Ghost wings: 100 years ago the last passenger pigeon died

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Today marks a sad 100-year anniversary, a postscript to a slaughter in the natural world unparalleled in the nation’s history.

On Sept. 1, 1914, a bird named Martha (after Martha Washington) died in the Cincinnati Zoo at age 29. Martha was a passenger pigeon, the last of her species. Mass extinctions have happened many times in the Earth’s history but the passing of the passenger pigeon was as momentous as it was unexpected.

The red-eyed bird, which resembled the mourning dove but was larger and more colorful, was the most populous bird in North America. When Europeans first came to this continent, according to the Smithsonian, it is estimated that they numbered 3 billion to 5 billion.

Their huge flocks were legendary. John James Audubon, the famed ornithologist, naturalist and painter, was a witness to one of their migrations in Kentucky in 1813: “The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.”

Yet over just a couple of generations in the latter part of the 19th century they disappeared, hunted to extinction by a ravenous human population which also encroached on their forest habitat. By 1900 they had gone from the wild. No laws impeded their deaths, no strong conservation movement existed to raise the alarm.

We know better today — or we think we do. The Endangered Species Act has allowed the miraculous comeback of birds like the bald eagles that nest within Pittsburgh’s city limits. But today government regulation is seen as a bogeyman and the Environmental Protection Agency is continually under attack.

Next time such myopic sentiments are expressed, pause and hear the beating of ghost wings in the sky, carrying wisdom and warning from the past.

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