By Moritz Fischer
In the memorable year of grace 1534, Jaques Cartier of St. Malo, master pilot of Francis I, king of France, entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence in search of a waterway to India for his royal patron. Coasting along the eastern shore of an extensive island, he one day landed to explore the country, and found that, to use his own words, the land was of the best temperature that it may be possible to see, and of great warmth, and that there were many Turtle Doves, Wood Pigeons, and other birds. This casual reference to a few birds observed by the intrepid Breton near Cape Kildare on Prince Edward Island opens the marvelous and fragmentary story of a creature that ranged the unknown continent in flights of stupendous magnitude, and became known to later generations as the Passenger Pigeon. When the great captains of the sixteenth century, of whom Cartier ranks as one of the first, discovered and explored the mainland of North America, and for more than two hundred years afterward, an unbroken forest of broad -leafed trees covered its eastern half. Fringed by evergreen wild woods to the north, its western border, much indented by spacious grasslands or prairies, spread its verdant tents northward to the Height of Land and beyond. In this mixed forest there flourished here and there, as soil and climate favored, and indeed compelled, woods composed entirely of one species, and holding their own by shading out all other kinds.Such were the beech and oak forests of the Ohio and Mississippi Valley, those of maple and chestnut east of the Appalachians, and the evergreen colonies, and belts of pine, hemlock, and allied species growing in the region of the Great Lakes and the basin of the St. Lawrence. While most wild crops become available from the moment they are ripe, some plants, chiefly the shrubs, vines, and bushes cure their fruit and hold it for future delivery. The trees of mixed forests, on the other hand, with the exception of the hemlock, seed in alternate seasons, a beech-nut year following an acorn year in regular order. At all times, therefore, and in every part of its immense territory, did the forest provide enormous stores of provender readily accessible and perpetually renewed. In this land of plenty, one of the host of creatures fed by the bounty of the forest primeval, lived the Passenger Pigeon, which, by the migration, of its countless flocks and its striking habits, deeply stirred the sluggish curiosity of the first settlers. To their random notes and the later and more ample reports of our earlier travelers and naturalists we are indebted for most of the knowledge we possess of this best known and famed member of our avian fauna.
The habitat of the Pigeon, embracing as it did the vast native forest of eastern North America, offered the bird a choice of food and residence, definite regions thereof being occupied in proper season and in regular rotation. Even the fruits of the lowly herbs contributed to its bill of fare, and the handsome poke-weed is locally known as 'Pigeon' berry at the present day. But the bulk of its food consisted of the acorns of the numerous species of oak, the seeds of beech, chestnut, maple, elm, and other hardwoods, of pine and hem-lock, and of the fruits and berries of bushes and shrubs. Angleworms, snails, caterpillars, and soft-bodied insects, such as grasshoppers, helped to vary the vegetarian diet. From the frequent mineral springs and licks the bird gratified its craving for salt, a condiment eagerly sought by all grain feeders. The winter range of the bird comprised the territory south of Mason and Dixon's line, a land well stocked with its chief food supply during the inclement seasons. In one of these natural granaries the flocks would settle down and forage until the mast within a radius of two hundred miles and over had been consumed. While feeding in concert, the rear ranks successively rose and, passing over the whole flock, alighted in front, giving every bird an equal chance. Like an enormous wheel in slow motion, the birds moved through the wood and rapidly gathered its plenteous stores; toward night the swarms would return to the roost. The following description of such a locality is given by Faux, an English traveler who, about 1819, visited one of them in Tennessee. "The roost extends over a portion of woodland or barrens from four to six miles in circumference . . . The birds roost on the high forest trees, which they cover in the same manner as bees in swarms cover a bush, being piled one on the other from the lower to the topmost boughs which, so laden, are continually bending and falling with their crushing weight, and presenting a scene of confusion and destruction too strange to describe, and too dangerous to be approached by either man or beast. While the living birds are gone to their distant dinner, it is common for man and animals to gather up or devour the dead, thus found in cartloads." Scattered in huge flocks throughout the hospitable south during autumn and winter, at the advent of spring the birds assembled in several stupendous hosts, which dispersed northward to find new pastures and breeding grounds. In this vernal journey, the flocks were so densely packed and followed one another so swiftly that they darkened the sky like a pall of thunderclouds, and by their impact produced the roar of an advancing storm with its at-tending wind. Of the few attempts to compute the number of birds in one of the spring hosts, that of McGee who, in the sixties, frequently observed them coming up the Mississippi Valley, one of the old migration routes, probably comes nearest the truth. Assuming the cross section of an average flock to measure one hundred yards from front to rear, and fifty yards in height, he finds the same to comprise some 8,800,000 birds to the mile, or 30,000,000 for a flock extending from one woodland to another. "Such flocks passed repeatedly during the greater part of the day of chief flight at intervals of a few minutes. The aggregate number of birds must have approached one hundred and twenty millions an hour for five hours, or 600,000,000 Pigeons virtually visible from a single point in the culminating part of a single typical migration." During its passage, this vast army would at times indulge in marvelous aerial displays, moving gracefully through intricate maneuvers as one body. Descending the Ohio in 1810, Wilson watched such a gymnastic feat: "The great host with its glittering undulations marked a space in the face of the heavens resembling the windings of a vast and majestic river . . Suddenly the birds would change their direction, so that what was in column before became an immense front, straightening all its indentures until it swept the heavens in one vast and infinitely extended line. Other lesser bodies also united with each other as they happened to approach, with such ease and elegance of evolution, forming new figures and varying these as they united or separated, that I never was tired of contemplating them." Previous to permanent settlement and for a few subsequent