The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter I
MY boyhood was made active and wholesome by a love for outdoor pastimes that had been bred in me by generations of sport-loving ancestors. From which side of the genealogical tree this ardor for field and forest and open sky had come with stronger influence I cannot say. While my father was the one to use the fowling-piece and cast the fly for the glorious speckled trout, my mother was a willing conspirator, for it was she who packed the lunch basket, often called us for the start in the gray morning, and went along to "hold the horse" while we shot pigeons. And when we were bent on a day in the woods in bracing October weather she drove old Dolly sedately along the winding trail, while I hunted one side of the woods and father hunted the other. On such days we were after partridges, of course, ruffed grouse, the kind of all game birds. Often mother marked them down and told us just where they had crossed the road, or whether the bird was hit, for the cloud of smoke from the old black powder made seeing guesswork on our part. She loved the dogs, too, those good old friends and workers, Sport, Bob, and Ranger.
I remember calling my mother to a window early one morning and shouting: "See there! a flock of pigeons! Ah, ha! April fool!" This time I did not deceive her with the threadbare trick. The joke was "on me" for once. There was a flight of pigeons that morning, the first one of the season, and behind the foremost flock another and another came streaming. Away from the east side of the river at the north of the town, from near Crow Island, they swept like a cloud. Crossing the river to the west they reached the woods near Jerome's mill and skirted the clearings or passed in waves over the tree tops, back of John Winter's farm, and then wheeled to the south. Out of the tongue of woodland, just back of the Hermansau Church, they poured, thence over the fields, too high to be shot, and then away to the evergreens and stately pines of Pine Hill; on, on, on across the Tittabawassee, to some feeding ground we knew not how far away.
Now that the pigeons had come they would "fly" every morning. This we knew from years of observation in the great migration belt of Michigan. They would fly lower to-morrow morning, and in a day or two more sweep low enough for the sixteen-gauge and the number eight shot to reach them. Sometimes, even now, forty years after the last of the great passenger pigeon flights, I fall to day-dreaming and seem to hear myselfsaying in the eager, piping tones of those golden boyhood days:
"Mother, I am going for pigeons to-morrow morning! Do call me if I oversleep. I must be awake by four o'clock. We'll have pigeon pot-pie to-morrow. I'm going to bed early so as to be sure to be up by day-break. Old Sport is going along to 'fetch' dead birds."
"Hello, dad," cries a voice in my ear, "what are you up to? What are you hustling around so for with your old shot pouch and powder-flask? There's nothing to shoot this time of the year."
The spell is broken; my own boy fetches his daddy out of his dream, and I am fairly caught in the act of making an old fool of myself. My youngsters are counting the days before May first when I have promised to take them trout-fishing, and the smallest boy found his first gun in his stocking last Christmas. But they can know nothing at all about the joys and excitement of pigeon shooting in the vanished days when these birds fairly darkened the sky above our old homestead. But I try to tell them what we used to do and my story sounds something like this:
"It is early in the spring, so early that a bunch of snow may yet be found on the north side of the largest of the fallen trees in the woods. Puddles that the melting snow left in the hollows of the clearing are fringed with ice this morning, and we look around and tell each other, 'There was a frost last night.' The mud in the road has stiffened, and the rutted cattle tracks are also streaked and barred with ice. Yet winter has gone and spring is here, for the buds are swelling on the twigs of the elms and the pussy willows show their dainty, silvery signals to tell us that the vernal equinox has come and gone.
"If the springtime is still young, so is the day. Light is breaking in the gray sky of dawn as we hurry along the slippery, sticky road. We must make haste to the point of woods, by John Winter's clearing, before full daybreak or the pigeons will be flying and we will miss the early flocks which always keep nearest the ground.
"You may be curious to know what we look like as we trudge along in Indian file, eagerly chatting about a kind of sport which this later generation knows nothing about. I am a chunk of a country lad, topped by a woolen cap with ear-tabs pulled down over my ears, a tippet around my neck, yarn mittens on my hands, which are sure to be badly skinned and chapped this time of year from playing 'knuckle-down-tight.'
"My 'every-day pants' are tucked into a pair of calf-skin boots with square pieces of red leather for the tops, an old-fashioned adornment dear to Young America of my day. My old Irish water spaniel 'Sport' is tagging behind or charging frantically ahead; my gun is a sixteen-gauge muzzle loader, stub and twist barrels, with dogs' heads for the hammers.
