From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
More About The Passenger Pigeon (From the Pennsylvania Sportsman, Scranton, Pa.)
By R.P. Robinson Member of Wilkes-Barre Camp No. 103
Wherein the contributor of this third article of our series suggests that the extermination of the passenger pigeon may have been divinely ordained as a retribution for the barbarous methods employed in accomplishing their wholesale slaughter. How our forefathers killed and captured wild pigeons is faithfully recorded, and the story may fairly raise this question, beside point a moral to the sportsmen of the present day. – The Editor. May 1917.
The American passenger pigeon wintered in the South, and in the early spring migrated to the northern part of the United States and Southern Canada, where it raised its young and remained till the time for its fall flight southward.
I have seen a continuous flight of these birds from morning ‘till night, and for several days in succession. I shall not attempt to make any estimate as to the number passing a given point in a single day, but the eminent American ornithologist Audubon, once made an estimate of the number of birds that was within his vision at one time during one of these flights, and it reached into the millions. No doubt this condition prevailed throughout a very wide latitude – probably several hundred miles – for several days.
The passenger pigeon was the most rapid and graceful in flight of any of our wild birds. Its wonderful endurance and rapidity of flight are shown by the fact that is has been killed in Canada with Carolina rice still in its craw, having covered this distance in a few hours by continuous flight.
In their migrations some of the birds flew very high in the air – often almost beyond the vision, while others flew so low that they were reached by the gunner’s pellets fired from the old-fashioned flintlock guns. The noise made by their wings could be heard for a long distance. The low fliers were the ones that met with disaster in attempting to pass through the enemy’s country – the settlements along the route of passage.
The usual methods of capturing the birds were by shooting and by netting, although I have known them to be killed in great numbers with clubs, and even caught alive with the hands at their roosting places in the low rush where they were hunted with lanterns and torches. I have seen the little creatures taken with the net; and while I had no hand in the sport )or crime), being only a spectator, yet I felt somewhat guilty as an accessory before and after the fact.
The pigeon net covered probably two or three hundred square feet of ground when spread. It was usually set in an open field on as high ground as possible, that the flying birds might readily observe the decoys. To set the net, one edge or border was fastened to the ground by stakes driven down, and the one opposite was secured to a long, stout rope which was stretched very tight between two stakes seventy-five or a hundred feet apart, one of them being at the “bough house,” or hiding place of the fowler. This rope was drawn back to the rear one and held there with latches, and the whole net was also rolled back to the ropes, leaving the entire bed free of everything except the stool pigeon and the stool.
Grain was scattered over the bed for the birds to pick at until they were all settled. The bough-house was usually made of pine boughs or small pine trees stuck in the ground completely hiding the fowler from sight, and was large enough for several persons to stand in. By pulling a string the latches were released and the rope, in assuming its direct position between the stakes, instantly spread the net to its full extent over the feeding ground.
The decoys for enticing the birds to their destruction were a “flier” and a stool pigeon. The flier was a live bird secured by a long cord attached to a leg and when a flock was seen in the distance the bird was cast from the hand. It immediately flew off to the full length of the cord, and then slowly settled to the ground; and if, the flying birds saw it and made a move to approach, the stool-pigeon was “hovered” to keep up the attraction until they were brought to the bed.
The stool-pigeon was a bird selected for its good points, and it was usually one that had been kept from the catch of the previous migrating season. I have seen pigeon houses containing many of these birds in confinement for use when the season came.
The cruelty of this method of procuring game birds was partly in the treatment of the stool-pigeon; the poor bird’s eyes being sewed shut to cause it to hover more readily. Why there was not some more humane method of blindfolding the bird seems strange at this day. A skin from the head of the bird could easily have been prepared for the purpose, and would not have been observed by the other birds.
