The last passenger pigeon the world will ever know died September 1, 1914. At the time, the event was little regarded. The onrushing war held greater sway on people’s imaginations. But as the years pass, it becomes ever more clear that this death of a bird in a cage, a bird stolen from nature and given the prosaic name of Martha, that this death, in Donne’s words, diminished all of us. For the passenger pigeon, once the most numerous bird in North America, was no more, a victim of human greed and our capacity for mindless destruction.
Audubon drew a pair of them, drew them from dead birds he shot himself, and showed a pair sharing food. He lived in the heyday of the pigeon, in the great dreamtime, when they blackened the skies of eastern North America. He wrote of their speed, their beauty, and especially of their incredible abundance: