Martha: A Story of Extinction opens Dec 6 at Cincinnati Museum Center

New exhibit explores story of extinction and lessons to save species on the brink

CINCINNATI – The extinct Passenger Pigeon, once so abundant that flocks darkened the skies, is making a return to Cincinnati. Martha: A Story of Extinction uses preserved Passenger Pigeon specimens, hunting instruments, images and other animal specimens to offer insight into the extinction of a species that occurred in Cincinnati and how their extinction may not be in vain. Martha: A Story of Extinction opens in the Ruthven Gallery at Cincinnati Museum Center on December 6.

Passenger PigeonDescribed as passing overhead in thundering flocks 240 miles long and one mile wide, taking three days to pass, the Passenger Pigeon was likely the most abundant bird in North America. Despite population estimates of nearly five billion in 1800, Passenger Pigeons had been reduced to the tens of thousands by the 1880s as a result of habitat loss and overhunting. Long before white explorers landed in North America, Passenger Pigeons were a staple of Native American diets.

However, with improvements in weaponry and technological advancements including the telegraph and railroad system that allowed hunters to be aware of and access roosting and nesting colonies, commercial hunting increased dramatically. Overhunting, compounded by habitat destruction as forests were cleared for farmland, pushed Passenger Pigeons to the brink of extinction with only three living by 1907, all at the Cincinnati Zoo.

How those three came to the Cincinnati Zoo is somewhat of a mystery, but what is clear is that by 1910 only one survived. Martha, the last living Passenger Pigeon, lived the last years of her life as a local and national celebrity. On September 1, 1914, Martha died of old age, and with her died the Passenger Pigeon species. Following her death she was frozen in a 300-pound block of ice and sent by express train to the Smithsonian Institution. Martha remains at the Smithsonian today, where she has been studied, preserved and exhibited for posterity.

Martha: A Story of Extinction digs deeper into the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and shares the lessons that recent studies have revealed. Habitat destruction and hunting on an industrial scale certainly impacted Passenger Pigeon populations, but research suggests that there’s more to the story. Passenger Pigeon populations were already in decline due to a natural downturn in the production of acorns, their primary food source. DNA analysis also indicates that Passenger Pigeons did not possess a large gene pool, suggesting that their populations fluctuated wildly in accordance with the availability of their food. As recent research shows, humans expedited the decline of the Passenger Pigeon but were not solely responsible for their extinction.

Applying Martha’s lessons to other species
Martha’s death and the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon offer valuable insight into the current state of several species on the brink of extinction. Extinction is an integral part of the history of life and has drastically impacted the living landscape through five major extinction events, most famously the disappearance of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. However, human intervention has caused species extinction rates to increase dramatically. Habitat destruction and commercial hunting has combined with pollution to alter ecological webs across the globe, exacerbating natural fluctuations in species populations.

Not all human impact has been negative. Thanks to scientific research and efforts by conservation and government groups, some species have rebounded. The exhibit also shares success stories of species that have recovered as a result of better understanding the causes of population decline, followed by targeted regulation. One of those species, the California condor, has seen its numbers jump from only 22 in 1987 to 439 in 2014 as a result of captive breeding programs. Through increased awareness, passionate advocacy and subtle lifestyle changes many more species can be spared the fate of the Passenger Pigeon.

Martha: A Story of Extinction opens December 6 in the Ruthven Gallery at Cincinnati Museum Center. The exhibit is free and will run through March 1, 2015. For more information visit