Home / Politics / Policy /  Remembering Martha, the bird that blocked the sun

100 years of the last passenger pigeon

It was 1813, when John James Audubon, the renowned American bird painter who created ‘The Birds of America’ had this amazing experience while riding to Louisville, Kentucky. Along the 55-mile journey all Audubon could see was a sky eclipsed with billions of birds. They were flying even after he reached his destination and continued flying for the next three days. “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 the wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose," he later wrote.

The bird that Audubon saw that day was the grey-blue winged passenger pigeon. It was one of the commonest birds in North America when Audubon wrote about it. But after a century of Audubon’s delightful encounter, the entire species of passenger pigeon was wiped out from earth, with the captive bird Martha, the last passenger pigeon, dying on 1 September 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo. With her death Martha, became the symbol of the threat of extinction of species in the West. From teeming billions in the 1800s, with the largest documented nesting reported in Wisconsin in 1871, estimated 136 million breeding birds in 850 square miles of forest, the passenger pigeon became extinct. In 1860, a report stated that the flight of passenger pigeons near Toronto filled the sky for 14 hours straight and held perhaps 3.5 billion birds.

The last wild passenger pigeon was reported in 1900.

What seemed unimaginable, the extinction of a species found in abundance, happened due to widespread hunting and environmental destruction for development in North America in the second half of the 19th century. Martha symbolizes the ecological price North America paid for its development.

Something similar to the passenger pigeons in North America, in India, two resident species — the Himalayan Mountain Quail and the Pink-headed Duck have not been sighted for many decades. The last sighting of the Himalayan Mountain Quail was reported in 1876 in Nainital, Uttarakhand. As for the Pink-headed Duck, once found in abundance in the Gangetic plains, its last sighting was in 1949.

As India surges forward to become a global superpower, aspiring to be one with the West, is it also on th path of ecological destruction like the latter? A recent study by Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Yale University has identified 100 evolutionary distinct and globally endangered bird species from around the world. Of these 15 species occur in India whose habitats are under threat from unsustainable human activities. All the birds represent millions of years of unique evolutionary history. For example, the Great Indian Bustard, a bird once considered to be India’s National Bird, is on the brink of extinction. No more than 200 Great Indian Bustards exist in the wild today and conservationist evaluate that by 2030 the species will become extinct.

The question is how many more Marthas will be sacrificed at the altar of human development?

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