From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
Observations in the Susquehanna Valley, Told by a Pioneer Octogenarian – Reveries and Reflections.
During the month of April, 1880, I was with my grandfather, William French, in the Cowanesque Valley, Tioga County, Pa. We walked together about ten miles one day, to his old farm at Middlebury Centre, seeing a flock of passenger pigeons on the way. He was then 88 years old and was hale and hearty. His pigeon story was interesting, for it was of the spring of 1810, when he had been only a boy of 18 years and had made his first trip into Pennsylvania, and at pigeon nesting time. His father, Jeremiah French, had served through the Revolutionary War, and then traveled up the Susquehanna, from his father’s farm, near Shamokin, to Bradford County, where he soon married Miss Margaret Van Gorder and took her to a farm on the Chemung River, north of Elmira, New York.
It was an old Indian clearing, where my grandfather was born and remained until 1834, when he removed to the Pennsylvania forest in Tioga County, and made himself a home for all his remaining years of life. He went to the Van Gorder home, on Towanda Creek, during May, 1810, for a brief stay with his mother’s people, and to work a while in a sawmill for Amos Bennett. There he first met his future wife, Esther Martin, daughter of veteran John Gideon Martin, the scout of Oriskany Battle, and at Burgoyne’s surrender. He also became acquainted with Miss Anna Bennett, a little girl of 6 years, and a boy, John Grimes, who married her eighteen years later – the parents of Edwin Grimes, the great still hunter of deer in Potter County.
The two boys went to the pigeon city in the Susquehanna Valley and tributary territory in Bradford, Tioga and New York counties north of them, about fifty miles from southwest to northeast. The old birds flew westward against the wind, to the beech forests, flying low and fast. They returned, flying high and in the tops of the same or adjacent trees around the nesting colony they were attached to. Most of the nests contained two young pigeons, some nests only one, which flew to the ground before they were able to fly back into the high trees. The young birds traveled to the eastward or with the wind, picking up nuts, insects and everything they could eat; roosting in low trees till they were strong enough to fly back to the roosts, and then join the old birds in their flights to feeding places.
When the young birds fluttered from the nest in large numbers they started at once and kept going ahead, in spite of the wild animals and hawks that killed many of them. If they came to a road they crossed it; a stream, they flew over; or they fell exhausted into the water and, flapping their wings, swam to the other shore and ran on until night. When their fat bodies were reduced and muscles grew hard they returned in flocks to find their kindred. The injured and weak birds remained behind, for the old birds waited only a day or two before they started to the next place selected for nesting ground. The weak remained, scattered through the forest and briar patches, until strong enough to join another migration or until they were killed by the enemies that sought them by day and night.
When building their nests the parent birds selected a clump of evergreen trees – hemlocks and pines – by a little stream, with rising ground on the east side, building nests on all the strong limbs and branches, except a few near the top for the roosts of those not sitting on the nests, and even building many nests on the branches of the deciduous trees that were standing among the evergreen trees within the boundaries of each colony of nests – the wards of their city – and all the trees were loaded with nests, so that branches broke down, trees came crashing to the earth and the nest of eggs and young birds were destroyed. Wild beasts of prey devoured the young and fought over them through the night, making a hideous uproar, and owls and hawks attacked the old birds upon the roosts about the nests.
The farmers brought their hogs to the grounds and built log pens to keep them in, feeding them upon the young birds, or they turned them loose each morning to gather up whatever could be found. Whole families came with barrels and salt; the young birds, from ten ounces to twenty ounces weight, were dressed, salted and packed in barrels and carted away to markets and for storing until needed. Many old birds were shot and disposed of until it seemed that only a few more migrated than came.
John Grimes and William French saw it all in that spring of 1810 from Towanda Creek, Bradford County, Pa., to the Chenango Creek, Broome County N.Y., before those counties had all been created and named. They investigated and they marveled that there could be so many pigeons in all the world. They were so disgusted by what they saw and heard that neither of them ever went near a pigeon nesting city again. They sympathized with the Indians, who taught conservation of the young birds and protected them by slaying the wolves that howled around the nesting places - and held the parent birds sacred during the four weeks of incubation and feeding the young birds, killing for their food only the unmated and quiescent old birds and the young birds which fell from their nests prematurely.
They had learned that, when a colony was located, the nests were built and eggs all laid and hatched within sixteen to eighteen days, and that later arriving parent birds established another colony far enough away to leave the first colony free to rear the young and depart, with no waste of time in waiting for the tardy flock. The passenger pigeon was a bird of freedom and was without arts of self protection, other than their swiftness of flight and great multitude in one closely associated city, and in their ingenuity for massing great flocks in flight in narrow columns, in numerous strata, one above another, and moving rapidly in tandem, each flock flowing the one in front, making the same curves and identical undulations for the most part even to the turns and depressions of the leading flock in a brigade, caused by the swooping hawk and eagle on the front platoon that no longer menaced the followers.
In confinement they seldom raised any young and they rejected all efforts toward domestication, so far as they were made in northern Pennsylvania. They were unwarlike and sought only peace and plenty, to thrive and multiply to the limit of food reserves in regular rotation. They migrated to find their favorite food, as the snow line receded each spring; yet they perished from the earth, or they have adapted themselves to a different mode of living and in a new environment in which ornithologists have failed to recognize them, and have classified them under an alias.
We saw them feeding, chiefly upon the beech-mast, and yet geology seems to affirm that they lived in the cretaceous age, before beech trees had been evolved in plant form; why not re-adaptation?