The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter XIII

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The Passenger Pigeon by William Butts Mershon
Chapter XIII. What Became of the Wild Pigeon?

CHAPTER XIII

What Became of the Wild Pigeon?

By Sullivan Cook, from "Forest and Stream," March 14, 1903.[1]

When a boy and living in northern Ohio, I often had to go with a gun and drive the pigeons from the newly sown fields of wheat. At that time wheat was sown broadcast, and pigeons would come by the thousands and pick up the wheat before it could be covered with the drag. My father would say, "Get the gun and shoot at every pigeon you see," and often I would see them coming from the woods and alighting on the newly sowed field. They would alight until the ground was fairly blue with these beautiful birds.

I would secrete myself in a fence corner, and as these birds would alight on the ground they would form themselves in a long row, canvassing the field for grain, and as the rear birds raised up and flew over those in front, they reminded one of the little breakers on the ocean beach, and as they came along in this form, they resembled a windrow of hay rolling across the field.

I would wait until the end of this wave was opposite my hiding place and then arise and fire into this windrow of living, animated beauty, and I have picked up as many as twenty-seven dead birds killed at a single shot with an old flintlock smooth bore. Later in the fall these birds would come in countless millions to feed on the wild mast of beech nuts and acorns, and every evening they would pass over our home, going west of our place to what was known as Lodi Swamp.

Many and many a time have I seen clouds of birds that extended as far as the eye could reach, and the sound of their wings was like the roar of a tempest. And for those who are not acquainted with the habits and flight of these birds, I wish to say that once in the month of November, while these pigeons were going from their feeding grounds to this roost in the Lodi Swamp, they were met with a storm of sleet and snow. The wind blew so hard that they could not breast it and were compelled to alight in a sugar orchard near our place. This orchard consisted of twenty acres, where the timber had all been cut out, except the maples, and when they commenced alighting, the trees already partially loaded with snow and ice, and the vast flock of pigeons being attracted by those alighting, all sought the same resting place.

Such vast numbers alighted that in a short time the branches of the trees were broken and as fast as one tree gave way those birds would alight on the already loaded tree adjoining, and, that, too, was stripped of its long and limber branches. Suffice it to say that in a half hour's time this beautiful sugar orchard was entirely ruined by the loads of birds which had attempted to rest from the storm.

About this time I enjoyed my first pigeon hunt in a roost. Being a boy about sixteen years of age, having a brother about thirteen, and as we had seen the pigeons going by to their roost for hours and knowing that many people went there every night to shoot pigeons on the roost, my brother and I were seized with a desire to go and enjoy this exciting sport. Then arose the difficulty of a gun suitable for the occasion. As we had nothing but a small-bore rifle and not owning a shotgun, we appealed to father as to what we should do for a gun. We had previously gained his consent to our going. He suggested that we take the old horse pistol; one of the Revolutionary time, which had been kept in the family as a reminder of troublesome years.

Let the young man of to-day, who hunts with the improved breechloader, think of two boys starting pigeon hunting, their only outfit consisting of a horse pistol, barrel twelve inches long, caliber 12-gauge, flintlock, one pound of No. 4 shot, a quarter of a pound of powder, a pocket full of old newspaper for wadding, a two-bushel bag to carry game in, and a tin lantern. Thus equipped, we started for the pigeon roost a little after dark. Although three miles from the roost when we started from home, we could hear the sullen roar of that myriad of birds, and the sound increased in volume as we approached the roost, till it became as the roar of the breakers upon the beach.

As we approached the swamp where the birds roosted, a few scattered birds were frightened from the roost along the edge of the swamp. These scattering birds we could not shoot, but kept advancing further into the swamp. As we approached this vast body of birds, which bent the alders flat to the ground, we could see every now and then ahead of us a small pyramid which looked like a haystack in the darkness, and as we approached what appeared to be this haystack, the frightened birds would fly from the bended alders, and we would find ourselves standing in the midst of a diminutive forest of small trees of alders and willows.

We now found these apparent haystacks were only small elms or willows completely loaded down with live birds. My brother suggested that I shoot at the next "haystack." So we advanced along very carefully among the now upright alders till we came to where it was a perfect roar of voices and wings, and just ahead of us we saw one of those mysterious objects which so resembled a haystack.

My brother suggested that I aim at the center of it and let the old horse pistol go. I instantly obeyed his suggestion, pointing as best I could in the dim light at the center of that form, and pulled. There was a flash and a roar, and the very atmosphere seemed to be alive with flying, chattering birds. The old tin lantern was lighted. The horse pistol was hunted for, as it had recoiled with such force I had lost hold of it. The gun being found, we then approached as nearly as we could the place where I had shot at the stack. From this discharge we picked up eighteen pigeons and saw some hobbling away into thick brush, from which we could not recover them. After an hour of this kind of hunting our bag was full of pigeons, and our tallow candle in the lantern nearly consumed. We retraced our steps out of the swamp, and about 11 o'clock at night arrived home well satisfied with the night's hunt in the pigeon roost. We had had acres of enjoyment and had brought home bushels of pigeons.

This is only to give an idea of what pigeons were in northern Ohio in the days of my boyhood. This was in the years of 1844 to 1846. In 1854, having grown to man's estate, I moved to Michigan and settled in Cass County, where I built a log house and began clearing up a farm. After having cleared three or four fields around my house, one morning one of my girls came running in from out of doors and said: "Pa, come out and see the pigeons."

