The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter VIII

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The Passenger Pigeon
Chapter VIII. Efforts to Check the Slaughter
By Prof. H. B. Roney

CHAPTER VIII

Efforts to Check the Slaughter

By Prof. H. B. Roney, East Saginaw, Mich.

The following article appeared in "American Field," of Chicago, Jan. 11, 1879. Parts omitted here referred to an ineffectual attempt on the part of the Saginaw and Bay City Game Protection Clubs to put a stop to the illegal netting and shooting of pigeons. The Michigan law was a bungling piece of business, working rather in the interest of the netters than of the birds. Prof. Roney and Mr. McLean accompanied the two representatives of the Game Protective Clubs sent North on this mission. I make this explanation as certain parts of the article I reproduce would otherwise not be as well understood.

FOR many years Passenger Pigeon nestings have been established in Michigan, and by a noticeable concurrence, only in even alternate years, as follows: 1868, 1870, 1872, 1874, 1876, 1878. In 1876 there were no less than three nestings in the State, one each in Newaygo, Oceana, and Grand Traverse counties.

Large numbers of professional "pigeoners," as they term themselves, devote their whole time to the business of following up and netting wild pigeons for gain and profit. These men carefully study the habits and direction of flight of the birds, and in the spring of the year can tell with considerable accuracy in about what locality a nesting is to form. The indications are soon known throughout the fraternity and the gathering of the clans commences. The netters follow up the pigeons in their flight for hundreds of miles. The past year there have been nestings in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, though in the former two States they were of short duration, as they soon broke up and the birds turned their flight to the northwest. The flight of a pigeon is, under favorable conditions, sixty to ninety miles an hour, and these birds of passage leaving the Pennsylvania forests at daybreak can reach the Michigan nesting grounds by sunset.

Many of the little travellers came from the westward, crossing the stormy waters of the lake with the speed of a dart. From the four quarters of the globe, seemingly, they gather. Over the mountains, lakes, rivers, and prairies they speed their aerial flight, through storm, in sunshine and rain. Actuated as if by a common impulse toward the same object, their swift wings soon reach the summer nursery, to which they are drawn from points hundreds of miles distant by an instinct which surpasses human comprehension.

No less remarkable is the wisdom with which the nesting places are chosen, they being always in the densest woods, not in large and heavy timber, but generally in smaller trees with many branches, cedars, and saplings. The presence of large quantities of mast, which is the principal food of these birds, especially beech nuts, is a prominent consideration in the selection of a nesting ground. As the feed in the vicinity of the nesting becomes exhausted, the birds are compelled to go daily farther and farther for food, even as high as seventy-five or one hundred miles, and these trips, which are taken twice a day, are known as the morning and evening flights.

The apparatus for the capture of wild pigeons consists of a net about six feet wide and twenty to thirty feet long. The operator first chooses the location for setting his net, which, it is needless to add, is in utter disregard of the State law, which prescribes certain limits within which nets must not be placed. A bed of a creek or low marshy spot is chosen, if possible at a natural salt lick, or a bed of muck, upon which the birds feed. The ground is cleared of grass and weeds, and to allure the birds the bed is "baited" with salt and sulphur several days before the net is to be placed. A bough house is made about twenty feet from the end of the bed, and all is ready for the net and its victims. A bird discovers the tempting spot, and with the instinct of the honey-bee, returns and brings several others, while these in turn bring a multitude, and in less than two days the bed is fairly blue with birds feeding on the seasoned muck.

The net is then set by an adjustment of ropes and a powerful spring pole, the net being laid along one side of the bed, and the operator retires to his bough house. through which the ropes run, where he waits concealed for the flights.

Many trappers use two nets ranged along opposite sides of the bed, which are thrown toward each other and meet in the center. When enough birds are gathered upon the beds to make a profitable throw, the operator gives a quick jerk upon the rope, the net flies over in an instant, while in its meshes struggle hundreds of unwilling prisoners.

After pinching their necks the trapper removes the dead victims, resets the trap, and is ready for another haul. To lure down the birds from their flight overhead, most netters use "fliers" or "stool-pigeons." The former are birds held captive by a cord, tied to the leg, being thrown up into the air when a flight is observed approaching, and drawn fluttering down when the "flier" has reached its limit. The latter is a live pigeon tied to a small circular framework of wood or wire attached to the end of a slender and elastic pole, which is raised and lowered by the trapper from his place of concealment by a stout cord and which causes constant fluttering. A good stool-pigeon (one which will stay upon the stool) is rather difficult to obtain, and is worth from $5 to $25. Many trappers use the same birds for several years in succession.

