Passenger Pigeons: The University of Michigan’s Elegiac Displays of an Extinct Species

Illustration of a male and female passenger pigeon beak to beak on branches
Illustration of passenger pigeons by John James Audubon from The Birds of America (1827-1838).

A singular bird’s last breath is not often met with sadness, nor does it necessarily signify the emphatic end of an era.  However, on September 1, 1914, the last living passenger pigeon, Martha, passed away at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens.  In the course of a century, the passenger pigeon went from being the most abundant land bird in North America to an extinct species.  As September 1st, 2014 marks the centennial of Martha’s passing, the University of Michigan’s Special Collections Library and Museum of Natural History remember this native bird.

In the Special Collections Library, we are memorializing the passenger pigeon in our Audubon Room, located on the first floor of Hatcher Graduate Library.  Aptly named for the room’s prize feature (our library’s inaugural acquisition) John James Audubon's The Birds of America, we are displaying a beautiful color-illustration of a male and female passenger pigeon.  This illustration was drawn from nature during the mid-19th century, allowing the image a vivid and realistic quality.  Furthermore, the precise detailing of the birds’ variation in color and pattern enable this extinct species to be preserved in a visual incarnation.

The University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History is working in conjunction with Project Passenger Pigeon in creating a nine panel exhibition devoted to educating the museum visitor about the passenger pigeon’s existence and demise.  Additionally, the Museum of Natural History is also working with the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology to curate a display with taxidermy models of passenger pigeons, creating a closer connection between the museum visitor and the extinct species. 

To learn more about the passenger pigeon’s remembrance at the University of Michigan:

Catalogue Record for Audubon's The Birds of America

100 Years Without the Passenger Pigeon by Elizabeth Wason

Library Displays Audubon's Passenger Pigeon

Flight of the Passenger Pigeon Event at the University of Michigan's Museum of Natural History

To learn more about the passenger pigeon:

Project Passenger Pigeon

Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History "Martha" Article

Smithsonian Institution's Catalogue Record for Martha

360 Degree View of Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon