Pity Martha

At around 1.00 pm on September 1st 1914, Martha breathed her last in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens, aged 29. That was it. After her were no more. What, fifty years earlier, had been the world’s most numerous bird, the passenger pigeon, was henceforth extinct. Somehow, the Americans had managed to kill three and a half billion of them in less than the time I have been alive. You can see her stuffed remains in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, if you wish.

The only other extinction ‘event’ that I am aware can be precisely dated to a particular day is the great auk, the last two of whom were killed on 3rd July 1844 by three men who had been commissioned by a museum director in Reykjavik on the basis that, er, they were the last family of great auks on earth.,

Round about 1850, passenger pigeons were so numerous across the USA that they ‘blocked out the sun for hours’ as they passed over. They kind of got the wrong idea about how damaging they were for crops, and set about killing them with industrial enthusiasm. The 3.5 billion went swiftly down to a few hundred until a 14 year old boy called Press Clay Southworth took out the last wild one from a tree on 24th March 1900, and the rest is history.

To be fair, the locals had form in this. Over the previous hundred years or so, they had reduced a national herd of 60 million buffalo to just about zero, and then compounded it by ploughing up the prairies that they had roamed across which led almost directly to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when trillions of tons of loose topsoil were displaced and blown away into the Gulf of Mexico.

Gradually, the Americans came to realise the awfulness of what they had done. In 1947, they erected a monument to the passenger pigeon and then had their foremost conservationist of the time, the great Aldo Leopold, write an essay for the grand opening. Three quarters of a century later, his words call over the decades to us:

‘We, who erect this monument,’ he wrote, ‘are performing a dangerous act. Because our sorrow is genuine, we are tempted to believe that we had no part in the demise of the pigeon. The truth is that our grandfathers, who did the actual killing, were our agents. They were our agents in the sense that they shared the conviction, which we have only now begun to doubt, that it is more important to multiply people and comforts than to cherish the beauty of the land in which they live. What we are doing her today is to publicly confess a doubt as to whether this is true.’

And so, you might say, began humankind’s interest in biodiversity. From that point on, we at least recorded the species we were annihilating, and at least allowed their spokesmen to deliver epitaphs when they went.

In 2015, we chalked up our first confirmed kill due entirely to climate change, when the little Bramble Key melomys, a rat whose tiny living was eked out in the shrubberies and sand of one island at the top end of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, simply ran out of space to carry on eking due to rising sea levels. We continue. From the petite Sumatran rhino to the unremarkable chestnut ermine moth, the tiny remnants of vulnerable species shuffle off the biodiversity register and become extinct.

These days, ‘de-extinctions’ are big money. A Texas initiative to recreate the woolly mammoth raised $60 million of funding earlier this year. Nearer home, a university in Holland is receiving millions of euros of funding to recreate the aurochs, a prototype cow, in an exercise that entirely overlooks that most existing breeds could do exactly the same job for the land that their expensive, academic replacement is being lined up to do.

The truth is that it is much more efficient, and rather more moral, to protect the existing species, which is what I have spent the last eighteen months studying.

This evening, I found a cracked pigeon egg in my little paddock, which brings to a conclusion an extraordinary run of me finding an egg in each of the last twelve months. A full year of repeat breeding by Britain’s most successful bird. People get fed up with pigeons, I find, and yet we only have ten million of them compared to the 3.5 billion of that old passenger pigeon. Nothing is guaranteed.

In fact, when you come to understand that 96% of the mammalian biomass on earth is represented by you, your pets and your livestock, with every elephant, shrew, mongoose and deer filling just the other 4%, I suppose you could get a bit smug. I mean, species wise, the numbers are looking good. Perhaps, knowing all the above, you shouldn’t.

There’s only twice as many of us as there once was of the passenger pigeon.

2 thoughts on “Pity Martha

  1. ‘The truth is that it is much for efficient…’ Much more efficient?
    Wonderful and inspiring piece, as always. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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