By Chris Heller
When you walk into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the first thing you see is an elephant. The Fénykövi Elephant—yes, it has a name—is the centerpiece of the museum’s rotunda, a two-ton greeting to the millions who visit each year. It is a large and impressive animal. This is not a story about that elephant, though. This is a story about a bird. The elephant, as it has been for decades, is an introduction.
If you head past Fénykövi, beyond the Ocean Hall, and down the escalator that abuts the Hall of Human Origins, you’ll wind up near the gift shop. Next to that gift shop is a large glass case. Inside this case is a rusty-brown bird, wings mottled black and gray, mounted to appear as if she’s perching on a stick.
Her name is Martha. She was a passenger pigeon, the last of her kind, and she is one of the most famous birds in the world.
Martha died at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens on September 1, 1914. To recognize the full 100 years since her death, she’s been taken out of a locked safe in the Smithsonian’s research collection and put on public display—her first public appearance since 1999. “She’s one of the Smithsonian’s most iconic specimens,” Helen James, curator of the bird division, says. “We had to have her back before her public in the year 2014.”
I visited James and museum specialist Chris Milensky to learn about Martha and the exhibit she anchors: Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America. I wanted to know how the Smithsonian preserved the world’s last living passenger pigeon. What does it take to keep a 100-year-old carcass in pristine shape? How much longer will Martha last? And what can she still teach us?
Immediately after Martha’s body was discovered in the Cincinnati Zoo, scientists rushed to pack her into a 300-pound block of ice, then onto a train bound for Washington. Smithsonian officials received her three days later in “fine condition,” according to an account written by R.W. Schufeldt, the man who performed her dissection. (He did note, however, that some of her tail feathers were missing.) The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on Schufeldt, who recalled the loss in an article published by the American Ornithologists’ Union: “With the final throb of that heart, still another bird became extinct for all time,” he wrote, “—the last representative of countless millions and unnumbered generations of its kind practically exterminated through man’s agency.” (A historical aside: Schufeldt may have written tenderly about Martha, but he’s also infamous for publishing horrific racist screeds about white supremacy under titles like The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization.)
While it’s not clear exactly how Martha’s body was prepared for exhibit back in 1914, Milensky told me that it must have been a difficult job. “Pigeons are one of the hardest birds to prepare,” he says. “They have extremely thin skin—and the skin is attached to the body very tightly.” The bird must be skinned and de-fatted, which prevents specimen breakdown later. It’s an extremely delicate procedure; if it isn’t done carefully, the feathers along the bird’s rump and back can fall out all at once. “The fact that they were able to throw it in a block of ice, transport it all the way to D.C., thaw it, skin it out, mount it, and have it look nice is a testament to the skill of the people involved,” Milensky says.
After Martha was skinned, her internal organs were stored in jars of ethyl alcohol. (The Smithsonian still has those, too. They’re kept off-site in the museum’s fluid collection.) Then, according to Schufeldt’s account, a taxidermist named Nelson R. Wood prepared the skin on an artificial body most likely made from wire, shredded bits of wood, and tightly wound bundles of string. “You wrap the skin around it, sew it shut, and run wires or whatever else you have to do to make it solid and tight,” Milensky says. Once a mounted specimen is sewn shut, it’s set for good. From that moment in 1914 until the day her skin inevitably breaks down—whenever that may be—Martha will remain perched on that stick, head cocked at a harsh angle to the side.
The passenger pigeon was, for a long time, the most common bird in North America. It comprised as many as two out of every five birds found on the continent. James estimates that six billion of them may have been alive at the species’ peak. They flew in flocks by the hundreds of millions, if not billions—such a tremendous number, in fact, that 19th-century witnesses reported they would blot out the sun for hours at a time. In 1813, John James Audubon described a migrating flock in western Kentucky as an “eclipse” that obscured the midday light. “The dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow,” he wrote. If every rock pigeon alive today—all 260 million of them—flew in a single flock, it would be one-eighth the size of a group sighted in the early 1800s by ornithologist Alexander Wilson. The species laid waste to forests where they roosted, as Jonathan Rosen explains in the New Yorker, snapping limbs from trees and coating the ground in foot-tall piles of toxic droppings. They even affected our language: terms like “stool pigeon” and “trap shooting” originate from methods used to hunt and kill these birds.
By the turn of the century, however, the species had disappeared from the wild. (The last sighting of a passenger pigeon was, according to author Joel Greenberg, likely in 1902.) So what happened? Well, we did.
The demise of the passenger pigeon and the rise of industrial America are intertwined. As railways crisscrossed the nation and innovations such as the refrigerator car debuted, hunters were able to kill increasingly ludicrous amounts of game, which would then be sold to migrant underclasses and urban elite alike. (In New York, the famed restaurant Delmonico’s served the pigeon as “ballotine of squab a la Madison.”) As James explains, the mass killings quickly culled flocks to the point that that could not sustain themselves, hitting them especially hard in the breeding seasons. “There was no major colony that wasn’t heavily disrupted during the breeding season,” she says. “It may have looked like quite a few in number, but they were all an old age cohort, so it just collapsed. I think that’s part of it. This heavy, heavy disruption and harvesting of breeding colonies.”
When Martha isn’t on display, she’s kept in a locked metal case on the sixth floor of the Natural History Museum’s research collection. It’s an area reserved for only the most prized birds, where specimens collected by scientific titans like Audubon, Charles Darwin, and A.R. Wallace are also stored. (Teddy Roosevelt has his own case, too.) The room has no control for temperature or humidity, which means that preservation means one thing: do as little as possible. “Less is better,” Milensky says. “Any time you open a case, you’re messing with light, humidity, and temperature. We try not to open that case too often—or any other, for that matter. Only when needed.” On the rare occasion when they do open Martha’s case, they won’t even roll out the drawer she rests on. It’s just too risky.
Thanks to these precautions, Martha looks very good for her age. Her glass case prevents harmful ultraviolet light from entering, which protects her plumage and its rusty hue. Except for a wobble in her legs, which concerned the museum enough that they briefly considered inserting a sturdier wire into her mount, she doesn’t look much different than she did in 1914. There’s no reason to believe that she won’t return to research collection in the same condition late next year, after the Vanished Birds exhibit closes. Absent a catastrophic mistake, she will last many more years.
The preservation of a priceless specimen like Martha, ultimately, demands consistency. Store her in a dark space, don’t allow the temperature around her to fluctuate, and keep the humidity at a steady level. But for all this care and protection, it’s worth considering the question of why. What can we still learn from this bird? What haven’t we realized?
The State of the Birds Report was released last week, a few days after the anniversary of Martha’s death. The report reviews conservation efforts in America, such as the success stories of the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon, and lays out a comprehensive plan to prevent the 230 threatened species from going the way of Martha. “Without conservation action,” the report says, “these are the birds headed the way of the passenger pigeon.”
But even if we’ve learned from our predecessors’ grave mistakes, we’re still not perfect. The California condor is still threatened. No exhibit alone can prevent the loss of the whooping crane. The piping plover cannot save itself. Martha is a reminder, but these birds need saviors.
For years after the passenger pigeon vanished from the wild, rumors spread across the country of flock sightings. Science suggested the species fled to Arizona. No less an American luminary than Henry Ford speculated that they all drowned while trying to cross the Pacific. As Rosen eloquently writes, the flocks were “like phantom limbs that the country kept on feeling.” I’m not sure, though. As long as Martha stays with us, the phantom is real.