From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
Nesting Cities and Extinction of This Bird
Comments of a Forester on Signs of an Approaching Nesting
The last pigeon nesting in Pennsylvania, occurred in 1886, as has been already emphasized, although there may have been many isolated smaller groups that brooded within our extensive forest areas, since then. The cities in 1866 and in 1870 are remembered very distinctly by many men living in Potter County and elsewhere. Each of those years a colony was established about three miles east of my farm in the Allegheny River valley; and they flew past every day, to distant feeding grounds; the hens one day and the cocks the next day, flying rapidly, and returning toward night, flying high, above the hills. There were other feeding grounds; to the south, and those that did not make the longer flight, each alternate day, into Forest County, while the squabs were being fed, made the shorter flight to get food for individual requirement. On each morning the valley, a mile wide, between the hills, was filled, strata above strata, eight courses deep at times, for about an hour, with the multitude of birds flowing westward, at the rate of about a mile a minute, going after food.
The roar of wings was like a tornado in the tree tops and the morning was darkened as by a heavy thunder shower. The lowest stratum of birds was just above the orchard trees and many young men, with shot-guns, fired into the passing flocks, as they came into range; but they obtained few birds in that manner. The speed of the flocks made of their feathers coats of mail, impervious to small shot, their heads alone were vulnerable. Those who shot into the rear of the birds that had passed them, killed many birds which were usually precipitated into fields of the farms beyond, or into brush and briars, far away; so many dead birds were never found, for they hid away, in their death struggles.
Their colonies were generally regular in the border lines, being parallelograms, squares and circles, even to leaving the branches of an occupied tree that was outside the boundary line, bare of nests; while inside the boundary lines the branches were all covered with them, except a few near the tops of the trees upon which the male birds roosted to guard the females sitting on the nests below. The venerable Daniel Ott, of Snyder County, has been frequently quoted on the fact that, “The nesting grounds were arranged with military precision.”
Some of the facts of pigeon nesting cities have been clearly and plainly stated by Mr. C.W. Dickinson, of McKean County, which are quoted below: “There is only a small percentage of the American people of today that can imagine what immense bodies of pigeons there would be in a large nesting city. The nesting we had in McKean and Potter Counties, Pennsylvania, in 1870, which was the largest in this locality since 1830, was from one-half mile to two miles wide and about forty miles long, running through an unbroken forest. The direction of the line was nearly east and west, a zigzag line to keep near the main range of mountains that divides the waters of the Allegheny and the Susquehanna rivers. The male birds help build the nests; as a rule, one egg is laid in each nest……The hens sit on the nests over night, while the males roost in the nesting or in adjacent trees. Now the birds are divided into flocks of males that go for food by themselves, and the females go in flocks, for food, by themselves. The males establish the line of flight from the nestings, sometimes going sixty or seventy miles for their food……The males take the places of the females on the nests while the latter go in search of food, and return to occupy the nests by night.”
“It takes about fourteen days for the eggs to hatch, and in about fifteen days after hatching, the young birds are left to their own fate. The young birds are fed all their craws can hold and are so fat, when left, they can’t fly much for three or four days. As soon as they get full use of their wings, they know where to go, for they then follow the same line of flight the old birds took a week before. The old birds, do not feed near the nestings. That food is left for the young to live on while getting the use of their wings……The first twelve days of a young pigeon’s life, it feeds exclusively on curds that form in the craws of both the male and female parent birds. When feeding the young, the old bird draws head and neck down close to the body, opens mouth wide, then the young bird stick its beak down the old bird’s throat and eats curds from the parent’s craw.”
“This curd does not mix with the old bird’s food, being in a container by itself, which gives way after twelve or thirteen days from the day of hatching the young. After that the squabs get beechnuts and other seeds mixed with the curd. Pigeons nested in Pennsylvania, only in the spring, after a good crop of beechnuts the preceding autumn.”
“The writer’s home was near these nestings. From one-half mile to four miles we would find eight or ten colonies of nesting birds, and we have been in six or eight that were farther away. We have tried not to enlarge this account in any manner for no one knows what a pigeon nesting is like, until he has visited one. The birds build nests in every tree that stands on the territory the nesting covers. Undoubtedly there were three times as many nests in a hemlock tree as there were in a hardwood tree. We counted fifty-seven nests in a large birch tree. In a hemlock there are so many more places for nests; while the boughs were so thick, it was not possible to count them correctly. To answer the question of what became of them: There were millions of them caught in nets and shipped to large cities. Still there were millions of the birds here again in 1886, which was the last body of them that visited this state. A few small flocks passed through this locality since then. We saw a flock of about 100 birds in September 1905, and a lone pigeon in 1906.”
“In April of 1886, they returned for the express purpose of nesting. The beechnut crop of 1885 was very large. That was what brought them here. When food was real plentiful they have been known to nest three times in a single season; First, in the latter part of March; second, in the early part of May; and third, about June 10. When they came here to nest they were scattered over three or four counties, roosting wherever night overtook them; but for a night or two before they began building nests, they roosted in one large body.”
“Another sure sign, was the little white strings that came from the front end of the breast and connected with the craw……the natural feeders that form the curds for the young to feed on. These two sure signs were in evidence, in 1886. The fine white strings had been visible for three days, on the second night of the big roosting on the west branch of Pine Creek, in Potter County; when these birds were driven out of Pennsylvania, never to return. Thirty or forty men and boys went into the roosting with guns……at 9 p.m. they began shooting into the treetops……as long as they could hear a bird fly among the branches. Then, gathering into small groups, they made campfires and waited for daylight, so they could find the dead and crippled birds under the trees.”
“That was the death-blow to pigeons in Pennsylvania. They left in the night, which was clear, with a full moon; so the birds could see where to go……in a northerly direction across the state of New York and reach the big forests of Canada, the course they always took, when leaving Pennsylvania, in spring or early summer. Being driven out, on the eve of starting nest-building, suggests that before they reached their destination, the hens dropped their eggs on the way, or before nests could be prepared for them. Therefore there were no young birds to eat the curds which had started to form, and would keep on forming until Nature’s law had completed her work.”
“There being no young birds to eat the curds, the craws of the
old birds would fill up with them and they would starve to death; or something
like milk-fever would ensue, which would be fatal to the old birds that
had been about to nest. There were always many stray birds with a
nesting city, either too young to nest, or lost birds that had happened
to meet and join the main body; and these would have no curds in their
craws. So, we can’t believe that the passenger pigeon has become
extinct. But they will never nest in Pennsylvania again; for there
is not enough forest left for a body of pigeons to nest in.” That
is the conclusion of about all the older men who were familiar with pigeons.
The pigeons did not all leave Pennsylvania, as above state; for Mr. Oscar Huff, of White Deer, Pennsylvania, states that they had a nesting, from May to late in June, 1886, near Blossburg, on the timber land of Drake, Cummings & Company; and thousands of squabs were killed with poles in the little trees during the bark-peeling time of that year.