From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
The Passenger Pigeon, Its Last Phase
By Henry W. Shoemaker
More than ten years have passed since the writer first came in touch with Professor C.F. Hodge of Clark University, Worcester, Mass., the noted naturalist who firmly believed that the Passenger Pigeons were not extinct. The Professor, at his own expense, carried on an expensive publicity campaign for several years, but was unable to produce tangible proofs of the actual existence of the elusive birds. Through the co-operation of leading men, handsome rewards were offered in each of the States in the former range of the pigeons for the discovery of a nest, and the protection of the young birds until they were able to fly and, though hosts of claimants appeared and the genial Professor indulged in sundry “wild goose chases’, some as far north as Canada, he found nothing but nests of flickers, doves and cuckoos.
Colonel Theodore Roosevelt had volunteered to help identify the nests, but passed on nothing nearer the object of quest than the nests of mourning doves. Early in 1912, Professor Hodge dissolved his committees, abandoned the rewards, and refused to pursue the question further. The writer recollects Professor Hodge very pleasantly. He was an enthusiast, and at one time his faith in ultimately recovering the pigeons was unbounded. How he became so deeply interested in the subject is worth recording here. One morning in the Autumn he was working in his garden when he heard a whir of wings not far above his head. Looking up he saw a flock of about thirty wild pigeons winging their way southward. They flew so low that his identification was positive. Involuntarily, he took off his hat and waved it, shouting, “The Passenger Pigeons are not extinct”. That was in 1905. He felt, as he expressed it, that he was designated by fate to prove the existence of the birds to the ornithological world. He began by naming committees, soliciting rewards and extending a knowledge of the birds in every locality where they might possibly linger. But all in vain. No wonder he became discouraged after nearly ten years of unrequited work. His faith was not confined to himself alone. Other leading figures in the realm of ornithology have shared his optimism that the Passenger Pigeon still exists and will return when conditions are right.
Dr. W.T. Hornaday, great authority on all wild life topics, director of the extensive New York Zoological Garden, and gifted writer, states in his “American Natural History”, published in 1903, that in a certain county in Northern Pennsylvania, a naturalist fed a flock of three hundred pigeons during an entire autumn about 1903, and expected them to return the following year. Charles H. Eldon, premier naturalist of Central Pennsylvania, who mounted, at his studio in Williamsport, a handsome male wild pigeon killed at Linden, Lycoming County, in September, 1890, relates that while in a canoe on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River a few days after the great “June flood” of 1889, inspecting the damage done by the deluge, he saw a flock of thirteen wild pigeons flying westward above the river. Like Professor Hodge, he took off his hat and jumped to his feet in the boat, shouting, “Wild Pigeons!”
About that same year, in the fall, John H. Chatham, discerning nature lover, known as “The Poet Laureate of Central Pennsylvania”, while strolling through a wood on his estate at McElhattan, Clinton County, heard a sound in a beech tree, somewhat like a squirrel cracking a nut. Looking up, he saw a handsome male passenger pigeon at work in the mast. The distinguished naturalist seated himself on a log and watched the bird for upwards of twenty minutes. The cock pigeon had evidently become separated from his mate, for it clucked a number of times as if to tell her where he was and that food was plenty. At last it rose above the tree tops and flew off in a westerly direction.
In the fall of 1882, Captain Harry D., Green, of Reading, a Spanish War hero, Legislator, Congressman, journalist and sportsman, was hunting in Cumberland County. He heard a rustle in some underbrush, and thinking that he had put up a woodcock, he fired at the rising bird. A large male pigeon fluttered down at his feet. He put it in the pocket of his hunting jacket, and that evening had it served for supper at the inn where he was stopping. Had he known, he says, that the passenger pigeon was so near extinction he would have had the specimen mounted.
