If you happen to visit the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C, don’t just walk by this innocuous stuffed pigeon. Take a good look at Martha, because she’s the last of the world’s flock of passenger pigeons. And now the subject of the ambitious The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, a “de-extinction” project aimed at reviving the species. Using the genomes of the rock pigeon and the band-tailed pigeon as a reference, project scientists aim to assemble a complete passenger pigeon genome and transfer it into the germ cells of band-tailed pigeons in order to generate live passenger pigeons. The target date for the passenger pigeons’ triumphant return is 2022.
Martha, a passenger pigeon, died 101 years ago today at her Cincinnati Zoo home. The death of a bird, while a somber moment for your average ornithologist, does not tend to resonate far beyond the bird’s nearest and dearest. But Martha was special. Her death marked the end of not just her lineage but the entire passenger pigeon species, which once flew in great flocks across the United States.
Passenger pigeons, according to the Smithsonian, were once the most common bird in the U.S., numbering in the billions. Hunted for their tasty meat, as well as merely for sport, the birds also experienced habitat loss as human development encroached on the wilderness during the 18th and 19th centuries. But at the time, conservation was not a concern.
In the 1870s, passenger pigeons were still being killed en masse—according to The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects, a 1878 hunt in Michigan ended in the slaughter of some seven million birds. Baited, trapped, netted, and shot, many of the birds ended up as merchandise in city markets, sold for 50 cents per dozen.
One of the last confirmed sightings of a passenger pigeon in the wild took place in Ohio in March, 1900. By this time, the American Ornithologists’ Union was greatly concerned. From 1909 to 1912, the organization offered a $1,500 bounty to anyone who found a nest or colony of the birds. But the damage was done. The only passenger pigeons left were those in captivity—birds like Martha and her same-species companion, George.
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