From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
Pigeon Flocks in Wisconsin
Supposedly Extinct Wild Variety Hover Over Different Sections
Within the past two weeks, two large flocks of wild pigeons have been seen in Wisconsin, according to creditable reports. Ten days ago, people living near Dexterville, Wood County, reported the presence of a flock of about fifty. Half a dozen men saw them and declare they cannot be mistaken – that the birds were wild pigeons. A few days later, another flock, even larger than that seen at Dexterville, was discovered near New Lisbon. New Lisbon is in the heart of the old nesting grounds, where thirty or forty years ago, millions of the birds spent each summer, feeding on acorns in the oak groves, hatched their young, and in the fall began their long flight into the south.
Once Darkened Skies
Up to 1888, wild pigeons were the most numerous in the United States of any bird. In one year, 1887, more than 5,000,000 were trapped and shipped to Chicago alone. The nesting grounds covered the whole of the northern part of the southern peninsula of Michigan, southwestern Wisconsin and parts of southern Minnesota, adjacent to the Mississippi River. It was estimated at that time that from 500,000 to 1,000,000 pigeons were in each of the numerous nesting colonies. The birds were trapped in huge nets that frequently caught 500 at a throw. They were hunted and killed by hundreds as they flew at sunrise from the nesting grounds to the feeding places. In southwestern Wisconsin, so plentiful were they, that they were killed by farmers with clubs and pitchforks. In the fall of 1888, there was the usual migration. And they never came back. Not one was seen, so far as known, since that flight to the south in 1888. The complete disappearance of the birds was a mystery. It was credited to the ravages of hunters, to the trap of the market hunter, to a terrific windstorm that blew great flocks to sea, where they perished, and by some scientists it was believed they had changed the migration tour to the southern zones toward the Antarctic. (1916)
Two Wild Pigeons Seen
The first wild pigeons seen in this vicinity for years, were seen two weeks ago by John Fry, while working at his lime kiln about two miles from town.
John says, they came flying up the little valley, and perched within gun shot of him. He did not know the law in regard to these birds, and decided not to bother them. It is rarely that you see wild pigeons in the United States, and as there is a nice premium on them, if landed, John would have made quite a sum of money. – McVeytown, Mifflin County, Democrat, October 29, 1914.
Statement of John H. Chatham, Veteran Pigeon Hunter
Mr. John H. Chatham, of Clinton County, says: “Some time ago you asked me to give you my experiences in pigeon catching, netting, number of eggs laid, and in a special single nest that came under my observation. My first experience of netting pigeons, was in 1862, shortly before the battle of Fair Oaks in front of Richmond, was fought. I date it from that time by the constant strain on my mind of my only brother, James P. Chatham, whom I knew would be in the fight as soon as the battle was started.
“First, we built the bough house in a field, then went to the woods and cut two spring poles, one we planted in the bough house, and the other about one hundred and fifty feet from it, out in the field. Then we slung our two lines of rope from one to the other. Our next move was to attach a net to each rope, then the opposite side of the nets was carried back full width and anchored to the ground by stakes, cut from small sapling, with one limb left on and cut back to within three or four inches of the stake, and cut off about two inches above the hook, which it showed when finished, three small stakes were driven into the ground, so as to have the hook catch the rope, and were driven in to the head, one about every three or four feet apart. Then two stakes made of inch or inch and a half slats about three inches wide, with an auger hole bored about one-half inch into it near the top. These were driven in a line with the smaller stakes, and driven so that the sink hole in the stake was left about two inches above the surface of the ground.
“Then two throw sticks were introduced – these consisted generally of a part of an old broom handle, and were cut about two and one-half feet in length. The end to receive the rope was knicked in the end to prevent the rope from slipping. Then the net was carried back with the line and the smooth ends of the sticks placed in the concaved receptacle for it, and the forked end against the rope. It was then pressed down to an angle which held it in place. If it failed to do it, a few small stones were laid on it to hold it down, then the bag or slack of the net was folded up and piled close to the line. A few weeds were generally thrown on it to hide it from the pigeons.
