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“Martha,” a passenger pigeon named after George Washington’s wife, was the last of her kind. Immediately following her death in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens, she was packed in an enormous 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian.

“Martha,” the last known passenger pigeon. Photo by Carl Hansen, Smithsonian Institution, 1985

The passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, was once the most common bird in the United States, numbering in the billions. Passenger pigeons lived in enormous colonies, with sometimes up to 100 nests in a single tree. Migrating flocks stretched a mile wide, turning the skies black. Bird painter John James Audubon, who watched them pass on his way to Louisville in 1813, described “the continued buzz of wings,” and said “the air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse…” When he reached his destination, 55 miles away, the birds were still passing overhead, and “continued to do so for three days in succession.” The passenger pigeon, a wild bird, is not to be confused with the carrier pigeon, a domesticated bird trained to carry messages.

With such abundance, it seemed unimaginable that the passenger pigeon could ever become extinct. But due to overhunting, habitat loss, and possibly infectious diseases that spread through the colonies, they became increasingly rare by the late nineteenth century. The last confirmed sighting of a wild passenger pigeon was in 1900. After that, only a few survived in captivity. “Martha,” who lived her whole 29-year life in the Cincinnati Zoo, was the last.

"Martha," on display in the newly opened Bird Hall, c. 1956. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives

Her skin was mounted for display by the Smithsonian taxidermist Nelson Wood. Her internal parts were preserved as part of the fluid or “wet” collections of the National Museum of Natural History. Today the Smithsonian’s Bird Collection is one of the largest in the world, numbering some 625,000 specimens.

"Martha" was on display in the Bird Hall in the 1920s through the early 1950s, and in the Birds of the World exhibit that ran from 1956 until 1999. She has left the Smithsonian Institution twice since arriving here. In 1966 she was displayed in San Diego at the San Diego Zoological Society’s Golden Jubilee Conservation Conference. In June 1974 she returned to the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens for the dedication of a new building named in her honor. Both times she was flown first class, with an airline flight attendant escorting her for the entire trip.

A clip about "Martha" from the 1966 film
Our Vanishing Lands


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