“The extinction of the passenger pigeon”
No one knows when the last great auk died. Or the last dodo. But the last passenger pigeon’s death can be dated more or less exactly: the afternoon of September 1 1914. There was something else extraordinary about this extinction. This was not some marginal species, retiring from trying to eke out an existence on a remote island or a lonely mountainside. When the white man arrived in North America, this was almost certainly the most common bird on the continent, quite possibly the most common in the world.
As the title of a centenary exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington has it, Once There Were Billions. And then there were none.
It was not ordinary destruction that killed Martha and her kind.
The damage was done by the innocent God-fearing farmers, hacking down what they called wilderness, which we would now call virgin forest
The raids on farms may have been an early warning of distress: the passenger pigeon’s food of choice was not an infant cornfield but “mast”: the nuts of the beech, oak and, to a lesser extent, chestnut trees that once covered the landscape. Ohio was 95 per cent forest when the white settlers moved in, 54 per cent by 1853, 10 per cent by 1900.
It was towards the end that American insouciance towards mass slaughter made its contribution.
The pigeons were meat; their oils and fat produced a kind of ersatz butter; 50 birds were said to make a feather pillow. As late as 1883 a dealer in Wisconsin sent 2m of them to market.
A nightmare tale of the American Dream.