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Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania, J.C. French, 1919
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Passenger Pigeon by J. C. French - Table of Contents
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Development, Food and Decline – Shooting and Netting the Birds

 Wherever the cradle of the human race may have been, their migrations, we may be sure, led them by forest routes to forest countries, and it was only in recent times that the plains attracted them.  Shelter and fuel were necessities, which only the forest could furnish.  Food for his meager diet was there abundant and was his for the simple effort of taking from the great orchard of bountiful Nature, whatever appealed to his appetite and his pleasure.
 Upon the north shores of rivers, lakes and seas, where the sun warmed him and where the plants responded earliest to the warm rays from that orb of the day, and chief deity in his wonder and imagination, he found his garden in full blossom, the waters swarming with fish.  Succulent roots in the sandy soil supplied the starchy food he required and back in the forest, fat young pigeons fell from the trees to supply his desire for flesh and oil.
 From the forest he gathered fuel for his fire, poles and boughs for a lodge to protect him from storm and cold, and weapons for defense from the serpents and predatory animals.  He found fruit and nuts hanging upon the trees and the winds shook them until they dropped at his feet.  In the cool water he bathed his rugged body and retired to his lodge for refreshing sleep, and to dream of further pleasure on the morrow; for his domain was undisturbed by envious hatreds.
 He was free to devise new things for his pleasure and to read the riddle of life, as he beheld it, and to improvise, by conjecture, the laws of the narrow universe about him.  No doubt, he thought himself the recipient of all the blessings known to intelligence and benevolent solicitude for his comfort.  This vision was impressed upon his soul while he was passing from the shadow land of youth – race infancy – to the field of greater efforts that should develop forces in him, then undreamed of; but essential to the plan of evolution from troglodyte to responsible man.  This early impression became his Happy Hunting Ground.
 By observation he learned that the mysterious Passenger Pigeon returned to his forest for nesting only when food from the beech (Fagus Americana) was in abundance – a surplus of beechnuts, over and above the quantities consumed by other birds and stored for winter use by the little animals.  Compared with the conifers, all broad leaved trees are but recent arrivals in the evolution of plant forms upon the earth; and the beech tree came at the end of that development, about the last to develop, of all our tree species that bear nuts.  In recent times, then, the beech tree developed to its maximum of development and suffered a rapid decline.  The passenger pigeons developed with the beech, and declined in numbers, as the beech forests, in America, shrank to very unimportant and meager forests.
 The best beech forests of our times were on intervale lands of the Ohio River; its tributaries; and upon the slopes of the Appalachian mountains.  These gave most of the mast for squab feeding, and we may assume that many hundred millions of the old birds – adults – existed at the beginning of the nineteenth century – 1801 – in the United States, vanishing to naught since then.
 The first authorities, writing in 1810, were unaware of other nesting cities, even in Kentucky, at the same time.  Wilson saw one city and Audubon saw another city at the same time, and they told so vividly of each one that no further effort was ever considered desirable, until it was too late to make new observations – the pigeons had become extinct, or nearly so, at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Only one pair of birds was reported in 1901, in Pennsylvania, and five birds were all that anyone saw in 1906.
 Since then none have been seen in this country.  There are pigeons in South America that resemble the passenger pigeon and have been reported as practically identical; but this has not been verified.  They are, very likely, a smaller variety, living upon local food that is in such ample supply they have no need to migrate, every month or two, to find a store suitable to sustain the young of a large city.  Such inaction would demand less swiftness, strength and wariness to avoid their numerous enemies – animals, birds of prey, and man with his gun, his axe to fell the trees, and his nets to ensnare the parent birds.
 The primitive inhabitants of one country, the Indians, no doubt, welcomed these pigeons when they returned in spring, and regaled themselves upon the fat squabs for a few days; but they were unsuited for their steady died and the Redmen soon tired of them.  They would be unable to kill many of the adult birds with their primitive weapons.  They respected the nesting ground and spent much time in slaying the enemies of the birds that gathered in great numbers to gorge themselves upon the young birds, as they fluttered to the ground, when learning to fly.
 Then the White men came, with no legends of gratitude for a benevolent incarnation; no sacred regard for the feathers, to wear as head-dress, ornament or talisman to avoid the mysterious confusion on the way to the hereafter, that bare heads should suffer, among the shade of departed.  Their legs were not bare in honor of the sacred bird that had endowed Redmen with incarnation, yielding bodies for the children, as fast as they were needed, in their old piety.  Firearms, snares and great netting traps were used to get the parent birds.  With axes they cut down the trees and took the squabs by tons, and tons.
 There are campfire stories galore, of the carnivals of the slaughter and the orgies of the feasts, when the day’s work was finished, that are better buried in the oblivion of silence, as we draw the veil over the crime of extermination that befell God’s own messenger to children of the forest.  For swiftness and endurance; for mystery and mysticism, the Indians venerated the passenger pigeons, above all visible and animate beings.
 Their numbers fell off approximately, at the rate of ten millions each year, until, at last, only one great city existed, and that gathered in Potter County, Pennsylvania in 1886, centered on Pine Creek, the Tiadaghton of the romantic Indian legends.  Jim Jacobs, the Seneca bear hunter, was recognized as he returned from the celebrated last stand of the Passenger Pigeons.  In sorrow his shade then slept with the ancients.
 The story has been told; why repeat it?  Men gathered together; from the tides of the sea to the prairies they came.  All night guns boomed among the trees.  The moon was red in the clouds of powder smoke that arose.  The Indian hung his head in anguish; then crept away to his fate.  Next day no pigeons remained – whither?

Restoring the Forest – Vision and Prophecy
 As written in 1904, after reviewing the region, in the chapters in “The History of the Lumber Industry in America, “ by John C. French, we find the following:
 “No effort has been made to preserve or renew the forests of the Allegheny Valley, and the streams have shrunk to mere creeks or dry beds of sand and gravel in summer.  The Allegheny, that once was large enough to promise navigation, is transformed to a valueless water course for this generation.  When the waste places of the hills and valleys shall again become the beautiful forests that once crowned them, the streams will assume their former volume of water; for the rainfall will remain longer in the cool embrace of the forests, to feed the innumerable springs that break forth from the rocky cliffs to irrigate the slopes and supply the streams.  It is estimated that only one half of the land that constitutes the Allegheny watershed is used or needed for agriculture.  The remainder is now a waste for briars and brush, or partly grown over with ferns and grass, although in many places foreshadowing a luxuriant second growth of hardwood and giving evidence of what the reforestation might be under the skill of a forester applied to the region.

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Published On Tri-Counties Site On 7/23/2001
By Joyce M. Tice