decades, the breeding range embraced the middle tier of states from Missouri to New York, its upper border east of the Appalachians curving sharply northward to follow the southern rim of the St. Lawrence drainage. From colonial times onward, great flights are frequently reported from this eastern section; but the bulk of the birds no doubt inhabited the western half of their habitat. Simon Pokagon, the famous Indian chief, than whom no man knew better or loved more the O-me-me-wog of his people, writes that between 1840 and 1880 he visited many breeding places in the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan that were from twenty to thirty miles long and from three to four miles wide, and that every tree in its limits was spotted with nests. A forest tract of thirty by three miles comprises ninety square miles. At fifty trees per acre, this area would contain Some 2,880,000 of them. Allowing ten nests per tree, the number of adult birds present amounts to more than 57,000,000. After the breeding season, swarms wandered about in the spacious summer range, and reveled in the delicious and inexhaustible crops of berries which ripened in rapid succession during their stay. With the coming of autumn, the flocks prepared to depart. Avoiding the spring routes for obvious reasons, they leisurely moved southward over new highways, tarrying for weeks at a time in the newly stocked granaries located within the zone of travel. During the final stages of the retreat, the vast hordes once more gathered in great flights. It was one of these which, in the fall of 1813, surprised Audubon by its magnitude. Watching the advance columns crossing the Ohio south of Louisville, he attempted to get at the number of flocks, and counted one hundred and twenty-three of them in twenty-one minutes. But so swiftly did they go by that the teller desisted. "Pigeons were passing in undiminished numbers that day, and continued to do so for three days in succession." Another observer, who for many years witnessed the return of the flights in northeastern Ohio, puts the number of birds in one of these flocks at 141,000,000. Among the wild enemies of the Pigeon, indeed the most dangerous of them, was the Indian who levied upon the flocks wherever he found them. The populous roosts of the Southland he invaded at night, and, firing the under-brush, killed the birds by the thousands. Large numbers were caught around the numerous licks in simple traps. But it was at the great nestings that the tribe settled down to a continuous banquet, and during which it gathered a bounteous harvest of savory produce. Some of the older historians occasionally refer to those hunting camps.
Writing about 1650, Adrian Van der Douk, in his Description of the New Netherlands,says: "The Indians, when they find the breeding places of the Pigeons, frequently remove to those places with their wives and children to the number of two to three hundred in a company, where they live a month or more on the young Pigeons which they take after flushing them from their nests with poles or sticks." Recalling the old days, Pokagon states that they seldom killed the old birds, but made great preparations to secure their young, out of which the squaws made squab butter, and smoked and dried them for future use. As to the amount of food preserved, John Lawson, who traveled among the tribes of the Carolinas in the first decade of the eighteenth century, relates: "You may find several Indian towns of not above seventeen houses, that have more than a hundred gallons of pigeon oil or fat, they using it with pulse or bread as we do butter." Savage people, the world over, carefully protect their organic resources, and the aborigines shared this wholesome instinct of self-preservation.
A pupil of Linnaeus, Peter Kalm, whose name is perpetuated
by our Kalmia, or sheep laurel, botanized in the forests of the Atlantic
slope between 1740 and 1750. In his copious notes upon the Pigeon, he speaks
of this universal trait as shown by the natives. "While the birds are hatching
their young, and while the latter are not able to fly, the savages or Indians
in North America are in the habit of never shooting or killing them, nor
allowing others to do so, pretending that it would be a great pity on their
young, which would in that case have to starve to death." But neither
the modest tribute levied by the Indian nor the gigantic contribution exacted
by the pioneers sensibly diminished the Pigeon population, which maintained
its numbers until improved methods of communication and the decrease of
its habitat created new and more adverse conditions. The rapid development
of transportation by steam over land and water provided hunter and trapper
with ample facilities for the shipment of game to the great cities. In
a few years, the birds had become a marketable commodity. About 1840, professional
catchers began to prey upon the unprotected flocks. By degrees they bettered
the older methods of luring and taking. The chief contrivance universally
employed consisted of a capacious net, which could be quickly dropped over
a bed baited with salt, mud or grain, and to which the Pigeons were attracted
by imitation of their call or by the voices of captive mates serving as
decoys. By 1870, the netters had much increased in numbers. The register
book of pigeoners in Wisconsin lists some five hundred names of persons
engaged in this unholy traffic at about that time. The business of locating,
killing, and marketing the birds was now thoroughly systematized and assumed
ominous proportions. Invading the winter home of the flocks, which so far
had escaped their marauding expeditions, the pigeoners raided through the
cold season. Tracking the birds to the breeding range, they continued their
nefarious operations in the great nestings, sparing neither the brooding
mates nor their young. The unfortunately merely reminiscent accounts
of some of the active participants in the forays of those days were brought
together by Mershon in his valuable book of the Passenger Pigeon. With
the convincing simplicity of practical men, the netters describe the remunerative
business they followed, and frequently give estimates of the seasonal yield.
Averaging these fairly reliable data, we find that the catch for the decade
of 1866-1876 amounted to more than 10,000,000 Pigeons per year. This number
represents shipments only. The birds used in the camps, those taken by
farmers and Indians, and the vast numbers killed accidentally in the overcrowded
rookeries probably exceeded 2,000,000 more. Excepting a negligible quantity
of squabs, these 12,000,000 were brooding birds, and their death involved
that of the nest-lings. This annual and terrific loss suffered by the race,
made irreparable by the break in the sequence of generations due to the
fiendish destruction of the young, swiftly led to the inevitable end.
In the spring of 1878, the waning flocks established nestings near Petosky,
in Emmet County, Michigan, to the south of this in the swampy woodlands
of the Manistee River, and near Sheffield, in Warren County, Pennsylvania.
