Close up of John Ruthven's mural in downtown Cincinnati.

Close up of John Ruthven’s mural in downtown Cincinnati.

For five years I had been working to help publicize the centenary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction. Events kicked off in January with the release of my book, but the key date was September 1, the day Martha died a century ago, and the key place was the Cincinnati Zoo, where she died. Way back in April 2010, I reached out to the zoo at a most memorable meeting (http://www.birdzilla.com/blog/2010/04/17/a-trip-to-the-holy-land-part-ii-piketon-and-cincinnati/) and Dan Marsh, the education director, has been a key player in all the efforts since. Later I met Randy Rogers of the Ohio Ornithological Society (OOS) who was also committed to the goals of Project Passenger Pigeon. The zoo and OOS collaborated in coming up with a rich array of activities to make the anniversary memorable. (Randy, I need to mention, was responsible for the creation of a beautiful new memorial to the passenger pigeon based on the art work of Kristina Knowski: it stands on the grounds of historical Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus.)

Passenger pigeon memorial in Green Lawn Cemetery, Columbus.

Passenger pigeon memorial in Green Lawn Cemetery, Columbus.

I had met a number of people over the past few years who had indicated that being in Cincinnati on September 1 was something they had wanted to do. I reached out to several friends and their presence made the experience even more rewarding for Cindy and me. Garrie Landry came from Franklin, Louisiana; Justin Peters took a train from Toronto to Essex County where he met Sarah Rupert and the two drove down; and Bret Angelos and Cheryl Cabiness from the Chicago area came as well. (Bret wrote the play Savage Passengers, based on what might be the only few incidents in the historical record where someone sought to protest the slaughter of the pigeons.) Joining us for the events, and putting us up for one night, was Marianne Buentner, a college friend of Cindy’s who lives in Cincinnati.

On Friday afternoon, August 29, I was in the lobby with Garrie as we waited a visit from Sherri Woodley, a novelist from Washington who was traveling through. Sherri’s last book, A Quick Fall of Light, is a science-fiction novel that features passenger pigeons as a major theme. We had been in touch for a number of years now but this was our first chance to meet. The our of us (including her husband) were having a nice chat when suddenly the fire alarm in the building went off. Everyone had to evacuate but for me the most awful aspect was that Cindy was up in our room. Do you ignore orders and race to retrieve your spouse or do you assume she is ok and will find her way down? Some scary time elapsed before she appeared. We eventually we were told we could reenter the building but only after I asked staffers did one or two reveal that the alarm was triggered as a result of someone preparing pop corn.

Festivities began that evening with “Martinis with Martha,” a reception held at the zoo and hosted by Dan. Music was provided by Bill Thompson and his band, The Rain Crows. Bill is famous in birding circles for being editor and publisher of Bird Watchers Digest, and this is the first time I ever met him. Saturday’s program consisted of four talks: by me; wildlife artist John Ruthven whose mural of passenger pigeons was one of the highlights of the anniversary effort; Jim Cormac, an author and biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife who talked about the plight of cerulean warblers; and Brian Jorg, Director of Horticulture at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Bret and Cheryl at Martinis with Martha (Cincinnati Zoo)

Bret and Cheryl at Martinis with Martha (Cincinnati Zoo)

Sunday of Labor Day weekend is a big deal in Cincinnati with fireworks and other civic events so that day was devoted to a birding field trip that centered on an oxbow in the Ohio River that is being restored by a local land conservancy. The birds were slow with the highlight being a peregrine falcon. But I did get a chance to talk with a wonderful lady whom I had first met earlier in the year at the Black Swamp birding festival: Pat Williamson, Executive Director of the Ohio Humanities Council (she is someone who truly gets the importance of linking the humanities with science and conservation).

August 31 field trip participants including (from left to right) Pat Williamson, Cindy, and Bill Thompson.

August 31 field trip participants including (from left to right) Pat Williamson, Cindy, and Bill Thompson.

And then there was Monday September 1, THE date. The zoo had refurbished the passenger pigeon memorial that fills a preserved building that once housed the aviary. A nice crowd assembled as a television crew focused on zoo director Thane Maynard. A family from Japan was visiting and I gave them a copy of the book: a copy generously donated by another passenger pigeon friend I had not met before, Chris Grecco from Pennsylvania. (I sent him a copy later to compensate for his favor).

Martha (with Christian Sampier, former director of National Musuem)

Martha (with Christian Sampier, former director of National Museum)

The anniversary did get me thinking of Martha and how her beginning and end are cloaked in mystery. David Whittaker, of Milwaukee, started his passenger pigeon flock in 1888 with one pair (one half of another pair died while the second bird escaped). He claims that while on a trip ut of town in early 1896 his entire flock of 18 birds was stolen and then sold to an unaware Charles Otis Whitman. Whittaker later received some of the birds back. If Martha was born before 1896, she started life in Milwaukee; otherwise she was born in Chicago. But, alas, despite people continuing to give Martha an age, there is absolutely no information on that subject: neither Whittaker nor Whitman kept track of births. In 1902, she was living in Chicago for that is when she was sent to the Cincinnati Zoo. Most of the literature says she was found dead by her keeper around 1 pm of that fateful September day. But there is an article by Joseph Quinn that says Martha was stabbed by her keeper because he wanted her death to be under his watch. This would be easily dismissed except for Dr. Shufeldt’s necropsy which found a tiny slit on the side of its abdomen from which blood was dripping: upon enlarging this opening he found “the right lobe of the liver and the intestine almost entirely broken up as though it was done with some instrument.” A fire at the zoo in the 1930s destroyed any records that might have revealed more.

 

Cindy and Marianne

Cindy and Marianne

 

 

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