From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
How the Passenger Pigeon Came to an Untimely End
By Dr. B.H. Warren, Former Director, Everhart Museum, Scranton.
Author of “The Birds of Pennsylvania”, Etc.
The Passenger Pigeon, or wild pigeon, as it is better known to older residents, who in early childhood days, saw immense flocks of the species in this state, is not extinct. As H.W. Henshaw, chief of the biological survey, writes in the National Geographic Magazine, “on September 1, 1914, aged 20 years, departed this life, the sole surviving Passenger Pigeon. This brief obituary records the disappearance from earth, not only of the last survivor of a notable American game bird, but, what is infinitely sadder, the passing of a species.” (The correct date is August 29, 1914.)
The last living wild pigeon had been a captive for some years in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden. The common mourning or turtle dove is frequently mistaken for the wild pigeon by many persons who are not acquainted with the two species. There seems to be no doubt whatever in the minds of the best naturalists in America, that the Passenger or wild pigeon is extinct.
The disappearance of the species, of course, prevents natural history students from studying the wild pigeon in life, yet there are fortunately many stuffed specimens of the species in museums of the United States and Europe. There are, I find, quite a number of mounted wild pigeons in numerous private collections and in this state. I have also seen in the last two or three years at least, a dozen stuffed wild pigeons which are owned by private individuals in Pennsylvania. These birds are used as mantel or mural decorations in rooms.
Pigeons in Former Years
The following extremely interesting information concerning the wild pigeons is gleaned from a recent conversation I had with C.K. Sober, of Lewisburg, an old-time hunter, and one of the best informed individuals in this state on the subject of game birds and mammals of Pennsylvania. Mr. Sober spent his seventy-third birthday on November 24th, hunting ruffed grouse on his famous Paragon Chestnut farm, in Irish Valley, about six miles from Shamokin. Mr. Sober, when too young to handle a gun, began his hunting career by using a bow and arrow, with which he killed rabbits and small birds. When twelve years old, he shot his first wild pigeon with a flint-lock gun, the property of one of his older brothers. Mr. Sober said:
“Pigeons would begin to collect in buckwheat fields, in September, or about the time buckwheat started to ripen. At first, they came to the fields in twos or threes, and after a pair or so started to feed regularly in a field, the number increased daily until a flock of ten, twenty or more dozens of birds would come to the same field for food. As a rule, they would come early in the morning to feed. Their visits in the afternoon for provender were irregular, and they seemed to be more likely to come to the buckwheat fields on afternoons of foggy days. These pigeons would often collect in flocks on fields where wheat had been sown in September, and when the birds were numerous, they often did considerable damage to the wheat, and they frequently did much damage to the buckwheat crops. Wild pigeons in daylight in the autumn, spent much time feeding on acorns and beechnuts in hardwood forests. The birds appeared to leave about the last of October, and return in the early spring, and collected in the buckwheat stubble, where they were netted by the hundreds of thousands.
“They began nesting early in April. The nests, flimsy, flat structures, were made of small sticks and twigs. Two white eggs were laid and these were a trifle smaller than eggs of domestic pigeons. All the nests I ever saw, were in beechwoods, and mostly on beech trees. I have seen from six to twenty-five, and even more nests on a single tree. The eggs or young could often be seen from the ground through the loosely made nests, when placed on low branches. Nests on high limbs of tall trees looked not unlike black patches of moss and a certain species of dark colored fungus which often grows on the beech and some other trees of the forest. A row of nests was sometimes to be seen on a single limb. Each pair of pigeons had a nest. The old birds, as well as their young, appeared to live in harmony.
Made Their Young Hustle
“The young pigeons in the nests were so scantily fed by the parents, that they were mere skeletons, and as soon as the youngsters were able to fly a short distance, the old birds crowded and drove them from the nests, from which they would fly to the ground in a heavy and labored manner. In falling and flying to the earth, many of the young were killed. Those which reached the ground uninjured, were hungry, and they would pick at the ends of bushes, leaves and almost anything in sight. They soon found beechnuts on the ground, and then they had an abundance of food. These young pigeons fed day after day, and extended the feeding ground over a large area of the beech woods. The old pigeons would not take beechnuts or other food, either for themselves or young within a radius of at least twenty miles of their nesting places. In July and August, the adults and young fed on huckleberries. I have often shot pigeons with plumage soiled by juices of this fruit.
