CINCINNATI — When the most famous bird in the country died at the Cincinnati Zoo, it was more than the extinction of a species: an American way of life was gone.

Every local schoolkid thinks they know the story of Martha, believed to be the world’s last passenger pigeon: She was born in captivity, then lived with a flock here until her death on Sept. 1, 1914.

Found on the floor of her cage that afternoon, the zoo had her carcass frozen into a 300-pound block of ice, then shipped her to the Smithsonian Institution to be preserved.

“By the time she arrived, the ice I think was pretty much gone,” said Dan Marsh, the zoo’s director of Education and Volunteer Programs. “That’s the best they could do in those days. It can still be pretty hot in September.”

Marsh became the zoo’s in-house expert on passenger pigeons leading up to the 100th anniversary of her death. Martha became one of the Smithsonian’s “most treasured possessions” because of how she’d shape the future of American conservation.

She’s now part of a new exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, chosen from 145 million artifacts and specimens to show how they help scientists understand nature and human culture.

For Martha, the story is much bigger than many people realize.


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