From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
What Exterminated the Passenger Pigeon?
The True Story, Related by One of the Most Famous Pigeon Trappers in America – C.W. Dickinson (From the Altoona Tribune)
First, we wish to state that there is only a small percentage of the American people of today that can imagine what an immense body of pigeons there would be in a large pigeon nesting. Take, for instance, the nesting or pigeon city we had in McKean and Potter Counties in Pennsylvania, in 1870, which was the largest in this locality since 1830.
This nesting was from one half mile to two miles wide and about forty miles long, running through an unbroken forest. The direction of this line was nearly east and west, a zig zag line to keep near the main range of mountains that divides the waters of the Allegheny and the Susquehanna Rivers.
Both male and female birds help to build the nest which is a very crude affair and, as a rule, there is only one egg in each nest; perhaps one nest in fifty or one hundred will have two eggs in it. As soon as the eggs are laid, the hen birds sit on the nests over night, while the toms roost in the nesting or adjoining territory. Now the birds are divided, the males by themselves, and the females go by themselves, when going out in search of food.
Four-fifths of the birds will fly out in a certain direction from the nesting to feed, some of them going as far as sixty or seventy miles. The toms establish the line of flight from the nesting. They will begin to fly out very early in the morning. As soon as there is any signs of gray in the east, they fly out in immense flocks. Sometimes it could be called a continuous flock, as far as the human eye could see there was a bird in all directions, all going in the same direction, for twenty or thirty minutes. After the main body had passed, then would come flocks of from eight or ten dozen up to one hundred dozen. This will continue until about 9 a.m., when the toms will begin to return to the nesting to take the place of the hens on the nests, while the hens go in search of food.
The hens follow the same line of flight and return to the nesting about 1 p.m., take their place on the nest again, while the toms will make a shorter fly out in the afternoon, returning about half past four and, if the weather is not too rough, the hens will make a short fly out, returning in time to take their place on the nests over night.
It takes about fourteen days for the eggs to hatch and in about fifteen days from hatching, the young birds are left to their own fate. At this time, the young birds are fed all their craw can hold and they are so fat they can’t fly very much for three or four days. As soon as they get the use of their wings, they know where to go, for they will follow the same line of flight the old birds took a week before.
The old birds will not feed in the nesting or near the border of it. This food is left for the young birds to live on while they are getting the use their wings. The young birds are great feeders from the time of hatching until the old birds leave them. The first twelve days of a young pigeon’s life, he feeds exclusively on curd that forms in the craw in a thin sack that adheres to the inner part of the craw, filling one-third the craw proper.
This curd forms in the craw of the males as well as the females. When feeding their young, the old birds will draw their mouth wide, then the young bird will stick his beak down the old bird’s throat and eat the curd out of the old bird’s craw. The curd does not mix with the old bird’s food, as it is in a container by itself, which gives way after about twelve or thirteen days; after this the young birds will get beechnuts or seeds from other trees or shrubs, mixed with the curd.
Pigeons only nested in Pennsylvania in the spring of the year, following a season when there was a good crop of beechnuts. Under no other conditions could such a body of birds possibly live for a period long enough to raise their young which takes about thirty-one days.
Take the pigeon nesting in 1870, for instance. The daily flight was in a northerly direction from the nesting and eight miles from the nesting, it would be one continual flock of birds as far as you could see, east, west, north or south for twenty to thirty minutes. Then it would be more broken so at any time from 5 to 8 p.m., you could see from ten to forty flocks at a time.
People who never saw a flight of birds from a nesting, can’t believe there were ever so many birds in one locality. The writer’s home was near the locality where these birds nested. From one-half mile to four miles we would hit eight or ten different nestings, also, I have also been in six or eight that were farther away. We have tried not to enlarge this in any manner for no one knows what a pigeon nesting is until they have actually been in one.
The birds build their nests in every tree that is standing on the territory the nesting covers. The larger the top of the tree, the more nests there will be in the tree. We once counted fifty-seven nests in the top of a large birch tree. Undoubtedly there are three times as many nests in a hemlock tree as there are in a hardwood tree. In the hemlock there are so many more chances for the birds to build nests, while the hemlock boughs are so thick, it would be impossible to count the nests.
