From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
The Romance of Numbers and Testimony of Living
Men as to Reality of the Figures
It has been said by a great author that more romance can be found by intelligent study of a mass of figures, set forth by a statistician, than in any other form known to the writing art. The magic measure in numbers, orderly arranged in columns of figures, appeal more strongly to many mathematicians than do the resounding rhythms in Homer’s poems. The story of the Passenger Pigeon is neither romance nor poetry; yet we must not ignore the figures entirely. The pioneers of Potter County were incredulous of John Lyman’s report in 1805. They could not believe that twenty millions of the birds existed along a hundred miles of the upper Allegheny at that time. To them it was only a romance, for five years, until they returned, and experts reported that it was history and conservative.
Of the Susquehanna River nesting city there was no cordial acceptance of what the two young men, William French and John Grimes, reported that they had seen; that millions of the fat squabs had been melted down for their fat alone; that many barrels of the oil went down the river in boat-loads. Most people doubted that twenty millions of adult birds had been in that region in 1810, or at any other time. To them it was romance. In February, 1810, the great flight into Ohio and Indiana, where they nested in April and May of that year, was reported by Alexander Wilson who approximated their number in the following manner: Taking the breadth of the great column of pigeons that he described flying over the Ohio River to be only one mile, its length to be two hundred and forty miles and to contain only three pigeons in each square yard, (taking no account of the several strata of birds, one above the other), and that each bird consumed half a pint of food daily, the amount would be seventeen million bushels of food each day.
John J. Audubon made a calculation, based upon two birds to the square yard, and a similar daily ration for each bird, in his report, using approximately the same breadth and length of the column – all of which assumptions he believed to be conservative – and estimated that eleven million bushels of food would be required by them for one day. This means fourteen hundred millions of birds in the Green River flights; about an equal number upon Kentucky River, at the same time; and the flight to Ohio and Indiana, in February, twenty-one hundred and seventy-six millions more, making altogether nearly five billions of birds in the three states along the Ohio. Some people consider these estimates as absolutely poetical, or founded upon a “poet’s license,” at any rate.
The authors were absolutely candid, in all their conclusions, and, no doubt, they got their estimates reasonably correct; but neither knew that Kentucky held another nesting, than the one he saw, at the same time, nor that two other cities were, at the same time, being seen by other men in Pennsylvania. There may have been several more nestings or big roosting cities, waiting for the beechnuts to sprout, in some northern forest; and other millions of birds scattered through the forests of the south. The young, the males, and the females had a curious habit of dividing into three separate flocks. When the young leave their nests they shift for themselves, passing through the forest in search of their food, hunting among the leaves for mast, where their parents made certain, in advance of nesting, that plenty could be found; and, by feeding in distant forests, preserved feeding grounds for the young to begin upon. They appeared like a prodigious torrent rolling along through the woods, every one striving to be in the front.
There were, probably, four broods each spring, between Alabama in the south, beginning about February, and the Hudson Bay forest region, late in July and August, when their favorite food would be ready for them in these regions, and for each migration an intermediate date, allowing or about seven weeks between the beginning of a brood and the succeeding one, although five weeks were sufficient time for a brood near the former one. For building the nest and laying the eggs, two days; incubation, fourteen days; feeding the young birds, sixteen to eighteen days. Their migrations usually required about two weeks for getting started upon the next nesting enterprise. When the young birds left their nests they were extremely fat, and their flesh delicious, only, as every one ate pigeons all day, and every day, they palled upon the taste, and campers soon began to look upon squabs as rather coarse and common fare. However, everybody was ready to eat squabs again when the birds returned.
The controversies over the questions in regard to whether a single egg, or two eggs, constituted the production for each nest and each incubation were a great surprise to most men of experience in the nesting colonies of passenger pigeons. It was common knowledge, among both white and red men, that the hen bird should lay two eggs for a setting; but very often she delayed, too long, the work of building a nest, and an egg would be dropped while she wove the materials that her mate brought together. In case of such an accident one egg only would remain for that nest, and the others that had lost an egg in such manner. Often nests were precipitated to the ground by the wind, and another hastily built upon each location, where one egg would be laid and incubated alone. Under the trees, during the first days after nest building started, there were thousands of eggs testifying plainly to these casualties.
William Hazen, a Civil War veteran, who resides at Roulette, Potter County, Pennsylvania, remembers going to the nesting colony, in 1860, upon Parker Run, Liberty Township, McKean County, to cut down the trees and get the squabs. Two young men carried axes and another carried a double-barrel rifle. When they felled their first tree, the young birds flew from the nest, as the tree began to fall, and fluttered away to a great distance, so they could not be found. Thereafter the axemen pounded upon a tree and caused the young birds to stretch their necks and show heads above for the marksmen to cut off with his bullets. There were two young birds in most of the nests that they shot into for squabs that day.
William Lehman remembers visiting the nesting colony on Bell’s
Run, in McKean County, in 1870, where he climbed some small trees to get
live squabs for his uncle, Herman Lehman, who had built a park for them
to be domesticated in. Nearly every nest held two squabs and he got
fifty fine young birds. Herman Lehmans’ park in Ulysses Township,
Potter County, was large, with a creek running among the trees of the enclosure;
the birds thrived; but they bred very little in confinement; and never
laid more than one egg to each nest. Many times a nest was constructed
by a pair of the birds, only to be abandoned and no eggs laid in it, or
when an egg was laid, it was not incubated.