Killed With Clubs
“On May 11, 12 and 13, 1880, I saw near Kane, McKean County, hundreds of young wild pigeons killed with clubs (mornings and evenings, as they flew in long lines in an open passageway cut through brush and trees for a pipe line.) These birds (no adults were with them), flew by thousands, about six to twelve feet above the ground, in almost a continuous line along the open passageway through the forest and shrubbery. Men stationed themselves along the line and killed the birds, as they passed, with clubs. Guns were not used, as clubs were more effective. Birds slain in this manner, were carried off on wheelbarrows and by wagon loads.
“Some hunters and netters were expert in calling male wild pigeons, which uttered a shrill note, most frequently heard when at rest, but sometimes made in flight. The “call” used was made of two wooden blocks and a piece of silk ribbon fixed taut as a violin string.
Method of Netting
“Experienced netters usually selected a marshy spot between nesting places and feeding grounds, and made a bed in which a quantity of salt was placed. Near this salt bed was a bough house, which they built. This was mostly made of green hemlock branches. A stool pigeon was placed on the bed and the call was utilized to lure the flocks of passing pigeons. At first, probably only a few birds would come to the salt bed. The netters never disturbed them. Later on these birds would return with thousands of their species, which greedily fed upon the salted mud or dirt. When the birds became accustomed to frequent the salt ed, the nets were set. I have known as many as seventy-five dozen wild pigeons to have been caught at one haul. The usual market price for dead pigeons was $1 per dozen.
“The great bulk of the pigeons that was sent to market, when removed from the nets, was taken out alive and put in pens. These pens, made of poles, were about eight or ten feet wide, six feet high and from fifty to one hundred feet long. The pens were built over streams of water, natural or introduced. The mud-covered and b-draggled birds would soon wash and clean themselves. These were sold by thousands for live-bird shooting contests, and usually brought twenty-five cents a pair.
Imprisoned in Pens
“The owner of these pens shipped the birds alive to all parts of the country. They were placed in wooden crates six inches high and about four feet square. These crates, with especially constructed ladders, were carried on wagons and the birds in them were sent to the market or turned out in a pigeon barn not less than one hundred feet square.
“The pigeons in this barn were fed on shelled corn, which was brought by the carload. A stream of running water ran through a barn, at Sheffield. This barn was made of boards and had a shingle roof. Perches, such as poles and tree limbs, were in the place where thousands of the pigeons were kept in captivity.
Slain by Thousands
“In 1878, I attended a live-bird shoot at Oil City. It lasted three days, and between 200 and 300 marksmen participated. Several thousand birds – all wild pigeons – were shot on this occasion. May 11, 12 and 13, 1880, I shot in McKean County, about fourteen miles from Kane, forty-four dozen and nine wild pigeons, all adults. Only one bird was killed at a shot. These birds were taken as they flew between nesting place and feeding ground. Dead pigeons, mostly packed in barrels, were shipped to large cities in carload lots. These birds were not picked, nor were they eviscerated. The heads and wings, however, were usually pulled off.
“I have netted and aided to net thousands of pigeons during their flights to northern nesting places. Also, when they were feeding in wheat and buckwheat fields, but I never netted pigeons on salt beds.
“In May, 1878, when riding on the railway from Kane to a point about twenty miles west of Kane, I saw a constant flight of wild pigeons. There were millions, and all seemed to be adults. The continuous flock or stream of birds was fully twenty miles wide. This was in the morning.
“The stomachs and crops of wild pigeons which I examined, contained, as I now recall, buckwheat, beechnuts, wheat, acorns, seeds of maple, buds of the maple, also, huckleberries, June berries, sassafras and bum berries.” – Philadelphia, North America
Still Hope for the Wild Pigeon
In a letter mailed at Alanson, Michigan, on the 9th instant, R.F. O’Reilly, of that town, again send to the Union and Advertiser, a statement about the wild pigeon that must be read with interest by the many, who, in spite of discouraging facts, have entertained the hope that the bird was not totally extinct, and that some of them would come to view. On November 26th of last year, this paper contained a letter from Mr. O’Reilly, in which he said that a flock of wild pigeons had been frequenting his farm for three years, that the birds numbered about twenty-five, and that he was giving them every possible protection. His response to a letter written this summer, asking if the birds had returned, is as follows:
Yours received some time ago and have postponed answering it to see if I could get something substantial, something to verify my claim, but have not as yet. The flock is here again. I have seen them twice, and there are more than I thought last year. I would put them at fifty anyway, but both times they were flying higher than the trees and are not feeding in this immediate vicinity. I had hoped to be able to locate their nests and get some of the prize money offered for an undisturbed nest, but I guess it is a long chance to find the nests.
