One hundred years ago last September, Martha died at the Cincinnati Zoo. When she left this earth, at the advanced age of 29, her species, ectopistes migratorius, or the passenger pigeon, departed with her. Arthritic, nearly blind, Martha spent four years as the last living member of her species hobbling around the floor of her cage, too weak to hop onto the perch a few inches off the ground. By many accounts, visitors to the zoo were wont to throw sand and popcorn at her through the bars, hoping to see her in some dramatic act of avian protest. Instead she barely moved; rather seemed stoically, almost indifferently, to await her fate. And ours. For once the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird species the world has ever known. When Europeans first arrived to North America, it is estimated they numbered close to five billion, and perhaps accounted for up to 40 percent of the continent’s bird population. There are accounts as late as 1860 of almost apocalyptic awe at the sight of skies darkened for days and the deafening gale of billions of flapping wings as flocks made their endless way across the prairies. By 1900, the last wild bird was shot out of a tree by a young boy in Canadaigua, New York. When Martha died in 1914, it was as if humanity shook itself from a long trance. There was simply no denying: we had done this, with our 19th century taste for pigeon flesh and our naive but perhaps unsurprising faith in the endless abundance of nature, “her” fruits ours for the endless wanton taking. Martha, who after death received somewhat greater respect, than she did in life including an elaborate taxidermy and a permanent gig at the Smithsonian institute, should be our canary in the coal mine, to use another symbolic bird. But perhaps one hundred years after her little mauve heart stilled forever, we are still not fully awake.
“The flocks were phantom limbs…”
Often, after the last wild pair
had flown the ruined
rafters, exited forever the stage
of the living, spotters would claim
to have seen one descend
upon a kitchen sill mid-scour
or make a quiet entrance at a child’s
birthday picnic (like a friendly
spook) to find it
had been only a mourning
dove, that milkweed of a cousin,
common as air.
And turn away, then, shy of the error.
Upon which gesture
they would note
crack in the wall, new, all along
the jamb like a fragile fault,
or glance in an akimbo
mirror a grey hair winging
out from a temple
where until now there had been
And that call, long short short,
long short short, fluting up from the creature’s
full of impossible regret.
All the way from DC to San Diego
across the recursive prairie,
golden and catatonic,
she will not serve
a single scotch nor incline
to light a Chesterfield.
Her mission: to guard
and to inhibit shifting of
the little dead thing.
Not to move and not to let her move
again. Time enough to feel
the weight of her almost
nothingness–a spit of feathers
sewn over a few puffs of stuffing
and two seed pearl eyes.
She notices her
nails are chipped–non-regulation–
and this week she barely made weight,
having fed on German
chocolate cake gratis
at the Baltimore Radisson.
But here she is, always struck
dumb by the miracle, in flight,
ballasted above domesticated clouds
by sheer motion, engineering
and pilasters of air,
or some such thing. Martha,
the placard reads, aged 29
at death. She too, well 28,
these thin-ankled spinsters.
Coiffed prettily, the iridescent
swabs at her neck like epaulets
and her cinnamon breast
in dust. By now her powder
blue lapels askew and the curl
going limp beneath the cap perched
like an angular bird.
Time rolls backward, heading west again,
like canvas yanked back
and forth from the wings
to look like waves.
She died once, having outlasted all the rest of her
kind—the suitors that bored her.
Her flat out refusal to submit.
The days rolled along
their slow track, the artificial flock
thinning until at last
she was alone.
Females take to extinction
naturally, she thinks.
They look so lovely in it.
*In 1966 Martha was flown from the Smithsonian to San Diego, to be on display at The San Diego Zoological Society’s Golden Jubilee Conservation Conference, one of the first occasions on which she served as silent ambassador for the conservationist movement.
M is For
Martha, I have so many questions.
I want to know what extinction feels like;
how it is different from mere
In your sutured remnants you look so solid, as if
you had been a you, as if your body had meaning
plucked out of its flock.
But it is a letter plucked from a deliquesced
alphabet–a sound without a signifier.
When my friend strung herself
from a tree branch did the darkness
at the heart of stars sag
a little with the weight of her
existence, snuffing out?
Did a language disappear forever?
Were you there
to usher her into infinity?
It is late. It is too late
as to the wild
In yoga class, we did pigeon pose,
a hip opener.
I want to paint the living room medi-ochre.
She died and was buried and rose again:
old, sullen, not a thought in her bird brain.
You’re supposed to throw
a coin into the Trevi
fountain while the pigeons look on,
bored and insipid.
It is late. It is too
late as to the wild
pigeon. There are viruses the size
of British passenger
They were there in ancient tundra
hard-packed in vials
in a lab.
Everyone goes home
on the weekend–
think about it–
a woman hardly knows her own
body, a word
too small for that shape-shifter
in the omni-present:
did she create herself? That useless relic
the mirror–that glass jar of
ancient tundra. This is the world
beauty only good when it is possessed,
flight arrested mid-motion
with a bullet,
over and over and over.
Sarah Eggers is an poet, visual artist and psychotherapist living and working in Los Angeles. Her poems, interviews and literary criticism have appeared in TheThe Poetry Blog, The Peacock Review, The Atlanta Review and others. Finalist of the Hunger Mountain Poetry Prize, Eggers attended art and writing residencies in the US at the Vermont Studio Center and in Italy at the International Center for the Arts in Umbria. Eggers is currently at work on a book that focuses on how visual art and poetry can affect the treatment of mental illness, as well as on an illustrated chapbook about Martha, the last passenger pigeon.