The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter X

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The Passenger Pigeon by William Butts Mershon
Chapter X. Notes on a Vanished Industry

CHAPTER X

Notes of a Vanished Industry

I have corresponded with many men who were actively interested in hunting and observing the Passenger Pigeon when its flocks still numbered uncounted millions of birds. Some of the data supplied in kind response to my queries is in the form of hastily jotted notes, which, when they are brought together, include more or less repetition of personal experiences. They have a certain value, however, when taken en masse, for they are the testimony of eye-witnesses who will soon be gone, after which the Passenger Pigeon will become as much a matter of written history and tradition as the auk or the buffalo.

I am under obligation to Mr. Henry T. Phillips, of Detroit, for much practical information regarding the capture of pigeons, and the business of marketing them as he knew it in those earlier days. There follows a portion of a letter written me by Mr. Phillips in October, 1904. — W. B. M.

I am in receipt of your letter asking for information about the wild pigeon, but I do not know that I can be of much benefit to you, though I will give you what information I can.

I began business in Cheboygan, Mich., in May, 1862, as a dealer in groceries and produce and added the commission business a little later, as I was fond of shooting, and I began advertising the sale of game. I have been credited by dealers in New York with being the largest shipper of venison in the United States. In 1864 (I think it was) I had a shipment of live wild pigeons which we brought down the Cheboygan River from Black Lake in crates holding six dozen each. All of these crates were made by hand by one E. Osborn, who was then one of the traveling pigeon catchers, the firm being Osborn & Thompson, well known by all men who traveled then. From that time I have handled live pigeons in quantities up to 175,000 per year until they left the country. The last nesting in Michigan was up on Crooked Lake near Petoskey in 1878, I believe, from which I shipped 150,000.

In 1866, they nested in the town of Vassar, Tiscola County, Mich., and usually each alternate year, as the mast crop was every second season, beech nuts being their choice food. The other years they nested in Wisconsin on acorns, or in Minnesota, feeding on spring wheat. New York sometimes held them, and Pennsylvania often, for a nesting; but being a hard place they never caught many there, Michigan being the favorite trapping ground. 1874 there was a nesting at Shelby, Oceana County, Mich., on which it was estimated they made the heaviest catches I have ever known of: 100 barrels daily on an average of thirty days of dead birds, besides the live ones, of which I shipped 175,000.

There were five nestings that year in the State, three going on at the same time, but all not heavily worked. That year I shipped by the steamer Fountain City, from Frankfort, 478 coops, six dozen each, one shipment going to Oswego, N. Y., for the Leather Stocking Club Tournament.

I bought from Dr. Slyfield 600 dozen at $1 per dozen, agreeing to pay only in one-hundred-dollar bills. He traveled two days to get twelve dozen to make up the shortage. The pigeons at that time wintered in southern Missouri and the Indian Nation, and were shot at night by natives and marketed in St. Louis. As they fed on pine-oak acorns, which tainted the meat, the market was poor and prices low. The traveling netters usually worked at something else while South.

The pigeons started north about the last of March, and usually located the last of May, according to weather. If food was plentiful they nested in large bodies; if not, they divided and nested in fewer numbers. In Wisconsin I have seen a continual nesting for 100 miles, with from one to possibly fifty nests on every oak scrub.

In Michigan usually the feeding grounds were across the straits, where blueberries were abundant, until fall, when the birds scattered back in small bodies, feeding on stubble and elm seed. Frequently they would go into a roosting place, and make it a home for weeks before leaving for the South. Traveling north, they usually flew until about ten or eleven in the morning and again in the evening. I have known of large quantities being drowned in Lake Huron, crossing from Canada on the way north, and have had lake captains tell me of passing for three hours through dead birds, which had been caught in a fog.

