The thriller of ‘Martha’ the final Passenger Pigeon

In a earlier article I famous {that a} Wikipedia entry on Charles Otis Whitman of the College of Chicago acknowledged that he despatched the final Passenger Pigeon named ‘Martha’ to Cincinnati Zoo in 1902. Martha died on 1 September 1914 and the species grew to become extinct. The declare that Martha got here from Whitman is just not supported by some up to date accounts however could be deduced from one other. That is complicated as a result of each accounts arose from the identical supply.

The 1948 Model

There isn’t any doubt that each Whitman and Cincinnati Zoo bred Passenger Pigeons. Each have been unsuccessful in sustaining a breeding inventory. An account of Martha’s origins and demise, written by William C. Herman, was printed in The Auk. Herman wrote:

The person who, higher than anybody else, is certified to contribute the image of the ultimate act of this nice tragedy is Mr. Sol A. Stephan of the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens in Cincinnati, Ohio (now nonetheless residing on the age of 97) and from him the current author obtained a lot of the knowledge right here introduced.

Mr. Stephan took cost of the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens in 1878, earlier to which period the Zoo had Wild [Passenger] Pigeons on exhibition and had had some success in elevating them in captivity. At the moment there have been 4 pairs within the aviary which had been bought in a western locality at a value of $2.50 per pair; and others have been added to this quantity. At this early date, Wild [Passenger] Pigeons have been nonetheless to be present in giant numbers, and a few had visited the beech timber on the grounds that later have been taken over by the Cincinnati Zoo. Even at the moment Mr. Stephan realized that the Wild Pigeon was changing into scarce. Way back to 1857 a invoice to guard it had been proposed by a committee of the Ohio Senate, however no motion was taken. As costs grew to become increased, Mr. Stephan grew to become very anxious for the preservation of the species, and he decided to breed the birds in captivity with a view to have them for functions of exhibition. Their habits have been fastidiously noticed, with particular consideration to the weight-reduction plan. He realized that they thrived greatest on a combined meals of cracked corn, wheat, crackermeal, cooked liver, and eggs. Whereas latest discoveries have been made within the feeding of birds and mammals in captivity, the weight-reduction plan utilized by Mr. Stephan appeared to be enough.

Herman then went on to explain the breeding quarters and the nesting. Every nest contained one egg and the birds bred solely yearly. Stephan was reported right here as having bred 14. The birds grew to become very tame and lived for 10-15 years. Finally he was left with two birds, one male, one feminine. Herman continued:

When different zoological gardens realized that the Cincinnati Zoo had the one remaining pair, they supplied costs which rose from $100 to $1000 for the pair. Right now Mr. Stephan was not anxious to get rid of such a beneficial asset and properly saved them, for they attracted ornithologists and different scientists from distant components. The feminine of this final pair had been hatched within the Cincinnati Zoo in 1885, and was named ‘Martha,’ in reminiscence of the spouse of a good friend of Mr. Stephan. This feminine pigeon grew to become the final survivor of the billions that in flights as soon as darkened the sky.

Martha and her mate constructed however one nest, and the lone egg that she laid on this proved to be infertile. Since each birds of this final pair have been so outdated that it was apparently not possible for them to rear any younger, eggs from Martha have been positioned beneath incubating Rock Doves (home pigeons), within the hope that the latter would possibly hatch and rear the younger to maturity. This failed as a result of the eggs have been infertile.

The male of the pair died having been in captivity for 26 years. Martha lived on and died aged 29 (‘an unusually outdated age in captivity’). She was discovered lifeless. Her pores and skin was despatched to the USA Nationwide Museum in Washington, D.C. Mr. William Palmer, the taxidermist, eliminated the pores and skin. Dr. Robert W. Shufeldt made an anatomical dissection and printed an outline of this (Auk, 32: 29-41, pls. 4-6, 1915), giving the reason for loss of life as superior age’.