The descriptions of these nestings by the pigeoners yield sufficient data
to compute their population which, counting five nests per tree, and reducing
the figures given by one-third, reaches a total of some 50,000,000. It
is known that the Manistee flock, protected by an almost inaccessible forest
remote from transportation, escaped destruction. Not so the rookeries of
Sheffield and Petosky. From these two localities there were shipped during
the season, that is from April to September, some 30,000,000 birds. Thus
culminated the relentless persecution of many years in a barbarous massacre
where perished the last of the great flights, and which doomed the shattered
and surviving remainder. After the slaughter of 1878, the now utterly
disorganized and terror- stricken flocks continued to resort to the breeding
range in yet considerable numbers. In 1880, millions of birds passed over
Tawas going westward, and a colony of some 10,000 bred in Benzie County.
The last known nesting of importance took place near Grand Traverse in
the year following. This final stronghold, some eight miles in length,
probably sheltered more than 1,000,000 Pigeons. Some 20,000 birds were
taken here, to be butchered within a week during a trap-shooting tournament
at Coney Island, New York. Breeding flocks of a few hundred individuals
appeared in later years. In the spring of 1888, large flocks and many small
ones passed over Cadillac, Michigan, and departed forever from the sovereign
state, which failed them in their hour of need. Hand in hand with
the extermination of the breeding hosts went that of the wintering flocks,
of which no records seem to have been made. A shipment of several hundred
dozens of birds, in 1893, marks their ultimate disappearance here. A pitiful
remnant, some fifty in all, lingered for a few subsequent years in southwestern
Missouri. A small number of birds outlived the dissolution of the
last flocks. Dispersed in couples, in bands of five or more, or as solitary
individuals, these were sighted at rare intervals throughout the former
breeding range during the nineties. A dozen or so bred near the headwaters
of the Au Sable River in 1896. It is the last known nesting. With the beginning
of the new century trustworthy records cease, and there is but little doubt
that its first years witnessed the passing away of the hapless descendants
of a favored race. Down in the pleasant valley of the Ohio, amidst
patriarchs of the forest primeval, lives to this day a captive and lonely
daughter of her gentle tribe, and its sole relic, awaiting the final summons
which comes to all that breathe.
By Albert Hazen Wright
Almost the only sources of ornithological knowledge
of the earlier times in North America are historical annals, quaint narratives
of exploration, and travelers' sketches. Our predecessors had intense interest
in birds, now rare, near-extinct, or extinct. The flocking of the Passenger
Pigeon, or other habits equally peculiar, were in such bold relief, and
so patent, as to attract the attention of any layman, whatever his mission.
Only a small part of this mass of information from the contemporaries of
the Pigeon can be presented, and this resume can consider but a few topics,
which are largely clothed in the language of early observers.
The prodigious flights of these "millions of millions of birds" have exhausted the numerical superlatives of the English tongue. "They darkened the sky like locusts;" "the hemisphere was never entirely free of them;" "all the pigeons of the world apparently passed in review;" "their incredible multitudes were like thunder-clouds in heaven;" and countless other figures, mixed and pure, have entered the history of their migrations. In the early days, the writers apologized for such marvelous stories. John Clayton, the early Virginian botanist (1688), remarked, "I am not fond of such Stories and had suppressed the relating of it, but that I have heard the same from very many . . . the Realtors. being very sober Persons." Bernaby, in 1759, felt that he must entrench himself, and asserted that "The accounts given of their numbers are almost incredible; yet they are so well attested, and opportunities of proving the truth of them so frequent, as not to admit of their being called in question." One of the Jesuit Fathers (1656) considered this migration one of the three remarkable facts of the natural history of America. LaHontan, in 1687, wrote, "that the Bishop had been forced to excommunicate 'em oftener than once, . . ." The early colonists of New England and Maryland often thought of them as ominous presages of approaching disasters, like Indian massacres, crop failures, etc. It was an old observation in America, whether true or not, that Pigeons were quite numerous in the springs of sickly years. Several authors claimed that the Pigeons came north in the spring by a route different from that of their return in the fall. "Wild pigeons, in their passage northward, begin to appear in New England, end of February and beginning of March, but not in large numbers, because they travel more inland for the benefit of last autumn berries of several sorts in the wilderness; they return in their passage southward, in larger quantities, end of August; . . . they at that season keep toward the plantations for the benefit of their harvest" (Douglass, 1755). Two descriptions of their flights from eyewitnesses will suffice: "A gentle-man of the town of Niagara assured me (Weld, 1795) that once, as he was embarking there on board ship for Toronto, a flight of them was observed coming from that quarter; that, as he sailed over Lake Ontario to Toronto, forty miles distance, and that, on arriving at the place of his destination, the birds were still observed coming down from the north in as large bodies as had been noticed at a must at least have extended eighty miles. . . . It is not oftener than once in seven or eight years, perhaps, that such large flocks of these birds are seen in the country. The years in which they appear are denominated "pigeon years.")
In 1844, Featherstonhaugh, in an excursion through
the slave states, found that, "A new and very interesting spectacle, presented
itself, in the incredible quantities of wild pigeons that were abroad;
flocks of them many miles long came across the country, one flight succeeding
to another, obscuring the daylight, and in their swift motion creating
a wind, and producing a rushing and startling sound, that cataracts of
the first class might be proud of. These flights of wild pigeons constitute
one of the most remarkable phenomena of the western country. . . when such
myriads of timid birds as the wild pigeon are on the wing, often wheeling
and performing evolutions almost as complicated as pyrotechnic movements,
and creating whirlwinds as they move, they present an image of the most
fearful power. Our horse, Missouri, at such times, has been so cowed by
them that he would stand still and tremble in his harness, whilst we ourselves
were glad when their flight was directed from us."
