From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
An Observer’s Recollection of the Passenger Pigeon, Once So Numerous, Now Extinct
From Potter County Journal, October 21, 1903 By Edwin Haskell
Remarkable as was the sudden disappearance and almost total extinction of the buffalo of the plains, not less remarkable was the sudden disappearance and extinction of the passenger pigeon.
But a few years ago, this pigeon was a frequent migrant from the northern wilds of British America to the Gulf of Mexico. These migrations were made in vast flocks. These flocks, it has been estimated, would sometimes consist of fifty or sixty millions of birds, so densely massed as to darken the sky, and taking two or three hours to pass a given point. Stops would be made in favorable localities for the purpose of nesting and rearing their young. These stopping places were chosen with the view of obtaining a sufficient amount of mast to last until the young birds could leave their nests and take care of themselves, and follow the parent birds to some new feeding and nesting ground.
Until within ten or fifteen years past, nearly every spring, after a plentiful crop of beechnuts, the previous fall, there was quite likely to be a nesting of pigeons in one or another of the northern or northwestern counties of Pennsylvania.
Potter County, because of the great quantity of beech timber in its forests, seems to have been a favorite locality for the nesting of pigeons.
Because, probably, no one will again see a flock of passenger pigeons, is the excuse the writer has for telling what he knows from personal observations, and from what he has been to learn about this beautiful bird, once so numerous, now extinct.
My recollection goes back to sixty-seven or sixty-eight years ago, when I was a boy 5 or 6 years old. At which time pigeons in great numbers nesting near my father’s home, a small log house nearly in the center of a small clearing in the forest. It was so near that I was taken into the woods to see the nests and the birds flitting about in the tree tops.
I recollect with what delight I watched, with an elder sister, the almost endless flock streaming out of and into the woods. I also have a distinct recollection of many people coming to our house to stay a day or so for the purpose of obtaining a supply of squabs. They brought their supply of provisions to eat, and blankets upon which to sleep. Their cooking was done outdoor, in a kettle swung over a fire, from a chain fastened to a pole, the ends of which rested in crotches driven into the ground, or in frying-pans placed upon a bed of live coals.
These camper-out often consisted of whole families, men, women and children. The men would go into the woods and chop down such trees as contained the greater number of nests, catch or pick up the young birds and at once divest them of their crops. Bushel baskets full of these were brought to the house and emptied upon the ground. The women and children would remove the coarser pin-feathers and viscera and pack the squabs in tubs and barrels containing brine. Whether pickled squab was much of a luxury I never had an opportunity of knowing, as my parents were not disposed to lay by a supply of the oily lumps.
Soon after this my parents moved to Tioga county, New York, and the only knowledge I had for some years of the pigeons was that gained from seeing transitory flocks that nearly every year visited wheat and buckwheat fields, the former after the harvest, and the latter after the grain had been cut and set up in bunches to dry before threshing. These stray flocks would be coming and going for a number of days; but from whence they came or where they went nobody seemed to know or care then, as their was no means of readily ascertaining. It may be safely assumed that they were portions of a nesting flock hundreds of miles away in the south or southwest. As far as I have been able to learn, pigeons never nested in the wilds of northern Pennsylvania in the fall. They usually nested there in the spring after the danger had passed.
Ever since I had seen pigeons in their nesting place when a child too young to carry away anything but a vague impression of the immensity of the number of birds, and the peculiarity of the gentle cooing sounds that filled the woods, I had a desire to again visit a nesting place. I wished to get a better conception of what would be going on there.
It was in the spring of 1855, I think, a chance to gratify this desire presented itself. One evening in April, while conversing with a number of gentlemen on the corner of a street in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, one of them, an old resident of Potter County, raised his hand and pointed toward the crest of the wooded hill west of the village and called out:
“See that, gentlemen. See those pigeons circling in and out of the woods, up there; pigeons are going to nest on the ridge. I know from the actions of those birds that they are spying out the land to find a suitable place for a nesting of the coming flock. I have seen them do it before.”
“But,” queried a bystander, “how will they convey the intelligence that such a place has been found?”
“Don’t know. But, mind what I tell you; those woods will be full of pigeons by daylight tomorrow morning.”
Others of the group were quite sure that the first gentleman’s prediction was correct. What was guessed at was assumed to be a fact.
It took but a brief time to spread the news throughout the town. Every owner of a gun prepared to go for pigeons in the morning.
A brisk trade in powder and shot soon sprung up in the stores keeping the articles, and lasted until the supply was exhausted.
