Where is Martha the Passenger Pigeon?

Pigeons in Flight

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Theodor Horydczak Collection

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Where's Martha? The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

This lesson can be used as a traditional lesson plan, a flipped classroom lesson, and/or facilitated dialogue. It has science, language arts, art, and music components. 

Summary: The last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died on September 1, 1914. The primary cause was habitat loss. This lesson will look at the life, taxonomy, habitat, historical abundance and ultimate rapid decline and extinction. Among these elements students will learn about historic connections between the passenger pigeon and the Natchez Trace. Cross curriculum: Science, Environment, Ecology, Art, Language Arts, and Music

Traditional Lesson Plan: Show image of passenger pigeon, and pass out reading. Students will take turns reading out loud. After each reading there are questions for the students to answer, they can be class discussion questions, reading comprehension questions, or silent answer.Before answering the reading #5 questions change the slide to show the photograph of Martha.

Flipped Classroom with Facilitated Dialogue: (6th grade and above)
Prior to lesson have the students view information about the Passenger Pigeon on the internet.

How to Bring the Passenger Pigeons All the Way Back. : a real-life Jurassic Park type theory, by Ben Novak, on YouTube. 

Flipped Classroom Alternative: (also includes facilitated dialog)

Prior to lesson have the students view information about the Passenger Pigeon on the internet.

How to Bring the Passenger Pigeons All the Way Back. : a real-life Jurassic Park type theory, by Ben Novak, on YouTube. Appropriate for upper elementary and above.

Part 1: Lead a classroom discussion about the pros and cons concerning bringing back a species back from extinction.

Some possible discussion leads: (no "correct answers", these are all opinion)

1.Do you think Passenger Pigeons are extinct for a natural reason?

2.What may be some of the good things about being able to "bring back a species"?

3.What may be some of the bad things about being able to "bring back a species"?

Part 2: Have the students draw a storyboard that represents the steps of bringing back the Passenger Pigeon. (also Art and Language Arts)

Other sites/video to watch

Music and Informational/Historical Background:

Short informational about how/why they became extinct:

Cincinnati Zoo anniversary video. History and information:

Genetic comeback:


Primary Sources from Library of Congress:


Traditional Lesson Plan:

Passenger pigeons were uniquely adapted to the vast eastern hardwood forests of the Unites States. Their population is estimated to have been at one time over 5 billion individuals. Habitat destruction led to their ultimate extinction and helped to spearhead the modern conservation movement.

Students are encouraged to read and re-read sections of the reading that pertain to adaptations. Answers to the questions could look like:

1) Beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, seeds, and berries

2) Because the giant flocks need lots of food. Because the giant flocks build millions of nests.

3) When the food supply becomes depleted they move to another roosting site.

4) March and April

5) One per nest

6) They had adapted to move the roost when resources were depleted. They also survived by having a tremendous number of individuals. They survived on farmers' grain

7) The changes that the passenger pigeon were not adapted to included, mass huntings, netting, huge loss of forest habitat (potential roosting sites)

8) Maybe people kept killing passenger pigeons because they didn't think about all the other people that were killing them too. Or maybe they were more concerned about their crops than the survival of a species. Maybe a lot of people wanted the passenger pigeon to become extinct.

9) A large environment is necessary to maintain a large population, with vast resources (food/shelter). But changing that environment necessitates a change in the species adaptations.

10) Yes, when a species relies on a vast about of resources, when the resources diminish, the species diminishes.

11) The destruction of the vast wilderness will lead to an imbalance that is not sustainable. Please change the way you use the natural world so that future generations have the resources they need to survive.

12) If the current loss of habitat continues many more species will become extinct.


Reading 1:

Student Instruction:

Today we are going to learn a bit about the passenger pigeon. Slide one shows an image painted by John James Audubon. Audubon was an ornithologist to travelled all over the country painting and describing birds. He was a fierce defender of conservation and today the Audubon Society is named after him. He traveled the Natchez Trace, an old wilderness road, and surely saw thousands of passenger pigeons there. The scientific name (taxonomy) of the passenger pigeon is: Animalia, Chordata, Aves, Columbiformes, Columbidae, Ectopistes, migratorius. The image you see is the Audubon portrait of the passenger pigeon.