You will ask whatever became of these birds if they were so plentiful. There were millions of them caught with nets and sent to the large cities. Still there were millions of them here on their old nesting ground in Pennsylvania, in 1886, which was the last large body of birds that ever visited this state. A few small flocks have passed through this locality since that date. The writer saw a small flock of about 100 birds in September, 1905, and saw a lone pigeon in August, 1906. The large body of birds that came here in April, 1886, came here for the express purpose of nesting. The crop of beechnuts the fall before was very large. That was what brought them here. When food was real plenty, the birds have been known to nest three times in a single season. The first ones would being their nesting in the latter part of March. They would nest again in the first part of May, and No. 3 nesting would start about June 10th.
When the pigeons came here to nest, they would be scattered over three or four counties, and roost anywhere night overtook them. But for a night or two before they began building their nests nearly all of them would roost in one large body. From this place their nesting would start, but what direction it would go, no one knew, until they commenced building.
Another sure sign of its being about time for the birds to begin nesting is the fine little white strings that come from the forward end of the breast and connects with the craw for the young to feed on.
In 1886, these two sure signs were in evidence. The fine white strings had been visible for three days. And it was the second night of the big roosting on the west branch of Pine Creek in Potter County, that these birds were driven out of the state, never more to return. On the second night of the roosting, thirty or forty men and boys from the settlements along Pine Creek, went into this roosting with guns and a back load of ammunition and a few edibles for a lunch or two. At 9 p.m., they began shooting into the treetops anywhere and everywhere, scattering out in every direction and shooting into the treetops as long as they could hear a bird fly. Then they gathered into small groups, made camp fires and waited for daylight, so they could find the dead and crippled birds.
This was the death blow to pigeons in Pennsylvania. Which way or where they went no one knows for they left in the night. The night was clear with a full moon, so the birds could see fairly well which way they wanted to go. It is safe to presume they followed the same course they always took when leaving this state in the spring or early summer. They would go in a northerly direction, cross the state of New York, and go up into the big forests of Canada.
Their being driven out of here in the night and on the eve of starting a nesting suggests that before they had a chance to select a place for a nesting, the hens dropped their eggs. Therefore, there were no young birds to eat the curd which had already started to form and would keep on forming until the laws of nature had completed her work. Now, if there were no young birds to keep this curd eaten out, it would fill the craw so full, the old birds would either starve to death, or such a large amount of curd in the craw would cause something like milk fever, which would be fatal to every bird that belonged to the body of birds that were about to nest.
There were always quite a few stray birds with a nesting body, either too young to nest, or lost birds that had been scattered around the country and just happened to find the main body and, of course, these strays or young birds, would not have any curd 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 forests enough left for hawks to nest in, to say nothing about a body of pigeons.
Jan. 25, 1917
Correct Scientific Name
(From “Science,” Nov. 1, 1918)
The technical name of the Passenger Pigeon has for many years been Ectopistes migratorius (Linnacus) (Columba migratoria Linnaeus, “Syst. Nat.,” Ed. 12, I., 1766, P.285). There is, however, another name, Columba Canadensis Linnaeus (Syst. Nat.,” Ed. 12, I., 1766, P.284), based on the Turtur Canadensis of Brisson (“Ornith.,” I., 1760, P.188), that needs consideration. Reference to Brisson shows conclusively that his dtailed description is that of the female Passenger Pigeon, as he mentions particularly the rufescent tail-spots. Both Columba Canadensis Linnaeus and Columba migratoria Linnaeus are of equal pertinence, and there seems to be no reason for the rejection of the former, since both the International and the American Ornithologists’ Union provide definitely for the enforcement of the principle of anteriority (page precedence) in such cases. We should therefore, hereafter call the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes Canadensis (Linnaeus).