In 1874 there were over six hundred professional netters, and when the pigeons nested north, every man and woman was either a catcher or a picker. They used to catch them in different ways. What was known as flight-catching was in the early morning and evening, a spot being cleared of usually twelve to sixteen feet wide and twenty to twenty-four feet long, large enough for a net. This was known as the bed. About fifty feet from the bed a brush house was built and the net was staked down, two spring poles were set to spring the net out straight, but loose enough to fall easy and cover the full size of the bed. The front line of the net was tied to these stakes and they were sprung or set back as if all of the net was in a roll. A short stake with a line attached to the outside edge ran to the bough house, a stick about three feet long was placed under a catch called the hub, and the other end of this stick was placed against another peg driven in the ground. When the short stick was pulled from underneath the crotch, the spring poles forced the net over the bed; the short sticks raised the net about three feet; and of course it was all done very quickly.

Another method was employed later in the season; a place was baited with buckwheat, sometimes with broomcorn seed, or wheat, for a week or two, and, when a large body of birds was collected, the net was set. A much larger net is used now. Then is when we got our live birds for shooting matches. In the spring time is money, and the netters could save many more dead than alive.

I knew of a man paying $300 for the privilege of netting on one salt spring near White River. It was a spring dug for oil, boarded up sixteen feet square. He cut it down a little and built a platform, and caught once or twice each week. He got 300 dozen at one haul in this house. He said they were piled there three feet deep.

I once pulled a net on a bait bed and we saved 132 dozen alive, but many got out from underneath the net, there being too many on the bed. The net used was 28x36 feet. I have lost 3,000 birds in one day because the railroad did not have a car ready on the date promised. I threw away what cost me $250 in eight hours, fat birds, because the weather was too hot. I have bought carloads in Wisconsin at 15 and 25 cents per dozen, but in Michigan we usually paid from 50 cents to $1 a dozen. I have fed thirty bushels of shelled corn daily at $1.20 per bushel, and paid out from $300 to $600 per day for pigeons.

I never allowed game to be shipped to me out of season; if it came, I never paid for it.

About two years ago I was told by a man who just got back from the Northwest, Calgary, that the birds were so thick in the north that they darkened the sun. They were probably nesting, as he said they were seen every morning. . . . Up to ten years ago I was shooting on the Mississippi bayous for twenty-five years, and used to see and kill some pigeons nearly every spring, from the middle of March to the middle of April. We have shot seventy-two pounds of powder in my camp in thirty days, the party consisting of three men; and two of us have killed twelve barrels of ducks (Mallards) in four days. On the Detroit River I have shot, in one week, mostly redheads, the following on different days: 102, 119, 142, 155. . . .

[I have quoted from the latter part of Mr. Phillips' letter to show how plentiful other kinds of birds were in the old days.]

Under date of Nov. 1, 1904, Mr. Phillips writes as follows:

"In regard to dates, would say that the last nesting of birds set in at about 5 P.M., May 5, 1878, on the southeast side of Crooked Lake. Express charges on barrels to New York from Michigan were $6.50, from Wisconsin $8; on live birds $3 per cwt."

Mr. Phillips also incloses a letter written to him by Mr. Osborn, of Alma, Mich., under date of February 23, 1898, which reads:

Alma, Mich., February 23, 1898.

Friend H. T. Phillips:

Yours with the questions to be answered received, and will say:

. . . There have been several bodies nesting in Michigan at the same time, and I will give the years and places that I was out. In 1861 a large body of birds were in Ohio roosting in the Hocking Hills, my first year out. We were at Circleville, and my company shipped over 225 barrels, mostly to New York and Boston. The birds fed on the corn fields. In 1862 the birds nested at Monroe, Wis. We commenced in May and remained until the last of August. The several companies put up some ten thousand dozen for stall feeding after the freight shipment. Express charges on each barrel were from $7 to $9. In the fall of 1862 we had fine sport shooting birds in the roost at Johnstown, Ohio (now Ada), some four weeks. Then the birds moved to Logan County. After two weeks the birds skipped South, it being December and snow on the ground.