The following passage from the Smithsonian Institution describes the habitat and nesting habits of the passenger pigeon. Read out loud in class:

Reading #1:

The habitat of the passenger pigeon was mixed hardwood forests. The birds depended on the huge forests for their spring nesting sites, for winter "roosts," and for food. The mainstays of the passenger pigeon's diet were beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, seeds, and berries found in the forests. Worms and insects supplemented the diet in spring and summer.

In the winter the birds established "roosting" sites in the forests of the southern states. Each "roost" often had such tremendous numbers of birds so crowded and massed together that they frequently broke the limbs of the trees by their weight. In the morning the birds flew out in large flocks scouring the countryside for food. At night they returned to the roosting area. Their scolding and chattering as they settled down for the night could be heard for miles. When the food supply became depleted or the weather conditions adverse, the birds would establish a new roosting area in a more favorable location.

The migratory flights of the passenger pigeon were spectacular. The birds flew at an estimated speed of about sixty miles an hour. Observers reported the sky was darkened by huge flocks that passed overhead. These flights often continued from morning until night and lasted for several days.

The time of the spring migration depended on weather conditions. Small flocks sometimes arrived in the northern nesting areas as early as February, but the main migration occurred in March and April. The nesting sites were established in forest areas that had a sufficient supply of food and water available within daily flying range.

Since no accurate data were recorded on the passenger pigeon, it is only possible to give estimates on the size and population of these nesting areas. A single site might cover many thousands of acres and the birds were so congested in these areas that hundreds of nests could be counted in a single tree. A large nesting in Wisconsin was reported as covering 850 square miles, and the number of birds nesting there was estimated at 136,000,000.

The nests were loosely constructed of small sticks and twigs and were about a foot in diameter. A single, white, elongated egg was laid per nesting. The incubation period was from twelve to fourteen days. Both parents shared the duties of incubating the egg and feeding the young.


Reading #2:

Because the passenger pigeon congregated in such huge numbers, it needed large forests for its existence. When the early settlers cleared the eastern forests for farmland, the birds were forced to shift their nesting and roosting sites to the forests that still remained. As their forest food supply decreased, the birds began utilizing the grain fields of the farmers. The large flocks of passenger pigeons often caused serious damage to the crops, and the farmers retaliated by shooting the birds and using them as a source of meat. However, this did not seem to seriously diminish the total number of birds.


Reading #3

There were no laws restricting the number of pigeons killed or the way they were taken. Because the birds were communal in habit, they were easily netted by using baited traps and decoys. The birds were shot at the nesting sites, young squabs were knocked out of nests with long sticks, and pots of burning sulphur were placed under the roosting trees so the fumes would daze the birds and they would fall to the ground. Hundreds of thousands of passenger pigeons were killed for private consumption and for sale on the market, where they often sold for as little as fifty cents a dozen.

By 1850 the destruction of the pigeons was in full force, and by 1860 it was noticed that the numbers of birds seemed to be decreasing, but still the slaughter continued.

One of the last large nestings of passenger pigeons occurred at Petoskey, Michigan, in.1878. Here 50,000 birds per day were killed and this rate continued for nearly five months. When the adult birds that survived this massacre attempted second nestings at new sites, they were soon located by the professional hunters and killed before they had a chance to raise any young.



Agriculture, Art, Biodiversity, Biology: Animals, Conservation, Ecology, Environment, Museum Studies, Philosophy, Recreation Ecology, Science History, Wildlife Biology, Wildlife Management
National/State Standards:
LS2A Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems
LS2C Ecosystems Dynamics Functioning and Resilience
LS4D Biodiversity and Humans
Asking Questions and Defining Problems
Cause and Effect
Extinct, extinction, passenger pigeon, biodiversity, diversity

Last updated: April 14, 2015