Harold C. Oberholser
In the same issue of “Science”, John M. Clarke, Director of the
New York State Museum, transmits a letter from M. Rasmussen, of Amsterdam,
N.Y., who claims to have seen a flock of about thirty wild pigeons in a
buckwheat filed on October 1, 1918. He is sure of his identification
apart from seeing the flock, “by the whistling sound of their wings,” having
seen wild pigeons “near Ithaca, about twenty years ago.” Captain
Emerson Hough, in commenting on the above statement, says, that a mourning
dove’s wings “whistle the same as a wild pigeons’, also that no one can
remember a peculiar sound exactly after twenty years, and even tame pigeons
have an audible whistle to their wings when in flight.” He adds that
doves, “when seen at a distance, invariably look large, and it is incredible
that if the flocks of pigeons which are reported as being seen somewhere
every year, do not increase, and become plentiful again.” H.W.S.
331 W. Fourth Street, Williamsport, Pa.
Col. Henry W. Shoemaker
Dear Col. Shoemaker:
Replying to your inquiry concerning my early knowledge of the passenger pigeon, I wish to say: In my boyhood days I lived in Bendersville, Pa., ten miles north of Gettysburg. Near our village was timber land, locally known as the “Big Hill”, which was a favorite nesting place for the passenger pigeons. The coming of the birds in the spring time was heralded with delight by hunters.
I have been on the mountain, with my father, and have seen the birds in vast numbers, the trees being so completely covered that the birds, to my boyish eyes, appeared as massive leaves. In memory I can still see them fluttering and lighting upon the swaying branches, and here and there through the timber could be distinctly heard the breaking of the limbs from the weight of the birds. The fluttering of the wings and the cooing of the birds seemed like almost a continuous roar.
I remember seeing a stream of pigeons about twice the width of a street and reaching as far as the eye could see in both directions. Becoming tired looking at the birds as they were passing directly over me, I lay upon the ground and watched this seemingly endless stream for a long time. Finally, the end came abruptly, and I watched the birds way into the distance until they were lost to view. They were traveling northwest. Looking again in the southern direction, I saw the grandest sight that I ever witnessed in the flight of birds. A flock in cloud formation and apparently of countless number, swept along in majestic flight. They were clearly outlined against a gray sky, and as they passed over me flying low, I could distinctly hear the surf like swish of their wings.
In 1868, I came to this city and have always been greatly interested in the passenger pigeon, and have endeavored through the successive years to obtain all information I could concerning their life habits and their final disappearance. The mountains north of our city for many miles were favorite nesting places of the wild pigeon, where they were trapped in great quantities, most of which were sold on our curb-stone markets, they being brought in frequently by wagon loads.
A family living on the headwaters of Rock Run, which empties into Lycoming Creek at Ralston, Pa., made a barrel of soap fat from squabs, so plentiful were they in that section.
From the nesting grounds at Kane, Pa., from three to twelve tons of pigeons were sent daily to Baltimore, Philadelphia and the New York markets. Men in lumber camps and families living in the mountains, whose principal diet during the winter was salted, smoked or pickled meats, regarded the coming of the wild pigeons as a God-send, for then they would have a supply of fresh meat.
In the early part of June, 1889, I was hunting for migrating birds at the base of the mountain along the bank of the river, about three miles west of this city, and to my surprise I heard the familiar swish of the passenger pigeon wings. I involuntarily jumped around and yelled “Wild pigeons!: Then I saw thirteen pigeons rapidly flying along the edge of the timber going westward. This was the last flight of pigeons that I saw.
I cannot help but feel, from information that I have gathered at sundry times, that the sudden disappearance of the wild pigeon was not caused by men, guns and nets. When Mr. James V. Bennett, pigeoneer, quit netting pigeons in the Indian Territory, they were still abundant. Two years later they were practically gone. The hand of man could not have destroyed them so completely in so short a space of time.
Mr. Isaac Henninger, of this city, was also a pigeoneer, and remembers very distinctly when the birds disappeared, of reading at the time of their disappearance, accounts in the Philadelphia or New York papers of vessels that were crossing the ocean and plowing through millions of dead pigeons.
