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  • Writer's pictureJapp's OTR

Meet Martha, The Original "Fiona" of the Cincinnati Zoo

A drawing of the passenger pigeon by John James Audubon (1785-1851). From the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library's Digital Library - Genealogy and Local History Department.

We’ve all come to love Fiona (and now her cute little brother, Fritz) at our beloved Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. But Fiona isn’t the first animal celebrity our city has seen!

Martha was a female passenger pigeon. Passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorious) were beautiful, harmless birds that were native to Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other neighboring states. In the 19th century, they were the most abundant species of bird in North America and possibly the world. In fact, there were around nine billion passenger pigeons on the continent in the 1850s. Less than sixty years later, the species went extinct.

Named after Martha Washington, wife of the first President of the United States, the Cincinnati Zoo got the passenger pigeon from a professor at the University of Chicago in 1902.

Passenger pigeons were hunted relentlessly for both commercial uses and for sport. A 1988 Cincinnati Enquirer article states passenger pigeons were served "fresh, dried, smoked, pickled in apple cider, salted, packed in molten fat. When the people were full of pigeons, they fed more to their dogs and horses. Their feathers were used to stuff pillows, their oil for soap, their fat as butter."

A postcard from the Zoological Gardens of Cincinnati. From the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library's Digital Library - Genealogy and Local History Department.

The same 1988 Cincinnati Enquirer article shared that it is believed “the last passenger pigeon in the wild was killed in 1900 by a boy with a BB gun in Pike County Ohio.” No passenger pigeon had been seen in the wild for years beforehand, and none were ever seen afterward. A single captive flock existed at the Cincinnati Zoo, but after multiple failed breeding attempts, two of Martha's male companions passed away. There was a standing $1,000 reward for anyone who found a mate for Martha! However, by 1910, she was the last living individual of her species.

Similar to Fiona, the premature hippo born in 2017, Martha was a celebrity at the Cincinnati Zoo, attracting long lines of visitors. When she was found dead on the floor of her cage, she was immediately frozen into a 300-pound block of ice and transported via rail to the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of History in Washington, D.C., where her body was carefully preserved as a taxidermy mount.

Martha passed away 108 years ago today on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. She was 29 years old. In her obituary, Martha was described as, "a queenly young passenger pigeon that delighted thousands of birds and nature lovers at the Zoo during the past twenty years." At the time of her death, passenger pigeons were the first documented extinction of species at the hand of man. Her death sparked increasing interest and effort in conservation.

Photo by Meg Vogel from a 2019 Cincinnati Enquirer article, "The Story of Martha the Passenger Pigeon Might Get a Happier Ending."

The Cincinnati Zoo houses a statue in honor of Martha outside the old bird house where she resided. In 2014, naturalist and wildlife artist John A. Ruthven reproduced his original masterpiece in a 6,000-square-foot mural at 15 E. Eighth Street in downtown Cincinnati. In partnership with ArtsWave and the Cincinnati Nature Center, the mural depicts Martha and her flock soaring over the Cincinnati Zoo.

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