Every one in Central Pennsylvania knows Jake Zimmerman, proprietor of the cozy Hospice, on the mountain top above Milton. Thousands of tourists, fishermen, hunters and motorists have enjoyed the hospitality of this Alpine retreat, pronouncing it one of the most picturesque resorts in the whole of the Pennsylvania highlands. One afternoon, during oats harvest in 1900, Zimmerman was in his field when he saw a single wild pigeon flying above his head in a northwesterly direction. He had not seen a passenger pigeon previous to that for nearly twenty years.
“Charlie” Springer, also proprietor of a mountain resort, on the Coudersport pike, northwest of Jersey Shore, states that he saw about a dozen wild pigeons in one of his fields in the spring of 1905. These are but a few instances, jotted down at random, showing the recent appearance of the passenger pigeon in Pennsylvania. Is it extinct? Only the mountains, the stag-topped original white pines and the roaring streams can answer, and we do not understand their language as yet.
If a sincere doubter wishes to have his wavering belief refreshed let him read “Birds of New York”, published at Albany about 1906. No less an authority than John Burroughs is quoted as having seen large flocks of passenger pigeons in the Catskill Mountains in the first few years of the twentieth century. A young male passenger pigeon was killed at Canandaigua, New York, in the fall of 1898.
The writer has a young male pigeon, nicely mounted, in his collection which was taken on the Root River, Minnesota, in August, 1891. The writer, though not belonging to the generations that knew the passenger pigeons, was fortunate enough to have begun his business career in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the fall of 1900. In those days, there was a cage full of passenger pigeons at the famed Cincinnati Zoo, and on Sundays, when there was nothing else to do, it was his pleasure to go there and stand for hours before the cage, drinking in the romance and exaltation that the sight of these noble birds evoked in his spirit. What a joy to be young like in those grand days, with a big world and boundless hopes, now, alas, circumscribed and caged as were the graceful wild pigeons that enthralled his imagination!
Perhaps his second most vivid impression of the passenger pigeons was received at Paris in the Natural History Museum of the Jardin Des Plantes. It was a dark, cold afternoon in the fall of 1910, gusts of wind were rapidly defoliating the horse chestnut trees of the boulevards. There was an atmosphere of gloom in the vast museum as he passed from atelier to atelier, by the noble effigy of the Asiatic lion of the Vale of Gujerat to the brindle wolf, a recent acquisition, from Clermont-Ferrand, by the Quagga from the Orange River, and the Okapi of the Congo jungles – to an obscure alcove looking out on Cuvier’s cypress shaded house. There, in a huge tall case, closely packed together, were many mounted specimens of obscure members of the pigeon tribe, and on the next to the bottom shelf was a bird with ruddy breast that looked strangely familiar. Sure enough, it bore the label, Pigeon Migrateur (Columba Migratorius) Mise en France. The writer did not need to visit any other parts of the old museum that afternoon. His spirit was filled with images – of that sad, lone bird, taken in France. How it crossed the seas, its story of mystery and romance that stood there untold, never to be told, except in dim chords that beat and throbbed within the soul of the beholder. Perhaps from beloved distant Pennsylvania that pigeon had gone to “find its ultimate islands” by the Somme, the Saone or the Allier, or on the gloomy heights of Puy de Dome. It may have been the sole survivor of those fabled millions which attempted to cross the ocean only to perish during a storm at sea; this one in the end to furnish a bon coup de fusil for some veneur in France!
But if the passenger pigeon is rare today, it was once the most plentiful form of bird life that ever existed in the Keystone State. All the old men will tell you, first of all, that their flights “darkened the sun.” That alone is incredible to the modern person who, if he sees a score of grackles or crows, is amazed at the “plentitude of bird life.”
The passenger pigeons were so numerous in their roosts, according to Mr. Chatham, that though one shouted at the top of his voice, he could not make himself heard to a person standing directly in front of him, so loud was the whistling of the myriad birds.