Mr. Daniel Harrer, Sr., of Roaring Branch, told me that when the pigeons disappeared, an old friend of his was on a slow sailing vessel coming to America, and that for days he saw dead pigeons floating on the water. The birds were migrating in search of food, as their natural feeding grounds were being stripped of food bearing trees, or were possibly in a dense fog and lost their direction of flight, or were driven over the ocean by a storm and, after aimlessly circling around, the weaker finally settled upon the water, and the balance of the flock, thinking they had discovered ground, alighted upon those that had already settled, and hence were drowned. When pigeons light upon the ground in vast number, they are constantly in motion, as though jumping over each other, and in appearance like waves.
Mr. James V. Bennett, a veteran pigeoneer, informs me that he remembers distinctly at the time of the disappearance of the passenger pigeon, of reading accounts in different papers, that the birds had gotten into a dense fog while migrating, lost their direction of flight, and strayed out over the ocean and alighted in such vast numbers on vessels, that passengers, fearing for their own safety, were compelled to club the birds off the vessels. The accounts also stated that the dead pigeons were washed upon the shore in such quantity that they were from one to two feet deep in places.
I feel that Mr. Bennett can give more facts concerning the birds than any person with whom I am acquainted, as from boyhood he has been familiar with the habits of the birds, and from repeated conversations that I have had with him, concerning the wild pigeon, I have gathered the following information, which is not generally known:
How the Marsh Beds Were Prepared to Attract the Birds
The ground was spaded and raked over as in the making of a garden, then a quantity of salt was scattered over and whipped into the earth with a brush until it was thoroughly mixed. The pigeons would eat this “muck” with a relish. This mixture doubtless aided the birds to digest their rich diet, which consisted in the main of beech nuts and Black jack acorns. The salt was applied about every other day in small quatitites to freshen the “muck bed.”
By break of day the nets were set and the pigeon stool placed at the edge of the “muck bed” and the stool pigeon fastened by the feet on the pad at the end of the arm of the stool, and attached thereto was a rope leading to the bough house in which the netters were concealed. The bough house was built of either hemlock, spruce or white pine of sufficient size to admit of two persons to move about easily and not be noticed by the flight of pigeons.
At times, the flocks were so large that they fairly darkened the sky, cloud like. In order to attract the attention of the flock, four to six long line fliers or decoys were put out, when the flock would suddenly break in the center, funnel-like; then the netters in the bough house would by means of the rope, slowly raise the arm of the stool upon which the stool or decoy pigeon was fastened, then lower it quickly, thus causing the bird to spread its wings, as if in the act of alighting on the “muck bed.”
The birds would come streaming down, and there would be seemingly in extent an acre or two of pigeons on the ground. The net was then sprung and thrown over the birds on the “muck bed.” The pigeoneers in the bough house would rush out, and if the lead weights on the guy ropes were not sufficiently heavy to hold the net down and thus prevent the pigeons from escaping, poles were laid on the edges of the net or the net held down by the pigeoneers.
The birds were killed by crushing their heads or breaking their necks between the thumb and fingers. When this process tired the fingers, the heads were crushed between flat stones held in each hand. Mr. Bennett invented and used long, round-nosed pliers with which to break the neck, it being more humane and effectual and its use less tiresome to the hand than the other methods.
In their nesting places, young hickory trees fully fifty feet high, would be so loaded with pigeons that they would bend over until a man could touch their tops.
When the birds started out in the morning at daybreak to forage for food, they would circle the roost until the flock looked like one solid body, then take their course to feed, going many miles.
The male bird would sit on the nest in the afternoon. The morning flights were composed of the male birds. They returned at noon, and the females would go in search of food, but soon return to take the nest in the night. This applies only to birds that were nesting. The birds that did not nest were “mixed birds,” and were too young to nest. When birds were nesting the females furnished a curd for the young which looked like sour or thick milk, and was commonly called “pigeon milk.” This they fed to the young for the first week or ten days after they were hatched. Then the parent birds furnished such food as they gathered from the fields and woods.
The birds arrived on their northern migration about the middle of March, and from that time nested every four weeks until the month of June, which was their last hatching. Two eggs were laid in each hatching. Forty or more nests have found on one beech tree. The nests are composed of small sticks crossed and recrossed on the small branches of the trees. One would wonder how the birds managed to keep the eggs in such a frail and open nest, as they could frequently be seen through the sticks that composed the nest.