Not being the owner of a gun, I thought for awhile I should be unable to take part in beginning the sport. Quite late in the evening, however, a young man in my employ informed me that he had obtained the loan of two shotguns until 7 o’clock the next morning. He also obtained a supply of ammunition. We planned an early start for the woods on the hills in the morning, thinking that if the “early bird gets the worm” the early hunter would stand a good chance of getting the bird.
Early the next morning, two expectant sportsmen might have been seen climbing the hill west of the town – that is, they might have been seen had anyone been up to see them, and had it been light enough to distinguish objects.
Arriving at the crest, in a small opening in the forest where the timber had been cut down, they stopped and listened. Not a sound was to be heard. The twilight darkness had not been sufficiently dispelled to make easy the discernment of objects in or beneath the tops of the trees. Anxiously waiting, the eastern horizon was scanned to catch the first indication of the rising sun. A slight diffused halo of light tipped the hilltops. Brighter and brighter it grew. The orb of day rose slowly above the horizon and shot rays of light through the treetops, and dispelled the hazy darkness beneath them. Not a pigeon could be seen. Not a cooing of a pigeon could be heard. No life, no sound savoring of life, save the rustling of a leaf turned by a chipmunk seeking an early breakfast, or the feeble chirp of an awakening bird in the border of the wood.
Soon from the west there came a sound like that of an approaching tempest, or the roar of a distant cataract; swish! The pigeons had come. Streaming through the forest with such speed that one could catch a sight of only a glint of flapping wings.
Flock followed flock, sitting in the tops of the trees or lighting on the ground, and moving forward still, as if impelled by the momentum gained in their flight. Hopping, tumbling, flitting over one another, in the eagerness of each one to keep in the front rank.
After a long flight, the birds were hungry and the chance of the hindmost finding many nuts after the ground had been passed over was very small.
The twittering peculiar to the pigeon when a flock was lighting on the ground to feed, could be heard in every direction, showing that the scramble for nuts was going on over a large extent of forest where beech trees abounded.
When the pigeons came into that forest which was miles in extent, there must have been thousands of bushels of nuts scattered upon the ground. After they had once finished feeding, there could not have been a possibility of many being left. Half a pint of beechnuts has been found in a pigeon’s crop, and there were millions of them!
This stripping the ground of nuts, to begin with, was a surprise to me, as I had been informed by persons professing to know, that the old birds never picked up the nuts from the ground under the trees upon which they built their nests, but left them for the young birds when they left their nests.
From what was going on around me, it was evident that no such foresight could be attributed to the pigeon. Nature evidently made all necessary provision for the sustenance of the young birds on a small amount of food until they were ready to follow their parents to new nesting and feeding grounds. This provision was made by storing up in the bodies of the squabs a great amount of fat. Young birds killed a few days after leaving their nests would be found to be very lean.
It was not long before the flocks were scattered, and the low, gentle cooing of pairs of birds sidling up together on the limbs of the trees, indicated that pairing off and choosing places for nests was going on.
Other gunners arrived upon the scene, but the pigeons paid no attention to the discharge of firearms and the slaughter taking place, so intent were they upon attending to their own affairs.
A large number of the birds were being killed, but the chance for firing into massed flocks had passed and the hunters – if such they could be called – did not have to seek their game. It came to them single or in pairs. As fast as one bird was killed another would take its place. All that was necessary to be done was to lad and fire.
Having secured all the pigeons we desired, and the time having nearly expired for which we had obtained the loan of our guns, we hastened down the hill, getting home in time for breakfast.
Desirous of gaining further information, I climbed the hill again in the afternoon, and took a more extensive survey of the nesting.
There seemed to be no diminution of the number of the birds, but there was an absence of long, strung-out flocks moving with lightning-like velocity through the woods, showing in passing, a transitory glint of feathers and rapidly beating wings.
But few birds were on the ground, and these were in search of dry twigs with which to construct their nests. Whether the male birds assisted in building the nests I was unable to ascertain, but presumed they were, from the rapidity with which they were being finished.
It was noticeable, however, that the males seemed to get more time than the females, to sit around on lower branches of the trees, as if in quiet contemplation of what was going on. This made them an easy mark for the gunners. Upon an examination of almost any string of birds killed, it would be found that nearly all of them would be males. Early the next morning a great number of the birds were leaving the nesting ground to feed; that they were mostly female could be known from the fact that when going out in search of food the female birds flew much higher than the males. They were going in open order. Up and down the valley, as far as the eye could reach, the sky was flecked with the birds moving in one direction. Later in the day they were coming back in flocks, and the males were leaving, skimming quite near the ground, over the tops of the hills and around the projecting points. Toward evening they returned to a roosting place, not far from the nesting. Sometimes the birds would light in these places in such numbers as to break the limbs of the trees, or turn them up by the roots.
