The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter XV

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News from John Burroughs

WHEN the following report from so high an authority as John Burroughs appeared in Forest and Stream it seemed too important to be overlooked. I therefore ventured to open a correspondence with this famous naturalist, even suggesting that his informants might have mistaken some other species of migratory bird for a flight of wild pigeons. I had once made a similar mistake in Texas when the northern migration of the curlews was in full flight. Countless flocks of them were streaming past at a considerable distance from me, and I could have sworn they were wild pigeons until I was lucky enough to see them at much closer range. Even now the newspapers east and west contain an annual crop of wild pigeon reports, most of which are to be found fake reports upon careful investigation. It has happened often that hunters and woodsmen mistake the wild drove for the pigeon, and refuse to believe otherwise. The correspondence explains itself, however, and is a valuable contribution to the subject in hand.

W. B. M.

a flock of wild pigeons[1]

West Park, N. Y., May 11th.

Editor Forest and Stream:

I have received evidence which is to me entirely convincing that a large flock of Passenger Pigeons was seen to pass over the village of Prattsville, Greene County, this State, late one afternoon about the middle of April. The fact was first reported in the local paper, the Prattsville News. An old boyhood schoolmate of mine, Charles W. Benton, was, with others, reported to have seen them. I have corresponded with Mr. Benton and have no doubt the pigeons were seen as stated. Mr. Benton saw pigeons, clouds of them, in his boyhood, and could not well be mistaken. He says it was about 5 o'clock, and that the flock stretched out across the valley about one-half mile and must have contained many hundreds. It came from the southeast, and went northwest. Mr. Benton says that a large flock was reported last year as having passed over the village of Catskill, and that a wild pigeon was shot near Prattsville last fall. A friend of mine saw two pigeons in the woods at West Point a year or so ago.

I have no doubt, therefore, that the wild pigeon is still with us, and that if protected we may yet see them in something like their numbers of thirty years ago.

West Park, N. Y., May 27, 1906.

To W. B. Mershon:

Dear Sir:—I can give you no more definite information about that flock of pigeons that I reported to Forest and Stream. I have no doubt about the fact. If you will write to C. W. Benton, Prattsville, N. Y., he can put you in communication with several people who saw the flock.

I am just about to write to Forest and Stream of another very large flock of pigeons that was seen to pass over the city of Kingston, N. Y., on the morning of the 15th. I have written to Judge A. T. Clearwater of that city, who replies that he has talked with many persons who saw the pigeons and who had seen the pigeons years ago. The flock is described as a mile long. I am going up to Kingston soon to question the persons who saw the flock. If I learn anything to discredit the story I will let you know. We never have a flight of any birds here that could be mistaken for pigeons by any one who had ever seen the latter. If these flocks were pigeons, where have they been hiding all these years?

Very sincerely yours,

John Burroughs

Prattsville, N. Y., June 9, 1906.

W. B. Mershon, Saginaw, Mich,:

Dear Sir:—Yours of the 6th inst. is before me and I hasten to reply. Now, in the first place, you speak of John Burroughs. Mr. Burroughs and I went to school together when we were boys, and, as you say, he is a good authority on natural history, and I have had some communication with him on the pigeon question. I live in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, which was once a great resort for wild pigeons, and I have seen a vast number of them, dating back as far as 1848, when this country was literally covered with them, and for some years after. Now in regard to the wild pigeons I saw this spring. I was going to my home in the village of Prattsville, in company with a man by the name of M. E. Kreiger, one Sunday afternoon, and when near my house we stopped to talk a few minutes, when, on looking up, we saw the flock of pigeons. They were coming from the southeast and went to the northwest. The flock was about one-half mile long and flew in the same manner as pigeons of old. There were thousands of them. Now in regard to ducks, teal and plover, we never see any of them here in the mountains, though once in a while a few ducks, but only in small flocks of seven or eight in a bunch; and there are no birds that gather in flocks here but crows in the fall, but never at any other time. Wild geese fly over here in the fall.

The Daily Leader, a daily paper published in Kingston, Ulster County, N. Y., contained an item a few weeks since stating that a flock of wild pigeons passed over the city a short time ago. The flock was about one mile long and contained many thousands. And in the spring of 1905, the Catskill Recorder, a newspaper published in this county, reported seeing a flock similar to the one seen at Kingston.

Wishing you success on your fishing trip, I am.

Yours truly,

C. W. Benton.


West Park, N. Y., June 30th.

Editor Forest and Stream:

Since I wrote you a few weeks ago, I have been looking up the men who were reported to have seen wild pigeons recently. I have seen six men who are positive they have seen flocks of wild pigeons—some of them two years ago, and some of them this past spring. As these men were all past middle age and had been familiar with the pigeon thirty and forty years ago and were, moreover, men reported truthful and sober by their neighbors, and who impressed me as being entirely reliable, I feel bound to credit their several statements. At De Bruce, Sullivan County, Mr. Cooper, the postmaster and village blacksmith, said he had seen a large flock of pigeons in the fall two years ago. They were about a buckwheat field. He pointed out the hill about which they were flying. Mr. Cooper had shot and trapped a great many pigeons years ago, and was sure he could not mistake any other bird for a pigeon. A farmer, whose name I do not now remember and who heard Mr. Cooper's statement, said he saw a large flock last fall about a buckwheat field, in the same town. This man was reported to me as perfectly reliable, and he gave me that impression.

At Port Ewen, I met a Hudson River shad fisherman, Mr. Van Vliet, who said he had seen early one morning in April or May, two years ago, a flock of wild pigeons over the Hudson. He estimated the flock as containing seventy or eighty birds. Mr. Van Vliet is a man nearly seventy years old, and one cannot look into his face and have him speak and doubt for a moment the truth of what he is saying. When I asked him if he knew the wild pigeon, he smiled good-humoredly and said he knew them as well as he knew anything; he had lived in the time of pigeons, and had killed hundreds of them.

Another man, one of the leading grocerymen of Port Ewen, said he had seen a very large flock of pigeons between 4 and 5 o'clock on May 15 last, flying over as he was on his way to open his store. His hired man, who was with him, also saw them. Mr. Van Leuven had also seen pigeons in his youth and described to me accurately their manner of flight and the form of the flock against the sky. A neighbor of his told me he had seen a flock of fifteen or twenty pigeons on a foggy morning only a few days before. The rush of their wings overhead first attracted his attention to them. But he had never seen wild pigeons, and might have been deceived, though he was sure they were pigeons by their speed and general look.

None of these men could have had any motive in trying to deceive me, and I feel bound to credit their stories. Their statements, taken in connection with the statement of my old schoolfellow at Prattsville, N. Y., of whom I wrote you, makes me believe that there is a large flock of wild pigeons that still at times frequents this part of the State, and perhaps breeds somewhere in the wilds of Sullivan or Ulster County. But they ought to be heard from elsewhere—from the south or southwest in winter.

John Burroughs.

P. S. — Just as I finished the above, I came upon the following in the Poughkeepsie Sunday Courier:

"We noticed recently an item asking whether wild pigeons are returning. Sullivan County people seem to be taking the lead in answering the question, but a Dutchess County farmer named David Rosell, living near Fishkill Plains, who was familiar with the aforesaid birds in old days, reports having seen a flock of about thirty feeding on his buckwheat patch one morning last week, which gives evidence that the birds are not extinct as supposed, but a flock may merely be taking a tour around the world like Magellan of old. Mr. Rosell stated that he had not seen any before in about forty years. At first sight, he could hardly believe his eyes, but he was not long in becoming convinced of their identity."

  1. From Forest and Stream, May 19, 1906.