If the accounts of the migrant hosts seem incredible, surely the most fervid imagination cannot conceive the numbers at the roosts. "Their roosting places are always in the woods, and sometimes occupy a large extent of forest. When they have frequented one of these places for some time, the ground is covered several inches deep with their dung; all the tender grass and underwood are destroyed; the surface is covered with large limbs of trees, broken down by the weight of the birds clustering one above another; and the trees themselves, for thousands of acres, killed as completely as if girdled with an axe. The marks of this desolation remain for many years on the spot; and numerous places can be pointed out, where, for several years afterwards, scarcely a single vegetable made its appearance" (Hinton). Of the dung, another writes (1806) that, "Under each tree and sapling, lay an astonishing quantity of dung, of which, from specimens we saw, there must have been not only hundreds, but thousands, of wagon loads. Round each resting place was a hillock raised a considerable height above the surface, although the substance had been there eighteen months when we made our observations on the place. At that time the heaps were, no doubt, greatly sunk." Faux, in 1819, describes a Pigeon roost, which "is a singular sight in the thinly settled states, particularly in Tennessee in the fall of the year, when the roost extends over either a portion of woodland or barrens, from four to six miles in circumference. The screaming noise they make, when thus roosting, is heard at a distance of six miles; and, when the beechnuts are ripe, they fly two hundred miles to dinner, in immense flocks. . . . They thus travel four hundred miles daily." About the same time, the people along the New England coast noticed that the Pigeons used to visit the marshes for mud every morning, and then fly inland long distances. In this connection, "Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett, 1835," has a pertinent note. "They frequently fly as much as eighty miles to feed, and return to their roost the same evening. This was proved by shooting them at their roost of a morning when their craws were empty, and then shooting them again in the evening when they returned. Their craws were then filled with rice, and it was computed that the nearest rice-field could not be within a less distance than eighty miles. . . . near a roost, from an hour before sunset until nine or ten o'clock at night, there is one continued roar, resembling that of a distant waterfall. . . . A pigeon roost in the west resembles very much a section of country over which has passed a violent hurricane."
"The breeding places [were] of greater extent than the roosts. In the western countries they [were] generally in beech-woods, and often [extended] nearly in a straight line across the country, a great way. . . . A few years ago, there was one of these breeding-places [Ky.], which was several miles in breadth, and upwards of forty miles in length. In this tract, almost every tree was furnished with nests, wherever the branches could accommodate them. The pigeons made their first appearance there about the fourth of April, and left it altogether, with their young, before the 25th of May" (Hinton). Of their former numbers in New England, in 1741, Richard Hazen made this record: "For three miles together, the pigeons' nests were so thick that five hundred might have been told on the beech trees at one time; and, could they have been counted on the hemlocks, as well, I doubt not but five thousand, at one turn around." Certainly, this assembly of these birds, both in their migrations and during breeding, has no parallel among the feathered tribe.
Methods of Capture.
Whenever a roost was located, the Indians frequently removed to such places with their wives and children to the number of two or three hundred in a company. Here they lived a month or more on the squabs, which they pushed from the nests by means of long poles and sticks. Similarly, in later times, the whites from all parts adjacent to a roost would come with wagons, axes, cooking utensils, and beds, and would encamp at these immense nurseries. Sometimes, just before the young Pigeons could fly, the settlers and Indians would cut down the trees and gather a horse load of young in a few minutes. In one case, two hundred were secured from one tree. At night, it was a universal custom to enter the roosts with fascines of pine splinters, dried canes, straw, wood, or with any torch like material, and push old and young from the trees by means of poles. Not infrequently they took pots of sulphur, to make the birds drop in showers, as it was claimed. In some of the larger roosts, the crashing limbs made it too dangerous for man or beast to approach. In Canada, they occasionally would make ladders by the side of the tallest pines, on which the Pigeons roosted. Then, when night came, they crept softly under and fired up these ladders. "But the grand mode of taking them [in the roost] was by setting fire to the high dead grass, leaves and shrubs underneath, in a wide blazing circle, fired at different parts at the same time, so as soon to meet. Then down rushed the pigeons in immense numbers and indescribable confusion, to be roasted alive, and gathered up dead next day from heaps two feet deep."
On the migrations also they suffered. Every firearm, club, or implement, was pressed into service when they appeared. Every one took a vacation. The sportsmen shot them for fun; Indians and settlers sought them as fresh food; and the planters killed them to protect his crops. If they fed on the cultivated fields, it meant famine to the early colonists; if they foraged in the wilds, they left no mast nor food for the hogs and resident wild animals. Of course, a favorite weapon of offense was the old fowling-piece, and count-less are the old stories of quarries ranging from ten to one hundred and thirty--two secured at one shot. That huntsman who could not take from two hundred to four hundred in a half day was poor indeed. When the Pigeons were flying, it was an easy matter to knock down bagfuls by swinging a long pole or oar to the right and to the left. Neither was it impossible to bring them down by throwing sticks into the flocks. One writer told of a man who was enveloped in a low-flying flock. To save his eyes, he had to fall on his face until they had passed. Another asserted that when two columns, moving in opposite directions, encountered each other, many usually fell to the ground stunned. Along the New England coast, they were caught on the marshes by means of live decoys. In other parts, stuffed birds were used to attract passing flocks. Many a man boasted of ten, twenty-five, or thirty dozens of Pigeons caught in a snare at one time. One writer claimed that cumin seed or its oil was found by experience the best lure to induce the Pigeons to these nets. Particularly favorable for netting were the salt springs, at which the netters took as many as 800 to 1,500 or 1,600 at once in one net. These Pigeon traps were various in form and construction. One was made of nets 20 x 15 feet stretched on a frame. This was propped up by a pole eight feet long. When the birds entered under it, a boy or man concealed by a fence withdrew the prop with a string attached to it, and the falling net enmeshed the birds. To the nets they were also allured "by what we call tame wild pigeons, made blind, and fastened to a long string. His short flights and his repeated calls never fail to bring them down. Every farmer has a tame wild pigeon in a cage, at his door, all the year around, in order to be ready whenever the sea-son comes for catching them" (Creveccoeur, 1783).
Enemies and Mishaps.
