Guest blog – What Martha Means to Me by Emma Websdale


Emma Websdale is a Conservation Biologist and Writer. Working as the Communications Support Officer for The Wildlife Trusts, she is particularly motivated in engaging younger audiences, helping them make sure that nature doesn’t drop off their agenda.


Passenger Pigeon by John James Audubon
Passenger Pigeon by John James Audubon

I sit on a train that’s heading to London, September’s issue of BBC Wildlife in my hands. I feel remorse and frustration. I stare at page 75 – John James Audubon’s illustration decorates the page, a beautiful hand-drawn picture of two Passenger Pigeons. They are warming to the eye – the male’s chest the colour of autumn, a wash of red and orange. The female is perched above him; leaning down and taking food from his mouth, giving a subtle hint of the bird’s affection. This species was gregariously sociable – a bird that nested in colonies of hundreds of thousands of pairs that the sheer weight of their winter roosts would make large branches abandon their trees. This was a species that travelled the skies together by the million, taking many hours to pass through an area.

I stare into their red eyes. I feel deep discontent. I will never get to see this bird alive, nor will anyone else. For just over 100 years now, this bird has been extinct – completely wiped from the planet. I read Mark Avery’s words, “The passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird the world has ever seen, only decades before extinction. So how on earth did we wipe it out?” And how on earth did we? I read the story… sadly; it is always the familiar one.

This was a bird whose survival was against many odds. Its habitat greatly reduced and replaced with resources to feed our appetites of firewood and agriculture. Competitors including wild (and feral) pigs and the arrival of the House Sparrow were also contributing factors. However, what really pushed this species to its extinction was the culling of their colonies. Culls that would result in areas of forest either set alight or felled in attempt to flush out flocks. These birds were culled in a magnitude rich enough to fill up hundreds of barrels each year for transportation which ended up becoming an item on a restaurant menu.

Mark’s story reminded me of how the last remaining wild Passenger Pigeon went out. Shot down in Ohio in 1900 by a 14-year old boy. This was the same year that the first hamburger was sold. Following 14 years later, Martha – the very last remaining known Passenger Pigeon died in her cage at Cincinnati Zoo at lunchtime. I cannot help but wonder how many people (ironically) were consuming a hamburger during Martha’s last breath – a big contribution to the removal of her habitat to make space for raising cattle.

Personally, the most devastating part to this story isn’t the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction. You see – humans can be messy, greedy and busy, but despite these negative tendencies, humans can also learn to restore a loss into something much better to create a gain. But we didn’t. Only 4 years after Martha’s passing, Incas – the last brightly painted Carolina Parakeet in the world, also breathed his last breath in the exact same cage as Martha. Now that is something unforgivable. Did we really make the same mistake twice? Two incredible species both lost in the same way? Yes, the frightening answer is yes.

A  panda in the snow?
A panda in the snow?

Frustratingly, it is this mistake in humans – to ignore ecological losses by focusing on economic gains that remains a stronghold within our attitude. This week, a crucial report released from the WWF and ZSL entitled ‘Living Planet Report 2014’ announced that the number of wild animals on Earth has declined by half in just the last 40 years. The reasons – the same as the ones behind the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction. Humans living unsustainably while polluting and degrading habitats. For one of the first times I can recall these frightening statistics on wildlife losses broke out into a main news channel – at 18.30 on channel 5, which welcomed Chris Packham’s viewpoints.

So what is the next species to leave us? Might it be the Spoon-billed Sandpiper or perhaps the Black Rhino?

Now this is what we are up against – very recently, I encouraged my brother to visit London’s Natural History Museum. As soon as we submerged ourselves into the ancient and intriguing world of nature, I instantly sought out the bird section in hope to see a Passenger Pigeon. There in front of me behind the glass, stood the solid, stiff body of a passenger. Among it was an Great Auk, Dodo and Carolina Parakeet. The eeriness of their stiffness reminded me that their once presence in the wild had been reduced to nothing more than a museum collection. No one seemed to even bother to stop and look at these lost birds. It angered me.  “Isn’t it frustrating to see that no one is bothered about these birds? They are gone. Forever.” I pointed towards the birds. To my horror, my brother simply turned around and replied with “So? It is only a bird. Not like a lion or tiger.” And that was from my own bloodline, my older brother – someone who I thought would know better. This is miserably such a common occurrence – people who are so disconnected from nature that they can’t even comprehend what such a beautiful loss could mean for both its ecosystem and even us humans.

I think back to Charles, Robert and many other young boys who eagerly attend the Wildlife Watch group I volunteer at, and feel proud. The excitement and thrill that explodes on their faces as they stumble across a newt or catch a pill millipede. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we continue engaging this exciting youth conservation movement with real and unforgotten natural experiences it can make some kind of dent. So that when they turn 14, unlike the boy in Ohio, their gun equipped hands are replaced with bug pots, lens caps and binoculars. And even better, perhaps with wildlife decline statistics finally making mainstream news, these children’s parents – who most likely don’t care about a bird going extinct… just might give it a second thought.

Martha was a warning. Incas was a consequence of not listening to her warning. With only 50% of our wildlife left, now really is the time to be listening.

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17 Replies to “Guest blog – What Martha Means to Me by Emma Websdale”

  1. Children follow the examples set to them by grown ups. I keep pushing for more environment education in schools, but I am also understanding more and more that all generations have to start giving something back. When I sad on Twitter that I would keep shouting about things like the 52% decline in our world wildlife, it was a grown up that told me to shout as much as I want but no one important will listen. Is this the example I should follow, I don't think it is.

