The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter VII

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The Passenger Pigeon by William Butts Mershon
Chapter VII. Netting the Pigeons

CHAPTER VII

Netting the Pigeons

By William Brewster, from "The Auk," a Quarterly Journal of Ornithology, October, 1889.

IN the spring of 1888 my friend, Captain Bendire, wrote to me that he had received news from a correspondent in central Michigan to the effect that wild pigeons had arrived there in large numbers and were preparing to nest. Acting on this information I started at once, in company with Mr. Jonathan Dwight, Jr., to visit the expected "nesting" and learn as much as possible about the habits of the breeding birds, as well as to secure specimens of their skins and eggs.

 . . . Pigeon netting in Michigan is conducted as follows: Each netter has three beds; at least two, and sometimes as many as ten "strikes" are made on a single bed in one day, but the bed is often allowed to "rest" for a day or two. Forty or fifty dozen birds are a good haul for one "strike." Often only ten or twelve dozen are taken. Mr. Stevens' highest "catch" is eighty-six dozen, but once he saw one hundred and six dozen captured at a single "strike." If too large a number are on the bed, they will sometimes raise the net bodily and escape. Usually about one-third are too quick for the net and fly out before it falls. Two kinds of beds are used, the "mud" bed and the "dry" bed. The former is the most killing in Michigan, but, for unknown reason, it will not attract birds in Wisconsin.

It is made of mud, kept in a moist condition and saturated with a mixture of saltpeter and anise seed. Pigeons are very fond of salt and resort to salt springs wherever they occur. The dry bed is simply a level space of ground carefully cleared of grass, weeds, etc., and baited with corn or other grain. Pigeons are peculiar, and their habits must be studied by the netter if he would be successful. When they are feeding on beech mast, they often will not touch grain of any kind, and the mast must be used for bait.

A stool bird is an essential part of the netter's outfit. It is tied on a box, and by an ingenious arrangement of cords, by which it can be gently raised or lowered, is made to flap its wings at intervals. This attracts the attention of passing birds which alight on the nearest tree, or on a perch which is usually provided for that purpose. After a portion of the flock has descended to the bed, they are started up by "raising" the stool bird, and fly back to the perch. When they fly down a second time all or nearly all the others follow or accompany them and the net is "struck."

The usual method of killing pigeons is to break their necks with a small pair of pincers, the ends of which are bent so that they do not quite meet. Great care must be taken not to shed blood on the bed, for the pigeons notice this at once and are much alarmed by it. Young birds can be netted in wheat stubble in the autumn, but this is seldom attempted. When just able to fly, however, they are caught in enormous numbers near the "nestings" in pens made of slats. A few dozen old pigeons are confined in the pens as decoys, and a net is thrown over the mouth of the pen when a sufficient number of young birds have entered it.

Mr. Stevens has known over four hundred dozen young pigeons to be taken at once by this method. The first birds sent to market yield the netter about one dollar a dozen. At the height of the season the price sometimes falls as low as twelve cents a dozen. It averages about twenty-five cents.