The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter XI

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The Passenger Pigeon by William Butts Mershon
Chapter XI. Recollections of "Old Timers"

CHAPTER XI

Recollections of "Old Timers"

MR. OSCAR B. WARREN now of Houghton, Mich., has been interested for years in collecting data about the Passenger Pigeon, and kindly turned over to me his entire budget. Among his letters is the following from Mr. H. T. Blodgett, Superintendent of Public Schools, Ludington, Mich., dated November 19, 1904:

... Your pigeon is a stranger to me, or rather has been a stranger for six or more years. I can distinctly remember clouds of them, darkening the sky, almost, in Pennsylvania, thirty years ago. Later, in Michigan, they were abundant, coming to this part of the State as soon as the snow was gone, picking up the beech nuts and "shack" of the woods. After a few weeks' flying about and feeding they would disappear; reappearing again in June, young pigeons, fat, and the choicest eating. They would stay a few weeks, not more than about three weeks, going about July 1. During this visit the birds haunted the thick woods, and would call from the shade of the leaves of beech, maple, and hemlock trees through the heat of the day, feeding mornings and evenings on the sprouted beech nuts under the leaves.

There would often be a third appearance in September, when I have seen buckwheat fields blue with them. Also fall-sowed wheat fields would be so covered with them that the farmer had to watch his fields to save the seed he had sowed.

During the spring and also the fall visit, flocks searching for feeding ground could be called down from flight and induced to light on trees near where the call was sounded. The call was one in imitation of the pigeon's own call, given either as a peculiar throat sound (liable to make the throat sore if too often repeated) or with a silk band between two blocks of wood, like this

The Passenger Pigeon - Mershon (p120 cropped).png

held between the lips and teeth and blown like a blade of grass between the thumbs. By biting or pressing with the teeth at (A) (A) the tension upon the silk band would be increased, raising the tone of the call or relaxing for a lower note. Cleverly used, it was very successful in calling pigeons feeding in small flocks to alight.

Much to my regret I have seen none of the beautiful birds for about six years. The savage warfare upon them, from nesting place to nesting place by pot-hunters and villainous fellows who barreled them for market, with nets and every brutal means for wholesale destruction, has driven them, I know not whither. If there are considerable flocks of them anywhere, I should be glad to know it.

I wish I might help you. Such things as are here hastily recalled and written will not be likely to afford anything of interest, but if there is any thought or anything in it, it is cheerfully given.

On the great sand bluffs which line our shores in many places, flocks of pigeons in passing would fly so low that a man with a club could knock them down. At Lincoln, three miles north of here, nets were put on the top of the hills, like gill nets, to catch them in their flight.

They were never very successful.

The Passenger Pigeon - Mershon (p121 cropped).png
(Notes by the Allen Brothers, Joseph and Isaac, of Manchester, Mich. A copy of their letter was received through kindness of L. Whitney Watkins, of Matichester, Mich.)

We have had about fifty years' experience in the business [pigeon catching], as we used to help our father as long ago as we can recollect, he being one of the best pigeoners in his day, working a great deal at the business in the summer season. Until we were twenty years old we lived on the shores of Lake Ontario in Wayne County, N. Y.

The pigeons used to have a flying course along the shore of the lake on their way to the Montezuma marshes after salt. Pigeons are very fond of salt, or, rather, brine. It seems to be a necessary article for them. Their course was generally from west to east. They seldom flew west by the same route. How far they came, we could not tell; perhaps from this State or perhaps farther west. Sometimes they would go west by the same route. If so, they were much easier to catch than when going east. When going east they were looking for salt; when west, for food.

They used to commence to fly about the ist of April and keep it up until the middle of June. After that time they would scatter over the country, and did not fly in large flocks as in the spring.

It would be hard to make any estimate of their numbers that people would believe at this late day. I was going to say that a thousand million could have been seen in the air all at once. There would be days and days when the air was alive with them, hardly a break occurring in a flock for half a day at a time. Flocks stretched as far as a person could see, one tier above another. I think it would be safe to say that millions could have been seen at the same time.

In the year 1854 we moved to Michigan, settling near Adrian, where we found pigeons quite plentiful. When they were flying here (Adrian) they seemed to scatter over the State, having no regular course.

The supply of pigeons kept very regular here for about twenty-five or thirty years. About the time we came west the pigeons became scarce in New York, and very few have been seen there since. It is five years (1890) since we have seen or heard of any being seen in this State (Michigan) or in any other.

