The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter XVI

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The Pigeon in Manitoba[1]

By George E. Atkinson

WHILE the biological history of any country records the decrease and disappearance of many forms of life due to just or unjust circumstances, it remains for the historical records of North America to reveal a career of human selfishness which may be considered the paragon. Within four centuries of North American civilization (or modified barbarism) we can be credited with the wiping into the past of at least three species of animal life originally so phenomenally abundant and so strikingly characteristic in themselves as to evoke the wonder and amazement of the entire world. And, sad to relate, so effectual has been the extermination, that it is doubtful if our descendants a few generations hence will be able to learn anything whatever about them save through the medium of books. While herein again we shall be just subjects of their censure for having manifestly failed to preserve in history's archives any material amount of specific information.

The early settlers landing upon the Atlantic coast between Newfoundland and the Carolinas found them in possession of armies of great auks, and the few scraps of authenticated history which we now possess disclose a most iniquitous course of wanton slaughter and destruction which ended in the complete extinction of the bird over sixty years ago. Yet in the face of this destruction there remain but four mounted specimens and two eggs in the collections of North America to-day, while but seventy skins remain in the collections of the entire world.

If possible, more ruthless and inhuman was the carnage waged against the noble buffalo, the countless thousands of which roaming over virgin prairies excited the wonder and amazement of the entire sporting and scientific world, and which, to-day, are represented only in the zoological parks, where all individuality will eventually be lost in domestication.

Coincident almost with the passing of the buffalo we have to record the decline and fall of the Passenger Pigeon, a bird which aroused the excitement and wonder of the entire world during the first half of the last century because of its phenomenal numbers; a bird also which stood out unique in character and individuality among the 300 described pigeons of the world and which won the admiration of every ornithologist who was fortunate enough to have experience with it living or dead. Yet it was not exempt from the oppression of its human foe, who has been instrumental, through interference with the breeding and feeding grounds and through a continued persecution and ruthless slaughter for the market, in reducing the species almost beyond the hope of salvation.

The Passenger Pigeon, the species under observation, was first described under the genus Columba, or type pigeons, but subsequently Swainson separated it from these and placed it under the genus Ectopistes because of the greater length of wing and tail.

Generically named Ectopistes, meaning moving about or wandering, and specifically named Migratoria, meaning migratory, we have a technical name implying not only a species of migrating annually to and from their breeding ground, but one given to moving about from season to season, selecting the most congenial environment for both breeding and feeding.

. . . With all the knowledge we have possessed of the unestimable multitudes which existed during the early part of the last century, and with their decline, begun and noted generally in the later sixties and early seventies, we still find that no steps whatever were taken to prevent their possible depletion, and few records of any value are made of the continuance or speed of this decrease; and not until the last decade of the century do we awake to the fact that the pigeons are gone beyond the possibility of a return in any numbers. When a few years later reports are made that pigeons still exist and are again increasing, scientific investigation shows that the mourning dove has been mistaken for the pigeon or that the band-tailed pigeon of California is taken for the old Passenger Pigeon, and so we have continued since the early nineties investigating rumors of their appearance from all over America, north and south, and the West India Islands, but all reports point us to the past for the pigeon and some other species under suspicion. . . . I doubt very much if the historian desirous of compiling any historical work would find himself confronted with such a decided blank in historical records during an important period as that confronted in the compilation of a historical record of the Passenger Pigeon within any district which it formerly frequented during the period from about 1870, when the decline was first noticed, to 1890, when the birds had practically passed away.

In this matter, Mr. J. H. Fleming of Toronto, in writing me, says: "The pigeons seem to have gone off like dynamite. Nobody expected it and nobody prepared a series of skins"; and to this I can add that no one seems to have made any series of records of the birds from year to year. Since their disappearance, however, things have changed: everybody is alert for pigeons, and everybody has a theory; but beyond offering subject of social conversation, or awakening a recital of old pigeon experiences from the old timers, these rumors and theories seem to return to the winds from whence they came.

