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The Passenger Pigeon
Historical Records

Bird Lore March-April 1913;    Albert Hazen Wright

The Passenger Pigeon: Early Historical Records, 1534-1860

picture of passenger pigeonPassenger Pigeon Parent
The nearby presence of this bird's offspring induces an alert, defiant pose when confronted by the camera

Almost the only sources of ornithological knowledge of the earlier times in North America are historical annals, quaint narratives of exploration, and travelers' sketches. Our predecessors had intense interest in birds, now rare, near-extinct, or extinct. The flocking of the Passenger Pigeon, or other habits equally peculiar, were in such bold relief, and so patent, as to attract the attention of any layman, whatever his mission. Only a small part of this mass of information from the contemporaries of the Pigeon can be presented, and this resume can consider but a few topics, which are largely clothed in the language of early observers.


The prodigious flights of these "millions of millions of birds" have exhausted the numerical superlatives of the English tongue. "They darkened the sky like locusts;" "the hemisphere was never entirely free of them;" "all the pigeons of the world apparently passed in review;" "their incredible multitudes were like thunder-clouds in heaven;" and countless other figures, mixed and pure, have entered the history of their migrations. In the early days, the writers apologized for such marvelous stories. John Clayton, the early Virginian botanist (1688), remarked, "I am not fond of such Stories and had suppressed the relating of it, but that I have heard the same from very many . . . the Realtors. being very sober Persons." Bernaby, in 1759, felt that he must entrench himself, and asserted that "The accounts given of their numbers are almost incredible; yet they are so well attested, and opportunities of proving the truth of them so frequent, as not to admit of their being called in question." One of the Jesuit Fathers (1656) considered this migration one of the three remarkable facts of the natural history of America. LaHontan, in 1687, wrote, "that the Bishop had been forced to excommunicate 'em oftener than once, . . ." The early colonists of New England and Maryland often thought of them as ominous presages of approaching disasters, like Indian massacres, crop failures, etc. It was an old observation in America, whether true or not, that Pigeons were quite numerous in the springs of sickly years. Several authors claimed that the Pigeons came north in the spring by a route different from that of their return in the fall. "Wild pigeons, in their passage northward, begin to appear in New England, end of February and beginning of March, but not in large numbers, because they travel more inland for the benefit of last autumn berries of several sorts in the wilderness; they return in their passage southward, in larger quantities, end of August; . . . they at that season keep toward the plantations for the benefit of their harvest" (Douglass, 1755).
Two descriptions of their flights from eyewitnesses will suffice: "A gentle-man of the town of Niagara assured me (Weld, 1795) that once, as he was embarking there on board ship for Toronto, a flight of them was observed coming from that quarter; that, as he sailed over Lake Ontario to Toronto, forty miles distance, and that, on arriving at the place of his destination, the birds were still observed coming down from the north in as large bodies as had been noticed at a must at least have extended eighty miles. . . . It is not oftener than once in seven or eight years, perhaps, that such large flocks of these birds are seen in the country. The years in which they appear are denominated "pigeon years.")

In the South

In 1844, Featherstonhaugh, in an excursion through the slave states, found that, "A new and very interesting spectacle, presented itself, in the incredible quantities of wild pigeons that were abroad; flocks of them many miles long came across the country, one flight succeeding to another, obscuring the daylight, and in their swift motion creating a wind, and producing a rushing and startling sound, that cataracts of the first class might be proud of. These flights of wild pigeons constitute one of the most remarkable phenomena of the western country. . . when such myriads of timid birds as the wild pigeon are on the wing, often wheeling and performing evolutions almost as complicated as pyrotechnic movements, and creating whirlwinds as they move, they present an image of the most fearful power. Our horse, Missouri, at such times, has been so cowed by them that he would stand still and tremble in his harness, whilst we ourselves were glad when their flight was directed from us."Another view

