She was a star in her day. Scarlet eyes and peach-colored breast. Head held high.
Toward the end of her life, people lined up to see her -- a glimpse for the ages.
But a hundred years ago Monday, Martha died alone, like she'd been waiting for the room to finally clear. A stroke, they say. She was 29, or somewhere around there.
Those people Friday, sipping drinks as music played at a Martinis with Martha fundraiser at the
When death came, she was hurriedly frozen into 300 pounds of ice and hustled off to the Smithsonian, a tribute to a fallen species and forever a reminder of how humans wiped it out with a gusto exceeded only by their detachment.
Martha was the last passenger pigeon, the last of the billions of the most abundant bird in
"I remember thinking it looked like some mighty river winding its way through the air," a
So thick they flew, a man in
Martha's death on
Part of it was amazement: How, in only 50 or so years, did billions come down to one bird?
But people knew how it happened. It was a slaughter -- a good time, good eatin' slaughter.
"We did it, we killed it off," said
"We chased it all those years until it was gone."
People killed the passenger pigeon for sport, commerce and fun. With no laws in place to protect migratory birds, hunters blasted away at nesting sites, killing breeding adults and nestlings alike.
They sold them. They ate them off poor folks' tables and in elegant hotel dining rooms. Farmers fed them to hogs. People crammed them into barrels and loaded them onto trains.
Passenger pigeon wings were used to fill potholes.
Until there was only Martha. An offer of
Greenberg, who spoke not long ago in
But extinction apparently doesn't ring with the finality it used to. Researchers are working to "de-extinct" the bird. They got their hands on some of the 1,500 or so known passenger pigeon specimens and are hoping to resurrect the species through some "Jurassic Park"-like genetic engineering.
Instead of using frog DNA to fill out the missing parts of a dinosaur's genetic code as in
This petri-dish mulligan should thrill bird lovers and conservationists, right? Get the bird back and maybe get humans off the hook.
No, it doesn't. The work is shaping up to be more about genetic science than conservation. Bird lovers seem to be more concerned about protecting the endangered species we still have.
"I would rather we save the prairie chicken than bring back the passenger pigeon," said
He dismissed any bird that comes from "de-extinction" efforts as a hybrid.
Robbins has the real thing. One recent day on the top floor of Dyche Hall on the KU campus, he pulled a shallow box from a stainless-steel cabinet serving as a tomb of the avian extinct.
Carolina parakeets, an ivory-billed woodpecker, small dusky seaside sparrows -- colors as vibrant as if they had died yesterday. And three passenger pigeons, one killed in 1872 in
This is as close to the passenger pigeon as Robbins cares to be. He smiles with amazement when he talks of the mighty flocks. He then speaks of profound regret, anger even, about their slaughter.
So have we learned enough that it won't happen again, to another animal?
"Well," he said, followed by a thoughtful pause. "No."
An engaging story
A Ukrainian writer by the name of
It's a novel. She wrote it in German.
Ponder that. A 31-year-old Ukrainian author writes a novel in German about a North American bird that died out a hundred years ago in
"The power of the story continues to manifest," said Greenberg, who is part of Project Passenger Pigeon, a collaboration of scientists, conservationists, artists and educators who want to draw attention to the centennial and promote habitat protection.
Five novels with some sort of passenger pigeon element have been published since 2010, said Greenberg, who spoke earlier this year to an
"The story of what happened to this bird is so engaging that even if you tell it to someone who has no interest in birds, they will ask questions," Greenberg said.
In 1800, passenger pigeons in
John James Audubon once wrote of a flock he encountered in western
On the Searchable Ornithological Research Archive website, one can see a research paper published in 1960 by
He later discovered it had been a roosting spot for passenger pigeons.
Another man talked of a flock that settled near
"One curious circumstance is that we never see a pigeon from the time they leave of mornings until they return of evening. But somewhere they are feasting abundantly, for they are all fat."
Then came the two things credited with doing in the bird: the telegraph and the railroad.
The telegraph enabled word of a giant flock's location to spread quickly. Hunters came and killed as rapidly as they could pull triggers, everyone bagging dozens if not hundreds of the birds in a day.
Trains allowed shipment of their bodies to cities all over the country: Meat sold by the ton.
By 1900, they were nearly all gone. The disappearance came so fast, rumors spawned that the bird had mysteriously migrated to
Too late, and only Martha was left. Her mate, George, had died four years earlier.
A story in
Bringing them back
Who knows -- the
Considering the last one disappeared 4,000 years ago, that's rather remarkable.
But scientists say any extinct animal can be brought back as long as good DNA can be found.
An organization called Revive & Restore is working as a hub for the genetic research. On its website, it talks about the mammoth, dodo, Irish elk and thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger.
These resurrections would take lots of time and money. There are questions, too. For starters: Do the natural habitats of these animals still exist?
Revive & Restore has its answer: "To preserve biodiversity, to restore diminished ecosystems, to advance the science of preventing extinctions, and to undo harm that humans have caused in the past."
As for the passenger pigeon, researchers like the symmetry of humans bringing back a species they killed out.
It's important to keep in mind, she said, that the bird's population fluctuated greatly as resources changed.
"This means that we probably won't need to bring back billions of birds for their populations to be sustainable, as long as we can keep ourselves from killing them," Shapiro said.
"It would really make more sense to focus on those," LeBaron said.
Robbins at KU agrees. The world had the passenger pigeon and threw it away, he said. The duty now is to not let the same happen to another animal.
Back in 1914 when people lined up so see Martha at the end, some reportedly tossed sand her way. To get the old bird to move.
Martha was the last of her kind. Some think she should stay that way.
(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)
Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services