Our "pigeoning" was more for sport than profit, and we liked a nice broiled pigeon for breakfast about as well as anything we could have, especially when they were worth $6.00 per dozen. If the pigeons had been sent to the New York market they could have been sold for big prices, as pigeons sold for larger and better prices than any other game in that market. Our father did not like the idea of sending pigeons to New York for a market.

After we came to where we now live (Cambridge), and when I was going to Adrian, I stopped at father's on my road. He had been out catching pigeons that morning and had secured 600 by 10 o'clock. He said to me:

"I wish you would take these pigeons to Adrian and sell them if you can. Take them to the depot and sell them for 10 cents per dozen. If you cannot sell them, give them to the workingmen in the shops."

I thought 10 cents was pretty cheap, so I went to selling at 20 cents per dozen. When the men came out of the workshops I sold them all at 25 cents per dozen. After I left for town, father caught 500 more, and took cents per dozen. If the same lot of pigeons had been shipped to New York, they would probably have brought $2 or more per dozen.

About a year from that time we caught 600 in one day, and made up our minds we would ship them to New York. We took them to Adrian to ship. When we got to Adrian we saw father, who, after inquiring about our intentions concerning their shipment, said:

"It is foolish for you to send them, as they will never be heard from."

He advised us to dispose of them for 25 cents per dozen; this was the highest price pigeons were worth in Adrian. To please him we tried to sell them for that price, but could not, so, taking them to the express office, we shipped them. In about four days the returns came, netting us 70 cents per dozen, about the lowest price we ever got. They explained that the pigeons had been poorly handled or they would have brought more. This was thirty-five years ago, and these were probably the first pigeons shipped from this State to New York.

We have shipped thousands since. They would probably average $2 per dozen. We have sold them as high as $3.75 per dozen and have seen them quoted as high as $6 per dozen. A pigeoner from Pennsylvania told us he shipped two barrels at one time and got $5.50 per dozen. We caught 2,400 one week, having them all on hand at one time. We got a market report from New York where they were quoted at $6.50 per dozen. We packed and shipped ours as soon as possible. When they reached market they sold for $1.50 per dozen. The army of pigeoners had struck a big nesting in the State of Wisconsin the same week we caught ours, and they shipped them to market by the wholesale. The market dropped from $6.50 to $1.25 in one week.

The pigeon business was very profitable for men who were used to it, and there were probably from one to three hundred men in the trade. When the pigeons changed their location, the pigeoners would follow them, sometimes going over a thousand miles.

When this army of men had good luck they would ship them by the hundreds of barrels. Probably as many as five hundred barrels have been shipped to New York and Boston in one day. Our commission man in New York wrote us that 100 barrels a day could be sold there without affecting the market but very little.

I was at a pigeon nesting in the State of Pennsylvania where there were from three to five hundred men catching pigeons and squabs. It was a great sight to see the birds going back and forth after food. When nesting in such large bodies, they leave the food in the near vicinity for their young. If they can find plenty of food, they nest in large bodies; if not, they scatter over the country and nest in scattered colonies.

The nesting I mentioned in Pennsylvania was within one mile of the cleared lands. We camped within two miles of the nesting. The pigeons kept up a continual roaring by their combined twittering and cooing, so that it could be heard for miles away by night as well as day.

Sometimes it is almost impossible to catch the pigeons. At the nesting mentioned the most experienced hands found it impossible to take large numbers. The whole crowd of men could not catch more than one man ought to have caught under the circumstances.

The young pigeons (squabs) were much sought after in New York and Boston, and if sent in moderate numbers brought big prices, usually about two dollars per dozen. When the squabs were old enough to market, the army of pigeoners (estimated to be about five hundred) commenced taking them. Entering the woods in which the nesting was located, they cut down the trees right and left, cutting the timber over thousands of acres. When a tree fell, bringing with it the squabs, they picked the young birds up, sometimes getting as many as two dozen from one tree. The large trees, which might have yielded fifty or a hundred, were left standing. Our company of five took in two days thirteen barrels of squabs, averaging 400 to the barrel.

There were shipped from two stations on the Erie road in one day 200 barrels of these young pigeons. If they had been old birds, they would not have broken the market, but this was too many squabs, and the price dropped 25 to 45 cents per dozen.

