100 years ago this week, the very last pigeon of her kind died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha, and her passing merits our close attention today.
Mercilessly slaughtered by the tens of millions at breeding colonies in the North and at huge wintertime roosts in the South during the post-Civil War era, passenger pigeons were shipped by trainloads to dinner tables in homes and restaurants across the East. Their population fell from biblical numbers at midcentury to tiny, aimless flocks in 1890. By around 1900 the few birds that remained were all in captivity. The last male died in 1910, leaving Martha as a barren relic of past abundance.