Pigeon Roosts

If the accounts of the migrant hosts seem incredible, surely the most fervid imagination cannot conceive the numbers at the roosts. "Their roosting places are always in the woods, and sometimes occupy a large extent of forest. When they have frequented one of these places for some time, the ground is covered several inches deep with their dung; all the tender grass and underwood are destroyed; the surface is covered with large limbs of trees, broken down by the weight of the birds clustering one above another; and the trees themselves, for thousands of acres, killed as completely as if girdled with an axe. The marks of this desolation remain for many years on the spot; and numerous places can be pointed out, where, for several years afterwards, scarcely a single vegetable made its appearance" (Hinton). Of the dung, another writes (1806) that, "Under each tree and sapling, lay an astonishing quantity of dung, of which, from specimens we saw, there must have been not only hundreds, but thousands, of wagon loads. Round each resting place was a hillock raised a considerable height above the surface, although the substance had been there eighteen months when we made our observations on the place. At that time the heaps were, no doubt, greatly sunk." Faux, in 1819, describes a Pigeon roost, which "is a singular sight in the thinly settled states, particularly in Tennessee in the fall of the year, when the roost extends over either a portion of woodland or barrens, from four to six miles in circumference. The screaming noise they make, when thus roosting, is heard at a distance of six miles; and, when the beechnuts are ripe, they fly two hundred miles to dinner, in immense flocks. . . . They thus travel four hundred miles daily." About the same time, the people along the New England coast noticed that the Pigeons used to visit the marshes for mud every morning, and then fly inland long distances. In this connection, "Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett, 1835," has a pertinent note. "They frequently fly as much as eighty miles to feed, and return to their roost the same evening. This was proved by shooting them at their roost of a morning when their craws were empty, and then shooting them again in the evening when they returned. Their craws were then filled with rice, and it was computed that the nearest rice-field could not be within a less distance than eighty miles. . . . near a roost, from an hour before sunset until nine or ten o'clock at night, there is one continued roar, resembling that of a distant waterfall. . . . A pigeon roost in the west resembles very much a section of country over which has passed a violent hurricane."

Breeding Places

"The breeding places [were] of greater extent than the roosts. In the western countries they [were] generally in beech-woods, and often [extended] nearly in a straight line across the country, a great way. . . . A few years ago, there was one of these breeding-places [Ky.], which was several miles in breadth, and upwards of forty miles in length. In this tract, almost every tree was furnished with nests, wherever the branches could accommodate them. The pigeons made their first appearance there about the fourth of April, and left it altogether, with their young, before the 25th of May" (Hinton). Of their former numbers in New England, in 1741, Richard Hazen made this record: "For three miles together, the pigeons' nests were so thick that five hundred might have been told on the beech trees at one time; and, could they have been counted on the hemlocks, as well, I doubt not but five thousand, at one turn around." Certainly, this assembly of these birds, both in their migrations and during breeding, has no parallel among the feathered tribe.

side way viewPassenger Pigeon A highly characteristic attitude: Photographer J. G. Hubbard

