On a Martha

Sorry … not Martha Stewart, Martha Graham, Martha White, or Martha Raye. Nope … not Martha Reeves, Martha Plimpton, Martha Quinn, Martha Raddatz, Martha from the Bible. Not even Martha in another language as Marta, Martina, Martine, Martella, Maruska, Marte, or even just simply Marti. I know some are guessing Martha Washington, wife of the first US President – na-baby-na … but this Martha is named the First Lady.

Martha literally means lady, so yes, the name fits. Martha has a royal significance in Scandinavia, so royalty is a suitable adjective, but this Martha isn’t Scandinavian and possibly never visited that beautiful part of the world.

There isn’t consensus on or where Martha was born, but there is no doubt about when and where she died .. nor her significance. This post is about Martha – Ectopistes migratorius – a passenger pigeon.

Living in enormous colonies, passenger pigeons were the most common bird found in the US. Their migratory flocks could darken a sky, causing famous bird painter James Audubon wrote in 1813,

I observed the Pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds pouted in   countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.

Overhunting, habitat loss, and possibly diseases sharply decreased their population. By mid-1910, Martha was the only remain of her species – and living at the Cincinnati Zoo. At 1:00 pm on September 1, 1914, Martha died. Shortly thereafter, zoo workers packed her in a 300 pound (140 kg) block of ice for transportation to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.

Enter my ties to Martha. Although, I’ve seen her memorials on numerous occasions at the Cincinnati Zoo and Cincinnati Museum Center, in 2014 I posted this image of a mural in downtown Cincinnati. The mural is a project by ArtWorks, a non-profit organization with one aspect being providing murals as public art. (For the interested, here’s a short video about ArtWorks)

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Later, I discovered that the mural is based on a painting by a famous wildlife artist, John Ruthven. His style is not only similar to John Audubon’s, Ruthven’s world has also traveled the globe and is found in numerous museums. Currently at the age of 91, he still resides in the Cincinnati area. In 2013, Ruthven completed an acrylic painting – Martha: The Last Passenger Pigeon.


In the summer 2013, ArtsWork transformed Ruthven’s painting into a very large mural. Enjoy the time-lapse as Martha flies again.


61 thoughts on “On a Martha

  1. Terrific post, Frank! I quoted one of Audubon’s lines (about obscuring the light like an eclipse) in my History of American Cooking, but I had forgotten about Martha. I didn’t know about the mural–very cool. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cathy,
      Although I see this post as a positive tribute (as opposed to a downer), I’m a firmer believer that extinction is a natural process. Then again, we humans can, do, and have greatly influenced the process.


  2. An excellent post, Frank…art and science…a tear-jerker for the sentimental among your readers, a prompt to questions of life and death, for the philosophical, and some nice info about your fair city. Good “edutainment” all told!


    • Cynthia,
      Many thanks for the kind words. I see this as a tribute, but understand the sentimental and philosophical nature of the post/event. Of course the Cincinnati connection sparked the idea to write this.


  3. A very special post Frank – beautiful mural, reminding us all of how fragile life is and especially those that protect themselves from us humans. Sorry to learn about Martha’s ~


    • Mary,
      The mural is a beautiful tribute … and yes, a great reminder for all. Because you are an artist, I’m glad you saw this. Hope you saw the interview with Mr. Ruthven (the next to the last video).


  4. Public murals are a wonderful experience. I so appreciate this mural, all of the artists, and especially John Ruthven.
    I’m misty eyed & choked up about all vanished and vanishing species.
    My heart is broken to think about Martha. One day there may be only 1 human left on earth, a Martha, all alone for years until she dies.
    What’s it like to be the last one?
    This is the most poignant post I have ever read.


    • Resa,
      The thought of being the last is probably beyond our comprehension. Remember the Tom Hanks movie when he was stranded on the island?

      Because this is a public mural, I wanted to make sure you saw this. Hopefully you watched the videos … both are short … and well done. Although not embedded, the link to ArtWorks is also worthwhile.

      Glad you enjoyed this, but my aim wasn’t sadness … but primarily a tribute to Martha, John Ruthven, and ArtWorks,

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I remember the Tom Hanks movie.
        I did watch both videos!
        Your tribute is wonderful, and I so appreciate it. I’m sure Martha does, too!
        I worked 13 hours today, so of course my sad nerves are acute. Nonetheless, I’m loving every minute of my current design job with Kim Cattrall.


  5. The Cincinnati Connection Continuum….. I did not know about Martha, the last of her kind. Nor about ArtWorks and a mural made from the work of Ruthven, a name that had not registered previously. A regional story that reaches far beyond the city limits. There is a big picture in this post of yours Frank, if one ponders long enough. Good shtufffs you. I am reminded of this song by Bruce Cockburn https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13KUZ53NWq0 trees and Marthas’ still fall on death ears despite how far we think we’ve come.


    • Calvin,
      You are too kind. Thanks.

      Although this post focuses on Martha, oh yes, there is a much bigger aspect, which the song you’ve left says well. Here’s Google Images showing Ruthven’s work (he’s very detailed) … ArtWorks has done wonderful work throughout the city, and is an interesting story in itself. See the links within my post for more.


  6. How interesting, Frank! I knew the Passenger Pigeon was extinct, but not only did I not know when Martha died, I didn’t know she was a neighbor of yours–just a few decades before you made your arrival anyway! I do feel a tremendous sadness when I think of species that have been “crowded out” because of habitat loss and other means of human interference. There are so many stories like Martha’s. Sad, but very interesting! 🙂


  7. I learned something. Even though I have read about passenger pigeons, I had no idea that they were extinct. This was very interesting. There are so many fascinating things about our world that come and go, and yet I remain clueless . . . 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: On BLINK with Ruthven – A Frank Angle

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