From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
The Rate of Reproduction and Decline
Passing of the Beech Forests
Indian Legend of Hopah, the Pigeon
With the pigeon family the general rule is to lay two eggs for each brooding, but variations are common, depending upon the abundance or scarcity of the favorite food of each variety of these prolific birds. Passenger Pigeons seem to have been adaptable to all the conditions of their habitat and varying environments; laying two eggs when plenty of beech mast was available, within a flight of fifty or sixty miles of their nests, for two weeks of feeding the young birds; and generally, one egg when longer flights for the food would become necessary for a considerable part of the time. They would find the food required for three or four nestings each spring, as a rule, between northern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, at the south, and the northern limits of the beech tree, near James Bay, at the west; thence east along the Laurentian highlands to near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and Chaleurs Bay in Quebec; thence southward through New Brunswick, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, into northern New York.
In these broad forests, we may be certain, were to be found hundreds of millions of bushels of beechnuts, every spring, as they unfolded their two fat leaves, upon slender stems that were anchored in the rich leaf mold soil of such a forest, in primeval conditions. We may fairly assume that from four to six young birds reached maturity from each pair of the parent birds, to return to the southland, each autumn, ahead of the snow and frozen ground of winter that made their food impossible to find. Before the nuts fell to the ground, through action of frost and wind, the birds would beat all the nuts from a tree, with their wings, in a few minutes, while all was a scramble, both above and below, for the same, making the forest roar with the sound of their thunder. Their increase, no doubt, was approximately in ratio of food available, each year, in their pilgrimage through our northern region – the homes of their Indian devotees.
From the criterion of greatest utility the white man, certainly – the later inhabitant, with domesticated poultry – exceeds his predecessor, by many multiples, in efficiency and progress; but the Indian, the Pigeon, and the Forest were balanced in equal and horizontal scale, upon their tranquil existence in their worlds, where each individual met his foes in personal combat, for place, for food, for existence, and for freedom to dominate a restricted circle, wherein each maintained a place by constant vigilance and preparation to resist the natural enemies of his species. The white men came, and the rich soil under the beech forests became fields for their enjoyment and profit. The pigeons declined in ratio with the receding forest – and food supply. They were hemmed in. They could not reproduce themselves on other food. The attrition progressed and their lines of supply were shortened, as the cleared fields became more numerous, or as forest fires destroyed the prolific beech trees.
Where the beech forest flourished the soil was most fertile and easily cleared for the first crops of agriculture; grass for pasturing the domestic animals upon grew luxuriantly among the stumps of trees removed; the stumps soon rotted and were readily removed for better crops and convenient cultivation; the soil had been made rich by the detritus of tree life that had been discharged yearly for centuries, and the farmers coveted the land; so the beech forests became smaller and more exposed to rapacious man. Three million farms were cleared in the forests where their food grew most abundantly and the birds fell as victims to their direst foe, the men who occupied these farms and sought a profit from the nurseries of the passenger pigeons to compensate them for the crops that had been devastated in their fields by the hungry flocks.
The farmers were never friendly to these questing birds when they returned, as the Indians had always been. No doubt, the passenger pigeons were the chief agency, in some mysterious way, for spreading the seed germs of the beech, as another, closely allied variety of pigeons, did for the nutmeg trees in another part of the world. The passenger pigeons shrank in numbers, as did the bison on the plains; but no one realized that a race was being exterminated; and even now, after thirty years, few old forest men can believe that they do not exist in some hidden forest, form which they will return when the growing beech trees begin to yield their fruit, as was done in former times. The decline was slow at first; but from 1865 to 1886 it was remarkable – and then, the deluge!
Many explanations have been suggested, such as finding a few hundred drowned pigeons along the Atlantic cost, indicating that a flight had been overwhelmed by a tempest and the birds all drowned in the ocean. A similar report from the Great Lakes. The old men shake their heads – they do not believe that the birds we knew were exterminated in such manner. The theory of a fever, caused by food-bound crops, when they left the last known nesting ground, in Potter County, is unsatisfactory. The nests had scarcely been completed when the pigeons fled. No young birds were expected to feed upon the curds in the parents’ pouch, or crop, for two full weeks, at that period. The theory is as unsatisfactory as the others have been. Once we heard that they were in Mexico, feeding upon a different food; then that they were in Columbia, clothed in gorgeous plumage, as became a tropical bird, and last that they were in Chile, in the same plumage they wore when here, with iridescent hues that made them familiar to a Wisconsin expert – as all old time pine timber cruisers were. None of these explanations satisfy our question. We are still speculating – and questing – about it.
Two young men climbed Tuscarora Hill, north of the Cowanesque, to find the “top of the world”. That was in 1836, and they were about 17 years old. One was Nehemiah French, my father; the other was John Churchill, my mother’s eldest brother. They decided to inquire of Chingachkung, the old Indian at Academy Corners, how to find the peak they sought. The Indian pondered awhile and then began his legend: When the world was young, Moqua, the ruler of the rivers, dwelt there and raised his children. Cowan, the delighted, departed toward the morning, until he met and wedded Tioghnioga, near our village. Genesee went toward the pole-star, fell over the cliffs and, at last, leaped into the arms of the Almighty, Ontario; Oswayo went to the northwestward and wedded Honeyoye; Ohe-Yu now called Allegheny, departed on a long journey, toward the evening star, where he met and wedded Gahela, daughter of the mighty Monon of the southern mountains. Tiadaghton went toward the south and was taken for wife of Shamoque, brother of the crooked river – the Susquehanna. The beautiful Hopah, the pigeon, chose to wed with Manitto, and she dwelt everywhere. Then the boys found the top of the world, where the rivers start from.