“The mourning dove is here also, but they are always in pairs or four at this time. In fact, I saw a pair, not an hour after seeing this band.
“I have talked with men from other counties, who have seen the pigeons. Our county school commissioner, H.S. Babcock, Harbor Springs, and William O’Neil, proprietor of the Park Hotel, Petoskey, claim to have seen them for several years and the latter was here in the great nesting time.
“I write you because, like you, I think they should be protected and brought to the attention of some authorities who will make it their business to save them if possible.
“The game department of this state has taken no steps to my knowledge. I am going to write them today. I get so many letters in regard to them, it is some job to answer them all.
There seems to be no reason to doubt the repeated statements of Mr. O’Reilly, in regard to the remnant of the wild pigeons which he has had under observation for years. He not only give his own word, but he gives the names of others who know of these pigeons, and will verify his statements.
It is exceedingly probable that a few of these birds may still visit the old roosts in Michigan, where they flocked in countless millions, not many years ago. The apparently reliable testimony of Mr. O’Reilly and those who corroborate with him, should receive the attention of the naturalists who maintain that the wild pigeon is totally extinct. The matter is respectfully referred to John Burroughs. – Rochester, N.Y, Union Advertiser, (Aug. 12, 1914.)
Note on the Passenger Pigeon
About a year and one half ago, the Cornell University Museum came into the possession of a mounted adult male Passenger Pigeon through the kindness of its collector, Mr. J.L. Howard, of Clyde, N.Y., a justice of that city. He is now over 80 years old, and had the bird mounted by a local taxidermist, George L. Perkins, who is now dead. According to Mr. Howard’s memory, the bird was taken in 1909, eleven years after the last certain capture (Sept. 14, 1898) of a Passenger Pigeon in the State. On the bottom of the mount is the legend, “Geo. L. Perkins, July 5, 1898,” – a date in close agreement with Mr. Wilbur’s record (Sept. 14, 1898) at Canandaigua, N.Y. The mount might be an old mount from some other bird. Mr. Howard’s letter follow:
“My account of the shooting of the Passenger Pigeon must be short as there was but little of it. Upon the John Heit farm about two and one-half miles southwest of Clyde and near the Clyde River is, and has been longer than I remember, a small pond nearly round and about three rods in diameter. A low hill upon the south reaches to the water’s edge forming the sloping beach. Year ago, this pond was in a large forest. Now this was always, as long as there were any pigeons, a favorite place for them to come and drink. Six years ago (1909) I think, I took my gun and went to this pond in hopes I might get a blue Heron, which I very much wanted. There were tracks of herons, plover and other birds in the mud around the shores, so I sat down in some bushes and pulled them up around me, so as to partly conceal myself, facing the east, where I could see a long distance. Presently I saw, far to the east, a bird coming directly towards me. I took it to be a Pigeon Hawk. It flew of to my right and turned in behind me, and the next instant I heard its wings beating for a short span, and then I heard, to my right and very near, the loud distant crow of a wild pigeon. Well, that was a surprise. I had not seen a pigeon in fifteen years or more and now I sat within a few feet of one and he kept on crowing. Well, I went to work at those bushes, pulling them apart when suddenly I saw him standing upon the top of a fence post and still crowing.
I picked up the gun and placed it to the shoulder and, old hunter and old trap-shooter as I was, I could not hold the gun still, I trembled so. But I took a trap-shooter’s chance and got the bird.” – S.C. Bishop and A.H. Wright, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. in “Auk,” April, 1917.
Wild Pigeons in Delaware County
Media, Pa., Jan. 6. – While passing thru Springfield Township today, Deputy Sherif William M. Mathues, master hunter of this county, was surprised to see a flock of thirty or more wild pigeons feeding in a meadow. Mathues declares that he had not seen a wild pigeon in this county since 1876. (1917)