This is Martha. Obviously, she’s a bird, and her pose indicates she’s no longer among the living, but residing in a museum (in this case, the Smithsonian).
What makes Martha special is that she’s the very last of her species ever to live (as a child, I used to have this recurring thought: what if I were the last person on earth? As an introvert, this would be okay for a while, and yet eventually I’d get to the point where I really needed someone to help me, and NO ONE WOULD BE THERE! It was truly terrifying!). Passenger Pigeon Martha experienced that very trauma — being the last of her kind. She died September 1, 1914 — 100 years ago this month.
No one would have predicted this situation in 1814. At that time, there were billions of passenger pigeons in the US. “The air was literally filled with pigeons,” wrote bird lover John James Audubon. “The light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of the wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.”
So what happened? Hunters discovered the birds and began slaughtering them left and right, for food sold in markets and restaurants. The invention of the telegraph allowed the word to be spread about where large flocks of the birds could be found (sounds like the the telegraph was the social media of the 1800s).
In 1900, Congress passed the Lacey Act to protect endangered species like passenger pigeons, but it was too late for this particular species. That was the final year a passenger pigeon was seen in the wild. For the next 14 years, a few were still living in zoos.
This was where Martha lived — in the Cincinnati Zoo, where she mostly clung quietly to her perch, ignoring zoo visitors who threw sand her way in an attempt to get her to move. A $1000 reward was offered for anyone who could locate a mate for Martha, but no candidates were found.
Now, in the 100th year since their extinction, efforts are being made to remember the passenger pigeons. Fold the Flock is a fun site for raising awareness of the plight of endangered species, in this case by creating passenger pigeons with origami. I learned about it through an article in the most recent issue of Smithsonian magazine, which included a pull-out version of Martha that I created (with a little help from my better-at-origami daughter). The site hopes to have a flock of a million origami passenger pigeons by the end of the year, and they’re nearly halfway to their goal. What a fun project for teachers, moms, homeschoolers — try it! There are a template and instructions on the site so you can create your own.