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Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania, J.C. French, 1919
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From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French


Some Kentucky Observations, by Alexander Wilson
-Vivid description of Sacred Pigeon Dance by the Indian Wolf Hunter Dan Gleason

 During the month of May, 1810, the great ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, visited the Kentucky river to see a real nesting place of Passenger Pigeons.  With great detail he described what he saw and heard there, and a few of his illuminating paragraphs will paint the picture as vividly as words can possibly reveal a panorama.  He said:

 “As soon as the young were fully grown, and before they left the nests, numerous parties of inhabitants, from all parts of the adjacent country, came with wagons, oxen, beds, cooking utensils, many of them accompanied by the greater part of their families, and encamped for several days at the immense nursery.  The noise was so great as to terrify their horses, and it was difficult for one person to hear another speak without bawling in his ear.”

 “The ground was strewed with broken limbs of trees, eggs and young squab pigeons which had been precipitated from above, and on which herds of hogs were fattening.  Hawks, buzzards, and eagles were sailing about in great numbers, and seizing the squabs from their nests at pleasure; while from twenty feet upwards to the tops of the trees, the view through the woods presented a perpetual tumult of crowding and fluttering multitudes of the old pigeons, their wings roaring like thunder, mingled with the frequent crash of falling timber.  For now the axe-men were at work cutting down those trees which seemed to be most crowded with nests of the young birds, and contriving to fell the trees in such manner that in their descent they might bring down several other trees.  The felling of one large tree sometimes produced two hundred squabs, little inferior in size to old birds, and almost one mass of fat.”

 “On some single trees upwards of a hundred nests were found, each containing one young only, a circumstance in the history of this bird not generally known to naturalists.  It was dangerous to walk under these flying and fluttering millions of birds, from the frequent fall of large branches, broken down by the weight of the multitudes above, and which, in their descent, often destroyed numbers of the birds themselves.  I had left the public road to visit the remains of a breeding place near Shelbyville, on my way to Frankfort, when about 1 o’clock the pigeons which I had observed flying northerly the greater part of the morning, began to return in such immense numbers as I never before had witnessed.  At an opening by the side of Benson Creek, I was astonished at their appearance.”

 “They were flying with great steadiness and rapidity, at a height beyond gunshot, in several strata deep, and so close together that could shot have reached them, one discharge would not have failed of bringing down several birds.  From right to left, as far as the eye could reach, the breadth of this vast procession reached, seeming everywhere equally crowded.  Curious to determine how long this appearance would continue, I sat down, with my watch in hand a 1:30 p.m., for more than an hour, but instead of diminution of this prodigious procession, it seemed rather to increase both in numbers and rapidity of flight; anxious to reach Frankfort before night, I crossed the Kentucky River, at the town of Frankfort, at which time the living torrent above my head seemed as numerous and as extensive as ever.  The great breadth of front which this mighty multitude preserved would seem to intimate a corresponding breadth of their breeding place, which several gentlemen who had lately passed through part of it, told me was several miles wide, and they estimated about forty miles long, in which every tree was absolutely loaded with nests of young birds.”

 “The nesting was begun about April 10th and all the birds left by the end of May.  The appearance of large detached bodies of them in the air, and the various evolutions they display, are strikingly picturesque and interesting.  In descending the Ohio by myself in February, I often rested on my oars to contemplate their aerial manoeuvres.  A column, eight or ten miles in length, would appear from Kentucky, high in the air, steering over to Indiana.  The leaders would sometimes gradually vary their course, until it formed a large bend of more than a mile in diameter, those behind tracing the exact route of their predecessors.  This would continue sometimes long after both extremities, were beyond the reach of sight; so that the whole, with its glittering undulations, marked a space on the face of the heavens resembling the windings of a vast and majestic river.”

 “When the bend became very great, the birds, as if sensible of the unnecessarily circuitous course they were taking, suddenly changed their direction, so that what was in column before became an immense front, straightening all its indentures until it swept the heavens in one vast and infinitely extended line.  Other lesser bodies united with each other as they happened to approach, with such ease and elegance of evolutions, forming new figures, and varying them as they united or separated, that I was never tired of contemplating them.  Sometimes a hawk would make a sweep on a particular part of the column, when almost as quick as lightning that part shot downwards out of the common track; but soon rising again, continued advancing at the same rate as before.  This deflection was continued by those behind, who on arriving at this point dived down almost perpendicularly to a great depth, and rising, followed the exact path of those before them.”

 Standing upon the flattened top of a high hill, overlooking the Allegheny Valley, in 1870, Dan Gleason, the Indian wolf hunter, told me about the pigeons, which were flying past us then in many strata, some overhead and many below us, in the valley between our hill and others, south of the river; with waving arms, swaying body and nimble feet he illustrated the sacred pigeon dance of the redmen of America, based upon the flight of their sacred bird; in soft cadences he sang the song of “Wah-ho-pah,” and in solemn words explained the wonderful birds and their beneficence to his race, and to their ancestors when they began life upon the earth; how a warrior’s hair must not be lost, for it represents the feathers of the sacred bird and preserves his soul and immortal bliss of the Happy Hunting Ground.  When the hair is lost there can be no blessed immortality, for on the journey after death they would become confused and take the wrong trail, followed by all who offend the Great Spirit – the trail that had no end and led to no place, an eternity of wandering.  That was all the punishment the evil spirit Hobomock, could inflict upon man.

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