Osborn told me that he once caught 3,500 at one catch. It was at a big nesting in the State of Wisconsin. He had an enormous flock baited. He said that he put out as high as forty bushels of shelled corn at one time on the bed where he caught this large number. For a trap, he had constructed a board pen built up from the ground four or five feet high. This pen was about one hundred feet long by twenty feet wide. He took three large-sized nets, and, tying them together, set them on this pen. He had feeding pens built by the side of the trap-pen, so when he made a catch he could drive the pigeons into the feeding pens and fatten them for market, these "stall-fed" birds bringing much higher prices than poor birds. This large catch filled all his feeding pens. He said he could have made another catch fully as large as the one just mentioned, in one-half hour afterward but, having no room, he could not take care of any more.

This method of catching pigeons was much the best when they were to be preserved alive. It was rather a late invention in the pigeon-netting business. We have caught with one net in the same way as many as four hundred at one time. With a net set on the ground we have taken from three to five hundred a great many times. In this latter manner, a brother of mine caught 556 with one net. Without help, in one day I have caught from thirteen to fourteen hundred out of a flock as they were flying over.

We have two ways of pigeoning. One is catching out of flocks as they are flying over; the other is catching baited pigeons. One way of bringing the flocks out of the air was by using live pigeons kept for that purpose. These we called "fliers" and "stool-pigeons;" generally from three to five fliers and two stool-pigeons. For the "fliers" and "stools" we made what we called "boots" of soft leather. These were slipped on the leg a little above the foot. To the boots of the fliers were fastened small stout cords from two to four rods long, on the other end of which was fastened a small bush. If the birds were flying high, we used a longer string.

The stool-pigeons were fastened to stools and set on the "bed"; when the net was sprung the birds were under it. The bed over which the net was sprung was the same size as the net, or from thirty to forty feet long by twelve to fifteen feet wide. It was made by clearing the ground of all rubbish, and making it as clean as a garden. Before the net was set it covered the bed. We tied a rope to each of the front corners. On the front side we used two spring stakes fastened in the ground at the ends of the ropes, which were tied to the stake about five feet from the ground. At one of the stakes we built a bough house so that the rope from the net would pass through the house. The back corners were fastened with small, notched stakes which were driven in the ground so that the notches faced the bough house. We used what we called "flying staffs"—small stakes about four feet long and the thickness of a broom handle, with a notch cut in one end. We also used two more small stakes to set the flying staffs against, to hold the net when set. It took two to properly set a net. Each one took a staff, stepped in front, one at each corner, caught hold of the rope, and crowded the front edge back of the back edge about six inches. Then the flying staffs were placed against the small stakes, notch end against the ropes. The net was now crowded to the ground and the staffs slipped into the notches of the stakes to hold the net in place. The slack of the net was laid alongside the rope

Mershon's The Passenger Pigeon (Band-tailed Dove illustration, crop).jpg


BAND-TAILED PIGEON (Columba fasciata)

Often mistaken for Passenger Pigeon

early boyhood, when millions of pigeons visited this locality on their spring and fall migrations, and during their spring migrations comparatively few halted with us to feed, but the great majority of them winged their way in a high-flying flock of unbroken columns, sometimes half a mile in length, to the north and west, probably to their breeding grounds; but on their return, from the first to the fifteenth of September, they would swarm down on our newly sowed wheat fields until acres of ground would be blue, and when they arose they would darken the air and their wings would sound like distant thunder. They were not so shy at this time of the year, as part of them were young birds, which were easily distinguished from the old ones by their speckled breasts; and I would here state that, during both spring and fall migrations, their greatest flight seemed to be from sunrise until about nine or ten o'clock A.M.

My father was an old pigeon catcher, and it was during these fall migrations that he would go out in the middle of a wheat field, build his bough house, set his net, and prepare for the finest sport in which it was ever my good fortune to participate; and many a time have I been with him when he has caught hundreds of them in a single morning. You may ask. What did you do with so many pigeons? Well, I will tell you. We skinned out the breasts, pickled them for two or three days in weak brine, and then strung them on strings, from one hundred and fifty to two hundred on a string, and hung them up to dry in the same manner as dried beef (I mean the breasts). Of course the remainder of the carcasses we cooked for immediate use, or as much of them as we needed for the family. Let me tell you that those pigeon breasts were a dainty morsel, and would last as long as dried beef and was far its superior in taste.

While rummaging through the attic a few days since, I came across the old pigeon stool upon which the stool-pigeon was tied, which my father used so many years ago, and it carried me back to my boyhood and conveyed to my mind vivid memories of the past.

