When a female Passenger Pigeon – named Martha by those who tended to her daily needs at the Cincinnati Zoo – died in her cage on 1 September 1914, a species of bird that only a hundred years prior had numbered in the billions forever vanished from the face of the planet. Other bird species, to say nothing of numerous other species of flora and fauna, have been known to have gone extinct in living memory, but ever since the death of Martha, the extinction of Ecopistes migratorius has haunted human memory.
Perhaps it was because its numbers dwindled so quickly. Perhaps it was it was the last in a string of note-worthy extinctions across North America in a relatively short period of time. Perhaps it was simply a tipping point that brought about a collective change in the minds of thousands of people all across the land regarding the fragility of an ecosystem once thought to be both inexhaustible as well as indestructible. Whatever the reason, recollection of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon has for the past one hundred years stood as a memento mori to all who contemplate the natural world and the precariousness of the existence of all the creatures living in it – including ourselves.
With the centennial of the death of Martha being observed in 2014, a number of works taking up her life, as well as the lives of her billions of ancestors, are being released. Some will be maudlin, others cautionary; some will be too tedious to read while others will be well written and interesting. However of all those that have come my way thus far, Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha stands apart from and above the rest in both the quality of writing as well as the information collected within its pages.
Mr. Avery, a scientist by education and a long-time staff member (now retired) of the famous Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, is as skilled a writer as he is impassioned as an advocate for wildlife conservation. His prose, each sentence laden with information as it may be, streams as richly and beautifully through the book as must the miles-long flocks of Passenger Pigeons chronicled by Audubon once have streamed across the skies of the eastern United States.
Beginning with an investigation into the natural history and biology of the his subject, Mr. Avery goes far deeper than the usual tropes and delves into aspects of the lives of these birds that are rarely discussed in popular works. Highly mobile, they seem not to have followed a simple “point A to point B and back again” pattern in their migrations. Why was this so? And even more curious, they are reported to have only produced a single egg per nesting. How could a species sustain a population with such a low reproduction rate? Truly, such questions require someone possessing extensive scientific experience to do them justice, and Mr. Avery’s particular experience is ideally suited to do precisely that.
Yet if he did not also possess the soul of a poet, A Message from Martha would no doubt soon bog down in obscure details and minutiae. Which is why subsequent chapters addressing his travels across the U.S. to discover what remnants of the existence of this once almost inconceivably numerous bird species might still be discovered upon the landscape as well as within the culture of the people now living in what was once its vast range.
But what is the message itself? For that Mr. Avery takes his readers back to England where another iconic member of the Columbidae, the Turtle Dove, is facing a number of serious threats to its own continued existence sufficient to place it on the RSPB’s red list. What from the tragic history of the Passenger Pigeon can be extrapolated in order to prevent the same fate befalling this dainty little dove of so many verses and songs?
If you read only one book on the Passenger Pigeon during 2014 – or anytime after – make it Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha. However be warned that if you do take up this book, it will almost assuredly fire your mind with a desire to learn still more, about the Passenger Pigeon, the Turtle Dove, and the myriad other creatures with whom we currently share the planet that are facing ongoing threats to their respective continued existence as a species. You may even come to the conclusion that the same manner of hubris that played a role in the extinction of Martha and her kind may very well pose a threat to our own species.
To be sure, Martha’s message is not an easy one to hear, but when conveyed by the skilled pen of Mark Avery, it is one that will transit easily from the mind to the heart, where – it is hoped – it will inspire a change for the better for all concerned.
Author: Mark Avery
Imprint: Bloomsbury Natural History
Published: 26 August 2014
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.