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What Does ‘Martha,’ The Last Passenger Pigeon, Mean For Extinction?

<p>Flickr/Keith Schengili-Roberts</p>

A century ago this week, Martha, the most famous passenger pigeon, was found lifeless, lying on the floor of her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. Once a member of a species that counted 3.5 billion birds, Martha was survived by none, and her stuffed body, living at the Smithsonian, is now the only genetically accurate passenger pigeon we have left on Earth.

The passenger pigeon, valued by recreational hunters and eaten by diners in droves, was down to just 5,000 individuals in 1889, and Martha died 25 years later in 1914 (See this great infographic of the species' decline over at the New York Times).

(Wikimedia Commons)

While Martha's story is a high-profile one, she's certainly not alone. A paper published last May in the journal Science found that global extinction rates are up 1,000 times higher than they would be without human interference. There are too many extinction stories to count - China's iconic Baiji dolphin was presumed functionally extinct in 2006, the golden toad has been gone since 2007, and the Pyrenean ibex said its goodbyes in 2000 (though there have been efforts to bring the species back via cloning).

But what about birds? Are they, like Martha, feeling the extinction sting too?

A soon-to-be released assessment of bird populations in the U.S., titled State of the Birds 2014, seeks to answer that question. And while, for some species things may looks grim, there is hope. Unlike Martha, the birds of our day have an army of conservationists working tirelessly to ensure their survival. John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, writes in The New York Times' Sunday Review:

Unlike the Americans of the 1800s, today we have an arsenal of gauges that allows us to measure how bird species are faring. The Audubon Christmas Bird Count, the Breeding Bird Survey by the United States Geological Survey and Canadian Wildlife Service, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's eBird data-collection program provide robust continent wide estimates of population sizes and trends. Because birds are such sensitive barometers of landscape health, these measures help us identify deeper environmental issues that demand attention.

Several bird species, bald eagles and peregrine falcons among them, have seen meteoric recoveries from the brink of extinction, thanks to these and other efforts. The report details the declines of several species - and the efforts to bring them back, too. Tools like the Endangered Species Act have been vital in saving these species.

But it's not all clear for birds - the report marks 230 species on a "watch list" of birds that are in danger of extinction, and recommends conservation measures to help them recover. It also notes more than two dozen "common birds in steep decline" - species that have recently lost over half of their global populations.

Things do look bleak for these species, but, as the report emphasizes, with the proper measures, they won't go the way of the dodo - or the way of Martha. A foreword on the report's website reads:

Today, we have the science, technology, and knowledge to prevent extinctions. Conservation works. When we have the will to conserve, we can make a better future: for birds, for ecosystems, for everyone.