Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Animal Stories: Martha, Last of her Kind

Once, a person could look up and see the sun blotted out by a stream of thousands upon thousands of birds. Their wings would flutter and the sunlight might stream through a feather or past the blink of the beating wing, but mostly, it was just birds against a blue sky. Their existence was proof of the power of unity. Sometimes, a lonely man on the street would look up and see them all together. For a brief moment he would feel a tinge of envy for their loyalty to each other, their togetherness that eliminated the very idea of being lonesome. They were called passenger pigeons. The word passenger is from the french word for passing. The pigeons were always passing. Passing pasts forests and streams and mountains. Passing past cities and people and strangers and admirers and lonely men looking up toward them. As they traveled together from country to country, they would form groups that stretched out for dozens and sometimes hundreds of miles. Flying in unison, streaming like a beast across the sky, they were no longer little individuals but a whole new creature.

It was their abundance and their extinct to remain together that essentially led to their demise. Humans would see them up there, streaming across the sky, and think of the ways they could benefit from such abundance. So they were shot from the sky to feed humans. Sometimes humans would use a captured passenger pigeon to lore in the others. A trapped and usually blind pigeon would be tied to a stool. The other passenger pigeons would see the bird and would interpret their actions as a signal it was safe to land. They swooped down to land, where they would be easily picked off by merciless hunters.

So their numbers diminished, and kept diminishing. Once, they numbered billions strong. One hundred years later they were on the brink of extinction.

The last group of passenger pigeons lived in the Cincinnati Zoo. When people saw them, they felt a since of awe. Their eyes were beholding something truly rare, no matter how ordinary the slender gray bird looked. They felt inspired, they felt saddened, and probably they felt a push to do something, to make changes so birds didn't have to go from the billions to just a few. But they went on and saw the tiger and the zebras and elephants and their mind was just too full of animal delights so that the next time they saw a pigeon on their windowsill, they weren't reminded with a twinge of the passenger pigeons. The pigeon on their windowsill was just another little gray scavenger, cooing and bobbing it's head and pecking grimy crumbs from the sidewalk.

These passenger pigeons whose job was to inspire and to educate never got to truly be the birds they were born to be. They never knew the joy of intercontinental flight. They never knew the kinship of being one stirring dot in a tribe of billions. They never knew the forest or the sea or the sky. They just knew captivity and each other.

One pigeon after another died, until there were only two left: George and Martha. Scientists and conservationists eagerly encouraged the birds to mate. But it must have been too much pressure for them. They had the weight of the existence of their entire species resting upon their meager forced relationship. It's too much pressure. How can one feel natural under the burden of that sort of responsibility? So they lived together peacefully but never had a child.

Then one day, George died and Martha really was alone. Maybe for a second, she felt relief that the pressure was gone. She no longer had the stress of creating decedents upon her feathered shoulders. She could just be a bird. But then, of course, she was alone. She was an endling-the last of her species. Martha lived an impressive 29 years before finally succumbing to the inevitable fate of old age. She died on September 1st, 1914. Instead of a grave, her body became it's own monument. It was shipped to The Smithsonian, where it lived in the natural history museum. In death, she did similar to life- teaching people about extinction, inspiring people to do better so small birds didn't have to perish into the ether of nonexistence.

Martha's story isn't over though. She may be a miracle beyond just the miracle of being the last of a species. Scientists now have taken her DNA and are working on resurrecting her, or at least recreating her. The scientists hope that by 2022, a passenger pigeon may once again fly through the sky. Maybe Martha was never given the life a passenger pigeon deserves, but the new Martha created from the old may be able to reconstruct her legacy. 

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