The pigeons continued to visit us in great abundance for a number of years, although there would be an occasional season when there would not be so many. As the years rolled by they became fewer in number until in the fall of 1876, when I saw my last Passenger Pigeons (a small flock of ten or fifteen), I tried hard to procure some for my cabinet, but failed.

One peculiar habit of the Passenger Pigeons was that during their migrations, should they alight and their crops were filled with inferior food, they would vomit it up in order to fill themselves with something better should they find it.

F. N. Lawrence stated in Forest and Stream of February 18, 1899, that when a boy, in the late forties, he spent most of his time on his grandfather's country seat at Manhattanville, on the North River. In those years the wild pigeon flew south on both sides of the North River by the thousands in the fall, and in lesser numbers flew north in the spring.

He also wrote: "These migrations occurred with the utmost regularity. The first easterly storm after September 1st, clearing up with a strong northwest wind, was as surely followed by a flight of wild pigeons as the sun was to rise. During such storms, I have passed many a sleepless night watching to catch the first change of wind, and when it veered northwest, daybreak found me on the river bank watching for the flight that never failed. Ah! how my heart jumped as flock after flock of wild pigeons came flying over Fort Washington like small clouds. I have shot a great many of them, but alas, like the buffalo, they are almost exterminated."

I have run across what was evidently my first diary, dated 1872, when I was fourteen years old. I make the following extracts from it:

April 6th. "Pigeon flew this morning."

Then on April 8th I mention 9 pigeons shot in the afternoon by my father, and say "they flew very thick in the morning."

The record, like most boys' diaries, seems to have many skips, for the next item about pigeons is on the 11th of May, saying that I shot 2 that day and on the 1st of June I mention that I killed 3 pigeons in the morning, "the most I ever have shot at one time."

My marksmanship seems to have improved after that, for on the 7th of June I mention shooting 7, and on the 8th 8 (I used to go every morning), and on the 10th I got 8 again and on the 11th 12, and so on with varying success. On June 11 I mention that the young ones were beginning to fly plentifully.

W. B. M.

Extract from a letter written by the late Alexander McDougall of Duluth, February 8, 1905:

I have been about Lake Superior since 1863. Have never known any rookery near the lake or in Lake Superior Basin, although I think they did breed near Lake Superior, for they were in such great quantities about the lake during the whole summer. In 1871 when this town (Duluth) was first building, there were millions of them about here. In the Lake Superior region there are lots of berries but no beech nuts, except near Grand Island, 40 miles east of Marquette. It is likely if there was any roosting on Lake Superior, this would be the most favorable place. … The pigeon was numerous on Lake Superior in 1872, for I have recollections of catching some that year while captain of the Steamer Japan. During foggy weather and at night, they would alight on the boat in great numbers, tired out. On foggy mornings, the blowing of our whistle would start them up. Often, when they would light on the eave of our overhanging deck, we could sneak along under the deck and quickly snatch one. I remember having caught several in that way. As clearly as I can remember, they left all at once along about 1875. I have seen a few here along about 1882, and one fall in October, I think, of 1884, I saw two or three, the last I remember of them.

Kalamazoo, Mich., June 13th, 1905.

Wm. B. Mershon, Saginaw, Mich.:

· · · · ·

It seems too bad that this noble bird should have been blotted out. The last flock, a small one, that I ever saw was in 1891. I saw pigeons in 1883, 1885 and 1886.

I have been in their nesting grounds. The males and the females sit on the nest on alternate days. When their big nesting was near South Haven in this State, the birds used to fly over this town every day in their quest for food, some of them going fully seventy-five miles in an air line from their nesting. One day it would be a continuous stream of male birds and the next day it would be the females.

How the netters did massacre them and ship them away by thousands and thousands. Many were kept alive and shipped all over the country for pigeon shoots. The last wild pigeons ever used for this purpose that I know of was at John Watson's Grand Crossing, Chicago, Illinois, in 1886. I asked Watson, in February last, where he got those birds, and he said from Indian Territory, so I think the netters finally cleaned up what was left of the big flight that perished from the sleet and fog at their last nesting in Michigan, near Petoskey, in 1881.

Their nests were built and eggs laid in late April. A big wind and storm of sleet came up just at dusk and the birds left; there was a big fog on Lake Michigan, and the birds were swallowed up by the storm; anyhow they disappeared then and there. I have heard tell of the beach being strewn for miles with dead pigeons, and I heard an old woodsman tell of the stench arising from dead pigeons in the woods.