The 1908 Model

An account of Whitman’s work with Passenger Pigeons was printed in The Auk in 1908 in an article written by Ruthven Deane (1851-1934), a number one newbie ornithologist of his day. Whitman had obtained his birds, as a part of his huge examine of the evolution of pigeons, from a David W. Whitaker of Milwaukee. A flock of 15 had been bred from a single pair ‘of younger birds which he acquired from a younger Indian who trapped them in Shawano County in northeastern Wisconsin’ in 1888. From 1896 to 1897 Whitman purchased, in dribs and drabs, the entire flock. Throughout 1897, 9 younger have been hatched however solely 4 lived. in 1998, he gave 7 birds again to Whitaker. Once more eggs have been layed by his birds however solely 2 hatched. Steadily the flock grew to become depleted as even fewer of the eggs hatched whereas adults have been misplaced or died. By the top of 1907 all of Whitman’s Passenger Pigeons have been lifeless. He was left with two male Passenger Pigeon x Ring Dove hybrids which he discovered to be infertile.

Whitaker had 4 dwell males in 1908 which died presumably over the subsequent few years.

What is obvious from Deane’s paper is that Whitman despatched a feminine chicken to Cincinnati Zoo in 1902. However then issues get complicated. Deane reported:

For years we now have identified of the Passenger Pigeons within the Gardens of the Cincinnati Zoölogical Co., and I’m a lot indebted to Mr. S.A. Stephan, Basic Supervisor, for the next report of their flock, in a letter written November 9, 1907. 

The unique flock, which got here from Michigan in 1875, consisted of twenty-six birds, about half males and half females. A short while later, nonetheless, 5 or 6 of those escaped. They’ve bred occasionally and we now have raised about twenty-three birds. In no occasion has a couple of egg been deposited at a time. These days our flock has been lowered to 3, one male from the unique flock, now about twenty-three years outdated, one male, which we raised, is about eighteen years outdated, and one feminine that we obtained from Prof. Whitman’s flock in 1902, which is about twelve years outdated. We’ve got by no means detected any explicit illness which has precipitated the lower of the flock, however have attributed it generally to outdated age. 

Deane concluded: 

The remnants of the Milwaukee and Cincinnati flocks now quantity however seven birds (6♂︎, 1 ♀︎) with little or no likelihood of additional replica.

That is the model of the story that appeared win the world’s press after the loss of life of the chicken in 1914. Additional media consideration adopted the publication of the paper describing the dissection of the chicken on the Smithsonian by Robert Wilson Shufeldt (1850-1934) who was medically certified. In it he wrote:

On February twenty-first, 1914, Mr. S. A. Stephan, Basic Supervisor of The Cincinnati Zoological Firm, of Cincinnati, Ohio, wrote me that ” Our Passenger Pigeon has been promised to the Smithsonian Establishment when it dies. This chicken is a feminine and now about 29 years outdated, and the final one in every of a flock of eight that we obtained in 1878.” I’ve since realized that it was hatched within the Backyard.

Shufeldt, himself a vibrant character with a sure notoriety, famous two issues that appear odd. First he wrote:

From Mr. Stephan, who wrote me on the seventh of September, 1914, I be taught that “our feminine passenger pigeon died September 1st [1914] at 1 P. M. of outdated age, being about 29 years outdated.” It was nearly instantly packed in ice and shipped to the Nationwide Museum at Washington, D. C., the place it was acquired in tremendous situation on the fourth of that month.

However exterior appearances have been misleading. He was with William Palmer of the museum who skinned the birds for taxidermy. Then, after a ‘late lunch’, Shufeldt started his dissection however had a shock:

I discovered, on the proper aspect of the stomach, a slit-like opening, one-half a centimeter in size, which led freely into the belly cavity, and from which blood was oozing. This opening I enlarged with a view to withdraw the viscera for the aim of constructing {a photograph} of them, earlier to continuing with the dissection of the organs inside. This has been my apply for a fantastic many sears. 

A lot to my shock, I discovered a amount of blood (not clotted) within the belly cavity, and the proper lobe of the liver and the gut nearly completely damaged up, as if it had been carried out with some instrument. As to the gut, it was lacking altogether, whereas the proper lobe of the liver was in scattered fragments The firmer organs have been apparently intact, however didn’t occupy their regular positions.

Later within the paper he continued:

There was no proof no matter of the presence of the gut in any a part of its continuity save a chunk about 8 mm. in size, the place it emerged from the gizzard and the ragged margin surrounding the belly boundary of the vent. All of the portion referred to was not within the belly cavity. Your complete proper lobe of the fairly giant liver was in a disintegrated situation, exhibiting its inside construction, and exposing the organs normally hid by it to view. The guts was in its regular place, whereas the gizzard was rotated to the left aspect. I found no blood clots or parasites of any sort within the belly cavity 

The inference from this description and the very detailed of how the chicken was acquired and dealt with on the Smithsonian is obvious: any individual had carried out one thing to the specimen in Cincinnati. Had any individual poked and pulled contained in the belly cavity with a protracted pair of forceps, the one manner I can consider by which the entire gut and chunks of liver may very well be eliminated by means of a half-centimetre slit? However who, and why?

