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The Demise of the Passenger Pigeon #2



(Part Two)

By Jon Friedman

[Part 1] [Part 3]

(Author’s note: The following article contains passages that include graphic descriptions that some readers may find disturbing. The historical record goes into much greater detail in describing methods of “harvesting” birds to the point of extinction. I have purposely avoided the more gruesome and gory details that would cause some readers distress.)

Male Passenger Pigeon by Tim Hough (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

Introduction – Causes for extinction
Part One of this article dealt with the historical record of their presence in North America, from prehistoric fossil records to their complete extinction by the turn of the 20th century. It is hard to fathom how the most numerous and abundant animal on the continent (over 5 billion) disappeared totally within a few short decades. I mentioned it was a horrific story of how they were hunted to nearly the very last few of the species. The literature is full of eyewitness accounts of the variety of cruel and unusual methods that were employed in causing their extinction. In Part Two I will not concentrate on the many details of the bloody and inhumane methods used that caused of their rapid population decline, but, suffice it to say, human cruelty knows no boundaries. When predator animals kill other animals, it is usually for survival - for food or protection of family or territory. Animals rarely ever kill unnecessarily for sport, or kill more than they can consume, or for the “sheer pleasure” of killing, as humans alone have demonstrated that capacity. Humans, I believe, cause most animal extinctions, either directly or indirectly. Passenger Pigeons were hunted on a massive scale with no concern about their conservation until it was too late (direct cause) and with the human population growing rapidly and expanding into new areas causing massive habitat destruction, resulting with the birds being forced to abandon their traditional territories and range (indirect cause).

Native American resource management
Prior to the arrival of Europeans on this continent, all Native Americans that shared range and territory with the abundant Passenger Pigeon utilized this extremely important resource without upsetting the balance of nature. They took only what they needed, saying prayers before the hunts. Without exceptions, Native Americans hunted only the squabs (fledgling-stage birds just days before leaving the nest) allowing the adult birds to thrive and continue breeding for years to come. Hunting in this manner guaranteed no diminishment of the overall populations in any given region. In addition, the squabs provided more nutritional and other benefits for humans than the adult birds did.

Importance of squabs
Young squabs were always tender compared to the slightly tougher older adults. Squabs in the nest were fed a diet that was exclusively “pigeon milk”, an extremely rich and nourishing food source that was produced by the adults and fed to the young birds by the method of regurgitation. We know that this predigested food had more nutrition than even that of human breast milk! The adults had a very wide and varied diet that ensured good nutrition and was composed of various types of plant vegetation, high protein insects, and especially mast (varieties of tree nuts). Nuts provided much of the essential nutrition the birds needed, especially during breeding season. They preferred native chestnuts (the most common tree throughout eastern and middle North America – now itself extinct), sweet acorns from oaks, beechnuts, hickory nuts, and a wide variety of other nuts that were available and plentiful throughout the year. This is what the primary ingredients of pigeon milk consisted of. It enabled the young to stay healthy and grow quite fast. It fattened up the young birds, yielding incredibly tender and somewhat sweet meat. By the time the babies fledged the nest they could weigh as much or more than the parent birds. The mast provided lots of protein and, even more importantly, a very high fat quotient. Squab fat was squeezed from the carcasses of birds whose meat was first removed. The pigeon oil could be stored at regular temperatures for long periods without becoming rancid. This was the main oil for most inland tribes that did not have access to large quantities of fish or whale oils. The oil had many important uses. It was excellent cooking oil. It was used on the skin as we use lotions to keep our skin lubricated and well-conditioned. It was used in the tanning process of leathers. It had various ceremonial and ritual uses, as well.

The Native Americans treated the pigeons with the greatest of respect, as they were central to the lives and success of the various tribes. After breeding season, the squabs were dried and turned into jerky and the amassed oil insured that the tribes would be able to survive, even thrive, through the harshest of northern winters when game was the scarcest and hardest to find. They shared their knowledge and resources with the earliest of the European colonists and settlers. They stipulated that the whites should hunt pigeons in the same manner as they did, that is, no taking of adults – only squabs! The newcomers rarely conformed to this all-important request from the natives and immediately began hunting all pigeons – no matter their age or time of year. This was a serious breach in their teachings and it was the cause of some of the earliest disagreements and conflicts between the Native Americans and the newcomers. Whites hunted without considering the consequences and, as a result, as the white population increased, the pigeon population dwindled rapidly until the birds soon disappeared from their former breeding territories.

Pushing the boundaries
This angered the Native Americans who relied upon this resource, incorporated the birds into their culture and rituals, and carefully managed their needs in accordance with the balance of nature. As the white population began pushing westward, the birds had to keep finding more western breeding grounds. Unfortunately, this scenario kept repeating itself, as more and more western range habitats became farmlands and towns, pushing the birds further west and north all the time. By around 1840, it was becoming noticeable that the pigeon population was not growing. However, even the ornithologists of the time were not terribly concerned as the predominating thought throughout contemporary society was that with such an abundance of Passenger Pigeons, they could never be wiped out.