Winthrop Sargent, Pennsylvania Railroad official, states that in the afternoons in the seventies, in company with W.W. Atterbury, now Brigadier General and head of the American Military Railways in France, he used to go up on Woposononock, the high mountain north of Altoona, to watch the wild pigeons coming back to their roosts. “They made a louder noise than the heaviest freight train”, he avers, and from that we can imagine the immensity of their numbers.
William Collins, a veteran Pennsylvania Railroad employee at Altoona, has related in a bulletin issued by the railroad, that on certain occasion in the ‘70s, the wild pigeons were so numerous in the country between Kane and Sargeant, Pa., that they broke down the railroad telegraph line for a distance of eleven poles by lighting up and flying against the wires. The birds kept the line out of commission for several days.
Daniel Ott, the old Snyder County pioneer, who died in 1916, aged 96 years, tells of netting and killing 1,300 wild pigeons in a single day. He killed them by crushing their skulls with his thumbs; he killed so many that his fingers became so sore he had to desist, then he crushed the skulls with his teeth until his teeth became loose. Women came up from neighboring cabins to beg a few birds to fertilize their sweet-pea beds, claiming that the male birds, with their ruby breasts gave a deeper color to the “posies”. Here is a case which seems to mean “out of death comes life; out of decay comes beauty”.
James V. Bennett, leading builder, of Williamsport, in his youth, was a famous pigeon trapper. As the birds became scarce in the east, he followed them to Oklahoma. He carried on the business on a large scale, with a number of assistants, supplying the markets of many large cities. He invented a machine to crush the skulls, which did away with much of the cruelty of the earlier and cruder methods. All the old time trappers kept several stool pigeons and “flyers” from fall until spring, and sometimes, these birds laid eggs or even bred in captivity.
Mr. Chatham goes into details describing the stool pigeons owned by Philip Smith, a noted trapper who resided on the site of the present writer’s home in Clinton County, Pennsylvania. The old man provide a roomy pen for the birds, under a big oak tree in his yard, and on several occasions young birds were hatched, but did not grow to maturity. Smith was anxious to tame and train a pair of young pigeons so that they would lure, without cords, stool or eyes sewn shut, the wild birds to the feed or salt beds. Mr. Chatham, then a lad, told him of a nest, which, of course, contained two eggs, on a hickory tree in McElhattan Gap, near the present “intake dam”. Smith and his youthful protégé watched the nest until the young birds were hatched. Mr. Chatham saw and stroked the lively squabs. He is positive that there were two of them, but they flew away before the old trapper was able to go out for them.
Mr. Chatham further states that the passenger pigeons nested on the north slope of Mt. Logan, still nearer to Smith’s home, and many were the days he watched for them, shot gun in hand, behind an old stump fence in his father’s buckwheat field. It was a wonderful sight, he says, to see them come rolling over the field, the birds behind literally tumbling the ones in front of them over and over. The pigeons flew low, just above the tops of the trees, when passing over a forest, and when flying over cleared fields on hills never varied their altitude, but sometimes almost flew level with the ground.
Clemuel R. Woodin, chairman of the vast American Car and Foundry Company, tells of how in his boyhood days, in Columbia County, with his brother-in-law to be, Charles H. Dickerman, he used to wait on the hill-tops during the flights of the pigeons, armed with shingles, and knock the birds down by the hundreds.
The writer’s father, the late Henry F. Shoemaker, who spent his boyhood days in Schuylkill County, told of his father driving off with a spring wagon during the great flights over the Blue Mountains, and returning in the evening with the wagon box heaped high with dead pigeons.
Coleman K. Sober, world-renowned rifle shot, states that passenger pigeons were used at all the live bird shooting matches thirty-five years ago. They were rapid fliers, full of erratic swoops and dives and furnished better sport than the tame pigeons of later days.
In the summer of 1890, the writer, as a small boy, was present at many live bird shoots at Hollywood, New Jersey. It was in the hey-dey of Edgar Gibbs Murphy, Fred Hoey and Dr. Gideon Lee Knapp. Tame pigeons were used, but they were not altogether satisfactory.
