From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
Comments of an Eminent Observer
John J. Audubon, in Kentucky
The Green River Nestings
Early in May, 1810, John J. Audubon, the naturalist, reached the bank of Green River, in Kentucky, and described the nesting ground of the passenger pigeons he saw there in the following words:
“It was, as is always the case, a portion of the forest where the trees were of great magnitude, and where there was little underwood. I rode through it upwards of forty miles, and found its average breadth to be rather more than three miles. My first view of it was about a fortnight subsequent to the period when they had made choice of it, and I arrived there nearly two hours before sunset.”
“Few pigeons were then to be seen, but a great number of persons with horses, wagons, guns and ammunition had already established encampments on the borders. Two farmers from the vicinity of Russellville, distant more than a hundred miles, had driven upward of three hundred hogs to be fattened on the pigeons that were to be slaughtered. Here and there the people employed in plucking and salting what had already been procured were seen sitting in the midst of large piles of birds. Many trees two feet in diameter I observed were broken off at no great distance from the ground, and the branches of many of the largest and tallest had given way, as if the forest had been swept by a tornado. Everything proved to me that the number of birds restoring to that part of the forest must be immense beyond conception.”
“As the period of their arrival approached their foes anxiously prepared to receive them; some were furnished with iron pots containing sulphur, others with torches of pine-knots; many with poles and the rest with guns. The sun was lost in our view, yet not a pigeon had arrived. Everything was ready and all eyes were gazing on the clear sky, which appeared in glimpses amidst the tall trees. Suddenly, there burst forth a general cry of “Here they come!” The noise which they made reminded one of a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel.
“As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole-men; the birds continued to pour in; the fires were lighted and a most magnificent as well as wonderful and almost terrifying sight presented itself; the pigeons arriving by thousands, alighting everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogsheads were formed on the branches all around. Here and there the perches gave way with a crash and, falling on the ground, destroyed hundreds of birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. No one dared venture within the line of devastation; the hogs had been penned up in due time, the picking up the dead and wounded being left fro next morning’s employment.:
“The pigeons were constantly coming and it was past midnight before I perceived a decrease in the number of those that arrived. Towards the approach of day the noise in some measure subsided. Long before objects were distinguishable the pigeons began to move off in a direction quite different from that in which they had arrived the evening before, and at sunrise all that were able to fly had disappeared. The howling of the wolves now reached our ears, and the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears, raccoons and opossums were seen sneaking off, whilst eagles and hawks of different species, accompanied by a crowd of vultures, came to supplant them and enjoy their share of the spoil.”
At the date specified above one of the parent birds would have been quietly sitting upon the egg in the nest, if there was one only, as some have said, or the eggs, if more than one, as many reliable men aver, having seen two young birds in most nests at the nesting colonies they have visited, while the squabs remained in the nests; so Mr. Audubon saw in the air at one period only about half the adult birds, for at nesting times the sexes were divided, flying for food in flocks of hen-birds at one period of the day and the cocks in other flocks after the hens had returned to take their places on the nests. Mr. Wilson described the nesting he saw, on the Kentucky River, a hundred and fifty miles away, about two weeks after the eggs were hatched and the squabs ready to leave their nests. Mr. Audubon did not wait for the squab period, but floated down the river in his boat to the Ohio, contemplating the flight of pigeons above him – rising from the horizon, “sort of a columbine Vesuvius” – and relieved his feelings by writing a description of the appearance in the heavens, every day of his trip to Evanston, Indiana, similar to what has already been quoted from Mr. Wilson in a previous chapter, upon a similar observation.
Mr. Audubon concluded his notes with the following words:
“But I cannot describe to you the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions when a hawk chanced to press upon the rear of a flock. At once, like a torrent, and with a noise like thunder, they rushed into a compact mass, pressing upon each other towards the center. In these almost solid masses they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and when high were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent.”
The birds flew with such martial exactness, according to C.H.Shearer, of Reading, who painted the great picture “The Flight of the Wild Pigeons” that when they became too compact or congested, numbers of them dropped in great spirals and resumed the flight at a lower strata.
With that much we must be satisfied, so far as clumsy words in ink are concerned. From Wilson to the author of “Juniata Memories,” and then back to Audubon, who admits that he cannot “describe the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions”; what these authors cannot describe about birds in words we must avail ourselves of imagination’s artful aid to comprehend, or adopt the poetic plan of the Indian and gesture, dance, chant and pray, in our fervor to convey the ecstasy we feel at certain sublime moments of our experience. Those who have never beheld a flight of wild pigeons have never had an opportunity of developing their faculties to comprehend such a sight. They are also unable to assimilate most of the efforts to develop them than can be made through the medium of pen and ink.
All that our national emblem means to our patriotic young Americans now preparing for war, the passenger pigeons conveyed to the Indian, and more. They were his emblem of incarnation and hope of a blissful immortality; his idea of freedom, and he emulated their swiftness and their energy. In their vicissitudes of life he saw the omens of his own struggles with al of his enemies in the forest. Against his enemies he fought, believing like Hector, that “The best of omens is to defend one’s country,” and he slew the enemies of his patron bird, hoping to perpetuate them, and enable them to increase and protect and cheer his children. Something of this commendable spirit was felt by the ornithologists as they studied the pigeons and their nesting cities. The ode to our flag by Mr. Berton Braley, expresses a part of all this idea:
Against the skies Old Glory flies,
It never looked so bright,
For now it seems as if it gleams
With some strange inner light;
As though each tread of white and red,
Each filament of blue,
Were spun of spiritual fire,
The flame of that fine high desire,
Which thrills the nation through.
The flag on high it greets the eye
And grips our hearts somehow
Though it has passed through struggles vast,
Its proudest hour is now;
Now ‘tis unfurled to show the world
That willingly we give
Our lives, our all to Liberty
That after, we have ceased to be,
The flag; the flag may live.