Additionally of curiosity with respect to the alleged age of the birds is:

The toes have been of a deep, flesh-colored pink, clear and wholesome, whereas the claws introduced no evidences indicative of bizarre age, although not a couple of of wear and tear. 

Two totally different accounts

The reader of those accounts is due to this fact in some doubt as to which model, if both, is right. Each accounts are from the identical supply, Sol Stephan. In 1908 he wrote that the final surviving feminine was one despatched by Whitman in 1902. The wording in Deane’s article could be taken to indicate that this was one of many birds obtained from Whitaker in 1896-7. Against this, in Shufeldt’s and Herman’s accounts written with info provided by Stephan after the loss of life of the final chicken in 1914, Stephan acknowledged that the feminine had been hatched within the Cincinnati Zoo in 1885, was named Martha in reminiscence of the spouse of a good friend, and had died aged 29.

There’s a nice distinction within the age of the final Passenger Pigeon at loss of life, 29, if it the one bred at Cincinnati. If we calculate from Stephan’s account from 1907, then, had the chicken come from Whitman, it will have been roughly 19 at its loss of life, a lot nearer to the 10-15 years lifespan quoted for different birds saved in captivity.

Completely different accounts pre-date the chicken’s loss of life. For instance, in William T. Hornaday’s Our Vanishing Wild Life (1913), the chicken is described  as ‘twenty years outdated in 1912’.

A key query is after all, was attainable to know the identities and historical past of the person birds at Cincinnati Zoo? Had been they ringed (banded in the usA.)? Shufeldt made no point out of 1 being discovered at post-mortem. I’ve checked out two pictures of Whitman’s birds that may be seen on-line and might see no hint of a hoop.

All publicity is nice publicity: A attainable rationalization

Salvator A ‘Sol’ Stephan was, in his youthful days, a showman, working for a travelling menagerie and likewise as a consultant for Carl Hagenbeck, the well-known animal supplier of Hamburg. He arrived on the quickly to be opened Cincinnati Zoo in 1875 with an elephant. Persuaded to remain on to settle within the animal, he retired 62 years later as Superintendent and Basic Supervisor. He died in 1949 aged 100.

Cincinnati Zoo had a tough time in its early many years. It entered receivership in 1898 and with a view to stop liquidation the shareholders gave up their investments of almost 1 / 4 of 1,000,000 {dollars}. Then it ran as a enterprise for 2 years. The Cincinnati Traction Firm, hoping apparently to make use of it as a advertising and marketing instrument for its streetcars, operated the zoo till 1917 (in some accounts 1915).

I ponder if the chance was taken, with the loss of life of the final Passenger Pigeon, to guarantee that the attendant publicity (for which Sol Stephan was identified) confirmed the Zoo in the absolute best mild. What higher than a file longevity and the native breeding and care of a chicken named Martha?

On the identify there may be even confusion within the literature. Stephan wrote that she was named after the spouse of a good friend. Different secondary sources say the identify is after Martha Washington, with the male of the ultimate remaining pair as George.

I can not consider another rationalization, aside from a marked lack of reminiscence, for the distinction in accounts given by Stephan in 1907 and 1914. In different phrases, my tackle the origins of ‘Martha’ is that she was, most definitely, the chicken despatched to Cincinnati by Whitman in 1902. Shufeldt additionally remarked that the knowledge he was given by Stephan didn’t tally with what he was advised later:

This chicken is a feminine and now about 29 years outdated, and the final one in every of a flock of eight that we obtained in 1878. I’ve since realized that it was hatched within the Backyard.

As outlined above, I’ve the sensation from studying between the strains that Shufeldt was suspicious over what he was advised in regards to the age of the chicken and the circumstances of its loss of life and preservation.

