From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
Last Survivor of Wild Pigeons Dead
Martha, Captive in Cincinnati Zoo, Survived Loss of Mate Just Four Years – Lived to be 29 Years Old
New York, September 13, 1914
News of the death in Cincinnati of Martha, the last wild pigeon in the world, according to all ornithological records, was conveyed yesterday to T. Gilbert Pearson, general executive officer of the National Audubon Societies, in a telegram from Eugene Swope, the Ohio agent of the Societies at Cincinnati. The death of Martha, according to Mr. Pearson, is a calamity of as great importance in the eyes of naturalists as the death of a Kaiser to Germans throughout the world.
Martha had been in poor health for several years in her cage at the Zoological Garden in Cincinnati. Many efforts had been made to find a mate for her, or to discover some other specimen of the wild pigeon, but they were without avail. According to all ornithological data available, Martha was the last of her tribe in the world.
(She died at 2 p.m., August 29, 1914.)
Members of the National Audubon Societies some time ago, offered a prize of $1,500 to any one who could find a wild pigeon nest. All that was necessary was to find the nest, telegraph to C.F. Hodge, a naturalist of Clark University, and to await the findings of ornithologists whom he would immediately dispatch to the scene to investigate the genuineness of the find. The Audubon Societies received on an average 100 false alarms a year, but in not a single case was the nest reported found to be a wild pigeon’s. Instead, almost every nest was found to be an ordinary turtle dove. The wild pigeon resembles the ordinary wild dove but is considerably larger.
The extinction of the wild pigeon tribe was the more amazing because of the vast extent to which it had flourished in this country prior to 1865. Wild passenger pigeons used to travel over the country by millions. Audubon himself told of their roosting in certain parts of Kentucky in territory covering a space of three to five miles wide and forty miles long, which was almost literally hidden by them. Hundreds of farmers, he tells, used to camp on the outside of the vast roosting pigeon host and shoot them by the thousands from the edge of their resting place. The birds were fed by thousands to the farmers’ hogs after each night’s killing.
The slaughter raged for years with nets, traps and guns, and by 1884, there were very few of the wild pigeons seen in the country. Several years ago they had dwindled down to a few specimens left in captivity in Milwaukee and in the Cincinnati Zoo. Martha’s mate died about four years ago, and though a prize of $1,000 was offered for any one who could find another bird to take its place, Martha remained in solitary widowhood until she died.
Martha herself was hatched in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo.
At the time of her death, she was 29 years old. Her last illness
had been a matter of concern to ornithologists the world over, and the
Cincinnati agent of the Audubon Societies had been instructed to communicate
at once with leading ornithologists and naturalists of the country as soon
as she died. – Altoona Tribune.
List of Mounted Passenger Pigeons, at Academy of Natural Sciences (Third Floor), Logan Square, Philadelphia
No. 49,899, fine mature male, from Dr. Charles Shaeffer
No. 24,291, young male
No. 24,292, young male, (fine specimen) gift of Dr. T.B. Wilson
No. 13,301, mature female
No. 13,299, young female, gift of Dr. T.B. Wilson
Emerson Hough on the Wild Pigeons
Captain Emerson Hough, the noted authority on western life, in
a recent conversation with the writer, stated that the last Passenger Pigeon
which he saw was killed by a retired railroad conductor, in Wisconsin,
the first week in September, 1897. The conductor while journeying
along a railway cut, saw a large bird perched on a tree among a band of
mourning doves. He killed the bird, and showed it, a couple of hours
afterwards, to Captain Hough and a friend. This incident the Captain
says, is fully described in Mershon’s great book on “The Passenger Pigeons,”
published in 1907. When Captain Hough was a young man in Iowa, in
the Seventies, he recalls often seeing flocks of several hundred Passenger
Pigeons migrating in the spring and fall. Sometimes they would alight
on the feeding beds provided for cattle, even in feed troughs, where they
were potted by the farmer boys with their old-fashioned shot guns. – H.W.S.
Nov. 6, 1918
H.H. Gallup, McKean County Man, Hears Wild Pigeon
H.H. Gallup, of Betula, McKean County, writes as follows:
“I thought I heard a cock pigeon crow two years ago last Spring while in
the sugar bush, but C.W. Dickinson thinks differently, and as I never heard
it again, no doubt I was mistaken. I have seen the fields so covered
with birds, that you could not see the ground, and when they are feeding,
they seem to roll over one another, the rear to the front, in countless
thousands, a sight that the present and future generations can never realize
– for they are gone forever.” (1918)
John C. French, in a letter to H.W. Shoemaker, on the dates of the appearance and departure of the Passenger Pigeon in Northern Pennsylvania, says:
I never saw one, here, later than October, nor earlier than May, when they were so plenty that farm crops of grain were sometimes destroyed in a few hours. Three miles east from my farm they nested, some years (not every year) prior to 1874, and went daily to feeding grounds in McKean and Forest counties (hens one day and cocks the next), going over my farm flying low in the morning, returning at night, flying high.
The whole valley would be filled, from north hills to the south hills, more than a mile, with strata above strata of pigeons, sometimes eight courses deep and for an hour of a morning, or more, they flowed westward, a mile a minute, with a roar of wings like a tornado and the deep shadow of a heavy thunder shower.
Their nests were in a little hollow where hemlock trees stood thickest and usually covered about twenty acres, say 800 to 1,000 trees, nests on every limb, except ten or twelve feet at the treetops; and were regular in outside borders, even leaving one-half the limbs of an occupied tree, outside of the “city” and one-half inside of it, with nests on all limbs inside the “city” boundaries and no nests outside of the boundaries.