Their enemies were legion. Wolves, foxes, and many other beasts frequented their roosts; birds of prey sought them alive or feasted on their dead bodies, both at the roosts, and over lakes. Mishaps overtook them on land and sea. On the land, storms rarely overwhelmed them. Over our Great Lakes, sometimes entire flocks were overtaken by severe tempests, forced to alight, and consequently drowned. Many times when they reached the shore safely from a hard flight, they were so fatigued as to fall an easy prey to man. For example, a whole British encampment in the Revolutionary War thus feasted for one day on Pigeons which had just flown across Lake Champlain. Self-slaughter was another means of their destruction. The continual breaking of overladen limbs took its heavy toll of wounded and killed birds, and it was a common practice, for man and beast, to gather up and devour the dead and dying, which were found in cartloads. Occasionally, animals were said to have gone mad from feeding on their remains.
All observers seemed generally agreed that they were delicate food. The Europeans preferred them for their flavor to any other Pigeons of their experience. Kalm, the Swedish savant, considered them the most palatable of any bird's flesh he had ever tasted. Throughout the country, they were proclaimed of great benefit in feeding the poor; for many weeks, they furnished an additional dish for the southern planter's table. In Canada, "during the flights . . . the lower sort of Canadians mostly subsisted on them." Another held them the exclusive food of the inhabitants of this section. During the shooting sea-son, they were on every table. The hunters sold a part of their bag and kept the remainder. Often they fattened the live Pigeons for the market. These commanded good prices, but the dead birds sometimes sold as low as three pence per dozen, or a bushel for a pittance. In fact, one writer frequently saw them "at the market so cheap that, for a penny, you might have as many as you could carry away; and yet, from the extreme cheapness, you must not conclude that they are but ordinary food; on the contrary, they are excellent." These birds furnished soups and fricassees, which were usually dressed with cream sauce and small onions. In some parts, they served as luxuries on the tables of the aristocrats. In requital for the damage they did, "The farmers, besides having plenty of them for home use, and giving them to their servants, and even to their dogs and pigs, salted cask full of them for the winter." The traveler found little else at the inns when Pigeons were flying. The savages heaped their boards with a royal abundance of them. They could eat them fresh, dried, smoked, or any other way. On Lake Michigan, they often gathered the dead Pigeons which floated on shore, usually smoking what were not needed for immediate use. In the South, Lawson (1714) found "several Indian towns of not above seventeen houses, that had more than one hundred gallons of pigeon's oil or fat; they using it with pulse or bread as we do butter, . . ." Not infrequently in the Indian and Revolutionary wars, Pigeons helped the commissary when supplies were low. For the hardy pioneers, their feathers made better beds than did corn husks, and one writer suggested a use for their dung. He held that, with little expense, great quantities of the best saltpeter could be extracted from their ordure. It is difficult to estimate the very important role of the Pigeon in the economy of the early pioneers, yet it is striking enough to arrest the attention of all.
Doubtless much of their excellent flavor and delicacy was due to the nature of their food. In the North and South alike they showed a marked preference for beechnuts and acorns of all kinds. They furnished an animated sight, indeed, when digging in the snow for the latter. In the earliest days, the colonists complained because they beat down and ate up great quantities of all sorts of English grain. They could subsist on wheat, rye, oats, corn, peas, and other farm produce. Neither were they averse to garden fruits. In the summer, when the strawberries, raspberries, mulberries, and currants were ripe, they showed a particular fondness for them. They were quite partial to the seeds of red maple and American Elm, wild grapes, wild peas, and pokeberry (Phytolacca), which was known in many parts as Pigeon-berry. Another vegetable form bore the same name. Pursh said they found the Pigeon-berries or Pigeon peas attached to roots, and they were "nothing else, than the tuberculis of a species of Glycine, resembling marrowfat peas very much: the Pigeons scratch them up at certain times of the year and feed upon them very greedily." Two quotations will give interesting sidelights on their methods of feeding. A Mr. Bradbury, in 1810, "had an opportunity of observing the manner in which they feed; it affords a most singular spectacle, and is also an example of the rigid discipline maintained by gregarious animals. This species of pigeon associates in prodigious flocks: one of these flocks, when on the ground, will cover an area of several acres in extent, and so close to each other that the ground can scarcely be seen. This phalanx moves through the woods with considerable celerity, picking, as it passes along, everything that will serve for food. It is evident that the foremost ranks must be most successful, and nothing will remain for the hinder most. That all may have an equal chance, the instant that any rank becomes last, they arise, and flying over the whole flock, alight exactly ahead of the foremost.
They succeed each other with so much rapidity that
there is a continued stream of them in the air; and a side view of them
exhibits the appearance of the segment of a large circle, moving through
the woods, I observed that they cease to look for food a considerable time
before they become the last rank, but strictly adhere to their regulations,
and never rise until there are none behind them." In 1758. DuPratz, when
on the Mississippi River, "heard a confused noise which seemed to come
along the river from a considerable distance below us. . . . How great
was my surprise when I . . . observed it to proceed from a short, thick
pillar on the bank of the river. When I drew still nearer to it, I perceived
that it was formed by a legion of wood-pigeons, who kept continually up
and down successively among the branches of an evergreen oak, in order
to beat down the acorns with their wings. Every now and then some alighted,
to eat the acorns which they themselves or the others had beat down; for
they all acted in common, and eat in common; no avarice nor private interest
appearing among them, but each laboring as much for the rest as for himself."
If only the human species would emulate this communal spirit, act in unison
for bird-protection without commercial quibbling, curb its mania for bird-adornment,
check excessive "sport for sport's sake," and annihilate pot-ting for market,
some of our threatened birds would re-establish their slender hold and
escape their impending extinction. In the early settlements, Pigeons, Turkeys,
Paroquets, and Heath Hens were plentiful; civilization and culture came;
the hills and valleys were deforested; the lowlands were cultivated; in
short, the balance of nature was excessively disturbed; yet where have
we collectively provided these original occupants refuge, or how have we
restrained ourselves, to promote their greater increase, when they were
most rapidly lessening? The conscience balm has always been, "They will
be ever common."
