From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
Flight of Pigeons
Frank Kiess Owns Net in Which He Caught Hundreds of Birds
James V. Bennett, Pigeoneer
Methods of Netting Described by Men Who Actually Caught and Sold
Charles H. Eldon, Taxidermist, Has Interesting Display
Flights of wild pigeons that almost obscured the sun are recalled by the display of a large net, a stool, hubs, baskets and other equipment used by the pigeoneers in the days when the netting of pigeons was a business of raising of squabs today. Many of the older residents of Williamsport recall the flights of the birds and not a few followed the business of trapping them back in the ‘70s.
They were caught frequently in the hills four miles north of this city, and in the Warrensville section. Today, there is only one wild pigeon in existence, and she is in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden, having been captured in 1876. Charles H. Eldon has the last wild pigeon killed in this section. It was shot near Linden, October 5, 1890, and shows the typical plumage of the species.
Frank C. Kiess, a native of Warrensville, but now a resident of this city, netted pigeons in his younger days, and preserved his equipment, including a net 24 x 28 feet in size and made from flax raised by himself and spun by his aunts, Dorothy and Katherine Kiess. The net, when completed, was stained in butternut bark to resemble the color of the earth, so that it would not be observed by the pigeons.
James V. Bennett, of the contracting firm of James V. Bennett & Co., followed the pigeons from Oklahoma, their roost, to the creek valleys in this vicinity where they nested, and made a business of supplying the market with dead and live birds. In those days, the dead pigeons brought from 90 cents to $2.00 a dozen. Many were shipped to Buffalo, and other shooting clubs in cities, where they brought $2.25 a dozen.
In his business as pigeoneer, Mr. Bennett came in close touch with the methods of trappers. From the time the pigeons started their spring flight from roosts in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, they were the prey of netters and gunners until they reached their nesting grounds on Potato Creek in McKean County, Cherry Creek in Potter County and Tionesta and Blue Jay Creeks in Elk County. Even in the nesting places raiders sometimes disturbed the birds and slaughtered them, leaving their eggs and young to perish. Mr. Bennett states that in a single shot on a roost in Oklahoma, he brought down forty-one birds, so thickly were they crowded among the trees on the roost that wads said to extend over a distance of fifteen miles wide and forty miles long. The shot was made near Hococ, Oklahoma, in 1882, after the birds had ceased their flights orth, the last of these being in 1875. Mr. Bennett stopped netting in 1882.
Netting pigeons was no small trick, according to Mr. Bennett. In order to insure success, it was necessary to keep stool pigeons and flyers from one year to another. When the flights of the pigeons began, the pigeoneers wrote letters and postals detailing the general direction of the flight. In the sprin, nets usually were set in cornfields with the corn cut low in spots. In the fall, the nets were spread in buckwheat fields. In preparing for a catch, the pigeoneers concealed themselves in a bough house, made from spruce or other loose material. The net at one side of a section of prepared earth, salt being whipped in, the net being spread in narrow folds. One side was made fast to the earth and the rope from the other was attached to the ends of two spring poles that could be released from the bough house some fifty or sixty feet away. Near the net was the stool with the stool pigeon. The bird was blinded temporarily by running silk threads through the eyelids and tied so as to not injure the sight. The stool pigeon would then sit quietly and not flutter about so as to frighten away the flocks that were sought by the trapper.
When a flock came in sight, the flyers would be sent up with twine attached. These birds would attract the attention of the flock and cause it to land near the net. When the flock appeared to break the stool would be pulled so that the stool pigeon would go through a hovering motion as if it was about to land. Like an arrow, the birds would swerve from their course, breaking in the middle and amid a great fluttering of wings would land on the bed prepared for them. That instant the rope from the bough house would release the spring poles, and the net would be thrown over all the birds within reach. The other birds would fly away in fright, while the men from the bough house would rush out and throw their weight on the net or lay rails on the edge of it to keep the birds within from escaping. The birds were killed by pinching their necks between the thumb and fingers of the pigeoneer. This method proved tiresome in big catches, so Mr. Bennett invented a pair.