“Our next operation was to fix up for the stool pigeon. A mortised stake about three feet long, have a pole about five feet long with a round stool nailed to one end and flattened, so as to work easily on a pin, which went through the stake at the slot, and through the pin, about two-thirds of the distance from the end next to the foot. A strong cord was tied around it, and strung through a small auger hole above the slot, the other end was then taken and carried to the bough house, where the man inside operated it. The stool pigeon was then taken and blinded by taking a silk thread and a needle to puncture the lower eye lid, and install the thread. After getting the thread through both lower lids, it was taken over the top of the pigeon’s head and tied and hidden away in the feathers of the head – then the boots were put on his feet and carried out to the stool. The boots consisted of a leather strap, just wide enough to cut a slit in it, and put the other end through it, then slip the pigeon’s feet into the loop, draw it tight, and fasten it to the stool – so that the pigeon remained in a sitting position. The stool consisted of a round board, about four inches wide and covered with cloth and padded underneath, to protect the pigeon when being in use. Two staples were driven in the stool to fasten the boots to.
“Now we go back to the bough house, and complete the arrangements by taking two more pigeons, blinding them as we did the stool; they are not booted. A light line is tied to one leg of each pigeon, and we go into the bough house – eagerly scanning the horizon for the coming pigeons. Presently, a scattered flock of some two or three hundred appear. We both sally out, and when we think near enough, toss our flyers into the air. They go up the length of their lines, fifty or sixty feet, and find they are anchored, and return to the ground, wherever their blinded lot may light them. Then we rush in and “Play the Stool” – pulling on the cord and lifting it from the ground where it rests on a small pod of grass.
“We lift it about three feet and let it drop instantly, in this operation, the stool flutters on its way downward, imitating pigeons feeding on the ground, when other flocks are passing. Soon we see the flock beginning to sail, they whirl, sail over the bed, turn and sail for lighting. We never wait a second. As soon as we think we have a fair amount of them lighting and about to light, we surge on the spring pole and spring the nets, rush out and hold down the sides, to keep them in, for with their united effort, they carry the net off the ground, and the ones near the sides escape. Here I stop, think and ask myself, “Shall I finish the picture?” To stop, would not be giving the reader a full account of “Pigeon Catching.” To finish, brings the animal part of our nature to the surface, at which I now shudder.
The trappers now went in on top of the nets, walked over them, and stooping down, placed their thumb on the top of the pigeon’s head, their finger under his bill, and pressed the skull down til it crushed, and the bird’s life went out. After all the birds had been treated, the nets were reset, the dead pigeons carried into the bough house, in bags, and another “lookout,” kept.
“I think I gave you an outline of “Pigeon Nesting,” and will only give you a general view of the subject. First, they sent out an expedition of some three or four hundred pigeons in the very early spring, as soon as the hillsides were bare. This expedition determined the food question, and returned to the flock – as the swarming bee knows its tree before starting from its winter quarters. The nesting was built in compact form, with a certain length and width. So closely did they comply with this method, that trees on the sides of the nesting often would have from twenty- five to fifty nests on the inside, and not a single nest alone, or in groups, miles from the general nesting. They built a poorly constructed nest, of just enough sticks to hold the eggs. And in most nests, visitors to the nesting could easily see the eggs shining through from the ground. They laid two eggs, to the pair, though many, very many nests had but one egg in, and as many more had none at all.
“A pair of pigeons would build a nest in a day or two, at most. Sometimes the weather was against them, and an egg had to be dropped before a receptacle for it was ready. Others were trapped or shot before laying, and many that did lay their two eggs in the nest, were knocked out by the intrusion of other birds weighing down the limbs on which the nests were built. Wind storms did a considerable part. The nests were generally about twelve feet above the ground, and from that up to about twenty-five feet. They never went up into the high tree tops to nest, probably on account of wind. During the nesting period they never fed nearer than about ten miles from the nesting – this feed was kept in reserve for the squabs.
“When the period of incubation began, the greatest flight from the nesting was about 6 o’clock or just when light enough for them to see, then the mother hen pigeons that had been on the eggs all night, wanted out for their breakfast. This was the greatest flight of the whole day, as they returned in scattered flocks; other scattered flocks went out that had been on duty.
Now, for my experience on the single nest: “A playmate of mine, W.W. Smith, said to me one day, “I know a pigeon’s nest.” I asked him to take me to it, and he agreed. We started out the “gap,” and about on the line between your domain and the City Water Work. We came to it on a little oak sapling about eight feet from the ground, there were two young pigeons in it, which later on, his older brother took from the nest and took them home to raise and train for stool pigeons. I saw them in his father’s home, afterwards, and they were taken every day, when fed, placed on the trapper’s hand with his thumb over the toes, and balanced upward and downward, to make them flutter, and learn to gather up their wings without drooping them.
“In conclusion, I want to narrate a little incident that happened to this same old pigeon trapper that I have just described.