Methods of Capture

Whenever a roost was located, the Indians frequently removed to such places with their wives and children to the number of two or three hundred in a company. Here they lived a month or more on the squabs, which they pushed from the nests by means of long poles and sticks. Similarly, in later times, the whites from all parts adjacent to a roost would come with wagons, axes, cooking utensils, and beds, and would encamp at these immense nurseries. Sometimes, just before the young Pigeons could fly, the settlers and Indians would cut down the trees and gather a horse load of young in a few minutes. In one case, two hundred were secured from one tree. At night, it was a universal custom to enter the roosts with fascines of pine splinters, dried canes, straw, wood, or with any torch like material, and push old and young from the trees by means of poles. Not infrequently they took pots of sulphur, to make the birds drop in showers, as it was claimed. In some of the larger roosts, the crashing limbs made it too dangerous for man or beast to approach. In Canada, they occasionally would make ladders by the side of the tallest pines, on which the Pigeons roosted. Then, when night came, they crept softly under and fired up these ladders. "But the grand mode of taking them [in the roost] was by setting fire to the high dead grass, leaves and shrubs underneath, in a wide blazing circle, fired at different parts at the same time, so as soon to meet. Then down rushed the pigeons in immense numbers and indescribable confusion, to be roasted alive, and gathered up dead next day from heaps two feet deep."
On the migrations also they suffered. Every firearm, club, or implement, was pressed into service when they appeared. Every one took a vacation. The sportsmen shot them for fun; Indians and settlers sought them as fresh food; and the planters killed them to protect his crops. If they fed on the cultivated fields, it meant famine to the early colonists; if they foraged in the wilds, they left no mast nor food for the hogs and resident wild animals. Of course, a favorite weapon of offense was the old fowling-piece, and count-less are the old stories of quarries ranging from ten to one hundred and thirty--two secured at one shot. That huntsman who could not take from two hundred to four hundred in a half day was poor indeed. When the Pigeons were flying, it was an easy matter to knock down bagfuls by swinging a long pole or oar to the right and to the left. Neither was it impossible to bring them down by throwing sticks into the flocks. One writer told of a man who was enveloped in a low-flying flock. To save his eyes, he had to fall on his face until they had passed. Another asserted that when two columns, moving in opposite directions, encountered each other, many usually fell to the ground stunned. Along the New England coast, they were caught on the marshes by means of live decoys. In other parts, stuffed birds were used to attract passing flocks. Many a man boasted of ten, twenty-five, or thirty dozens of Pigeons caught in a snare at one time. One writer claimed that cumin seed or its oil was found by experience the best lure to induce the Pigeons to these nets. Particularly favorable for netting were the salt springs, at which the netters took as many as 800 to 1,500 or 1,600 at once in one net. These Pigeon traps were various in form and construction. One was made of nets 20 x 15 feet stretched on a frame. This was propped up by a pole eight feet long. When the birds entered under it, a boy or man concealed by a fence withdrew the prop with a string attached to it, and the falling net enmeshed the birds. To the nets they were also allured "by what we call tame wild pigeons, made blind, and fastened to a long string. His short flights and his repeated calls never fail to bring them down. Every farmer has a tame wild pigeon in a cage, at his door, all the year around, in order to be ready whenever the sea-son comes for catching them" (Creveccoeur, 1783).

Enemies and Mishaps

Their enemies were legion. Wolves, foxes, and many other beasts frequented their roosts; birds of prey sought them alive or feasted on their dead bodies, both at the roosts, and over lakes. Mishaps overtook them on land and sea. On the land, storms rarely overwhelmed them. Over our Great Lakes, sometimes entire flocks were overtaken by severe tempests, forced to alight, and consequently drowned. Many times when they reached the shore safely from a hard flight, they were so fatigued as to fall an easy prey to man. For example, a whole British encampment in the Revolutionary War thus feasted for one day on Pigeons which had just flown across Lake Champlain. Self-slaughter was another means of their destruction. The continual breaking of overladen limbs took its heavy toll of wounded and killed birds, and it was a common practice, for man and beast, to gather up and devour the dead and dying, which were found in cartloads. Occasionally, animals were said to have gone mad from feeding on their remains.

Their Uses

All observers seemed generally agreed that they were delicate food. The Europeans preferred them for their flavor to any other Pigeons of their experience. Kalm, the Swedish savant, considered them the most palatable of any bird's flesh he had ever tasted. Throughout the country, they were proclaimed of great benefit in feeding the poor; for many weeks, they furnished an additional dish for the southern planter's table. In Canada, "during the flights . . . the lower sort of Canadians mostly subsisted on them." Another held them the exclusive food of the inhabitants of this section. During the shooting sea-son, they were on every table. The hunters sold a part of their bag and kept the remainder. Often they fattened the live Pigeons for the market. These commanded good prices, but the dead birds sometimes sold as low as three pence per dozen, or a bushel for a pittance. In fact, one writer frequently saw them "at the market so cheap that, for a penny, you might have as many as you could carry away; and yet, from the extreme cheapness, you must not conclude that they are but ordinary food; on the contrary, they are excellent." These birds furnished soups and fricassees, which were usually dressed with cream sauce and small onions. In some parts, they served as luxuries on the tables of the aristocrats. In requital for the damage they did, "The farmers, besides having plenty of them for home use, and giving them to their servants, and even to their dogs and pigs, salted cask full of them for the winter." The traveler found little else at the inns when Pigeons were flying. The savages heaped their boards with a royal abundance of them. They could eat them fresh, dried, smoked, or any other way. On Lake Michigan, they often gathered the dead Pigeons which floated on shore, usually smoking what were not needed for immediate use. In the South, Lawson (1714) found "several Indian towns of not above seventeen houses, that had more than one hundred gallons of pigeon's oil or fat; they using it with pulse or bread as we do butter, . . ." Not infrequently in the Indian and Revolutionary wars, Pigeons helped the commissary when supplies were low. For the hardy pioneers, their feathers made better beds than did corn husks, and one writer suggested a use for their dung. He held that, with little expense, great quantities of the best saltpeter could be extracted from their ordure. It is difficult to estimate the very important role of the Pigeon in the economy of the early pioneers, yet it is striking enough to arrest the attention of all.