The latest theory advanced to me by a correspondent is the possibility of some disturbance of the elements in the shape of a cyclone, or a storm striking a migrating host in crossing the Gulf of Mexico and destroying them almost completely. This is a plausible theory, but I am unable to conceive how such immense hosts of pigeons as are recorded up to 1865 could possibly have met with sudden disaster in this manner, even in the center of the Gulf, without leaving some wreckage to tell the story, and such is not recorded. While again I do not think that the entire host would cross the Gulf, but that a large portion of the migrating birds would take an overland route through Mexico and Central America to the southern boundary of their flight. Personally I am inclined to cherish my original contentions that the continued disturbance of the breeding and feeding grounds, both by the slaughter of the birds for market and by the dissipating of the original immense colonies by the clearing of the hardwood and pine forests of the United States and eastern Canada, compelling these sections of the main column to travel farther in search of congenial environment, curtailing the breeding season, and, I have no doubt, frequently preventing many from breeding for several seasons.

While the persistent persecution and destruction for the market was in no way proportionately lessened in the vicinity of these smaller colonies as long as a sufficient number of the birds remained to make the traffic profitable, it can at once be seen that this continued drain upon these smaller colonies, when other conditions were becoming more difficult for the birds to contend with, would be instrumental in depleting the entire former main column to a point when netting and shooting were no longer profitable; and, the remnant of these colonies having to run a gantlet of persecution over their entire course of migration to and from winter quarters, there could be but one result to such proceeding, and that one we now face; extermination.

Of these records made during the pigeons' day, as we might call it, the earliest we have are those made by a Mr. T. Hutchins, who was a Hudson's Bay Company trader, operating for some twenty-five years in the district adjacent to Hudson's Bay, during which time he made copious notes of the birds frequenting that district, which were afterwards published by Pennant in his "Arctic Zoölogy" in 1875. He says in part:

"The first pigeon I shall take note of is one I received at Severn in 1771; and, having sent it home to Mr. Pennant, he informed me that it was the migratoria species. They are very numerous inland and visit our settlement in the summer. They are plentiful about Moose Factory and inland, where they breed, choosing an arboreous situation. The gentlemen number them among the many delicacies the Hudson's Bay affords our tables. It is a hardy bird, continuing with us until December. In summer their food is berries, but after these are covered with snow, they feed upon the juniper buds. They lay two eggs and are gregarious. About 1756 these birds migrated as far north as York Factory, but remained only two days."

In a report issued in 1795, Samuel Hearne also reports the birds being abundant inland from the southern portion of Hudson's Bay, but states that, though good eating, they were seldom fat.

The first provincial record is that made by Sir John Richardson in 1827, in which he says: "A few hordes of Indians who frequent the low floods districts at the south end of Lake Winnipeg subsist principally on the pigeons during the period when the sturgeon fishing is unproductive and the wild rice is still unripened, but farther north the birds are too few in numbers to furnish material diet."

I presume that he means farther up the Lake Winnipeg shores, since Hutchins and Hearne both reported them common nearer Hudson's Bay.

The early records of the birds in eastern Canada in later years corroborate the earlier statements of Wilson and Audubon in almost every particular; and one acquainted with the timbered conditions of the country to the immediate west of the Red River Valley and north of the American boundary line can readily appreciate the utter inadequacy of an acceptable food supply for these countless millions of pigeons; and we can also readily understand how very soon the breaking up of the original hardwood forests of eastern Canada would tend to decrease the visible food supply and cause these hungry millions to seek new pastures.

The breaking of these feeding grounds would first be instrumental in scattering or breaking up the largest flocks, and even the very long distances the bird was able to fly from breeding to feeding ground would be exceeded, necessitating next the nesting in smaller colonies, where careless nesting habits with continued changing conditions would tend to continue to decline their numbers, while the tenacity with which even the smaller roosts were clung to by man, like leeches to a frog, and the hapless victim shot, netted and stolen from the nest before maturity, was but another effectual and not the least responsible agent in the relegation of the pigeon to that past from which none return.