Herbert K. Job, author of many standard works on birds, relates that passenger pigeons were sold in the Boston markets during 1888. Some were sold in the market at Erie, Pennsylvania, the same year.
During all these years, when the pigeons were becoming scarcer, many stool pigeons were retained by old time netters. Just as the bird hunters of the west said of the bison after the last herds were destroyed, “They will return”, the pigeon trappers of Pennsylvania firmly believed in their renaissance.
Martha, the last of the wild pigeons at the Cincinnati Zoo, was 29 years old when she died in September, 1914. Several of her comrades were as old, or older, when they died.
A resident of Williamsport is an authority on the following: A man named Jake Kreamer had ten stool pigeons which he kept in a coop back of his cabin on Loyalscok Creek near Montoursville. The birds had survived the years. The youngest bird was close to thirty years of age, when, on New Year’s Eve, 1908, a cat got into the pen and killed all but two. The old man, despairing of the return of the “vanished millions”, hastily killed the two survivors and had them mounted. A few months later he learned that if he had kept them alive he could have sold them at his own price, to the Cincinnati Zoo, or to any number of private enthusiasts.
There have been rumors, hard to down, that in remote spots in the Pennsylvania wilds, at the present time, or until recently, other stool pigeons have been kept. One old man in Brush Valley, Centre County, Abe Royer, by name, did have some until about 1892.
A man in the backwoods of McKean County is said to have had some much later than that. In most sections of the Keystone State the flights were not seen after 1881.
Seth Nelson, Jr., a noted netter of Round Island, Clinton County, says he witnessed the last flight in the fall of 1876.
William Wagner, of Antes Fort, Lycoming County, saw the last flight in the fall of 1881. He still has his net, in fairly good condition. The nets were made by hand, usually by traveling net makers, or by the trappers themselves during the winter months. Many of the nets are in existence, also the stools, the baskets in which the stool pigeons were carried to the scene of operation, etc.
Charles H. Eldon has several such complete sets which he has secured at various times from old netters in Lycoming County. He presented one outfit to the writer of this article.
When unwinding this net, in company with Mr. Chatham, so that it could be displayed to advantage, a solitary feather was found, clinging to the yellowed cords. All that was left of the probable thousands of birds that the net had contained, only a single feather, yet more tangible than all the words that have been written concerning these wonderful vanished wonders.
Pigeon Migrateur, as the French call them, they have strayed across the seas, into the lands of romance, perhaps even to that “bourne from which no traveler ever returns”, but we have a feather to prove to those who have never seen them, that they were here – and, as the old men say, “They darkened the sun”.
One dark afternoon when the writer was traveling homeward on “501,” an old man with keen eyes, an eagle’s nose and a long white beard, got into the train at Liverpool, Dauphin County, the thought arose, “He has seen the pigeons fly.” How he wished that he might become acquainted with such a man, for he had lived in the gold age of Pennsylvania, to paraphrase the Ancient Bard who “sang of wolves, and roes, and elks”, in days of flat topped bronze barked original white pines, of panthers, of wolves, of wild pigeons – yes, wild pigeons, whose flights literally darkened the sun.
Oh God eternal, to have lived in such days, before man conquered nature in “Penn’s Woods” and turned it from a Sylvan Paradise to a horizon, the smoke of her factories and mills literally darkens the sun. Will the pigeon cloud ever return, that purple mass, flying low in precise battalions, headed for death and destruction? And to look at those calm old men, eagle visaged and bearded, and to think what they have seen, of the obstacles that they have been through, is but to feel that one is, in the words of William Morris, “An idle singer of an empty day.”
Despite the prodigality of their nesting operations, there is as far as known, not a single Passenger Pigeon’s nest in any collection today. Dr. B.H. Warren, the brilliant author of “Birds of Pennsylvania”, thinks that he once saw a nest in a collection some years ago. There are a fair number of eggs, which change hands at $50 per egg. Mounted specimens are also rare, but that is accounted for by the fact that when these birds were as common as are our English sparrows today, few wanted them in their collections, preferring rarities.