During the night, the female bird roosted nearby the nest, waiting for the coming of the morning; then she would incubate the eggs or care for the young, and the male take to roaming in search of food as already described.
After the nesting season closed in June, the birds would scatter about and wander in small flocks until the latter part of October, then collect together in larger flocks and start for the south and southwest. In the early part of the fall or winter they stayed in Arkansas or Missouri, then migrated to the Indian Territory and Texas and still farther down into the southern states, where they fed on wild rice. In the spring flight birds have been caught within four miles of Williamsport with wild rice in their crops that had doubtless been gathered in the morning of the day when they were caught.
Pigeoneers kept each other constantly informed as to the movements of the birds and probable nesting grounds. Birds were shot from passing flocks and dissected to see the egg development, and from that would determine, if possible, the nesting time.
I have a letter from Mr. S.A. Stephan, general manager of the Cincinnati Zoological Garden, Cincinnati, Ohio, which he wrote me at the time of the death of the last passenger pigeon which they had in captivity, in which he says: “The last survivor, female, died at 2 o’clock p.m. on Saturday, August 29, 1914, it being the last of a flock of seventeen that was capture in the year 1876.”.
Charles H. Eldon
The Cincinnati Zoological Company
Cincinnati, Ohio, August 19, 1913.
Mr. Charles H. Eldon
331 W. Fourth Street
Replying to your inquiry of August 11th, I beg to say that our one remaining wild passenger pigeon is still alive and is apparently in good healthy condition and fine plumage, and we have great hopes of keeping it for a good many years to come.
Very truly yours,
P.S. – The bird is one remaining out of a flock of Passenger Pigeons
that were secured by the Zoo in 1876.
Letter from James V. Bennett, famous pigeoneer:
Dear Col. Shoemaker:
In the spring of 1863, I was living with my uncle on his farm in Blooming Grove, near Ball’s Mills, in Lycoming County. We would always get ready for the spring flight of the wild pigeon, just the same as we would get ready to plant our crops, and just as sure as there was a good crop of beech nuts, we could expect a heavy flight of pigeons coming or going north as they usually roosted on the headwaters of Pleasant Stream on a branch called Pigeon Roost Run.
In the spring of 1867, I was helping my uncle get out timber for a new bank barn. The pigeons started to fly in heavy flight directly from the south and as I remember that stopped the barn building for a time.
I continued following the wild pigeon from year to year until the fall of 1877, when of September 15, I started for the Indian Territory, or rather expected to find the birds somewhere in Arkansas. I started in pursuit of the birds from Verona, Mo., in a covered wagon with two horses, going from one valley to another, until I reached Cherokee, near the line between Arkansas and the Indian Territory. There I heard the birds were roosting at Highcove, Indian Territory, about two days travel from Cherokee. Taking what was called the State Road going through vast timber lands on which grew what they called Black Jack Oak. On these trees grew a small acorn which the birds were feeding on.
On the evening of my second day through the Territory, I came to the pigeon roost. I could hear the birds craking and flying in such large flocks for about one mile before I reached the roost. The size of the roost was estimated to be fifteen miles by forty miles. My meat supply was getting low, so I decided on having some pigeon pie. The moon was shining very bright. Taking my shot gun, I fired two shots into the trees and picked up forty-one pigeons. There were nine Indians in this roost, shooting for market, and in three nights, killed and sold 3,630 pigeons.
I remained in the Territory until February, 1878, when I left for Pennsylvania, to get ready for the spring flight in March 1878. I pitched my tent near Kane, at a place called Highland. That season there was carload after carload shipped from Kane and Sheffield, to the northern market. The spring of 1882 was my last year to follow the wild pigeons, leaving the forest of Potter County on the Coudersport Pike, May 29, 1882. However, in 1884, I received a letter from a friend in Hartsgrove, Ind., who had just returned from the Indian Territory, stating that the wild pigeons were flying up the Missouri River in heavy flight. Then I got a postal card that a few “scout” birds were flying about Sheffield, Pa., in March 1888. That was the last time I had any trace of the fast flying Passenger or wild pigeon.
James V. Bennett,
Dec. 1, 1918.