A day to remember a different kind of conflict – ours with the natural world

Within a few decades the passenger pigeon was reduced to nothing


There were two anniversaries on Monday September 1st. Both are momentous, but in completely different ways. It was the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, which began the Second World War, and also the 100th anniversary of the death of a bird in a cage in a zoo, in Cincinnati.

Until recent years, I suppose, it is only the first of these which would have attracted any attention, marking as it does the outbreak of the deadliest conflict in history, one which brought about the deaths of more than 60m people. What’s a bird in a zoo, compared to that? Yet in the decades since the Second World War ended, we have grown to appreciate the dangers of another type of conflict, which ultimately may be just as deadly: that between human society, and the environment which supports us. The bird that died in Cincinnati Zoo, at around lunchtime on September 1, 1914, is as potent a symbol of that clash as it is possible to find.

For the bird, christened Martha, was a passenger pigeon; and it was the very last of its species. With its death, Ecstopistes migratorius went extinct. Yet half a century earlier, it had been perhaps the most abundant bird on the planet, travelling in scarcely believable flocks that quite literally darkened the skies. Swarms of birds, numbering in the hundreds of millions, could pass overhead for hour after hour, sometimes even for days; the legendary bird artist John James Audubon carefully estimated the number of one astonishing multitude he witnessed at 1,150,136,000 birds, or in his own words, “one billion, one hundred and fifty million, one hundred and thirty-six thousand pigeons in one flock.”


Within a few decades, however, the species was reduced to nothing: from billions, to nil, in virtually the blink of an eye. How on earth could this happen?

The account of the passenger pigeon’s astounding demise is a cautionary tale par excellence for our society, as it lurches into the 21st century trashing nature with ever-increasing fervour. The story is unravelled by the naturalist and writer Mark Avery in his riveting new book A Message from Martha.  It is a dark but fascinating chronicle of how human greed can have incalculable consequences in the natural world, which ultimately will be directed back at us.

For Avery documents with tremendous verve the gargantuan slaughter of the birds which took place in the second half of the 19th century: they nested in mammoth colonies, 200 nests to a tree, breaking the branches, and it was easy as pie for hunters professional and amateur to kill them by the barrel-load, indeed by the million, and ship them to the cities - especially as the railroad arrived. I for one had always assumed that this was the main reason for their downfall, and the mass killing certainly sped them on the way to extinction, but Avery reveals that the root cause lay elsewhere.

Insightful scientist that he is – he was the longstanding Director of Conservation for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – he explains that what really began their population slide was the remorseless destruction of America’s old-growth forests, as the pioneers pushed the frontier westwards. For the passenger pigeon had a highly specialised biology, and the great flocks were dependent on huge amounts of “mast”, tree nuts such as chestnuts and beech mast. Once the supply of mast began to falter, so did Ecstopistes migratorius.

By 1872, half of America’s original forests had been cut down, and the bird was probably already doomed, because its fall in numbers became self-reinforcing: its defence against natural predators had been the incalculable size of the flocks, and as they shrank, the predators did more and more damage, in a vicious cycle of decline.

Mark Avery travelled across America to uncover the evidence for this most extraordinary – and today, most relevant – of extinction stories and his account of his travels in search of Martha and her fate is as vivid as his account of the science behind it is absorbing.  The book will be a wildlife classic. He ends by pointing to a British parallel – the much-loved turtle dove, which itself appears to be heading for extinction here. We couldn’t save the passenger pigeon, but can we still keep the turtle dove amongst us? Perhaps, but only if we listen to the message from Martha, who breathed her last a hundred years ago this week.

A Message From Martha – The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and its relevance today. Bloomsbury, £16.99

Nature Studies: Where are all the sparrows in London?  

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, Britain’s largest Immigration Removal Centre  

Thanks to Channel 4 we now see just how appallingly Yarl’s Wood detention centre shames Britain

Yasmin Alibhai Brown

If I were Prime Minister: I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds

James Jones
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003