It was hard for early naturalists to imagine that the passenger pigeon could ever become extinct. But they didn’t realize that a technological revolution was about to hit.
"The telegraph allowed word to go out: ‘The pigeons are here,’" says David Blockstein, a senior scientist at the National Council for Science and the Environment and a founder of Project Passenger Pigeon. Thousands of hunters would then jump on newly built trains to ride out to wherever the pigeons had settled and start slaughtering them.
The hunters weren’t just killing the birds to feed their families, however. Pigeons would be stuffed into barrels and loaded back onto the trains, which would deliver them to distant cities, where they’d be sold everywhere from open air markets to fine restaurants. “Technology enabled the market,” says Blockstein.
Soon this technology-driven slaughter was decimating the passenger pigeon. Its decline was so worrisome that Congress passed the Lacey Act, one of the first laws to protect wildlife in the United States. The Lacey Act would eventually help protect many species, but for the passenger pigeon it came too late.
In 1900, the year in which the act was made into law, naturalists spotted a single wild passenger pigeon in Ohio. They never saw another one in the wild again.
For the next 14 years, the species clung to existence in a few zoos. But the birds proved to be poor breeders in captivity. Martha, the last of her kind, was barren."