Mounted birds sell at $50 per specimen, though in some cases, as much as $150 has been refused for especially fine male examples. Strangely enough, adult male specimens, showing the rosy breast at its best, are much rarer than female, and young male and young female specimens.
Added to the horrors of squab hunting and killing were orgies of drunkenness that made the scenes in the nesting grounds hideous to recount. Ben Holcomb, of Hickory Valley, Warren County, tells that when the pigeons nested on Bobb’s Creek, near there up to 1885, a certain shrewd individual always appeared with a barrel of hard cider which he sold to the squab hunters at five cents per tin-cup.
Whenever a tree was felled which contained an unusually large number of squabs, the Indian hunters from the Reservation would cheer and dance about like wild men. Whole families of whites and Indians drove to Bobb’s Creek when the pigeons began their nestings, camping in the woods and pickling and barreling tons of squabs.
Adlophe Shurr, formerly a woodsman in Clinton County, states that there was a small nesting of pigeons in the big hemlocks at the head of Young Woman’s Creek, that county, when he peeled bark there in the spring of 1892.
Johnathan Auman, born February 17, 1833, “the Sage of Minnick’s Gap”, in Brush Valley, relates that in the fifties when in Illinois he stopped one night with an aged couple who resided in a great beech wood. The old lady wishing to please the guest told him that she would give him something “extra fine” for supper. Carrying the “tallow dip”, the young man accompanied the dame to the attic, where on cords hung hundreds and hundred of jerked wild pigeons’ breasts. These mad a delicious piece de resistance, being served and eaten like the bultong of the South African Veldt.
Dr. B.S. Barton, in his “miscellanies” where he so vividly described the vast flight of Carolina paroquets in a snowstorm, which so frightened the superstitious Dutch settlers in the Mohawk Valley, New York, in the winter of 1780, tells of a mild winter in 17997, when passenger pigeons remained about Philadelphia as late as February. There was much sickness that winter, though the great scientist does not intimate that they were birds of ill omen.
Mr. Hench, of Altoona, states that when a boy in Perry County he saw many flocks of wild pigeons in wheat planting season and saw their depredations of the wheat fields. He tells of millions of pigeons roosting on the Allegheny mountain, between Cambria and Somerset counties as late as March 1875 or 1876.
Newspapers told of a flock of wild pigeons having been seen in Delaware County, in January, 1917. When in the Shenandoah Valley, in the late fall of 1910, a livery stale driver at New Market, about 50 years of age, told the writer that he had killed tow wild pigeons in the Masnutten Mountains, back of the Endless Caverns, in the winter of 1905. He was sure that they were Passenger Pigeons. As he had helped to trap many of them in his boyhood days. Unfortunately, few of the younger generations know what a Passenger Pigeon looked like, and this was brought our to Prof. Hodge’s chagrin many times during his investigations. The old men are always to be depended upon, they knew the birds intimately, they cannot err, and it should be noted that very few graybeards claim to have seen them in recent years.
We must admit that those elderly men, like C.W. Dickinson, who say that they have seen them of late, have a most excellent case. There is still ground for belief that they exist, though the most careful investigation can at most leave the case open, as in the instances of the flocks seen by Mr. Snook in eastern Brush Valley, a couple of years ago. With no positive proof against we can content ourselves with a goodly portion of hope, and a faith that Ectopistes Migratorius, or as some of the netters in Michigan called them, “Traveling Pigeons”, must return from their long journey. They were in such great numbers when they went away the last time, some must be left. If they come back they will find themselves safeguarded by protective laws, a more enlightened public sentiment, and a thoroughly aroused interest in their life’s history. By the methods of selection used by fanciers in evolving new varieties of domestic pigeons typical “wild pigeons” might be produced, to the benefit of the world, and the infinite joy of the aviarist. What bird lover will try this experiment?