“He and his Brother M., had gotten ready to fish for pigeons, and from the condition of the weather, the pigeons were daily expected to appear. So with set nets, pigeon on the stool, and flyers in the bough house, they smoked their pipes, and waited for something to come. Something did come. About 2 o’clock in the afternoon, a pigeon hawk looped down on the lone stool pigeon sitting on the stool – struck it, but on account of its being tied down, did not take it with him. He circled, came back and alighted on it, and was about to make his late dinner on the stool, when the old man sprang the nets on him, and crawled out and captured him alive. Of course, the atmosphere was blue for a while, then the brothers held a council of war on the hawk, and agreed to pick him all but the wing and tail feathers, and let him go. He went, but, divested of so much of his flying apparatus – “looped the loop,” made the “maple leaf whirl” and all other difficult feats of flight.”
Mr. Chatham, under date of Nov. 13, 1918, writes as follows:
“yours at hand and in reply to the salt beds for catching pigeons, would state: They differed but little from the field methods. A spot was selected in the timber or woods where there was an open space or few trees. Then the leaves were raked off and the bare ground exposed – generally a damp spot was selected. Then this space was sprinkled heavily with salt, and after being treated with it, a stamper was used to stamp it into the ground. Then the bough house was built, the same as for field catching. A spring pole, stiff enough to spring two nets was installed out in the woods, beyond the nets, about fifty feet distant. Another was installed inside the bough house, then a double line of rope was strung from one pole to the other; these were the “throw” ropes and to each of them, the front part of the nets were fastened and hauled back to the stakes where the back part of the nets was fastened to the ground, and held there by means of two sticks, with a notch in the ends of them, to receive the ropes. The front side of the nets were then carried back out of line to the back side, when it was folded up and held by the notched sticks which were supported by a stake at the opposite end of the set stick, or the stick which was not notched as stated above, was high enough at the end of resistance, from the ground, to keep the end supporting the net lying on the ground with the rope. Now when all this was in readiness, the “catcher” went home, because, in this method, no stool pigeon or flyers were required.
“In two or three days, the pigeons had found the salt and began to frequent the place. When they got busy, the catcher knew it. He got up before daylight, and went to the bough house and waited for the pigeons to come. About 6 o’clock, or about daylight, the largest flight from the nesting took place. That is, the pigeons that had been on the nests all night at that time were relieved by their mates. They sought the salt bed and took it the same way they gathered their food in the woods by what seemed to be a rolling process. That is, they did not alight, but kept on the wing and rested on their beaks, the front line being supported by the rear, and all the time new recruits from the rear and the flock entering the front, so that nothing was visible but tails, all sticking up in the air. And when the bed was as full as it could or likely would be, the man in the bough house gave the spring pole in front of him one mighty surge backwards, releasing the nets, which sprung toward each other, each net getting the pigeons near the center that would have escaped by their alertness. The wild pigeons, as may be inferred, were inordinately fond of salt. The field catching was done in the same way, only that a stool pigeon and flyers were used to draw them from the sky in their flight. The word :stool pigeon” has become a part of the English language, though it is safe to say that not one person in a thousand who uses it will associate it with the trapper’s method of capturing the Passenger Pigeons of olden days.”
Note on C.H. Shearer’s Remarkable Painting
“The Flight of the Wild Pigeons”, Appearing in
This fine work of art was painted during the winter of 1910-1911,
by the venerable artist, Christopher H. Shearer, of Reading, Berks County,
who was born in 1846. Mr. Shearer ranks with Pennsylvania’s leading
artists, his most famous canvasses being “The Schwartzbach” and “Maiden
Creek,” which were much admired at the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia
in 1876; “The Drachenfels” and “The Forest Montmorency.” Mr. Shearer
studied in Paris and Germany. He is equally well known as an etcher.
In the scientific world he holds a prominent place, being regarded as one
of the leading entomologists of the United States. He is an expert
ornithologist, and in his youth devoted much time to gunning and netting
for wild pigeons. He is, therefore, well fitted to be the creator
of the only painting in existence of the vast number of birds in flight.
The picture shows a scene in Berks County. The Schuylkill River is
winding its way through the middle distance; in the background appears
the long level wall of the Blue Mountains; the foreground is probably the
rocky height of Scull’s Hill. For several years this painting hung
in the executive office of Dr. W.T. Hornaday, Director of the New York
Zoological Gardens at the Bronx, having been loaned to the great conservator
by Colonel Shoemaker, at whose wish the picture was painted by Reading’s
“Good Grey Artist.”