By Wallace Graig
THE Passenger Pigeon was easily kept in captivity. All species of Pigeon take more or less well to cage-life, but the Passenger Pigeon throve and bred much more readily than some of the others. My own observations of it at close range were due to the privilege of studying in the pigeonry maintained by the late Prof. C. 0. Whitman. In Chicago and in Woods Hole, Professor Whitman kept Passenger Pigeons in pens of modest dimensions, yet they bred, and would probably have maintained their numbers permanently, had it not been for in-breeding, the flock being all descended from one pair. They took readily to the nest-boxes, nesting materials, and all other artificial arrangements of the aviary. They did not become exceedingly tame, did not eat out of one's hand (so far as I saw); but, if effort had been made to tame them to this degree, who knows but it might have been successful? It is a great pity that attempts were not made earlier to breed these birds in confinement, for it is certain that the species could have been thus saved from extinction. As an aviary bird, it would have been a favorite, on account of its beauty and its marked individuality. Constant close association with a bird in the aviary gives one a kind of intimate acquaintance with it which can seldom if ever, be gained by observation of wild birds. And for such study at close range the Passenger Pigeon was, and would ever have continued to be, a most interesting subject, for its strongly marked character appeared in every minute detail of its habits, postures, gestures, and voice.
In another place, I have given a somewhat technical and detailed description of certain habits observed in the captive Ectopistes migratorius. The great account of this species, that by Professor Whitman, remains still to be published in the monograph on Pigeons now being edited by Doctor Riddle. Here, in BIRD-LORE, I shall try to portray my clearest recollections of this magnificent bird; I shall add a few facts to those mentioned elsewhere; but I shall endeavor chiefly to convey to the minds of others something of the vivid impression made upon the minds of those who observed the Passenger Pigeon in life.The distinctive character of the species appeared, as has been said before, in every detail of its postures and movements. Such individuality is in great part impossible to describe, though it is felt unmistakably by everyone who has lived with the birds. Better than any mere description are the accompanying photographs. In them one can see that, with its long, pointed tail, its graceful, curved neck and head, and its trim, strong body and wings, the Passenger Pigeon was truly elegant. The Ring-Dove, by contrast, seems chubby in form and gross in movement. The Passenger was quick, active, vigorous, and graceful. The elegance of form and posture which shows in these photographs was matched by an elegance of motion in every act of the birds while on the perch or on the wing. The Passenger was preeminently a bird of flight. Accordingly, its movements on the ground were a little awkward, in contrast to its grace when on the perch or in the air. It indulged often in a grand wing exercise, standing on a high perch and flapping its wings as if flying, now slowly, now power-fully, now leaving the perch to fly up and down the aviary, returning to the perch and again commencing the wing exercise, looking about for somewhere else to fly to. This species thus loved to fly more than did most of the other Pigeons. And though not afraid of men nor properly to be called "wild," it seemed sometimes to wish to escape from the pen and fly into the very sky.
Extreme powers of flight and extreme gregariousness seem to be the two fundamental traits in the peculiar habits of this species. But as to the latter trait, I did not notice that in the aviary the Passenger Pigeons flocked together more than the others, for all Pigeons are gregarious. The number of Passenger Pigeons being small, there was little opportunity for them to show their extreme flocking tendency. The old accounts tell us that in the great roosts some Pigeons alighted on the backs of those who had found perches; but this was probably only temporary and for lack of room, and I am sure the one alighted on must have resented it with angry voice and a struggle to throw the other off his back. The noise made by the Pigeons in their great breeding colonies, as we are told by those who witnessed them, was deafening. Now, the Passenger Pigeon's voice was very different from the voice of any other Pigeon. It had little of the soft, cooing notes so familiar in all sorts of Doves, but showed extreme development of the hard, unmusical notes which in most Doves are subordinate to the coo. This peculiarity seems to have been an adaptation to life in such extremely populous and hence noisy communities, where soft notes could scarcely be heard, and a bird had literally to scream in order to gain a hearing.
Let us examine the bird's various notes in more detail, for they are interesting. The most characteristic utterance of the species was a voluble stream of 'talking,' which ever varied with the mood of the bird, now rising into a loud, shrill scolding, now sinking into a soft, low clucking, and sometimes diminishing into single clucks. In addition to this voluble flow of talk, the male sometimes shouted one or two single, emphatic notes sounding like a loud keck, keck. All these sounds were full of meaning and expression. And their expressiveness was greatly enhanced by the bird's movements. With the loud notes, as used in anger, he stood at full height, in his majestic way, and impressed the enemy by his bold appearance; and sometimes each loud keck was accompanied, quick as lightning, by a stroke of both wings, which struck the enemy if he was near enough, and powerfully frightened him if he was at a distance. On the other hand, with the soft, clucking notes, which expressed gentler feelings, even to devotion, the talking bird sidled along the perch to the bird to whom he was talking, and sometimes put his neck over her in a way which clearly showed his tender emotion. The Passenger was very quick and nimble in moving sideways along a perch, and this movement was so characteristic of his courting as to distinguish it from the courting of any other species.