I did not go to the nesting again for sometime. It was not necessary to go there for the birds to eat. They could be bought nearly every day for 25 cents a dozen – about what the powder and shot cost with which to kill them. In those days people did not think of sending pigeons to the city market.
I had waited until the squabs were nearly large enough to leave their nests, having been informed that was the time to get them, as then they were the best.
There was a large number of people from different sections of the country, chopping down trees to get the young birds. So rapidly they come to maturity, there would be but one or two days in which this could be done.
In choosing trees to cut down, the choppers would look for those in which there was the greatest number of nests. When the trees came to the ground, the squabs that were not killed would flutter off, giving the choppers a lively run before they were secured. When caught the crop was seized between the index and middle finger, the hand giving a quick flirt, removing the head and crop with a single motion.
The old pigeons paid little attention to the felling of trees. They were going and coming and feeding the squabs. The crop of the pigeon is partially divided into two sections; one of which consists of glands, which become enlarged when the birds are nesting. These glands secrete a mil-like substance which coagulates into a substance having much the appearance of the curd of cheese. This curd mixed with partially digested food, is ejected into the mouths of the squabs. Fed on any other food than this, squabs would die. It seemed, from what observation I was able to make, that it required some time, and a season of rest, for this secretion and coagulation to take place. On returning from feeding, the pigeons would not proceed immediately to feed the young birds, but sit around on the branches of the trees- usually over night at their roosting place.
All of the young pigeons seemed to leave their nests about the same time. At first their flight was quite near the ground. People would take advantage of this, and station themselves on the row of the hill, with long flexible poles, and whip into the low-flying flocks, killing in this manner many birds.
In April, 1868, I think it was, pigeons nested in Bingham Township, Potter County, Pennsylvania; but a fall of snow five or six inches in depth, caused them to desert their nests. Luckily for them, however, a frost had occurred, in many localities, before the beechnuts were fully ripe, and the nuts had not fallen out of the burrs. At that time I was preparing to make sugar. In some parts of the woods were many beech trees, from which a large proportion of the nuts had not fallen. For two or three days after the snow storm, along in the forenoon, pigeons would come in immense flocks and feed on these nuts. By a peculiar flapping of their wings, they would hold themselves suspended in the air in an upright position, at the ends of the twigs of the trees, and pick the nuts from the burrs. The noise made by the flapping of wings was almost deafening, and could be distinctly heard for a half mile or more.
In a few sunny places at the edge of the woods the snow had thawed, exposing the bare ground. Upon such places great flocks of pigeons would swoop down, struggling and scolding, to get the few nuts to be obtained.
The difficulty with which the pigeons could obtain food was the pigeon netter’s opportunity.
A bed would be made by clearing the snow from a small section
of level ground. Upon this wheat or buckwheat would be scattered.
Beside this bed a net would be arranged, and so folded back, that by the
means of springs, it could be thrown forward quickly up and over any birds
that might light or hover over the bed. For the purpose of concealing
the netters, a booth or hut of boughs would be built near the net, care
being taken to have it resemble as nearly as possible a bunch of bushes.
From this hut the nest could be sprung, and flyers thrown up. A flyer
was a pigeon with a string tied to its legs by which it could be pulled
down after having been thrown up, in such a manner as to give it the appearance
of hovering over a feeding place. Another pigeon, called a stool
pigeon, would be set upon a sort of tilting perch near the ground, in the
middle of the bed. This bird was blinded by having its eyes sewed
up. By tilting this perch this pigeon would lift its wings in a way
pigeons had upon alighting to feed. There might have been various
other ways of luring the birds to the net. At the right moment the
man in the hut would pull a string and spring the net over the birds.
So skillful were some of those netters that no device other than the flyers
would be used to lure the birds. When a passing flock would swoop
near the ground to see what the flyers had found, the net would be thrown
at the right moment for the birds to pile into it. The number that
would be caught in this manner was dependent upon the length and width
of the net and the size of the flock.
