09/05/2014 11:52 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

People and Other Animals: Remembering an Extinct Species

Back in March I wrote about extinction, specifically about extinction resulting from the hand of Homo sapiens, focusing then on how man's appetite for food and fashion as well as simple blood lust led to the extermination of what was once the most common bird on the planet, the passenger pigeon. 150 years ago the population of this now extinct species was well in excess of 3,000,000,000: 3 billion with a b. Today, there are 1,532 dead, stuffed passenger pigeons known. The last live bird, Martha, died September 1, 1914, a sad and lonely animal, sitting without moving, alone on a perch, a wild animal caught and caged in a zoo.

Occupational hazard, I suppose, but I often get accused of anthropomorphism. That being said, Martha was of a species whose nesting grounds were so massive that one colony covered an expanse of land almost 40 times the size of Manhattan. I do not think it unreasonable to suggest that the last of such a kind, alone in a cage, felt loneliness to a degree impossible to imagine.

It occurs to me, admittedly a few days late, that the 100 year anniversary of the death of this lone, last survivor should not go unnoticed.

Passenger pigeons went from a population of billions to zero in a matter of decades. They were hunted out of existence for their meat, their feathers, and just for the sheer joy of shooting lead into the sky to produce a corpse. (For more about passenger pigeons' natural life and most unnatural death, I highly recommend Joel Greenberg's excellent book A Feathered River Across the Sky, which is also the source of the stats noted throughout this article -- sorry, no hyperlinks available!)

The annual State of the Birds Report will be released in just a few days. According to one of its authors (John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, writing in this past Sunday's New York Times, "Saving Our Birds") this year the Report will list 230 species of birds "currently in danger of extinction or at risk of becoming so without significant conservation action."

It doesn't seem like Martha's death has taught us enough.