In these catches it was not unusual to take as many as from 150
to 200 dozen birds. These were killed and dressed for market or were
smoked and kept for home use. The latest great flight of wild pigeons
recalled by Mr. Bennett, was up the Missouri river, in March, 1883, but
after that date, there appears to be no record of wild pigeons in great
numbers. What became of them is unknown. Some believe they
were driven out to sea in a storm and perished, while others insist that
the birds still are in Canada and may yet return to their native haunts.
However, it is generally assumed among scientists who have made careful
investigation of the disappearance of the wild pigeons that they were victims
of disease and natural and unnatural enemies until finally the birds were
exterminated. – Williamsport, Pa., “Grit” (Old Home Week Edition).
Extracts from a Personal Letter from Mr. Eldon
Dear Col. Shoemaker:
The pincers for killing passenger pigeons was invented and used by James V. Bennett. The passenger pigeon picture shows its present mounting under an oval covered glass – the window reflection in the picture could not be avoided. The artist can eliminate it in the making of the cut. The bird is in a sealed case, and I did not care to open it. Hence the picture through the glass. I thought to have a picture made of myself and the framed bird, a copy of which will also be sent you.
The stool pigeon basket is of unusual form – there being no top so the heads and backs of the pigeons could not be injured in their efforts to get out, nor could their backs and wing coverts be injured by abrasion while being carried. I just called up by phone, Mr. Frank B. Rynearson, of Huntersville, Pa., from whom I obtained the basket. It was made and used for several years by his father, Mr. Bernet Rynearson, who was a noted pigeon netter at the above named place, where the pigeons nested regularly. The basket is over one hundred years old. This basket I am keeping for you until you return to Restless Oaks, or will be sent to some other address as you may select. I overlooked in my former letter to say the pigeon that forms the subject of this letter, was killed on the old Fincher Homestead. Enclosed also, is a copy of a letter received from the General Manager of the Cincinnati Zoological Company, which will explain itself later on. Mr. Stephan wrote me telling me of the death of the Passenger Pigeon which occurred on Saturday, August 29, 1914, at two o’clock P.M., in the Zoological Garden, Cincinnati, Ohio, it being the last of a flock of seventeen that was captured in the year 1876.
During my search for the letter, I came across a wealth of information gleaned from repeated talks with Mr. Bennett, upon his favorite topic – the Passenger Pigeon – even more comprehensive if possible, than the papers given you, shows that life habits of birds which have been aptly told, in their varying forms, and will be a wonderful addition for a revised edition of the book, if you do not care to delay this the first issue for their insertion. I was greatly pleased to find this memoranda, and will some day put this item in readable form as soon as the present business rush is over. I have a drawing made by Mr. Bennett, showing the method of setting the nets and method of springing the net, and throwing same by spring poles over the birds, location of bough houses, and stool pigeons, etc.
I cannot find the clipping from Grit, giving an account of Old Home Week, in which was given a description of my exhibit of pigeon trapping outfit which was shown in front of my business place at that time. I have, however, a type-written copy of the same which was furnished to me some time past – they being unable to furnish a clipping. I will enclose for you a copy of same. I’m quite convinced the description will be interesting and instructive.
I am also pleased to enclose the article written by Mr. Bennett and to which I referred in my previous letter. Mr. Bennett is away on a hunting trip, so Mrs. Bennett informed me yesterday – but that she would send me by her son, the desired postal. I did not receive them until last evening, or I should have had a photo made of the one you desire, March 25, 1888, which will be attended to Monday morning.
Charles H. Eldon
Dec. 34d, 1918
P.S. As to the Passenger Pigeon now in my collection, this bird was shot October 5, 1890, by Mr. Jasper H. Fincher, two miles north of the town of Linden, Pa., in a woods through which the Queneshaque Creek flows. Mr. Fincher and a company of friends were picnicking there, when he saw a bird fly up from the ground and light on a tree. He shot the bird and was surprised when informed that it was a wild pigeon – he having never seen one before or since. I mounted the bird promptly upon its receipt, for Mr. DeLoss Mahaffey, who left it in my care. A few years ago, I purchased the bird from Mr. Mahaffey. I regard the bird as one of my choice possessions. C.H.E.