Though all this chattering and kecking was so very
expressive, it was never sweetly musical. The loud notes were strident,
and even the faint notes were hard. The male, when courting, gave also
a coo, which was musical, but so weak and faint that in my early memoranda
I put it down simply as "the weak note;" and this little coo, sounding
more like keeho, was usually given after the clucking or kecking notes,
as a subordinate appendage to them. The species gave also a nest-call,
as do the other Pigeons; but this, like the coo, was weak and inconspicuous
compared with the strong and expressive notes described above. The
female of this, as of all other Pigeons, was more quiet than the male in
both voice and movement, and distinguishable from him even when motion-less
by a characteristic shyness in her attitude, especially in the pose of
her head. So distinct was this difference between the sexes that, in looking
at the accompanying photographs (which came to BIRD-LORE without data as
to sex), I have ventured to state that four of the figures are of male
birds and one is an excellent illustration of the female. I have not hazarded
a guess as to the sex of the other four adult figures, for they are in
postures less distinctive of sex. (In the attitude of alarm, especially,
the male and female become very much alike.) The courting behavior
of this species, as is evident from what has been said about voice and
gestures, was very different from the courting behavior of other Pigeons
and Doves. Instead of pirouetting before the female, or bowing to her,
or running and jumping after her on the ground, the Passenger Pigeon sidled
up to her on the perch, and pressed her very close; and if she moved a
little away from him he sidled up to her again and tried to put his neck
over her. The male was very jealous of his mate. And when they had
a nest he was a most truculent fellow, attacking any other bird that came
into the vicinity. The scenes which resulted were often most amusing. I
once saw a male Passenger Pigeon go around the edges of the pen and oust
every Pigeon that was sitting alone, mostly Band-tailed Pigeons and Cushats;
but he did not attack the dozen or so that were all sitting on one perch.
He was not really a good fighter: he made a bold attack, but if the attacked
one showed fight, Ectopistes generally retreated. The defense of
the nest was accompanied, as may be imagined, by a lively chatter of scolding
and kecking. The Passenger was one of the most garrulous of all the Pigeons
in the great aviary. This was naturally connected with the fact of his
having chattering notes instead of cooing ones. For a coo is more or less
formal, and it cannot be uttered in the midst of all sorts of activity.
But the chatter of the Passenger Pigeon was heard on all sorts of occasions,
and accompanied nearly everything he did. If he picked up a straw and carried
it to the nest, he talked about it while he was searching on the ground
for straws, clucked a few times as he flew up, and chattered to his mate
as he gave the straw to her.
I regret to say that I can give no account of the later
stages in the breeding of this bird, the hatching and rearing of young.
For in the year 1903, when I began to study this species, the birds had
already lost the power to hatch and rear young. This much may be said,
however, that the species continued vociferous throughout a long breeding
season, and in some degree throughout the year. In August, when beginning
to molt, it of course became more quiet, losing especially the feeble coo
and the nest-call. The grand wing exercise also became reduced, for this
performance seems to have been not merely a muscular exercise but also
a display. Now, some species of Pigeon when they lose their coo, become
almost silent. Not so Ectopistes. For the kecking and scolding and chattering
continued, though with not quite the same vehemence as in the breeding
season, throughout the autumn and winter. This again goes to show, as we
have said, that the Passenger was one of the most garrulous of Pigeons,
and would have made one of the most interesting of aviary Pets.
By E. H. Forbush
The Passenger Pigeon undoubtedly was one of the greatest zoological wonders of the world. Formerly the most abundant gregarious species ever known in any land, ranging over the greater part of North America in innumerable hosts, apparently it has disappeared to the last bird. Many people now living have seen its vast and apparently illimitable hordes marshaled in the sky, have viewed great forest roosting-places broken by its clustering millions as by a hurricane, and have seen markets overcrowded to the sidewalks with barrels of dead birds. Those of us who have witnessed the passing of the Pigeons find it hard to believe that all the billions of individuals of this elegant species could have been wiped off the face of the earth. Nevertheless, this is just what seems to have occurred. Even Prof. C. F. Hodge, cheerful optimist that he is, after three years' search of North America, practically gives up the quest, and acknowledges that the investigation has not produced so much as a feather of the bird. The editor of BIRD-LORE has asked me to write the story of the last Passenger Pigeon; but I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without giving an epitome of the causes which have brought about the extermination of the species. John Josselyn, in his "Two Voyages to New England" published in 1672, describes the vast numbers of the Pigeons and says, "But of late they are much diminished, the English taking them with nets." This seems to indicate that the extirpation of the species began within forty years after the first settlement of New England, and exhibits the net as one of the chief causes of depletion. From soon after the first occupancy of New England by the whites until about the year 1895, the netting of the Passenger Pigeon in North America never ceased. Thousands of nets were spread all along the Atlantic seaboard. Nets were set wherever Pigeons appeared, but there were no great markets for them to supply until the nineteenth century. Early in that century, the markets were often so glutted with Pigeons that the birds could not be sold at any price. Schooners were loaded in bulk with them on the Hudson River for the New York market, and later, as cities grew up along the shores of the Great Lakes, vessels were loaded with them there; but all this slaughter had no perceptible effect on the numbers of the Pigeons in the West until railroads were built throughout the western country and great markets were established there. Then the machinery of the markets reached out for the Pigeons, and they were followed everywhere, at all seasons, by hundreds of men who made a business of netting and shooting them for the market. Wherever the Pigeon nested, the pigeoners soon found them, and destroyed most of the young in the nests and many of the adult birds as well. Every great market from St. Louis to Boston received hundreds or thousands of barrels of Pigeons practically every season. The New York market at times took one hundred barrels a day without a break in price. Often a single western town near the nesting-grounds shipped millions of Pigeons to the markets during the nesting season, as shown by the shipping records. Nesting after nesting was broken up and the young destroyed for many years until, in 1878, the Pigeons, driven by persecution from many states, concentrated largely in a few localities in Michigan, where a tremendous slaughter took place. These were the last great nesting grounds of which we have any record. Smaller nestings were known for ten years afterward, and large numbers of Pigeons were seen and killed; but after 1890 the Pigeons grew less and less in number until 1898, when the last recorded instances of their capture occurred that can now be substantiated by preserved specimens. Since that time, there are two apparently authentic instances of the capture of the Pigeon recorded, one in Ohio and the other in Wisconsin, and my investigations have revealed a few more which have been published in my 'History of the Game Birds, Wild Fowl and Shore Birds.' Mr. Otto Widmann, who kindly undertook to look into the history of the Passenger Pigeon for me in the markets of St. Louis, states that Mr. F. H. Miller of that place, a marketman who has sold and handled large quantities of Pigeons, received twelve dozen from Rogers, Arkansas, in 1902 and, later, a single bird, shipped to him from Black River in 1906. No exact dates can be given. Mr. Glover M. Allen, in his list of the 'Aves, Fauna of New England,' published by the Boston Society of Natural History in 1909, records a specimen killed at Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1904-. A careful investigation leads me to believe that this is an authentic record, although I have not yet seen the specimen.