The stool to which the pigeon was tied by the feet, was a circular piece of board six or eight inches in diameter, fastened to a stick four or five feet in length, and the opposite end was placed in a slot in a stake, thus forming a hinge so that the bird could be raised and lowered by pulling a string running to the fowler’s hiding place. By raising the bird and dropping it suddenly it was made to flutter as it was going down; and the flying birds seeing it, would begin to circle around, coming nearer and nearer, until they finally lit on the bed around the stool-pigeon. Then the net would be sprung over the unsuspecting birds. At once there would be a mass of fluttering, struggling pigeons, with heads erect and protruding from the meshes of the net. The fowler and his assistants would rush to the massacre, which was the crushing of the head of each individual bird between the thumb and the forefinger.
The shooting of the young birds or squabs from their nests was another cruel and detestable practice of the pot-hunter when the hatching grounds were discovered. This was done when the young birds were about ready to leave the nest, and many were slaughtered at such time by the cruel gunner.
A few years before their final disappearance these birds had their hatching ground, one season that I recall, on the North Mountains, near the junction of three counties of Pennsylvania, viz: Luzerne, Sullivan and Wyoming, then a wilderness of virgin timber, and far from the habitation of man. It was not far from what is now Rickett’s Station, on the Bowman’s Creek Branch of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. I passed through this place soon after the birds had left, and saw scores of nests on a single tree, and every tree over a large area of the forest had been similarly occupied by the birds.
Now there is not a single live passenger pigeon in North America, and probably not in the world. The cause of their sudden disappearance is one of the mysteries of the age. Could it be that their Creator, by some act through nature prevented their reproduction as a punishment of the people for their cruelty in torturing and wantonly destroying His creatures; for not, by the enactment of proper laws, protecting them from the cruel, criminal and wasteful methods adopted for their destruction? If we could believe this, we might be more earnest in our efforts to conserve the wild life that still exists in our fields and forests – more anxious to save from extinction other species of the feathered creation.
Within the memory of men still living, countless millions of wild pigeons passed over Pennsylvania in their migratory flights. Old residents can recall the time when from horizon to horizon flying birds were seen in flocks so large and so compact as to obscure the sun. Fifty years ago wild pigeons were still common game birds, and thousands of them could be observed in their seasonal flights, but today it is admitted that the last passenger pigeon in the world, so far as is known, died in the Cincinnati Zoo during the fall of 1914.
Large rewards were offered for a mate for the last wild pigeon in the hope that the species might be saved from total extermination. But not one could be found. And in order that the bird might be properly mounted upon its death, the keeper carefully saved the feathers dropped each year for the taxidermist. So the bird has been preserved – by taxidermy – but the species is now totally extinct.
Lest sportsmen of the present day forget the wild pigeon, we deem it proper to quote from a chapter of “The Pioneers,” James Fenimore Cooper’s first published Leather Stocking Tale, which appeared in print ninety-five years ago. It is a delightful story of fascinating interest to sportsmen. Moreover, it is historically correct as to scenes and circumstances, although some of the characters are undoubtedly fictitious. In the person of Leather Stocking, otherwise called “Natty,” we recognize the spirit of a true sportsman of modern times. Billy Kirby and Richard typify the pot-hunter and game hog, whose descendants still range at large in Pennsylvania after nearly one hundred years of protest against their practices.
Chapter twenty-two is particularly of interest to sportsmen for it relates the circumstances of a wild pigeon flight a century ago. Vividly Cooper describes the incidents of the pigeon slaughter and the methods employed in that day. The scene is along the headwaters of the Susquehanna River in New York state. The events described, however, as correctly show the practices of Pennsylvania hunters as they do those followed at that time in New York. How thoughtless were the hunters of the day! The chapter is too long to reprint in its entirety, but the following paragraphs, with some abbreviation, tell the tale of long ago. And we believe it will be appreciated by the true sportsmen. If it engages the attention of any others who do not exercise restraint in hunting such of our game birds as still remain, we commend for their particular study the sage observations of Leather Stocking.