When I decided to attempt the preparation of a review history of the pigeon in Manitoba, I felt that, having had practically no experience with the bird myself, I should have to depend upon the reports of representative pioneers of the country for my facts as to the numbers of the birds formerly found here, and the period of their decline and disappearance. I accordingly drafted a series of questions which I submitted to these gentlemen, and I have to tender them all my sincere thanks, as well as that of the scientific world, for the ready responses and the conciseness of the information received.

One of the earliest residents of Portage la Prairie, Mr. George A. Garrioch, informs me:

"I was born in Manitoba and came to Portage la Prairie about 1853. I was then only about six years old, and as far back as I can remember pigeons were very numerous.

"They passed over every spring, usually during the mornings, in very large flocks, following each other in rapid succession.

"I do not think they bred in any numbers in the province, as I only remember seeing one nest; this contained two eggs.

"The birds, to my recollection, were most numerous in the fifties, and the decline was noticed in the later sixties and continued until the early eighties, when they disappeared. I have observed none since until last year, when I am positive I saw a single male bird south of the town of Portage la Prairie."

Mr. Angus Sutherland of Winnipeg, in reply to my interrogation, states:

"I was born in the present city of Winnipeg and have lived here over fifty years. The wild pigeons were very numerous in my boyhood. They frequented the mixed woods about the city, and while undoubtedly many birds bred here, I remember no extensive breeding colonies in the province, and believe the great majority passed farther north to breed. About 1870 the decrease in their numbers was most pronouncedly manifest, this decline continuing until the early eighties, when they had apparently all disappeared, and I have seen only occasional birds since, and none of late years."

Mr. W. J. McLean, formerly of the Hudson's Bay Company and at present a resident of Winnipeg, sends me some valuable information, which supports my contention regarding the influence of food supply. He writes:

"I came to the Red River Settlement in 1860 and found the pigeons very plentiful on my arrival. The birds came in many thousands, and great numbers of them bred in the northeastern portion of the province through the district north of the Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, where the cranberry and blueberry are abundant. These fruits constitute their chief food supply, as they remain on the bushes and retain much of their food properties until well on into the summer following their growth. They also feed largely on acorns wherever they abound. The decline began about the early seventies, and 1877 was the first year in which I encountered large flocks of them passing northwesterly from White Sand River near Fort Pelly. This was on a dull, drizzling day about the middle of May, and I presume they were then heading towards the Barren Grounds district, where the blueberry and the cranberry are very abundant."

Mr. E. H. G. G. Hay, formerly police magistrate of Portage la Prairie, now of St. Andrews, reports:

"I came to the country in June, 1861, and found that the pigeons were abundant previous to my arrival. To give you an idea of their numbers, a Mr. Thompson of St. Andrews some mornings caught with a net about ten feet square as many as eighty dozen, and in the spring of 1864 I fired into a flock as they rose from the ground and picked up seventeen birds.

"The birds were mostly migratory in what is now known as Manitoba, and most of them went farther north after the seeding season. I never heard of any extensive rookeries such as those observed in the east and south. The few that bred here frequented mixed poplar and spruce. They seemed most numerous in the sixties and began to show signs of decreasing about 1869 or 1870, and by 1875 they had all disappeared and I have only seen an occasional bird since."

Mr. William Clark of the Hudson's Bay Company, Winnipeg, informs me:

"The first place I remember having seen pigeons in Manitoba was at White Horse Plains (St. François Xavier) in 1865, where they were very numerous, breeding in the oak trees in that district. Two years after this I went to Oak Point on Lake Manitoba, but do not remember the birds there then nor since."

Mr. Charles A. Boultbee of Macgregor, Man., replies as follows:

"I have resided in Manitoba since 1872, and have taken pigeons as far north as Fort Pelly in the fall of 1874, but know nothing of them previously. In our district they usually made their appearance in the fall and fed upon the grain. They continued fairly numerous until about 1882, at which time we had to drive them from the grain stocks, but they then disappeared and only stragglers have been noted since."