Netting Pigeons and the Slaughter
In one instance it was my good fortune to be in a booth when an enormous haul of birds was made in this way. The net was thrown just in time to scoop in a large portion of a flock skimming near the ground past the hut, having been attracted there by the flyers. As the net came down the momentum of their flight piled them up several courses deep. In a moment a pigeon’s head protruded from every mesh in the net. So great was the number of the birds, struggling desperately to free themselves, that I was called upon to throw myself upon the net and help hold it down else the pigeons would escape. With our weight and using both hands and feet to the utmost of our strength, for a time it seemed as though the net would be raised in spite of our efforts. What else to do was difficult to determine. We could not let go of the net to kill the birds with our hands – what, then, was to be done? The old pigeon catcher who had sprung the net decided quickly, by setting an example and yelling to me;
“Bite their head! Bite their heads! Do you hear?” “Not for all the pigeons in the world,” I replied. “Pshaw! Don’t be squeamish! See how its done!” he called out impatiently, and went on crushing the skulls of the heads protruding through the meshes of the net, until the difficulty of holding it down had passed and a less revolting, if not more merciful, method of killing the remainder of the birds could be devised.
I could kill pigeons with a gun without any compunction. But crushing the skulls of live birds between my teeth! Faugh! It makes me shudder to think of it.
During the few days the snow covered the ground, some of the men, netting pigeons in Bingham Township, caught from five to eight hundred dollar’s worth of the birds.
The snow having melted from the ground, the flock that had dispersed over a wide extent of country in search of food, came together in a nesting place on the ridges adjacent to the head of Dingman Run, not far from Coudersport. About a week later, a very large flock that had been driven from their nests by the snow storm, came from Cameron County, or Elk County, and joined the pigeons that had come from the abandoned nesting in Bingham Township extending the Dingman Run nesting several miles along the ridge between the Allegheny River and the Oswayo Creek.
By this time, the netting and shooting of pigeons, to be sold in the city markets, and become a well organized business. Correspondence, by means of telegraph, was kept up from all the regions in which the pigeons were accustomed to nest. Those engaged in the business were supplied with accurate information as to the locality where the birds might be found at any given time, with an estimate of their number and directions as to the most direct route by rail, to a point nearest nesting place. This accounts for the great slaughter of pigeons that took place during their nesting in the vicinity of Dingman Run.
All the time I had not seen pigeons in their nesting place for several years. Having been informed that the squabs were about to leave their nests, I arranged with two or three neighbors to go to the nesting ground for a mess. Having several miles to drive, we started early in the morning, so that more time might be had in the woods. One route lay through Coudersport. When within two or three miles of that town, we were met by a young man on a cantering horse. He drew up his perspiring steed and inquired whether we had seen a team on the road that was bringing a load of goods from Wellsville, New York. Among the goods was a quantity of shot which his firm had given the driver a commission to procure for them. He described the man and team. We told him no such man and team had been seen. Turning his horse, quickly, and urging it into a gallop, he disappeared up the road muttering incoherent imprecations against tardy teamsters in general. Wellsville, at that time, was the nearest point from Coudersport at which a railroad could be reached.
The presence of so many people near the town, engaged in killing, catching, buying and shipping pigeons had caused such an influx of money, that the dealers in hunters’ and sportsmen’s supplies were anxious to meet the demand as far as possible. Their stock of shot had become exhausted. Hence the dispatch of a courier to hurry up the laggard teamster.
On entering the town, its streets, usually so quiet, presented a novel spectacle. Men carrying guns were coming into town from various directions. They came in carriages, buggies, lumber wagons, on horseback and on foot. A motley crowd. The scene was analogous to nothing else I saw, unless it was an assembling of militia for an old-fashioned general training.
The pigeon nesting was a boon to many poor men. Ten or twelve dollars’ worth of the old birds was frequently the result of one day’s shooting. One dollar per dozen was the price of pigeons on the ground. The price for squabs was forty cents per dozen. An industrious man, handy with an axe, could earn more getting squabs than could be earned by shooting the old birds. Breech-loading guns had not come into general use at that time. The old muzzle loading gun was liable to become so foul on a damp day as to be unserviceable, if many consecutive shots were fired in a short time. It is not difficult to conceive how much greater must have been the slaughter, in after times, when modern firearms had come into general use.
When we arrived at the nesting, hundreds of acres of beech forest
was being felled for the squabs, great numbers of these were taken to a
shanty and sold to buyers, who had men hired to prepare and pack them for
transportation to market. Gunners swarmed in every section of the
forest, the thud of the axeman’s strokes, the crash of falling trees, the
flutter of wings and cooing of pigeons, the incessant report of shotguns,
the laughter, cursing and shouting of men filled the woods with a medley
of sounds almost crazing, and made it seem as though it were a pandemonium
for a saturnalia of slaughter.