The number of pigeons caught in a day by an expert trapper will seem incredible to one who has not witnessed the operation. A fair average is sixty to ninety dozen birds per day per net and some trappers will not spring a net upon less than ten dozen birds. Higher figures than these are often reached, as in the case of one trapper who caught and delivered 2,000 dozen pigeons in ten days, being 200 dozen, or about 2,500 birds per day. A double net has been known to catch as high as 1,332 birds at a single throw, while at natural salt licks, their favorite resort, 300 and 400 dozen, or about 5,000 birds have been caught in a single day by one net.

The prices of dead birds range from thirty-five cents to forty cents per dozen at the nesting. In Chicago markets fifty to sixty cents. Squabs twelve cents per dozen in the woods, in metropolitan markets sixty cents to seventy cents. In fashionable restaurants they are served as a delicious tid-bit at fancy prices. Live birds are worth at the trapper's net forty cents to sixty cents per dozen; in cities $1 to $2. It can thus be easily seen that the business, when at all successful, is a very profitable one, for from the above quotations a pencil will quickly figure out an income of $10 to $40 per day for the "poor and hard-working pigeon trapper." One "pigeoner" at the Petoskey nesting was reported to be worth $60,000, all made in that business. He must have slain at least three million pigeons to gain this amount of money.

For several years violations of the laws protecting pigeons in brooding time have been notorious in the Michigan nestings. Professional "pigeoners" did not for an instant pretend to observe the law, and a lax and indifferent public opinion permitted the illegal slaughter to go on without let or hindrance, while itinerant pigeon trappers from all parts of the United States, grew rich at the expense of the commonwealth, and in intentional violation of its laws. Each succeeding year the news has been spread far and wide until it became useless to conceal the fact that pigeon trapping was a profitable business, the year of 1876 witnessing a magnitude in the traffic which exceeded anything heretofore known in the country.

In the early part of March last, a pigeon nesting formed just north of Petoskey, Michigan. Not many days had passed before information was conveyed to the game protection clubs of East Saginaw and Bay City, that enormous quantities of pigeons were being killed in open and defiant violation of the law. On reaching Petoskey we found the condition of affairs had not been magnified; indeed, it exceeded our gravest fears. Here, a few miles north, was a pigeon nesting of irregular dimensions, estimated by those best qualified to judge, to be forty (40) miles in length, by three to ten in width, probably the largest nesting that has ever existed in the United States, covering something like 100,000 acres of land, and including not less than 150,000 acres within its limits.

At the hotel we met one we were glad to see, in the person of "Uncle Len" Jewell, of Bay City, an old woodsman and "land-looker." Len had for several weeks been looking land in the upper peninsula, and was on his return home. At our solicitation he agreed to remain for two or three days, and co-operate with us. In the village nothing else seemed to be thought of but pigeons. It was the one absorbing topic everywhere. The "pigeoners" hurried hither and thither, comparing market reports, and soliciting the latest quotations on "squabs." A score of hands in the packing-houses were kept busy from daylight until dark. Wagon load after wagon load of dead and live birds hauled up to the station, discharged their freight, and returned to the nesting for more. The freight house was filled with the paraphernalia of the pigeon hunter's vocation, while every train brought acquisitions to their numbers, and scores of nets, stool-pigeons, etc.

The pigeoners were everywhere. They swarmed in the hotels, postoffice, and about the streets. They were there, as careful inquiry and the hotel registers showed, from New York, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland, Iowa, Virginia, Ohio, Texas, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, and Missouri.

Hiring a team, we started on a tour of investigation through the nesting. Long before reaching it our course was directed by the birds over our heads, flying back and forth to their feeding grounds. After riding about fifteen miles, we discovered a wagon-track leading into the woods, in the direction of the bird sounds which came to our ears. Three of the party left the wagon and followed it; the twittering grew louder and louder, the birds more numerous, and in a few minutes we were in the midst of that marvel of the forest and Nature's wonderland—the pigeon nesting.

We stood and gazed in bewilderment upon the scene around and above us. Was it indeed a fairyland we stood upon, or did our eyes deceive us. On every hand, the eye would meet these graceful creatures of the forest, which, in their delicate robes of blue, purple and brown, darted hither and thither with the quickness of thought. Every bough was bending under their weight, so tame one could almost touch them, while in every direction, crossing and recrossing, the flying birds drew a network before the dizzy eyes of the beholder, until he fain would close his eyes to shut out the bewildering scene.

This portion of the nesting was the first formed, and the young birds were just ready to leave the nests. Scarcely a tree could be seen but contained from five to fifty nests, according to its size and branches. Directed by the noise of chopping and falling trees, we followed on, and soon came upon the scene of action.

Here was a large force of Indians and boys at work, slashing down the timber and seizing the young birds as they fluttered from the nest. As soon as caught, the heads were jerked off from the tender bodies with the hand, and the dead birds tossed into heaps. Others knocked the young fledglings out of the nests with long poles, their weak and untried wings failing to carry them beyond the clutches of the assistant, who, with hands reeking with blood and feathers, tears the head off the living bird, and throws its quivering body upon the heap.

