Washington Evening Journal

Neighbors Growing Together | May 25, 2017

Tracks and Tales: Only the Hills Know

By Pam Holz

A century ago, a midsized bird named Martha, exact age unknown, flopped in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo and died.  No mere death was this, but the end of a species.  Extinction.  Final and forever.
While World War I rumbled on the horizon in Europe, American ornithologists and naturalists had been flocking to see Martha for the last few years.  Four years before, in 1910, her partner, George, had passed on, leaving Martha with the unenviable distinction of being the very last of her kind.  Her solo existence had moved the abstract concept of extinction into stark reality in the public eye.  As visitors watched her age, they knew they were also watching an absolute final chapter in the book called Passenger Pigeon.  
Imagine Martha’s existence.  Though her origins and birthdate remain cloudy, we do know she never once flew free.  Raised in Wisconsin or at the zoo itself, she could have been anywhere from 17 to 30 when she died of complications of old age.  At most, she was surrounded by a mere handful of other pigeons in an aviary 18 by 20 feet.  
Apparently, during her few years of celebrity status, she was a rather inactive bird, seldom moving.  Was this a factor of age?  Of illness?  Or of loneliness?  
Recall that the passenger pigeon was the most numerous land bird in North America.  One flock could number millions of birds.  It’s estimated that at least one out of every four birds back then was a pigeon.  The sky would literally darken as if night when a flock migrated overhead, sometimes taking three days to migrate past.  
The birds lived, ate, breathed surrounded by thousands and thousands of their own kind.  Trees lost branches from the weight of the birds roosting.  Farm fields would be picked clean from foraging birds.  Clearly, the passenger pigeon was highly socialized.  In fact, one school of thought hypothesizes that smaller flock size was a contributing cause for the bird’s ultimate demise.  
No doubt overhunting played a significant role.  Such large numbers in fairly small areas made hunting pigeons fairly easy.  A hunter wouldn’t even necessarily need a gun.  Low fliers could be hit out of the sky.  Roosting and nesting birds could be felled from the trees.  “Stool pigeons” were also used.  A few live birds were tied to the ground, encouraging a flock to land and look for the food the decoys’ presence represented.  
Habitat destruction, a main factor in most extinctions, also contributed.  The birds made their homes in the eastern forests, much of which was cut down for farmland, homes, and cities.  
But for a population that numbered in the billions, are overhunting and habitat destruction enough to explain a relatively quick demise?  For example, Iowa opened up to settlers in the 1830s.  The last passenger pigeon in the state was spotted before 1880.  That’s less than half a century.  The last known wild pigeon ever was shot around 1900.  
Could it be possible that the passenger pigeon required an immensely high population in order to be successful?  That flocks that numbered in the thousands were just too small for survival?  Lack of good hard data from the time inhibits discovering the complete details of the extinction.  
However, we do know that Martha spent her last four years solo.  Had she even ever seen a wild flock of pigeons?  Even if the original captive flock of a half dozen was all she knew, how much of her genetic make-up yearned to be part of flock that could darken the sky?  How could she not have been incredibly lonely?  
In the 1940s, conservationist Aldo Leopold would write about the demise of the pigeon:  “Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons.  Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind.  But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”  
Martha’s story is used time and time again as an example of the havoc humans have wrecked upon the landscape.  However, the passenger pigeon isn’t the only bird the hills remember.  Martha’s death was also seen by Incas and Lady Jane, a pair of Carolina parakeets in a nearby enclosure.  Their own deaths four years later signified the extinction of their own species.  Four years, two extinctions.  Who remembers?
The loss of any species sends ripples throughout their habitat.  And the only ones, in the very end, that know the full extent of the loss is the land.  How can we ask the hills, to learn what they already know?