From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
Present Day Economics and Influence As Food Supply
Sketch of Indian and Pioneer Life
Speculation about what became of the beechnut eating passenger pigeons now seems to be futile. They are extinct, because the food they ate, and which developed their chief characteristics, does not grow in sufficient quantities upon the face of the earth, in any locality, to sustain a colony of them through a breeding period. In another environment they would soon adapt themselves to new conditions and become a new variety of pigeons. They were so similar to the pigeons of other parts of the world, except for their chief food requirements and their methods of life to avail themselves of it, to the greatest possible extent; and their manner of reducing damages from their enemies to the minimum, by compact multitudes in nesting cities, roosting places and their daily flights in search of food, that to differentiate between them is often extremely difficult. Plumage is a varying feature of many birds under different climates.
Therefore, to reproduce them by selective breeding from other similar pigeons would not be desirable, until we first promote beech forests.
Unless our forest becomes large their enemies will destroy them in a very short time, and our farmers will never approve of pigeons flying at large and devouring their grain, fruit and vegetables. Domesticated pigeons, confined to a place prepared for them, is the only kind that can be profitably maintained in most of our country, as it is now occupied by fields of grain, vineyards, orchards and gardens which are much more needed, in our present phase of development, than are the flocks that primitive men cherished. When only a few dozen families occupied space as large as a county, there was room for men, animals and birds. The strong then fed upon the weaker which perished from the world, making room for more men and their agriculture which now feeds them.
Primitive man found the forest adapted for his home. The trees bore fruit that nourished him, or that fed the birds and the animals which he slew for his food and raiment. They spread over the vast domain, until they became numerous. Then they developed arts by which many could exist, where there had previously been few, and civilized society began its development. Many former forms became obsolete in the new situations they created. Strong animals became the burden bearers and certain birds were tamed to furnish food for a more complex society. Tamed animals provided food and raiment. Those that could not be made efficient helpers soon began to fade away and became extinct. The soil was utilized for the vegetables and grain they needed and the trees were destroyed to make room for men. Now men are progressing in the epoch of tree cultivation and planting to cause them to produce the food and materials they desire, in larger supply than during the former phases of life.
To the isolated Indians and our pioneers, the passenger pigeons, during early spring and summer, when other wild game was thin in flesh and unpalatable, came and supplied them with all the meat and fat they desired. That made comparative safety for all other birds and animals, so far as their food was concerned, and allowed six months of time for rearing their young. That respite has preserved many varieties of them, this last century, from utter extinction. The pigeon proved to be a benefactor to them, as well as to men.
From the era, when pigeons came to relieve the annual springtime shortage of food, we have advanced to the ability of transporting the food that we require by mechanical force; so men do not need the pigeons as much as they did. They have literally donated their bodies and their existence for the benefit of men, birds and beasts of the forest. They were martyrs to our progress, as well as to the lives of a vast multitude of people.
It is no wonder that the philosopher and the poets of a decaying race of Red Men, in America, were constrained to endow the passenger pigeons with almost supernatural attributes, in their guardianship of the wandering tribes that had been lost in the primeval wilderness, since the creation of the world; nor that their hearts burst with sorrow when they beheld the birds persecuted and slaughtered, by inhuman men of the white race, to make food upon which to fatten vast herds of hogs, and even to extract the fat from the dead bodies of the squabs, for grease with which to make soap – a substance which the Indians scarcely had any appreciation of. From the venerable books, the Zend-Avesta, we may learn of the progress of the early people of Iran. Zoroaster, the Persian sage, unfolded the process, step by step, upon the ladder, as they climbed to agriculture from the abyss they had been in, as nomadic tribes; and, in their metaphysics, he portrayed the beneficence of the celestial izeds of Hormuzd that were prototypes of our guardian angels. In like manner the Greek philosophers portrayed the blessings, derived from Pallas Athene, in their mythology of metamorphism. The Red Men had their sacred pigeons.
The American Red Men held the pigeon as the messenger of hope, when famine held them in a grip, as malignant as that of Hobomock, their enemy, who balked them in their enterprises upon earth and planned confusion upon the long trail to the Happy Hunting Ground, when the Great Spirit called them from their tribulations, in life upon earth, to the enjoyment of their ideal conditions. The sturdy pioneers of this country subdued the wilderness, with privations almost inconceivable in this day. They were attacked by wild animals in search of food and by the Indians who disapproved of their methods; many died from the rigors of the climate; for clothing they wore the skins of beast; for food, at times they were compelled to mix the bark of trees with their corn meal, so it would hold out longer, and at times they dug up the potatoes they had planted – so near they were to starvation – and then the pigeons came! Food at once was most plentiful. Their strength was renewed, as by a miracle; hope revived in their hearts; their courage blazed high; they walked a hundred miles, joyously, to the nearest grist mill to have their handful of corn ground, and hustled home again, so their wives and their children might have bread to eat with their rations of meat and fish.
Many of them did their own grinding by means of the hollowed out stump of a hardwood tree and a pestle of stone, or of seasoned wood. But they persevered, and soon, thriving villages dotted the forests; the hum of their industry and the shouts of woodsmen and raftsmen told of the business their energy was creating in the forests – a business that placed Pennsylvania, for awhile, at the head of the great lumber producing states of the world. Then declining forest areas forced back our record step by step, to second; to third; then to fourth place in production of lumber. The white pine went first; then the hemlock; and later, the various hardwoods have become of moderate importance. Now we import much of the forest material we need from year to year. Indians have become citizens; turned farmers, and are as tame as their poultry.