Thousands of young birds lay among the ferns and leaves dead, having been knocked out of the nests by the promiscuous tree-slashing, and dying for want of nourishment and care, which the parent birds, trapped off by the netter, could not give. The squab-killers stated that "about one-half of the young birds in the nests they found dead," owing to the latter reason. Every available Indian, man and boy, in the neighborhood was in the employ of buyers and speculators, killing squabs, for which they received a cent apiece.

Early in the morning, Len, with his land-looker's pack and half-ax, and the writer, started out to "look land." Taking the course indicated by the obliging small boy, we soon struck into an old Indian trail which led us through another portion of the nesting, where the birds for countless numbers surpassed all calculation. The chirping and noise of wings were deafening and conversation, to be audible, had to be carried on at the top of our voices. On the shores of the lake where the birds go to drink, when flushed by an intruder, the rush of wings of the gathered millions was like the roar of thunder and perfectly indescribable. An hour's walk brought us to a ravine which we cautiously approached.

Directed by the commotion in the air, we soon discovered the bough house and net of the trapper. Evidence being what we sought, we stood concealed behind some bushes to await the spring of the trap. The black muck bed soon became blue and purple with pigeons lured by the salt and sulphur, when suddenly the net was sprung over with a "whiz," retaining hundreds of birds beneath it, while those outside its limits flew to adjacent trees. We now descended from the brink of the hill to the net, and there beheld a sickening sight not soon forgotten.

On one side of the bed of a little creek was spread the net, a double one, covering an area when thrown, of about ten by twenty feet. Through its meshes were stretched the heads of the fluttering captives vainly struggling to escape. In the midst of them stood a stalwart pigeoner up to his knees in the mire and bespattered with mud and blood from head to foot. Passing from bird to bird, with a pair of blacksmith's pincers, he gave the neck of each a cruel grip with his remorseless weapon, causing the blood to burst from the eyes and trickle down the beak of the helpless captive, which slowly fluttered its life away, its beautiful plumage besmeared with filth and its bed dyed with its crimson blood. When all were dead, the net was raised, many still clinging to its meshes with beak and claws in their death grip and were shaken off. They were then gathered, counted, deposited behind a log with many others and covered with bushes, and the death trap set for another harvest.

Scarcely able to conceal our indignation, we sat upon the bank and questioned this hero, learning that he had pursued the business for years, and had caught as high as 87 dozen in one day, learning later that he caught and killed upon that day, 82 dozen, or 984 birds. This outrage was perpetrated within 100 rods of the nests and in plain hearing of the nesting sounds, instead of two miles away, as the law prescribes. After gaining some further information, the old gray-headed land-looker and his companion withdrew, bidding the pigeon pirate good-day, and leaving him none the wiser for the visit. Out of sight we worked our way back to the road, overtook the stage and returned to Petoskey. The next day the writer swore out a warrant and caused the arrest of the offender, who could not do otherwise than plead guilty, and had the satisfaction of seeing him pay over his fine of $50 for his poor knowledge of distances.

The shooting done at the nesting was in the most flagrant violation of the protective laws. The five-mile limit was a dead letter. The shotgun brigade went where they listed, and shot the birds in the nesting as they sat in rows on the trees or passed in clouds over-head. Before we arrived, a party of four men shot 826 birds in one day and then only stopping from sheer fatigue. Other parties continued the fusillade until the guns became so foul they could not be used, and would return to the village with a wagon-box full of birds. Scores of dead pigeons were left on the grounds to decay, and the woods were full of wounded ones. H. Frayer, a justice of the peace, informed us that a few days previously he had picked up fifteen maimed birds, his neighbor, a Mr. Green, twenty, and a Mr. Crossman, thirty-six, all in one day, after a shooting party had passed through.

The news of the formation of the nesting was not long in reaching the various Indian settlements near Petoskey, and the aborigines came in tens and fifties and in hordes. Some were armed with guns, but the majority were provided with powerful bows, and arrows with round, flat heads two or three inches in diameter. With these they shot under or into the nests, knocked out the squabs to the ground, and raked the old birds which loaded the branches. For miles the roads leading to the nesting were swarming with Indians, big and little, old and young, squaws, pappooses, bucks and young braves, on ponies, in carts and on foot. Each family brought its kit of cooking utensils, axes, a stock of provisions, tubs, barrels and firkins to pack the birds in, and came intending to carry on the business until the nesting

Page The Passenger Pigeon - Mershon djvu 113 - Passenger Pigeon and Mourning Dove.png

UPPER SPECIMEN, PASSENGER PIGEON (Ectopistes Migratoria)

LOWER SPECIMEN, MOURNING DOVE (Zenaidura Macroura)

Frequently mistaken for Passenger Pigeon

broke up. In some sections the woods were ilterally full of them.