Results of excessive hunting
Once pioneers began settling the areas west and north of the Appalachian Mountains, and hunting larger game became harder, more time-consuming, and expensive (cost of ammunition and gunpowder) – the Passenger Pigeon became more important as a food staple. The white hunters utilized every method imaginable to kill as many pigeon as possible. In the days before ice and refrigeration were commonly available, hunters only took what they, and their families, could consume in a relatively short time to avoid the inevitable rotting of the meat. Nevertheless, when huge flocks flew overhead or landed to forage or breed, these hunters took as many birds as they could carry on their backs, in bushels, or by the wagonload. They would justify this gross taking of the birds by selling the excess to those who did not or could not hunt for themselves. In many instances, and in fact, what became a common occurrence was the piling up into gigantic heaps, of up to twenty feet tall, the dead birds that could not possibly be eaten or sold. The market could only handle as much of this resource as the more limited numbers of humans could put to use. However, the hunters by and large, continued to take as many birds possible for fear that they would fly off and they would be temporarily out of prey and a source of income. Therefore, in fact, they hastened the demise of the species with their greed and gluttony.

As the western expansion continued and grew, the pressures on the pigeon population increased as well. When towns were established and kept growing into cities, the demand for cheap meat kept increasing. The market kept expanding and the hunters kept over-killing the number of birds required to satisfy the demand. When supply outpaces the demand, surpluses come into play and with large surpluses of pigeons on the markets, prices dropped rapidly. By 1850, markets were offering pigeons at the rate of up to ten birds for a single cent. Huge piles of rotting, stinking birds became a commonplace sight wherever white populations became established. Taking the birds in moderation or conserving the larger populations of these birds was not a consideration for most hunters/trappers or was completely and outright rejected. No one ever believed five billion birds would ever disappear!

Emergence of various hunting methods
Finding pigeons where they nested or roosted made killing as many as one wanted quite quick and easy. Some hunters used their bare hands, twisting or squeezing their necks. Others preferred knocking them to the ground from their perches with poles while others on the ground bludgeoned them to death with clubs. Mark Twain recalled the roost near his childhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, and how all the pigeoners relied on clubs as their weapon of choice. He described how the adults and squabs would fall from their nests as they were slammed by poles. More efficient still, he noted, was how men cut trees loaded with nests that would in turn knock down other trees equally endowed with pigeons. “It was then a simple matter to gather the fallen fruit.”

Because of the massiveness, depth and density, and relatively close proximity of the flocks, hunting these birds in flight took no real skills at all. Boys too young to shoot guns could use bows and arrows. It was commonly observed that if the arrow did not bring a bird down on its upward ascent it would bring a bird down on its downward descent. It was almost impossible not to. However, the arrow-stricken birds could be carried along by the dense flocks for up to half a mile before sifting down through the flying birds and finally dropping to the ground. The same, more or less, applied to guns. A hunter did not need to take the time to aim. He could simply point his gun up at the sky, fire and more often than not be successful. Shotguns quickly became the firearm of choice as a single shot could bring down five, six, seven or more birds at once. This also became the economical way of hunting pigeons as it represented a huge savings in ammunition and gunpowder. It also claimed the lives of the birds on a far larger and more destructive scale than even larger groups of hunters outfitted with only single shotguns.

Passenger pigeon shoot by Smith Bennett[2] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Various other methods of killing Passenger Pigeons evolved to kill larger numbers of birds quicker than the relatively slow methods of shooting them. Each seemed unnecessarily cruel, far more destructive in general, and horrific by today’s standards. Passenger Pigeons were well known for foraging, roosting and breeding in extremely large numbers so the territories they used for these purposes had to be large enough to feed, roost and nest millions of birds at a time. Quite often, these territories were miles in length and width. As mast was the basic staple in their diet, that meant they needed to forage in nut-bearing forests – where nut trees predominated.  Other types of forests with mixed woods served their purposes as breeding or roosting grounds. Although the birds’ preferred habitat was wet bottomlands with hardwoods, they seemed less particular about where they roosted nightly, especially when in migration or moving from one feeding territory to another. Some of the hunting methods were the same in any case and some were particular to one type of habitat.

One method that was very popular in all locations was to have groups of hunters after nightfall surround an area packed with the birds, whether they were roosting or breeding. Upon receiving a signal, the hunters, armed with clubs and poles, would advance toward the center, clubbing to death birds that occupied lower branches and knocking them to ground with poles from higher branches, where they would be clubbed as well. In this manner, the hunters could kill hundreds of birds in a couple of minutes. In another example, hunters would, again, after nightfall while the birds were asleep and would not fly off, strategically locate metal pails full of sulphur and ignite them. The dense, heavy and deadly smoke would rise up through the trees and kill the birds. When the smoke cleared, hunting parties, sometimes families, would return to gather up as many birds as they could haul off.