Errol Fuller handled the story of Martha’s loss of life in his 2014 e-book on the Passenger Pigeon:

The reality is that we do not truly know when Martha died, at the least not with any diploma of exactitude. This lack of definitive info is essentially attributable to differing accounts given by the primary keeper on the zoo, Salvator “Sol” Stephans, and his son Joseph. Each saved altering their story. One among their accounts states that Martha died in her cage at exactly one o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 1, 1914. One other suggests her loss of life would possibly even have occurred some 4 hours later. One model of the story relays the romantic concept that she died surrounded by a bunch of grieving keepers. One other maintains that simply Sol and Joseph have been together with her. Yet one more is much less poetic and signifies she died alone and was discovered mendacity on the ground of her cage by an assistant keeper named William Bruntz. The reality hardly issues, after all. Useless is lifeless.

Moreover, any critical try to undergo written zoo information to unravel the thriller is not possible; they have been destroyed by fireplace in 1963. What we do know is that the primary day of September was a swelteringly sizzling day with excessive humidity ranges; maybe it was all simply an excessive amount of for a frail outdated chicken. So what else is there? The reply is, not rather a lot. It appears sure that Martha was born in captivity, however the place? Mr. Stephans’ recollections have been as various on this topic as they have been on others. Maybe this was attributable to captivity, however the place? Mr. Stephans’ recollections have been as various on this topic as they have been on others. Maybe this was attributable to poor observe holding; maybe it was forgetfulness or only a lack of information regarding previous occasions that on the time of their incidence would have appeared unimportant.


What would occur now?

The accounts by ornithologists and aviculturists describe the failure of the faltering and early makes an attempt at what would right now be described as a captive breeding programme for a extremely endangered species. A helpful dialogue is likely to be had on whether or not, with the huge improve in information of untamed animal husbandry, we might have carried out any higher in 2022. What stands out in studying the accounts is: the failure of eggs to hatch (nonetheless a significant drawback), which may very well be associated to infertility, or to poor situations for incubation; the decline in fecundity because the females aged; the diploma of inbreeding. All Whitaker’s and due to this fact Whitman’s birds have been descended from a single pair of younger birds which had been hand reared. My wager is that they have been from the identical nest. Due to this fact, inbreeding melancholy might account for a few of Whitman’s findings (a phenomenon he described as ‘weak spot of the germ’) and that rationalization appeared in print in 1913. The group initially saved in Cincinnati was bigger and due to this fact extra genetically numerous. However that inhabitants additionally declined over time. Vitamin can also have been insufficient in captive birds. Wallace Craig recorded the behaviour of Whitman’s birds. He wrote:

A phrase as to the care of Passenger Pigeons, in case we could also be so lucky as to seek out some nonetheless residing. Professor Whitman saved his in the identical pen with different species, provided with the pigeonstaples of combined seed, grit, oyster shells, salt, and loads of inexperienced meals reminiscent of lettuce. After he had had his flock a few years, he found that they might greedily devour earthworms, and when abundantly provided with this delicacy the birds improved a lot in well being and vigor that Professor Whitman thought if solely he had identified of this weight-reduction plan early sufficient he might need saved his inventory from dying away.


As unsatisfactory because the totally different accounts of the loss of life of what’s nonetheless presumed to be the final Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) are, they’re immaterial to the extinction of the species that occurred over a comparatively quick interval. I began this sequence of two articles with the achievements of Oscar Riddle in discovering, firstly, the hormone prolactin and, secondly, the latter’s impact on the pigeon crop sac. Due to Riddle’s shut hyperlinks to Charles Otis Whitman, I grew to become fascinated by the historical past of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and of those that saved and bred the chicken in captivity. I nonetheless have way more to learn.

Martha’s feathers weren’t in superb situation when she died and
her pores and skin was not displayed by the Nationwide Museum in Washington for
a few years. Nonetheless, it’s now on show, as described right here.
Photographed in 2015 by Ph0705.

Deane R. 1896. Some notes on the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in confinement. Auk 13, 234-237.

Deane R. 1908. The Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in confinement. Auk 25, 181-183.

Fuller E. 2014. The Passenger Pigeon. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton College Press.

Grant W. 1913. Recollections of the Passenger Pigeon in captivity. Chicken Lore 15,  93-99

Herman WC. 1948. The final Passenger Pigeon. Auk 65, 77-80.

Shufeldt RW. 1915. Notes on the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) these days residing within the Cincinnati Zoölogical Gardens. Auk 32, 29-41.


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