In 1863 the birds nested in Pennsylvania. We had some fine sport at Smith Port and at Sheffield. We located at Cherry Grove, six miles from Sheffield. The birds fed on hemlock mast. There were other nestings in Pennsylvania at the same time. In 1864, at St. Charles, Minn., we had some fine sport, but our freights were high to New York, so we came to Leon, Wis. A heavy body was nesting in the Kickapoo woods, and several companies of hunters located here. In 1865 a heavy nesting was in Canada, near Georgian Bay. We were at Angus Station on the Northern Railroad, and the snow was two feet under the nesting. We next went to Wisconsin, where a heavy snowstorm broke up the roosts. We were at Afton, Brandon and Appleton. We then went to Rochester, Minn., the end of the railroad. At that time birds nested in the Chatfield timber. We then went to Marquette in the Upper Peninsula and camped on Dead River. A heavy body had got through nesting, but worlds of birds were feeding on blueberries.

This was the year the Pewabic sunk. Mr. George Snook had 1,400 barrels of trout and whitefish on her. We went up on the Old Traveler and came down on the Meteor. In 1866 the birds nested in a heavy body near Martinsville, Ind. We caught some birds at Cartersburg. After we closed up in Indiana we went to Pennsylvania. There was a heavy nesting near Wilcox, at Highlands. In gathering squabs five of us got a barrel apiece, which netted us $75 to $100 per barrel in New York. They struck a bare market.

In July we had a big time with young birds at Fort Gratiot, near Port Huron, from the Forestville nesting. Mr. H. T. Phillips of Detroit was chief of a party which had fine shooting on a Mr. Palmer's place. In six days I shipped thirteen barrels to Tremain & Summer, New York, and received a check for over $400. They returned me about one-half what they sold for.

In 1867 we were in Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and caught more or less birds on bait. The birds were broken up by shooting and deep snow. In 1868 there was a large nesting near Manistee, and we did some big catching, shipped by steamer to Grand Haven, then via rail. In April and May was also at Mackinac and North Port and in June did some catching at Cheboygan, and here I made our crates of split cedar and floated the birds down the river six miles on two canoes lashed together, and had to transfer over the dam before reaching the little steamer to Mackinac, twelve miles, and then transferred to the Detroit boat. The birds were shipped to H. T. Phillips & Co. At Cheboygan I fed over one hundred bushels of corn and wheat for bait.

In 1869 the birds were in Canada, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin, all at the same time, and shooters broke them up. We located a body at Oakfield, Wis., and had a big catch until the farmers broke them up. The birds were pulling wheat badly; other feed was gone. The birds nested in Michigan, up from Mt. the birds nested near Goderich, Can. Did not do much there. We then went to Glen Haven and caught some birds. Then we went to Cheboygan; sent more or less live birds to H. T. Phillips & Co., of Detroit. In 1871 we located a large body at Tomah, Wis., and did some heavy shipping. We used three tiers of ice from a large icehouse, and the express per barrel was $12 to New York and Boston. We also shipped from Augusta, Wis., express, $13.50 per barrel. A nesting at Eau Claire, but we could not get to do much with them there. In 1872 a large nesting near South Haven, Mich. We located at Bangor and had a big catch in some big snowstorms. Another body near Clam Lake, end of railroad. In 1873 we did baiting in Ohio and Wisconsin, but located no nesting. In 1874 the birds nested at Shelby in two different locations and another at Stanton, Mich.; small body at Stanton. We did heavy shipping at Shelby, from one to three cars per day, both alive and dead. The birds nested this year at Shelby, two places, and at Stanton, and one at Mill Brook and at Frankfort and at Leeland, and probably at other points we did not learn of. In 1875 was not out, only baiting near St. Johns, Mich. In 1876 a heavy nesting at Shelby, Mich., and at Frankfort. I caught at Shelby and at Glen Haven heavy shipments. In 1877 was not out, but did some baiting at Eureka. In 1878 a heavy nesting between Petoskey and Cheboygan. H. T. Phillips located at Cheboygan. I caught at several points between the two cities.

