A Message from Martha by Mark Avery

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

Message from MarthaThis is an important centenary year; on 1 September, 1914, the world’s last Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) died in Cincinnati Zoo.  Her name was Martha, and Mark Avery’s book tells us why this happened, why it matters, and offers some lessons about the future, making sure we do not make these mistakes again.  Avery was conservation director of the RSPB for many years, so is well placed to understand and explain the issues – and he does a pretty good job, making the story accessible and important.

Of course, many species have gone extinct in the history of the world – most of them millions of years before human beings arrived – read Richard Leakey’s The Sixth Extinction for a fine and very readable account of earlier ones and what makes the sixth, the current phase, so very different.  What is happening today, by which I mean over the past three of four centuries, is different because our own species is so heavily implicated, but extinction is natural, continuous and ecologically important.  And we can all name at least one extinction caused by man – the Dodo, itself a pigeon, though a flightless one.  But there have been dozens of others, in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Africa, the Americas and everywhere else – and there have been a lot of near misses, with hundreds of species still on the critical list.  So what makes the case of the Passenger Pigeon so special?  The answer is simple – the speed and scale of the extinction.

The passenger pigeon was a striking bird, with the normal greys and whites of the pigeon/dove family augmented by a rosy red breast and some green and gold.  They were quite sizeable birds, too, markedly bigger than the feral pigeons we see everywhere in our towns and cities.  They were a bird of woodland, eating beech mast and acorns in particular, and they lived across much of the eastern USA, and across the border into Canada.  And there were a lot of them!

We know a lot about the passenger pigeon because it was so common, and it was not only mentioned but studied by many trained observers and travellers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; there are many credible, attested accounts of their flocks darkening the skies and breaking the branches of mature trees at their roosts.  Flocks of hundreds of millions of individuals certainly existed, and the total peak population was once somewhere between five and ten billion.  To put this into perspective, the largest flock of starlings in the UK, which you might see on a nature programme, would be measured in hundreds of thousands of individuals; and there are fewer than two hundred million birds of all species in the UK now, and only three billion in the whole of Europe.  This bird was superabundant – and now you can only see Audubon’s painting, a few museum skins, and Martha herself, stuffed in a museum in Washington.

John Muir, the Scot who initiated the National Park movement in the US (and who is remembered in the John Muir Trust in Scotland today) saw a flock in Wisconsin in the 1850s:

It was a great memorable day when the first flock of passenger pigeons came to our farm, calling to mind the story we had read about them when we were at school in Scotland. Of all God’s feathered people that sailed the Wisconsin sky, no other bird seemed to us so wonderful. The beautiful wanderers flew like the winds in flocks of millions from climate to climate in accord with the weather, finding their food – acorns, beechnuts, pine-nuts, cranberries, strawberries, huckleberries, juniper berries, hackberries, buckwheat, rice, wheat, oats, corn – in fields and forests thousands of miles apart. I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour, like a mighty river in the sky, widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray.

Other observers noted flocks which took days to pass and darkened the sky, miles wide and even longer.  Inevitably, they were hunted for food – they tasted good and were easy to shoot or catch at their breeding colonies, where, as they changed them every year, they were seen as a massive windfall of food and sport.  In one famous season, in 1878 in the small town of Petoskey, Michigan alone, over a million dead and live birds were shipped out to nearby cities for food, meaning that many times that number would have been killed in the process.

This massive slaughter, combined with the rapid felling of the beech and oak woods of the eastern US for agriculture, caused a dramatic decline in numbers, which was noticed and commented on by the locals.  But, although the decline was seen and the causes pretty well understood, no-one had the resources, the knowledge or the influence to prevent extinction.  One of the pressing questions is why not?  Partly it is cultural, and partly a question of knowledge; even fifty years later, attitudes had changed dramatically and there were tested methods of researching and saving vulnerable species.  But partly the Passenger Pigeon was the victim of its own success – huge numbers meant that extinction seemed impossible until it was too late; its habit of nesting in different places each year, wherever the mast was good, meant that its absence in any one year caused no alarm; and it was largely dependent on mature deciduous woods, which were rapidly cut down for construction and agriculture – and its alternative food was the crops the farmers planted, which of course led to persecution.

Avery writes passionately about this extinction, and entertainingly describes his six week road trip through the US in search of the story.  This is an interesting and important book, but it may have just a bit too much ornithology for the non-birder, though it would be easy to skip the odd technical section.  His device of finding a human Martha who also died in Cincinnati in 1914, and telling the story of her life to illustrate the dramatic changes sweeping the US in her lifetime, powerfully illuminates the pressures the Passenger Pigeon was under from human expansion, agriculture and industry.  Avery also reminds us that it was not alone in the US – we lost many bird and mammal species, and many others became mere relict populations.  In the UK, the Turtle Dove, never as abundant as the Passenger Pigeon but once a very common bird of the countryside, is heading the same way, though there are efforts to save it.  On his final page, Avery puts words into Martha’s mouth addressed to us:

“I forgive you for wiping out my species – you didn’t mean to do it, and maybe you knew no better.  However, the excuses are slipping away.  You can choose what type of world you live, and what type of world you create, in a way no other species can. … It’s no longer a matter of what you know – you know enough.  From here on, it’s a test of whether you care.”

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Terence Jagger loves almost all birds – except our town pigeons – but has never seen either a Passenger Pigeon or a Turtle Dove.  He hopes the fate of the former will increase his chances of seeing the latter.

Mark Avery, A Message from Martha; The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and its relevance today (Bloomsbury: London, 2014) 978-1-4729-0625-0  284pp, hardback.

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