by Chris Angell and Jackie Lebouitz
On Monday, September 1st, over fifty people came together at the Joseph Moore Museum to learn about and commemorate the loss of the passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius. Exactly 100 years earlier, on September 1st, 1914, the last known passenger pigeon, Martha, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo.
The situation was strikingly different when European settlers first arrived in North America. Passenger pigeons were reported to make up forty percent of all land birds on the continent, with populations along the East coast and as far West as the Rocky Mountains. When these billions of birds migrated in their huge flocks, they sometimes eclipsed the sun! In fact, these migrations gave the birds their common name “passenger” from the French word passager, meaning “passing by” (not to be confused with the messenger or carrier pigeons used to send messages before the invention of radio—those were domesticated rock pigeons, the kind you find in cities all over the world).
Because they were so abundant, passenger pigeons were a popular cheap source of meat. Hunting and deforestation quickly devastated their populations. Although nineteenth-century conservationists did try to call attention to the plight of the passenger pigeons, most people found it absurd that such an abundant animal could be under threat from our actions. Yet, by the 1890s they had nearly disappeared, and at the turn of the century, the only known passenger pigeons were a group kept in captivity at the University of Chicago. And in the fall of 1914, they were gone altogether. The swift demise of this one-countless bird was a bucket of cold water to the conservation movement in the US. If passenger pigeons could go extinct, what else could?
To commemorate Martha and her long-gone brothers and sisters and to raise awareness about the importance of looking after the plants and animals we share our planet with, thousands of individuals and organizations all over the world are working together to “Fold the Flock.” Each person attempts to fold as many origami passenger pigeons as they can. At our Fold the Flock event on September 1st, visitors learned how to fold pigeons and discussed the importance of remembering species like the passenger pigeon. They even had a visit from Martha herself! Over the course of the evening, we folded 119 pigeons. Even our museum fairies got in on the action by making a few little birds of their own.
On the Fold the Flock website, you can watch the ever-increasing number of origami pigeons made worldwide. They’re already more than halfway to their goal of one million pigeons. If you would like to contribute to the flock and learn more about passenger pigeons, come visit the Joseph Moore Museum or go online at www.foldtheflock.org.