    1. Many people won't listen Findlay, but whoever told you no-one will was talking rubbish. The surest way of making predictions about the extinction of species come true is if we all decide that our voices count for nothing and we may as well just shut up. On the other hand if we all take every opportunity to show politicians (and others in positions of influence) that we really care strongly about the destruction of wildlife we at least have a chance of influencing them into taking the right decisions. Sadly, there will be more species that follow Martha and Inca into oblivion as a result of human pressures but we must try and make sure that there are as few as possible. Please keep shouting!

    2. Findlay - you keep shouting. Find some friends and shout together! You're amongst friends here - although somebody has disliked your comment, I see. Can't quite understand why.

  2. Sometimes it may be best to stay as a child Findlay!! When you look around this world and see what we are doing to it no wonder species become extinct.

    1. But, todays children and teenagers are also potentially tomorrows politicians?

      Keep on campaigning Findlay and build an effective conservation coalition.

  3. I remember visiting a zoo (forgotten which) with a sign to say the most dangerous animal on the planet - with a mirror!
    We are destructive - we breed like a rabbit on steroids - we have no predators apart from ourselves - we build, burn, flatten, and kill anything possible, or build on it's home.
    Humans - I despair - we have to reduce the population somehow, sooner rather than later - but which politicians say that out loud!
    We borrow the planet from our grandchildren, but leave it better for them.............
    No, we don't, and until we see and act this planet would be better off without us!

  4. Mark - I had a familiar experience at the Isle of Wight Zoo. There was a door and it said "open to see the most dangerous animal on earth". When I opened it, I found myself staring back at me. When I was younger (much younger) I shrugged it off with a giggle. Older and wiser, I can see the real message now- and its 100% true. We need to start shifting our environmental morals away from just using energy-saving light-bulbs and recycling to things much bigger, important and challenging.

    1. thank you Emma.
      Reading my post back now it looks stark and pessimistic, but I believe we have to act on the big issues. We have just put on solar panels - sounds great, but in the scheme of things it's insignificant!

      1. Mark W - well done on the solar panels (I hope you have more success with them than I have had with mine). that is quite a big step. If everybody else took it, it would be an enormous step. Don't do yourself down.

        People let themselves off doing bad things, because the bad thing is 'just' a little thing - think of litter as an example. But lots of 'bad' things add up to a lot of badness. It works for good things too.

  5. A nicely written article that reminded me of why I "enjoyed" reading A Message from Martha.
    It is very hard not to be pessimistic or even despairing when reading the living planet report and, yes, things are grim and not enough is being done but we have to be positive about the things that are being done and I personally feel that the tide is (if very, very slowly) turning.
    Probably like a lot of people reading this blog I have come to it through social media, where I tend to surround myself with mainly people whose views I agree with and just a couple who I strongly disagree with (for balance...), this in itself can be very depressing with the daily reports of raptor persecution, destruction of greenbelt land, wildlife culling etc. but the other side of this is that you start to see so many people doing great conservation work and people raising awareness of these issues and it is most refreshing when it is young people, you start to think that there is hope.

    Rapidly approaching middle age, I am very guilty of inaction, I could and should have given so much more of my time to conservation but this can change and I strongly believe that every little bit each one of us does is a step in the right direction. Not everyone is a world-changer, not everyone is confident and dynamic with 1000's of twitter followers but so what if your contribution at the moment is "just having solar panels" or just letting your local politician know that your vote will be influenced by green matters. They are all steps in the right direction and it is far better that thousands of people take small steps than just a few people taking big steps.

  6. Emma's last line should read 'now is the time to be DOING something'.

    I don't think anyone should be disheartened or put off making a contribution towards preventing further declines in wildlife. At the end of the day what matters is what each individual does, not what the few politicians do. Ordinary people have enormous power - they just don't bother to exercise it. The message isn't reaching them and it desperately needs to. We have top down decision making and we need bottom up decision making [no pun intended]. If Mark can up with a message to the grouse shooters that persuades them it is a very 'not ok' thing to do, that problem would be solved.

  7. One of the best conservation-related posts that I've ever read. I agree entirely with what you've said but I do think there are signs of hope and attitudes are changing. In the UK, 100,000s have signed petitions against the badger cull, while in Malta, public opinion has swung to opposition to hunting. The remarkable growth of both Next Generation Birders and A Focus on Nature over the past year or so shows that teenagers and people in their 20s, an age group so often dismissed, are really passionate about wildlife and conservation. Eventually politicians will have to take notice that the public, albeit slowly, are starting to care a little bit more about the other species that inhabit this planet.

  8. Since the WWF report last week I have felt a certain glumness. We seem destined to turn our blue marble into the next mars.
    Everyday the news is filled with alarmist distractions ISIS or Ebola (22 articles today by the BEEB alone!)
    To some extent I even think climate change is distracting us from the major problem of animal extinction. When it happens proper the world will most likely do something like they did with the banks/ozone etc.
    Perhpas the technology that got us into this mess can get us out of it with cloning but there must be 1000s of species of which there are no records.

  9. The first comment on this thread reads
    "Children follow the examples set to them by grown ups. "

    That's very true. And yet all adults tend to do is write things saying how bad things are and how something must be done. By everybody else. And "will we ever learn". this sort of stuff was being written 30 years ago.

    There is nothing in this piece that suggests something anyone could or should actually DO. So it is essentially pointless.


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