On August 31, 1914, the world was still inhabited by a living passenger pigeon.
Two days later, all we had left were the slightly tacky ornaments of still-Victorian parlors.
These two males, in the collection of Ottomar Reinecke, were shot, each on one side of the international border at Buffalo, New York, in September 1891, “martyrs,” as R. Magoon Barnes put it, “to the fool with a shotgun.”
Barnes, of course, wasn’t calling Reinecke a fool; they were friends, or at least oological colleagues, and neither ever believed that his own activities as a “scientific” amateur had contributed to the end of the pigeon.
Indeed, one of the most striking phenomena around the extinction of this species is the blithe hypocrisy of the collectors of the day. Reinecke, characteristically, blamed the “ruthless extirpation” on netting and the “professional plundering of nests.” Barnes’s reproach of his fellow citizens was posted in the window of his law office in Chicago — accompanied by one of the mounts from his extensive private collection.
It’s true: No museum collector and no private amateur ever took anything like the numbers of pigeons slaughtered by the farm boys and the pothunters. But their crocodile tears in the months after September 1914 are still unseemly at best.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.