baby Immature Passenger Pigeon

Their Food

Doubtless much of their excellent flavor and delicacy was due to the nature of their food. In the North and South alike they showed a marked preference for beechnuts and acorns of all kinds. They furnished an animated sight, indeed, when digging in the snow for the latter. In the earliest days, the colonists complained because they beat down and ate up great quantities of all sorts of English grain. They could subsist on wheat, rye, oats, corn, peas, and other farm produce. Neither were they averse to garden fruits. In the summer, when the strawberries, raspberries, mulberries, and currants were ripe, they showed a particular fondness for them. They were quite partial to the seeds of red maple and American Elm, wild grapes, wild peas, and pokeberry (Phytolacca), which was known in many parts as Pigeon-berry. Another vegetable form bore the same name. Pursh said they found the Pigeon-berries or Pigeon peas attached to roots, and they were "nothing else, than the tuberculis of a species of Glycine, resembling marrowfat peas very much: the Pigeons scratch them up at certain times of the year and feed upon them very greedily."
Two quotations will give interesting sidelights on their methods of feeding. A Mr. Bradbury, in 1810, "had an opportunity of observing the manner in which they feed; it affords a most singular spectacle, and is also an example of the rigid discipline maintained by gregarious animals. This species of pigeon associates in prodigious flocks: one of these flocks, when on the ground, will cover an area of several acres in extent, and so close to each other that the ground can scarcely be seen. This phalanx moves through the woods with considerable celerity, picking, as it passes along, everything that will serve for food. It is evident that the foremost ranks must be most successful, and nothing will remain for the hinder most. That all may have an equal chance, the instant that any rank becomes last, they arise, and flying over the whole flock, alight exactly ahead of the foremost.
They succeed each other with so much rapidity that there is a continued stream of them in the air; and a side view of them exhibits the appearance of the segment of a large circle, moving through the woods, I observed that they cease to look for food a considerable time before they become the last rank, but strictly adhere to their regulations, and never rise until there are none behind them." In 1758. DuPratz, when on the Mississippi River, "heard a confused noise which seemed to come along the river from a considerable distance below us. . . . How great was my surprise when I . . . observed it to proceed from a short, thick pillar on the bank of the river. When I drew still nearer to it, I perceived that it was formed by a legion of wood-pigeons, who kept continually up and down successively among the branches of an evergreen oak, in order to beat down the acorns with their wings. Every now and then some alighted, to eat the acorns which they themselves or the others had beat down; for they all acted in common, and eat in common; no avarice nor private interest appearing among them, but each laboring as much for the rest as for himself."
If only the human species would emulate this communal spirit, act in unison for bird-protection without commercial quibbling, curb its mania for bird-adornment, check excessive "sport for sport's sake," and annihilate pot-ting for market, some of our threatened birds would re-establish their slender hold and escape their impending extinction. In the early settlements, Pigeons, Turkeys, Paroquets, and Heath Hens were plentiful; civilization and culture came; the hills and valleys were deforested; the lowlands were cultivated; in short, the balance of nature was excessively disturbed; yet where have we collectively provided these original occupants refuge, or how have we restrained ourselves, to promote their greater increase, when they were most rapidly lessening? The conscience balm has always been, "They will be ever common."

proceed on In Captivity... Wallace Graig

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