AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, but by 1914, there was just one. She's now the highlight of a Smithsonian exhibit that opened here in D.C. this week. And as NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports, for some, she's still an icon.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Walk into the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History through the main doorway, and you will see Martha. She was the last passenger pigeon, named after - who else? - Martha Washington. And Helen James, the museum's curator of birds, says, despite being dead for a hundred years, she's a celebrity.

HELEN JAMES: There's been a website up for a long time saying, put Martha back on exhibit. There are just that many people who care.

BICHELL: After years locked inside a metal cabinet, Martha's not perched on a branch, red eyes peering over her shoulder at museum-goers. She isn't pretty.

JAMES: Unfortunately, she's rather drab looking for a larger-than-life bird.

BICHELL: Sort of looks like a mourning dove that got hit with an ugly stick. But despite the brown tousled feathers, this bird was and is an icon. Her stuffed body has been flown first-class all over the country. Songs have immortalized her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARTHA (LAST OF THE PASSENGER PIGEONS)")

JOHN HERALD: (Singing) Yes, all that remains is the last with a name of Martha - very proud, very sad but very wise.

BICHELL: Why the obsession with this one bird? James says, a lot of animals have gone extinct, but it's rare to be able to go to the zoo and look the last one in the eyes.

JAMES: There she was, alive. You could go and see her, and you could know when she dies, there goes the species.

BICHELL: The passenger pigeons' demise was dramatic. Joel Greenberg just wrote a book about it. He says their flocks used to darken the skies of North America. One report from Ohio in 1854 starts with people noticing strange clouds forming on the horizon.

JOEL GREENBERG: As time went on, it became clear that those clouds were birds. And as more time passed, they were plunged into darkness. People who had never seen the phenomenon before fell to their knees in prayer, thinking the end times come. The down-beating of hundreds of millions of wings created drafts. People were cold.

BICHELL: The passenger pigeons tendency to cluster in such staggering numbers - in the millions - was their Achilles' heel. They were the cheapest protein on land. And there they were, lining the trees with potential for pigeon potpies.

JAMES: That made the species very vulnerable because you could harvest them intensively, all at once.

BICHELL: And that's what happened. Hunters communicated by telegraph to locate the massive flocks and then shipped them off by the barrel, until there was only one - Martha. As the story goes, she lived to be about 30 years old, which is totally decrepit for a pigeon. When she was found one day, lying at the bottom of her cage, her body was immediately encased in a 300-pound block of ice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A large delivery truck rolled up to the rear of that building.

BICHELL: Shipped to the Smithsonian and stuffed for immortality. In part because of Martha, in 1900, the U.S. passed the first federal law protecting wildlife and much later, the Endangered Species Act. But if you think we learned our lesson, Greenberg says, think again.

GREENBERG: The depletion of the oceans is going on now. No country controls the open seas, so nobody can impose limits.

BICHELL: And like the passenger pigeon, cod and blue fin tuna were once abundant. Overfishing has made them vulnerable. Hundreds of years from now, who knows what animal will end up stuffed next to Martha. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARTHA (LAST OF THE PASSENGER PIGEONS)")

HERALD: (Singing) You know a piece of us all goes with you. Oh, the birds went down. They fell, and they faded to the dozens 'til in the Cincinnatti Zoo was the last one. Yes, all that remains

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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