When Martha lay dead on the floor of her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio on the afternoon of September 1, 1914, there was great sadness. After all, she was considered a celebrity who attracted countless visitors. The passenger pigeon was the last of its kind after two males died in the same zoo in 1910. Martha, who was named in honor of the first US First Lady, Martha Washington, was 29 years old.

Just a few decades ago, no one could have imagined that their species would one day become extinct. After all, the bird had been the most common species in North America. They moved across the country in huge flocks – hundreds of millions of birds. They reportedly often darkened the sky for hours. Scientists estimate that this species once made up 25 to 40 percent of the total bird population in the United States. With a total population of three to five billion specimens at the beginning of the 19th century, it was one of the most common bird species in the world.

In winter the birds set up roosts in the forests. Each of these roosts often had such a large number of birds, packed so tightly together that the branches of the trees often broke under their weight. When the food supply was exhausted or the weather conditions were unfavorable, they looked for a new place to sleep in a more favorable location. A single nesting site could extend over many thousands of hectares, which encouraged hunting of the animals. And hunters relentlessly hunted the feathered animal. The tasty birds were often sold at bargain prices – sometimes a dozen were available for as little as 50 cents. Above all, progress was their downfall. With the then new telegraph technology, the huge breeding colonies of pigeons could be located and the animals could be brought to consumers by train.

There were no laws at the time limiting the number of pigeons killed or how they were shot. Because the birds lived communally, they were easy to catch using baited traps and decoys. They were shot at the nesting sites and the young birds were knocked out of their nests with long sticks. Pots of burning sulfur were placed under the trees where they settled so that the birds would be stunned by the fumes and fall to the ground.

By 1850 the extermination of pigeons was in full swing and by 1860 it was noted that the number of birds appeared to be declining. Nevertheless, the killing continued. Any attempts to save the species by breeding the surviving birds in captivity have not been successful. The passenger pigeon was a colonial and gregarious bird and required large numbers for optimal breeding conditions. It was not possible to reintroduce the species with a few captive birds.

One of the last major dove nesting events occurred in 1878 in Petoskey, Michigan. 50,000 birds were killed here every day for almost five months. When the adult birds that survived this massacre attempted to nest again in new locations, they were soon tracked down and killed by professional hunters. Even before they had a chance to raise young.

When Martha died on September 1, 1914, she was immediately frozen into a block of ice and transported by express train to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. At the research facility, her body was carefully preserved as a specimen and anatomical specimen. Today, visitors to the National Museum of Natiural History can marvel at them in the “Objects of Wonder” exhibition.

See the video above: More than 1.4 million users have already viewed a video by the self-proclaimed “Pigeon Muddi” Nina Sperling. The reason: A mother pigeon had offspring on her balcony.

Sources: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, DPA Archives