Historical Comment – Last Appearance of Pigeons
In the fields near the nesting grounds the netters waited for outgoing and incoming flocks.
Early in the morning, when the pigeons were hungry, was thought to be the most favorable time to lure them to the nets. It might happen, however, that clouds would prolong the twilight, or a dense fog shut out from the ground the rays of the rising sun, rendering it difficult for the birds, in their flight, to discern objects near the earth; when this was the case the pigeons flew high. An attempt to attract their attention would be useless.
The return flight, however, was usually made towards evening, in broad daylight, but, if the birds had been successful in filling their crops, the attempt to call them down would be unavailing. As the country for a long distance in every direction had become divested of food, the birds would frequently return to their nesting place with very little in their crops. Then the sight of a flyer, or a stool pigeon, fluttering just above the ground, as if alighting, for purpose of picking up some sort of grain or nuts, they would swoop down, huddled together in almost a solid mass, and the netter would make a big haul.
The depletion of the great flock, by netters and gunners was by no means restricted to the nesting ground and its vicinity. Over a vast extent of country embracing thousands of square miles - wherever the pigeons were coming and going nearly every day – their destruction was going on, and had been going on for weeks.
Yet a person could scarcely be found who thought that any perceptible diminution could be made in their numbers. As yet, no note of warning had been sounded which the public would heed.
One or two days after my trip to the Dingman Run nesting place the squabs left their nests – full-fledged pigeons – the term squab applying to them no more. The old pigeons had started on their migration to a new nesting place in the far northwest. The young birds stayed two or three days longer; by short flights spreading over quite a large extent of the adjacent territory, to gain strength and facility in the use of their wings before attempting the long, sustained flight necessary to keep them in touch with the older birds in their migrations. They kept spreading out, moving on in small flocks, in search of food, until all at once, they were gone. Where? No one seemed to know, except the men whose business of pigeon netting and killing made it necessary for them to keep track of them.
Before they could join the old pigeons, and a nesting place be chosen, these men were after them in order to be on hand, when and wherever that might be, to commence anew the slaughtering.
When the pigeons left Dingman Run, the nesting of pigeons in great numbers in Potter and adjoining counties of Pennsylvania was a thing of the past.
Two small flocks nested, it is true, near Cherry Springs, in 1882 or 1883, I think it was. That was the last of the passenger pigeons in Potter County. (It was in 1886).
There was said to have been a large nesting of the pigeons in North Dakota, in 1889. The pot hunters and netters slaughtered millions of the birds, sending them to market by the car-loads. About that time I recollect reading an account of pigeons nesting in the Indian Territory, 250 miles from any railroad. Previous to that time there had been two great flocks in the United States. Then there was only one. One of the flocks had been exterminated. Probably the flock that nested in Dakota was the same that nested in the Indian Territory. Whether that was the case, I have never been able to learn. It was reported that a large flock of pigeons had been seen nesting in Mexico. It has since been ascertained that they were not passenger pigeons, but another species. The opinion that the persistent following and killing of pigeons, in their nesting places, in the United States and British America, had caused the birds to seek refuge in Mexico or Central America, had to be abandoned.
That the passenger pigeon could have stayed continuously, for the past ten or fifteen years, in the vastness of the unexplored wilds of British America, is to suppose the impossibility. The rigor of the climate precluded any such protracted stay. It might be more reasonable to suggest, that after the pigeons nested in the Indian Territory and North Dakota, they migrated to the northern wilds of British America, and were at some time caught in a great blizzard and perished from cold, thereby wiping the species from the face of the earth.
It may be claimed, in refutation of this supposition, that a number of the people have reported that they have seen pigeons, since that time in small flocks, or in single pairs in the mountain regions of Pennsylvania. It is quite probable that these persons made the mistake of taking turtle doves for passenger pigeons. This might have been done very easily, as the turtle dove bears a striking resemblance to the pigeon. This dove is usually to be found in single pairs, or in small flocks, as were the pigeons reported to have been seen. These doves are quite plentiful in some parts of Pennsylvania. However, I think it safe to assume, that a passenger pigeon has not been seen in Pennsylvania, nor in any other of the United State, or in British America, Mexico, or any other part of the world, in ten years.
However phenomenal was the sudden disappearance of a bird of such wonderful fecundity; however, unexplainable such a sudden extinction may be, yet it must be accepted as an indisputable fact.