MarthanewcoverThe current month’s Birdwatch has extracts from my forthcoming book A Message from Martha: the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and its relevance today.

I’ve been touched by how many people have emailed me, after reading Birdwatch, to say that they are definitely going to buy it.

The book looks at the story of the Passenger Pigeon  – its former immense numbers in the forests of the eastern USA and its rapid fall to extinction.  On the 1 September 1914 the last Passenger Pigeon on the planet, called Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo.  Only a matter of decades before, this bird was present in billions – it was the commonest bird in the world and around one bird in every three in north America was a Passenger Pigeon.

The biology of the Passenger Pigeon was unusual – and was probably partly responsible for its downfall.  It lived in huge flocks and nested in huge colonies – like nothing you can now see on Earth.  The flocks were of billions of birds and the colonies of tens of millions of nests.  And yet, they are all now gone, and have been for almost exactly a century.  I explain how I think we drove the Passenger Pigeon to extinction in the book. It wasn’t as simple as ‘we shot a lot of them’ although, we did shoot a lot of them.

0660_001[1]_001Rather few continental birds have been driven to extinction  – most extinct birds lived on islands, and quite a few of them were flightless too.  But the Passenger Pigeon was North America’s ‘top bird’ for centuries until Europeans came to the New World.

The late nineteenth century was a time when many other species in the USA were driven to extinction or had very close escapes.  The Bison was reduced to just a thousand or so individuals at the time when the Passenger Pigeon was still numbered in millions.  I tell this broader story of exploitation and environmental destruction, in which the Passenger Pigeon was just one casualty, through the events in the life of an American woman, whose parents were immigrants from Scotland and England, and whose name was also Martha.

But does it matter? Should we regret the loss of the Passenger Pigeon? Are we any worse off for its extinction?  I think that is the wrong question, and the book gives the right question and my answer to it.

Does the loss of the Passenger Pigeon have any relevance to our situation in the UK in 2014 – a century after Martha died?  I believe it does.  We are not losing a Passenger Pigeon, but Europe is losing a huge number of birds from the farmed countryside and that is the issue for our age.  Will the Turtle Dove be lost from much of Europe, including the UK, in just a few short decades? This would have seemed inconceivable a short time ago – just as the extinction of the commonest bird on the planet had seemed impossible to those who cut down its forests, shot it and ate it.

When the Passenger Pigeon was driven to extinction there were excuses – we understood far less about the natural world.  Now we know enough – do we care enough to do something about the loss of wildlife in our country and on our planet?

A Message from Martha is published by Bloomsbury on 17 July but you can pre-order it from the Birdwatch bookshop and get it for a reduced price.




6 Replies to “Martha”

  1. Will this book be given to all top politicians? We sent books to Cameron, Miliband and Clegg but not even a ‘Thank You’!!

  2. Mark as usual a really good considered blog and the plight of lots of species of birds is worrying,in regard to the Turtle Dove the top conservationists need to come to a sensible conclusion of the problem.
    One I heard blamed the Malta shooting,well however horrific that is if we use RSPBs and other conservationists theory that they always use about for instance Sparrowhawks are no problem to small birds as they would not get any if there were not plenty and numbers of Sparrowhawks would decline then it must apply to shooting as well.
    I do not agree with either entirely.
    Now it seems from what I read that there is some serious disease affecting Turtle Dove numbers.
    The blame seems to farming people anyway that previously the huge majority of the blame has been put on modern farming techniques.
    The problem is obviously a combination of these three plus maybe others and making a simple statement to the effect that modern farming is the cause of Turtle Doves decline did the bird no favours at all.
    I do of course hope lots of farmers sow a small area where there is a chance these birds can feed but also they are now going into gardens more it seems so there is scope there to help them.

  3. Denis – I used to live with Turtle Doves all around me in Yorkshire. Now there are none. Intensive farming is the biggest change not Sparrowhawks or shooting. Some species will adapt others will decline. How ever Turtle Doves in Egypt still have a good population along side one of the world’s fastest growing human populations but so far the agriculture still offers them 3 crops a year due to the weather as well as expanding agriculture into the desert due to all the water from Lake Nasser!!

  4. John,you missed the point.
    One conservationist says disease is a issue
    One conservationist says he has no Turtle Doves because of Malta shooting.
    Nowhere did I suggest Sparrowhawks anything to do with decline in Turtle Doves.
    My point is the conservationists need to sort it out and for sure modern farming is not the only thing to blame as previously they would have us believe.

  5. Knowing about ‘Martha’ helped me be successful in an audition for ITV’s quiz programme ‘The Chase’! Unfortunately, despite being sucessful in beating Mark ‘The Beast’ Labette home with £54,000, my teammate and I were roundly beaten in the last chase. I think your book sounds like a great wake-up call just at the right time. I will certainly be pre-ordering it and reading it avidly.

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