With the aid of Sheriff Ingalls, who spoke their language like a native, we one day drove over 400 Indians out of the nesting, and their retreat back to their farms would have rivaled Bull Run. Five hundred more were met on the road to the nesting and turned back. The number of pigeons these two hordes would have destroyed would have been incalculable. Noticing a handsome bow in the hands of a young Indian, who proved to a son of the old chief, Petoskey, a piece of silver caused its transfer to us, with the remark, "Keene, kensau, mene sic" (now you can go and shoot pigeons), which dusky joke seemed to be appreciated by the rest of the young chief's companions.

There are in the United States about 5,000 men who pursue pigeons year after year as a business. Pigeon hunters with whom we conversed incognito stated that of this number there were between 400 and 500 at the Petoskey nesting plying their vocation with as many nests, and more arriving upon every train from all parts of the United States. When it is remembered that the village was alive with pigeoners, that nearly every house in the vast area of territory covered by the nesting sheltered one to six pigeon men, and that many camped out in the woods, the figures will not seem improbable. Every homesteader in the country who owned or could hire an ox team or pair of horses, was engaged in hauling birds to Petoskey for shipment, for which they received $4 per wagon load. To "keep peace in the family" and avoid complaint, the pigeon men fitted up many of the settlers with nets, and instructed them in the art of trapping.

Added to these were the buyers, shippers, packers, Indians and boys, making not less than 2,000 persons (some placed it at 2,500) engaged in the traffic at this one nesting. Fully fifty teams were engaged in hauling birds to the railroad station. The road was carpeted with feathers, and the wings and feathers from the packing-houses were used by the wagon load to fill up the mud holes in the road for miles out of town. For four men to attempt to effect a work, having for opponents the entire country, residents and non-residents included, was no slight task.

The majority of the pigeoners were a reckless, hard set of men, but their repeated threats that they would "buckshot us" if we interfered with them in the woods failed to inspire the awe that was intended. It was four against 2,000. What was accomplished against such fearful odds may be seen by the following:

The regular shipments by rail before the party commenced operations were sixty barrels per day. On the 16th of April, just after our arrival, they fell to thirty-five barrels, and on the 17th down to twenty barrels per day, while on the 22d the shipments were only eight barrels of pigeons. On the Sunday previous there were shipped by steamer to Chicago 128 barrels of dead birds and 108 crates of live birds. On the next Sabbath following our arrival the shipments were only forty-three barrels and fifty-two crates. Thus it will be seen that some little good was accomplished, but that little was included in a very few days of the season, for the treasury of the home clubs would not admit of keeping their representatives longer at the nesting, the State clubs, save one, did not respond to the call for assistance, and the men were recalled, after which the Indians went back into the nesting, and the wanton crusade was renewed by pigeoners and all hands with an energy which indicated a determination to make up for lost time.

The first shipment of birds from Petoskey was upon March 22, and the last upon August 12, making over twenty weeks, or five months, that the bird war was carried on. For many weeks the railroad shipments averaged fifty barrels of dead birds per day—thirty to forty dozen old birds and about fifty dozen squabs being packed in a barrel. Allowing 500 birds to a barrel, and averaging the entire shipments for the season at twenty-five barrels per day, we find the rail shipments to have been 12,500 dead birds daily, or 1,500,000 for the summer. Of live birds there were shipped 1,116 crates, six dozen per crate, or 80,352 birds.

These were the rail shipments only, and not including the cargoes by steamers from Petoskey, Cheboygan, Cross Village and other lake ports, which were as many more. Added to this were the daily express shipments in bags and boxes, the wagon loads hauled away by the shotgun brigade, the thousands of dead and wounded ones not secured, and the myriads of squabs dead in the nest by trapping off of the parent birds soon after hatching (for a young pigeon will surely die if deprived of its parents during the first week of its life), and we have at the lowest possible estimate a grand total of 1,000,000,000 pigeons sacrificed to Mammon during the nesting of 1878.

The task undertaken in behalf of justice and humanity was a Herculean one, but backed up by such true sportsmen as A. H. Mershon and Wm. J. Loveland, of East Saginaw, and Judge Holmes, S. A. Van Dusen, D. H. Fitzhugh, Jr., and others of Bay City, as well as by the sentiment of every humane citizen of the State, we could not do other than follow the advice of Davy Crockett, and being sure we were right, we decided to "go ahead." The question of a wise protection to the game and fish of our State is one in which the writer holds a deep and fervent interest, and in serving this cause, he will swerve from no duty, nor shrink from consequences in the discharge of that duty.

The foregoing article is the result of an honest conviction that the best interests of the State demanded a full exposure of the methods by which the pigeon is threatened with extinction.