The “city” was in the form of a parallelogram, say approximately forty rods by eight rods. I saw another “city” in the head hollow of Sugar Run, McKean County, that was about square and smaller, about thirty rods by third rods, but the trees were much thicker and larger, giving nest room for nearly as many. I never saw a round “city”, nor heard of any.
As shooting is more controlled, I expect to see the Passenger Pigeon return in summer, despite the claim of being extinct since 1890, or so. In 1901, I saw a pair in June, on Grant’s Run, near Grantonia post office in Elk County; in 1904, Mr. J.W. Cunningham, a revenue officer, saw a small flock near the Big Sandy River in Kentucky.
In 1906, William Hazen and his son, saw five pigeons several times, feeding on their buckwheat field in August, here in Roulette. Now there is room for doubt, but all of these men knew the wild pigeon well and believe they saw them.
I am also certain of the pair that I saw in 1901. They lit in a juniper tree within six rods of where I sat upon a log with my wife, to whom I pointed them out and discussed the peculiarly red-tinted breast of the cock and the modest grey suit of his mate; also remarking to Mrs. French that they were not extinct then, as we had heard so often for the previous decade. An old time Wisconsin timber cruiser, who knew wild pigeons well thirty-five years ago or more, was looking over some pine timber (Araucarian) in Chili in 1912, and reported that he saw millions of the genuine old time Passenger Pigeons far within the Anean solitudes.
Faye H. Rohartt, a noted historical writer of McKean, in a recent widely published article on wild game of his home locality, has this to say concerning the Passenger Pigeons:
The extermination of the wild pigeons which came to this section every spring, from April to June, in countless numbers, is one of the things the present generation has to mourn.
They came in great flights that shut off the sunlight, like a dark cloud, while they were passing. They were about the size of a tame dove, but a neater bird. Their color was a light slate, with beautifully silver tinged band around the neck.
Many of the older residents recall the time when pigeons nested throughout this vicinity. T.L. Sartwell recalls a time when he was a boy when pigeons nested on Potato Creek at Smethport.
The cocks or male pigeons would fly first from about seven to nine in the morning and the hens or female birds, would fly from nine to eleven. The valley and hillside would be literally blue in color from their countless numbers. A good beech nut year always meant a good pigeon year.
When they nested, every tree and limb of the forest would be weighed down. At such a time, men from all parts of the country, hearing of the nesting, would gather to get the squabs or young pigeons that had not yet learned to fly. In order to get them, the hunters would cut down the trees in which they roosted and take them by the hundreds. In 1868, a famous nesting occurred on Bell’s Run.
Mr. A. Reilly, of Smethport, in speaking of them, says in part: “At one time the nesting was ten miles long and five miles wide, with every tree and limb of the forest being covered. Many made a business of catching them, and on Potato Creek, there were placed nets about every one hundred yards apart for fifteen miles. Each net captured from ten to one hundred dozen a day. I have shipped from twenty to thirty barrels a day, each barrel holding twenty-five dozen and selling from twenty-five to fifty cents a dozen, but discontinued when the market became glutted.”
In the Spring of 1842, Stephen Sickles, of Smethport, caught thousands of them, but as there was no market at that time, hired himself and his net to his neighbors for $2 a day, and captured in a single day from 500 to 2,000 pigeons.
In this immediate vicinity, C.M. Slack, tells of netting them with E.S. Carpenter, on the flats where the refinery is now located. At one time there was a large nesting up at Windfall.
Mr. A.N. McFall described a nesting made at Mt. Alton, and they picked them. He says that after a successful day with the nets, a trough would be built around the four sides of a good room and into this the dead pigeons would be dumped. Women would be hired to pick them, taking the feathers for use in making feather beds.
From lengthy descriptions given by T.L. Sartwell, C.M. Slack and A.N. McFall, the following is obtained as to the process of netting them.
The nets varied in size from twelve to twenty feet in length and were from three to six feet or more in width. One side of the net would be staked along its entire length to the ground and thru the other side which was free, was run what was called the net string, which was fastened on each end to the spring poles by which the net was sprung. The spring poles were of hemlock and fastened to the net springs, doubled back to give force by which the net was spread and were a number of feet from the net. The net would be tucked carefully on the ground along the staked side and so arranged that when it was released it would fly out and spread itself over the ground or bed on which the pigeons on being attracted would alight. The bed was previously prepared by strewing buckwheat or corn over the ground. The net would be sprung so quickly that the pigeons would have no chance of rising and it settled down over them.
The net would be worked from what was known as the bough house, built near by to screen the nets from observation. From this shelter were worked the pigeon stool and the fliers.
The pigeon stool was a live pigeon used as a decoy and securely fastened to straight poles that were fixed in such a manner they could be raised three or four feet from the ground and then lowered to the ground with the pigeons on the end. In so doing, the pigeon would flap its wings as if settling to the ground in a natural way. The pigeon stool would be placed just outside the area to be covered by the net so as to be caught when the net was released.
There were also live pigeons that had a long string attached to their legs. The fliers were sent up into the air and then pulled in again. These decoys would attract a flock of pigeons flying near and it would settle on the bed and the net would be released. Very few pigeons ever got away as the men would rush out from the bough house as soon as the net had been released, and get onto the net on their hands and knees and bite the heads off as the pigeons protruded them thru the opening in the net. The ground would be cleared and everything again fixed for the next flock that came along, which would not be very long in coming.
Sometimes a double net was worked, which consisted of two nets released towards each other, thus doubling the catch.
The last of the pigeons came about the year 1880, although the real big flights were made fifty years ago. The cutting out of the beech trees, as well as the destructive methods used in capturing them, had much to do with their total disappearance.