There is no doubt that many other reports could have been secured, but, as all seem to tend toward the one conclusion, I shall save time and space by summarizing the information at hand.

Some months ago I made a statement in an article, written for local interest, to the effect that Manitoba had never been the home of the wild pigeon. By this I meant that, because of unfavorable breeding and feeding conditions within the province, only the smallest percentage of the enormous flocks recorded for the south and east could possibly exist here. The records here collected support me in this contention so far as that portion of the province west of the Red River is concerned, but the record of Sir John Richardson tends to show that favorable conditions must have existed immediately south of Lake Winnipeg, through what he calls a low-lying district, and where we can assume that the cranberry and blueberry were abundant, as they were through the district subsequently reported by Mr. McLean to the east and northeast of this district. There is no doubt that the difference in the character of the country east of the Red River from that of the west would present more favorable conditions for the birds, but not in one case has it been shown that the birds nested in colonies approaching the size of the famous eastern and southern roosts. Reports seem rather to show that those which bred within the province were more generally scattered over the country, at the same time being numerous enough to permit the shooter and the netter to make a profitable business of killing the birds.

All evidence seems to show that large numbers passed through the province to and from a northern breeding ground, possibly that recorded by Hutchins near Hudson's Bay and to the westward, and that they were excessively numerous up to about 1870, when they began to decrease. As to the latest authenticated records, I quote from notes in my pamphlet on "Rare Bird Records:"

"The beautiful specimen of the Passenger Pigeon that I have been able to secure for illustration is loaned me by Mr. Dan Smith of Winnipeg, who shot it in St. Boniface, southeast of the cathedral, in the fall of 1893; and, so far as I have been able to discover, it was the last bird found in the vicinity of Winnipeg, while the only specimen in the flesh which I was ever privileged

Page The Passenger Pigeon - Mershon djvu 232 - Young Passenger Pigeon.png
Photo by C. O. Whitman (University of Chicago)

October 16, 1906.

Mr. W. B. Mershon,
Dear Sir: — I am much chagrined over my carelessness in overlooking your request for a photo of a young Passenger Pigeon. I had best of intentions, but crowded work threw this out of mind. I should have attended to it at first, had it been easy to get at the picture. I have been away all summer and found things misplaced on my return. I fear it is now too late, but send the picture to be used if you are still able to do so. I shall be very much interested to see your book. I still have two female pigeons and two hybrids between a former male pigeon and the common Ring-dove. The hybrids are unfortunately infertile males. Very truly,

C. O. Whitman.

to handle in Manitoba was killed at Winnipegosis on April 10, 1896, and sent me to be mounted."

Since that time I have expended much effort in following up rumors of the bird's presence in various districts with a view of locating a breeding pair. Not only have I sought to secure a bird to mount, but also to get a live pair, or the eggs while fresh, to assist in the preservation of the pigeon in a partially domesticated state, since the only specimens now living in captivity are those owned by Prof. Whitman of the University of Chicago, who, in writing me, says: "My stock seems to have come to a complete standstill, having raised no young for the last four years. The weakness is due to long inbreeding, as my birds are from a single pair captured about twenty-five years ago in Wisconsin. I have long tried to secure new stock, but have been unsuccessful. A single pair would enable me to save them, for they breed well in confinement.

"I have crossed them with ring doves, and still have three hybrids, but as these are infertile there is no hope of even preserving these half-breeds alive. Of all the wild pigeons in the world the Passenger Pigeon is my favorite. No other pigeon combines so many fine qualities in form, color, strength and perfection of wing power."

I am enabled through the kindness of Prof. Whitman to exhibit a photograph of one of his younger birds, taken in his aviary at Chicago.

  1. This paper was read at a meeting of the Manitoba Historical and Scientific Society at Winnepeg in 1905, by the author, a naturalist, residing at Portage la Prairie.