I went to the door and saw scooting across my fields, as it seemed skimming the surface of the earth, flock after flock of the birds, one coming close upon the heels of another. I hastened into the house and grasped my double barreled shotgun, powder flask and shot pouch; my little girl, then a miss of twelve summers, following me. I took a stand on a slight rise in the middle of a five-acre field and commenced shooting, you might say, at wads of pigeons, so closely huddled were they as they went by. Letting the birds get opposite me and firing across the flock, I was enabled to kill from three to fifteen pigeons at a shot. And my girl was wildly excited, picking up the dead birds and catching the winged ones and bringing them to me.

You never saw two mortals more busy than we were for a half hour. At this time my wife called for breakfast, as we were near the house, and I found my stock of ammunition nearly exhausted. We went into the house for our breakfast and when we came out the birds were flying as thickly as ever. She says, let us count the pigeons and see how many we have. We found we had killed and picked up in this short time twenty-three dozen. My wife said I had better take them to Three Rivers, which was our nearest town, and sell them. And as my ammunition was about exhausted, I hitched up my team, took twenty dozen of the birds and drove ten miles to the station, sold my birds for sixty-five cents a dozen and returned home well satisfied with my day's work, and having on hand a good supply of ammunition for the next morning's flight.

Now I wish to pass along, the lapse of time being about sixteen years. During this time I had removed from Cass County to Van Buren County, where I had located in the beautiful village of Hartford. In the year 1869 or 1870, the pigeoners, a class of men who lived in Hartford, made a business of netting pigeons, and they are living here yet, and not one of them feels any pride in the part he took in the destruction of these beautiful birds. In March, 1869, word was received that a large flight of pigeons were coming north through the State of Indiana. These men, who had followed the pigeons for years, said, "As we have snow on the ground they will be sure to nest near here, and as we have had a big crop of beech nuts and acorns last fall they will be sure to stop to get the benefit of this mast." A queer thing about the pigeon was that he always built his nest on the borders of the snow, that is, where the ground underneath was covered with snow.

Sure enough, as predicted, in two days after receiving notice of the flight of the birds from Indiana, myriads of pigeons were passing north along the east shore of Lake Michigan, and soon scattering flocks were seen going south towards the bare ground. In a few days word was received that pigeons had gone to nesting in what was then called Deerfield Township, a vast body of hardwood and hemlock timber. Then it was that the pigeon killers, with their nets, stool birds and flyers commenced making preparations for the slaughter of the beautiful birds when they began laying their eggs. This takes place only three or four days after they commence nesting, as a pigeon's nest is the simplest nest ever built by a bird seen in a tree. It consists of a few little twigs laid crosswise, without moss or lining of any kind, and the lay of eggs is but one. As soon as one egg is laid, they commence sitting, and the male pigeon is quite a gentleman in his way, taking his turn and sitting one-half of the time.

In about twelve or fourteen days — some claim twenty — the young pigeon is hatched. As soon as hatched the male and female birds commence feeding on what is known as marsh feed, that is, on low, springy ground. And from this feed is supplied to both the male and female bird what is known as pigeon's milk, forming inside of the crop a sort of curd, on which the young pigeon is fed by both father and mother, who supply this food. The young bird is gorged with this food, and in a few days becomes as heavy as the parent bird. Another singular thing about the wild pigeon is that as the snow melts and the ground is left bare where the nesting is, the old birds never eat the nuts in the nesting, but leave them for the benefit of the young one, and so when he comes off the nest he always finds an abundance of food at his very door, as it were. As soon as the young birds are able to leave the nest and begin feeding on the ground in the nesting, the old birds immediately forsake them, move again on to the borders of the snow and start another nesting. In five or ten days the young birds will follow in the direction of the old birds.

When the young birds first come off the nest and commence feeding on the ground, they are fat as balls of butter, but in ten days from this time, when they start on their northern flight to follow their mother bird, they are poor as snakes, and almost unfit to eat, while, when they first leave the nest they are the most palatable morsel man ever tasted. However, in about forty days from the time they began nesting to the time they took their northern flight, there were shipped from Hartford and vicinity, three carloads a day of these beautiful meteors of the sky. Each car containing 150 barrels with 35 dozen in a barrel, making the daily shipment 24,750 dozen.

Young men who are now hunting for something to shoot and wondering what has become of our game, must hear with anger and regret such reports as this from western Michigan in the days gone by: "In three years' time there were caught and shipped to New York and other eastern cities 990,000 dozen pigeons, and in the two succeeding years it was estimated by the same men who caught the pigeons at Hartford that there were one-third more shipped from Shelby than from Hartford; and from Petoskey, Emmett County, two years later, it is now claimed by C. H. Engle, a resident of this town, who was a participant in this ungodly slaughter, that there were shipped five carloads a day for thirty days, with an average of 8,250 dozen to the carload. Now, when one asks you what has become of the wild pigeons, refer them to C. H. Engle, Stephen Stowe, Chas. Sherburne, and Hiram Corwin, and a man by the name of Miles from Wisconsin, Mr. Miles having caught 500 dozen in a single day. And when you are asked what has become of the wild pigeons, figure up the shipping bills, and they will show what has become of this, the grandest game bird that ever cleft the air of any continent.

My young friends, I want to humbly ask your forgiveness for having taken a small part in the destruction of this, the most exciting of sport. And there is not one of us but is ashamed of the slaughter which has robbed you of enjoyment. If we had been restrained by laws of humanity, you, too, could have enjoyed this sport for years to come.

  1. I think that anyone who reads this article will be, like myself, satisfied that the destruction of the pigeons was wrought to gratify the avarice and love of gain of a few men who slaughtered them until they were virtually exterminated. — W, B. M.