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Posted January 18, 2012
Dispatch #7
Martha’s Legacy

This is one in a series of dispatches sent from the road by photographer Joel Sartore.

Photo: Martha, the last carrier pigeon
Martha, a mounted passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). The last of her species. She died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

(Listen to Joel talk about the importance of Martha.)

When I was a child, there was one photograph that fascinated me more than any other. It was in black-and-white, in a book on birds that my mother had, and it was taken at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1913. There, in grainy black and white, sat a solitary bird in an iron cage. It was Martha, the very last living passenger pigeon. For several years, people knew she was the last, and stopped by to see her while they could. She died in 1914, ending a lineage of birds once numbered in the billions.

How could this have happened? I’ve thought about this over and over again. These creatures flew in flocks so huge they blocked the sun for hours at a time as they flew by. It was the most populous bird on Earth. The answer to explain their decline was simple. Birds were shot with cannons packed with gravel. Entire roosting forests were cut down or set ablaze to get the young squabs, which were then salted and shipped by rail back to cities on the East Coast. Market economics doomed the passenger pigeon.

That photo of Martha, and the story behind it, affected me so much that even as a young boy, it made me want to do something with my life that would keep this kind of thing from happening again.

The Biodiversity Project is designed to get you to look all creatures directly in the eye and discover the wonder in them, while they’re still here. There are literally hundreds of species among us right now that are our modern-day passenger pigeons, either hovering close to extinction today or there within our lifetimes.

The sad thing is, zoos and other captive-breeding centers simply do not have the funding or the space to save them all. They must choose which ones to save and which ones to let go.

It’s up to all of us to decide what we’ll cherish enough to take with us into the future. The good news is that if enough of us care, we can turn things around for many of Earth’s species. It is not too late. But first we must actually think about all this, learn what we can do to save the world, and then, most importantly, act. The fact that you’re reading this is an excellent start.

PreviousNext dispatch: “Funding the Wild”

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