out to shoot the pigeons for fun.

One can hardly calculate the number of birds killed by hunters in automobiles and those who started from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Santa Maria, Paso Robles, Lompoc and other small towns…. If something is not done very quickly these birds are doomed.

The situation was grim. Fortunately, Joseph Grinnell was on the case, and in 1913 he published a manifesto to save the band-tailed pigeon in California. A new ethic shines through his observation that

we would certainly be blamed forever if we took no steps to prevent a repetition of the deplorably thoughtless treatment which was given the now extinct Passenger Pigeon of the eastern states.

Yes, we learned something. Too late for the one, but just in time for its closest relative, the other big pigeon of the US and Canada.

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