September 1st, 1914 – The Death of a Pigeon

Today-In-History

By the turn of the 20th century, the last known group of passenger pigeons was kept by Professor Charles Otis Whitman at the University of Chicago. Whitman studied these pigeons along with rock doves and Eurasian collared doves. All of Whitman’s pigeons were descended from the same pair. Whitman and the Cincinnati Zoo attempted to breed the surviving birds, including attempts at making a rock dove foster passenger pigeon eggs. Whitman sent a female named Martha to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1902. While Whitman had about a dozen passenger pigeons in 1903, they had stopped breeding, and by 1906 he was down to five birds.

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On September 1st, 1914, Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Her body was frozen into a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was skinned, dissected, photographed and mounted. Currently, Martha is on display through September 2015 as part of the Once There Were Billions exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. A memorial statue of Martha stands on the grounds of the Cincinnati Zoo.

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Martha, the last passenger pigeon

Some have suggested cloning the passenger pigeon in the future. De-extinction efforts are now underway to revive the species by extracting DNA fragments from preserved specimens, and later, using band-tailed pigeons as surrogate parents. A significant challenge to an effective de-extinction effort is the fact that the passenger pigeon was a very social bird known to form flocks of millions. When their numbers dwindled to a few thousand, the birds stopped breeding; it is likely that more than a few thousand birds would have to be created for a de-extinction effort to be successful. Also, the pigeons that would raise them would be a different species, with differing mothering techniques.


 

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