"Dangling from one shoulder is a leather shot pouch that cuts off one ounce of number eights for a load. The sides of this pouch are embossed, on the one a group of English woodcock, on the other a setter rampant. Hanging at my left side by a green cord with a tassel or two is my fluted copper powder flask, ready to measure out two and three-fourths drams of coarse Dupont or Curtis & Harvey powder.
"My pockets are full of Ely's black-edged wads, for I am a young nabob of sportsmen, let me tell you, and I scorn to use tow or bits of newspaper for wadding. My vest pocket holds the caps, G. D.'s or Ely's again, for didn't I tell you that I was a nabob. The pièce de résistance of this outfit is the game bag, the pride of my eye, for it was a Christmas present, and this is its maiden shooting trip. Suspended over the left shoulder so that it will hang well back of the right hip, the strap that carries it is broad and with many holes for the wondrous buckle which can be shifted to hang it in the most comfortable place, wherever that is, for when it is loaded with game it will choke me almost to death, no matter how I adjust it. This noble bag has two pockets, one of them for luncheon, and on the outside is a netted pocket, easy to get into and keeping the birds cool. I nearly forgot to mention its magnificent fringe, which hangs down from both sides and the bottom like the war-bags of an Indian chief.
"My companions are rigged out in much the same fashion. They are grown men, however, for I don't remember any other boys who shot pigeons with me. Holabird or khaki hunting suits are as yet unknown, and even corduroy coats are rare. The powder horn is seen as often as the copper flask, and one hunter has a shot belt with two compartments instead of the English pouch. Of guns the assortment is as varied as the number of hunters, but the old, hard-kicking army musket with its iron ramrod is more popular than any other arm.
"We reach the edge of the clearing not a minute too soon. Now and then a distant shot tells us that we are not the first hunters out afield this morning. The guns are cracking everywhere along the road that skirts the woodland, and back in, close to the 'chopping,' some better wing-shots are posted by the openings into the woods where the birds fly lower, but where the shooting is more difficult. It is largely of the 'pick your bird' style, for the flight of a pigeon is very swift, and when they are darting among the tree-tops of a small forest opening, rare skill is required to bag one's birds.
"I prefer to take the flocks, even though they offer me more distant targets, and soon my gun-barrels are as hot as those of the rest of the skirmishers. Sometimes two or three birds drop from a flock at a single discharge, and then several shots may not fetch from on high more than one or two of the long tail-feathers spinning and twisting to the ground. It is fascinating to watch the whirling, shining descent of one of these feathers, and I pick up one and stick it in my cap as a matter of habit.
"This kind of pigeon shooting takes a good gun and ammunition to kill a big bag as we bang away at long range at the birds on their way to the morning feeding-ground. The flight is over by half-past six o'clock and I am home by seven o'clock ready for breakfast and then to scamper off to school.
"The pigeons in this particular locality have followed the same routine as long as I have known them. They only fly in the morning, always going in the same direction, and I can't recall seeing them coming back again, or flying later in the day. This habit holds until the young squabs are in the nests in June, after which we are likely to find pigeons almost anywhere, for their feeding grounds become scattered and local.
"One thing that annoys me in these brave days of youth and sport is the poacher, the low-down fellow who steals my birds. I am reckoned a pretty good shot, and I have a first-rate gun, but I am only a boy, so the pigeon thief thinks I am fair picking, and he saves his ammunition by claiming every bird that drops anywhere near him.
"Another smart dodge of his is to fire into a flock ahead or behind the one I am shooting at and then claim whatever birds fall as the quarry of both our guns. If he is not too big I try to lick him, but generally I have to submit to the rascality unless I can persuade a grown-up friend to take my part. Sometimes these villains hang around my shooting ground without any guns at all, and pick up as many birds as I do. Then I hunt around for a father or an uncle to reinforce my protests and there is a pretty row which ends in the interloper taking to his heels to wait for a more propitious occasion.
"When we are ready to carry our birds home we pull out the four long tail-feathers and knot them together at the tips. Then the quill ends are stuck through the soft part of the lower mandible, and the birds are strung together, eight or ten in a string. These strings are bunched together by tying the quill ends of the feathers, and we have our game festooned in compact shape for the triumphal march homeward bound."
Alas, the pigeons and the frosty morning hunts and the delectable pigeon-pie are gone, no more to return. They are numbered with those recollections which help to convince me that the boys of to-day don't have as good times we youngsters did in the prime of our busy out-door world.