It was that storm of ice that surely wiped them out.

I was at Petoskey in 1882, and no pigeons showed up that year.

What a host of memories of boyhood days are recalled, when one thinks of the wild pigeons. I can see myself a boy again, equipped with a long, single barrel shot gun, shot pouch and powder flask a-dangling, a box of G.D. caps in my pocket, and I a-sneakin' and a-sneakin' up for a shot at an old cock pigeon perched away up on a dead limb at the top of a tall tree. How handsome is that old cock with neck outstretched and tail a-streamin', the richness of his coloring, the red of the breast, the metallic sheen of that outstretched neck is of marvelous luster as bathed in the glories of the morning sunlight. He turns his head! He is onto that boy who is sneaking so carefully along the old rail fence. Carefully the gun is raised and aimed; the trigger is pressed. "Ker-whang" in a cloud of smoke is the loud report. The old cock, startled, flies away. "Missed him, by gosh!" is the boy's lament as he starts to reload, whilst in unison with the rattle of the grains of powder in the flask, there comes drifting down on the morning breeze, slowly wafting here and there, a long tail feather from that noble bird to show that though missed, yet the aim was true.

Yours truly,

Ben O. Bush.

Kalamazoo, Mich., June 17th, 1905.

Dear Mershon:

Do not understand me as to my assertion, that in nesting time the wild pigeons in feeding, the males always alternate with the females, each having a day off and a day on throughout the period of incubation and the rearing of the young. It depended upon the amount of food and the distance that they had to go to get it, and they changed their habit according to the conditions. If they had to make a long flight, as was the case when they passed over here, then they alternated; but I will agree with you that their habit in nesting time when food was plenty and not far away, was for the males to sit first in the morning, then the females, and sometimes the males a second time, all in the same day. Pigeons require a great deal of water, and sometimes their crops would show that they had been to water prior to their return flight, while at other times the food in their crops would be dry.

Some other boys and I had a lot of wild birds that we bought alive from a netter. We put the birds in the loft of a big barn where there was a lot of beans that had not been threshed. We would put in a big trough of water for them every day. The way those birds threshed out those bean pods was a caution. They became very fat and fairly tame. What wouldn't I give to hear the call note of Tete! Tete! Tete! of the pigeons once more. Yours truly,

Ben O. Bush.

J. S. Van Cleef of Poughkeepsie, N. Y., wrote in Forest and Stream of May 20, 1899, as follows:

For many years up to about 1850, flocks of wild pigeons in the fall were quite abundant, and were very often taken with nets, which was a very favorite way of capturing them at that time, but very few, if any, have been taken in this manner since that time. A few small flocks appeared in the fifties, but not to such an extent that an attempt was made to capture them through the aid of pigeon nets, and I find upon inquiry that the experience of others agrees with my own.

The last flight of pigeons of which I have any knowledge occurred in the seventies, where they nested in the mountain range south of the Beaverkill in the lower part of Ulster County. There were two flights about this time, one small one, and in the course of two or three years this was followed by a flight where the pigeons appeared in great numbers.

This flock had nested in Missouri in the month of April, and the most of the squabs were killed by those who were in the business of furnishing squabs for the market.

When the nesting was over the entire flock went to Michigan, where they nested again, and they were followed there by the same persons who again destroyed most of the squabs. When they left Michigan they took their flight eastward, and telegrams were sent all over that part of the country where the pigeons would be likely to nest a third time, and as soon as they settled in the Catskills these persons were apprised of the location and very soon appeared on the scene.

The party, about thirty strong, stopped at Monson's, whose house was located on the upper Beaverkill, about three miles from the nest.

This nest was a mile from the Willewemoc Lodge, where I happened to be during the whole time that the pigeons were in their roost. It was claimed at the time that the squabs were sent down to New York by the ton, but as to this I have no personal knowledge, though I do know that during the nesting all, or nearly all, of the squabs were destroyed, and this was done by invading the grounds at night and striking the trunks of the trees with a heavy axe or sledge hammer, upon which the squabs would tumble out of the nests on the ground, and be picked up and carried to Monson's and shipped to New York the next day.

I do know, however, that from a natural ice house and the ice house belonging to our club, these persons obtained not less than fifteen tons of ice for the purpose of preserving the squabs.

This is the last flight of pigeons that has ever taken place in this part of the country, so far as I have any knowledge, and I am very sure that if there had been any I would have known it.

 Poughkeepsie, N. Y., May 12.