The above is part of my experience with the birds, since which time I have kept no record of the movements, but will say that during the winter season birds have nested in large numbers in the southern States; in Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri. For a great many years the birds have been moving west. Last winter I was in Southern California, and a body of pigeons were west of Los Angeles, among the acorn timber. There are worlds of feed in the foothills, for thousands of miles, to feed the birds. They are a greedy bird and will eat everything from a hemlock seed to an acorn. I have known them to nest on hemlock mast alone in Pennsylvania, and in Michigan on the pine mast after the beech mast was gone. Most of the nesting in Michigan happens March to July, and then they skip farther north and return in wheat seeding.


Alma, Mich., February 24, 1898.

Friend H. T. Phillips:

I will give you a few catches. In 1862, at Monroe, Wis., George Paxon, of Evans Center, N. Y., and myself made one haul of 250 dozen five miles south of the city on corn bait in a pen 32x64 feet with nets sprung across the top. We fed at this bed over five hundred bushels of corn at 25 cents per bushel, and at our other beds nearly as much. After the flight-birds were over, with a single net sprung on the ground we have taken 100 dozen at a time.

At Augusta, Wis., in 1871, Charles Curtin, then of Indiana (dead now), over one hundred dozen; William W. Cone of Masonville, N. Y., Samuel Schook of Circleville, Ohio, and some other boys, 100 dozen and over. L. G. Parker of Camden, N. Y., C. S. Martin, the Rocky Mountain hunter of Wisconsin, E. G. Slayton of Chetek, Wis., are old trappers and could tell of big catches. In 1868, at Cheboygan, I took over six hundred fat birds before sunrise. I sold to the United States officers at Mackinac for trap shooting, also to Island House. In 1861 there were only a few professionals: Dr. E. Osborn of Saratoga, N. Y; William N. Cone, Masonville, N. Y; John Ackerman, Columbus, Ohio; L. G. Parke, Camden, N. J.; James Thompson, Hookset, N. H.; S. K. Jones, Saratoga, N. Y.; George and Charles Paxon of Evans Center, N. Y., and maybe a few others. After this time, trappers increased fast. More salt was used in Michigan for bait than any other State. I paid at Shelby $4 per barrel. Big bodies of pigeons were drowned off Sleeping Bear Point because of fog and wind, while trying to cross Lake Michigan. I have seen them.

In the Logan County roost, Ohio, I killed with two barrels, of a six-bore shoulder gun, 144 birds. The other boys killed nearly as many with smaller guns; we shot on the roost in the dark. Our plan was to fire one barrel on the roost and the other as the pigeons flew. The highest price paid per dozen was in New York City—$3—by Trimm & Summer from Pennsylvania.

For a good many years the birds were in the eastern States, with heavy catching in Massachusetts and New York, also Pennsylvania, and the hunters worked into Canada, then into Ohio, and so on to Michigan and Indiana, long before they took in Wisconsin and Minnesota, after they left the eastern country for the west. A big body was at Grand Rapids in 1858 or 1859, before I joined the band.

The trappers at Grand Rapids were Dr. Osborn, Cone, Ackerman, the two Paxons, Latimer, and a few others, who did some heavy shipping, catching the birds on the salt marshes. I have no earlier records for Michigan,

I kept no record of the amounts shipped from different points. The old books of the express will show if they have kept them. I wait to see your report, and remain, Yours truly,

E. Osborn.

Detroit, Mich., November 2, 1904.

W. B. Mershon:

Dear Sir: — Last evening I looked over some old papers and found a few memoranda that lead to my making some changes in my notes to you in regard to the date of last nestings in our State. I also find my later surmise confirmed by a letter from one of the first traveling pigeon-catchers in the business, Ephraim Osborn, whose uncle, Dr. Osborn of Saratoga, N. Y., was one of the original catchers. You will note by Mr. Osborn's letter that he has been a shipper of mine for a long time, I am well acquainted with him and knew all the men he mentioned (with many others) at the Shelby nesting. There were nearly six hundred names in the register book of pigeoners in Wisconsin. Nearly every one of the farmers, and their wives and daughters, were pigeon catchers.

In regard to the dates of last nesting: 1878 was the last year that the catch amounted to enough to keep men in the business. I find I was at Cheboygan part of the time, and got only a small number of birds in 1880, but some few nested (small body) that year.

Yours truly,

H. T. Phillips.