It was mounted by Mr. J. Bert Baxter, of Bangor, and was seen by Mr. Harry Merrill, who was perfectly competent to identify it. The specimen, when mounted, was returned to the man who shot it, but Mr. Baxter lost his record of the name of the owner. Mr. A. Learo, taxidermist, of Montreal, informs me that a specimen was taken by Mr. Pacificque Couture in St. Vin-cent, Province of Quebec, Canada, September 23, 1907. Mr. Learo states that he has returned the bird to Mr. Couture, but I have been unable to find the gentleman or learn anything more about the specimen. Therefore this may not be authentic. I have investigated other statements which have been published regarding recent alleged occurrences of the Passenger Pigeon in Canada, and find that the birds taken were Mourning Doves. Now for the last living Passenger Pigeon of which we have any information. David Whittaker, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, procured a pair of young birds from an Indian in northeastern Wisconsin in 1888. During the eight succeeding years, fifteen birds were bred from this pair, six males and nine females. A part of this flock finally went to Professor C. 0. Whitman, of Chicago University, and several individuals of it are figured in this number of BIRD-LORE. In 1904 Professor Whitman had ten birds, but his flock, weakened by confinement and inbreeding, gradually decreased in number. The original Whittaker flock decreased also, and in 1908 there were but seven left. All of these died but one female, which was sent to the Cincinnati Zoological Society. At that time the society had a male about twenty-four years of age, which has died since. The female in Cincinnati, so far as I know, is living still, and in all probability is the last Passenger Pigeon in existence. Protected and fostered by the hand of man, she probably has outlived all the wild birds, and remains the last of a doomed race.
Many attempts have been made by gunners, market men, and others, to account for the disappearance of the Pigeons by attributing it to some other means than the hand of man. Stories have been published to the effect that the Pigeons migrated to South America or Australia; that they were destroyed by parasites or disease, or that they were all drowned in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Great Lakes, or in the Atlantic Ocean. There is nothing in substantiation of these tales that would be accepted as evidence by any careful investigator. The species never was recorded from South America or Australia, and the other explanations of its disappearance are either the result of fertile imagination or rest on hearsay evidence or rumors. Undoubtedly many Pigeons periodically were confused by fog and drowned in the Great Lakes, and there are two possibly authentic stories regarding the drowning of large numbers of Pigeons at sea. None of these occurrences, however, had any permanent effect on the numbers of the Pigeons, though the destruction of the forests undoubtedly had some effect. There is evidence that large numbers of these birds went north from Michigan in 1878, and great flocks bred in Manitoba that year. As Pigeons were sometimes overwhelmed by unseasonable snow-storms in the breeding season in the United States, they must have been still more subject to them in northern Canada; and if they were driven by persecution to the far north to breed, they might have been unable to raise young during the succeeding summers. In "Michigan Bird-Life," Professor Walter B. Barrows gives his opinion that some such catastrophe as this was accountable for a large part of the great diminution in their numbers. This opinion is logical, though there is no direct evidence in support of it. Those who study with care the history of the extermination of the Pigeons will see, however, that all the theories that are brought forward to account for the destruction of the birds by other causes than man's agency are absolutely inadequate. There was but one cause for the diminution of the birds, which was widespread, annual, perennial, continuous, and enormously destructive-their persecution by mankind. Every great nesting-ground known was besieged by a host of people as soon as it was discovered, many of them professional pigeoners, armed with all the most effective engines of slaughter known. Many times the birds were so persecuted that they finally left their young to the mercies of the pigeoners, and even when they remained most of the young were killed and sent to the market and the adults were decimated. The average life of a Pigeon in nature is possibly not over five years. The destruction of most of the young birds for a series of years would bring about such a diminution of the species as occurred soon after 1878. One egg was the complement for each nest. Before the country was settled, while the birds were unmolested except by Indians and other natural enemies, they bred in large colonies. This, in itself, was a means of protection, and they probably doubled their numbers every year by changing their nesting places two or three times yearly, and rearing two or three young birds to each pair. Later, when all the resources of civilized man were brought to bear against them, their very gregariousness, which formerly protected them, now insured their destruction; and when at last they were driven to the far North to breed, and scattered far and wide, the death rate rapidly outran the birth rate. Wherever they settled to roost or to nest, winter or summer, spring or fall, they were followed and destroyed until, unable to raise young, they scattered over the country pursued every-where, forming targets for millions of shot-guns, with no hope of safety save in the vast northern wilderness, where the rigors of nature forbade them to procreate. Thus they gradually succumbed to the inevitable and passed into the unknown. Were it possible to obtain an accurate record of the receipts of Pigeon shipments in the markets of the larger cities only from 1870 to 1895, the enormous numbers sold and the gradual decrease in the sales would exhibit, in the most graphic and convincing manner possible, the chief cause of the passing of the Passenger Pigeon. While we have been wondering why the Pigeons disappeared, the markets have been reaching out for something to take their place, and we have witnessed also the rapid disappearance of the Eskimo Curlew, the Upland Plover, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and the Golden Plover, from the same cause. Shall we awake in time to save any of these birds, or the many others that are still menaced with extinction by this great market demand? No hope can be held out for the future of these birds until our markets are closed to the sale of native wild game.