Guano becomes fertilizer
Pioneers, who kept pushing the western boundary, were settling undeveloped land near forests and other heavily wooded areas that the birds had traditionally used for roosting or foraging. Most often, even in summer, these areas appeared to be covered with several inches of white bird droppings, reminiscent of a winter snow-covered landscape. The settlers realized their good fortune as this bird guano was like discovering gold. After felling the trees, which were used for lumber and construction of buildings, the land could then be plowed into agricultural fields with some of the world’s best-know fertilizer abundantly distributed throughout the soil. This was a bonanza for the early settlers of such lands as they immediately became the most productive of farmlands and when later sold, brought the best prices as a resulting end benefit.

Continuing loss of habitat
When settlers moved onto lands near the preferred habitat of low wetlands with hardwood trees (swamps, marshes, etc.), they may have used the clear-cutting of trees after harvesting the nesting/sleeping birds first. Alternatively, they may have employed the sulphur-burning technique for harvesting birds, but just as likely, they ultimately drained the wetlands and turned the rich soils in high-quality farmlands. If lumber was not in dire need, or the forests were composed of less suitable woods, those areas may have been intentionally burned and thereby turned into valuable farmland. In any of these cases, there was a tremendous loss of birds and virgin habitat. As this cycle kept repeating itself, the birds’ numbers kept dropping and the loss of their preferred habitat meant the remaining birds had to push their range further west and north in search of new territories suitable for their survival.

Low-flying flocks were easy targets
In the earlier years of white expansion, the hunting was incredibly easy as the birds demonstrated little caution, fear, or avoidance of humans. Additionally, the immense flocks of birds flew very low in the sky – most from six to forty feet above ground level. When such large and dense flocks appeared, all methods of hunting emerged. With the lowest flying birds, men (even women and children) could swat them down with their arms and hands. Birds in the flock that flew just a few feet higher were easily clubbed to their deaths in mid-air. For birds flying slightly higher, poles and branches were quite effective. Birds flying higher than that were killed with more, and oftentimes less, traditional hunting methods.

The extremely large numbers of birds that composed most flocks were unusual in respect to their flying altitude. Most other species, when flying in flocks, flew well above ground level, 100-500 feet above ground level is more common among most other species. Some geese migrate at elevations above 30,000 feet! However, the Passenger Pigeons were well known for flying very close to ground or water level. Most accounts record the flocks flying anywhere from a few feet to forty feet above ground level. Just about any object at hand could down low-flying pigeons! They fell prey to humans throwing rocks at the flocks. As the flocks were so dense with birds, it was hard for the objects thrown not to hit their mark. Even children squealed with delight as they could prove themselves good hunters this way.

In an Ontario, Canada, potato field, a family of potato farmers whose field had been cleared of rocks, threw potatoes at the passing overhead flock and in a matter of minutes gathered from the ground enough fallen pigeons to provide months of meat. A Jesuit priest wrote about the pigeons he encountered along the St. Lawrence River in the mid-1600’s: “They passed continually in flocks so dense, and so near the ground, that they could easily be struck down by oars.” Garden rakes and pitchforks were commonly used to swipe at the flocks and bring down multiple birds with each swipe. People would stretch long seine fishing nets between trees and over watercourses. The nearly invisible-to-the-birds nets caught multitudes of birds that became entangled, and when the nets were full other birds would collide into the full nets, fall to the ground stunned, and easily were harvested in this manner. People who hunted pigeons is these unique ways were very appreciative that this proved to be a very low-cost and economical method of hunting, preferable to guns as gunpowder and ammunition was costly.

Passenger pigeon shooting in Iowa
By Frank Leslie's Illustrated News (vol. XXV, no. 625, p. 8)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Other hunting techniques
Another, even more effective, hunting method was the “pigeon killer”, as it became known. Boys usually operated it, although anyone at all could operate this method, which usually required two or more people to use. Most often located on the slightly elevated banks of rivers and other watercourses (birds follow water routes much like cars on roads), this simple method consisted of a “long hickory pole in the ground” with cords stretching from it in multiple directions. When the birds “passed over the bluff the boys would vibrate the pole rapidly by pulling the cords alternately, the top of the pole knocking hundreds of them to the earth.” The kids would work in teams, some manipulating the pole while others gathered up the birds that fell to the ground. Similar methods were employed in other regions of the country wherever watercourses were found. Various small differences in the methodology employed in different areas using similar techniques all proved effective. However, over time, the birds became wary of these types of encounters and learned to fly over these sites and land further upstream or deeper into the wetlands to avoid them. Therefore, this type of hunting was more short-lived than other methods.

Pigeon-hunting frenzy
It has been estimated that, prior to the Civil War, about one of every eleven North Americans hunted pigeons. Aside from the “professional” pigeon hunters and amateurs who devised many other methods, often much more effective than shooting guns, most of hunting overall was by those armed with guns of some sort. This is especially true of city dwellers that did not have the access, ways and means, knowledge of the birds, or experience that in any way would help them become successful with shooting pigeons. Many urban dwellers had guns but never had proper instruction on how to use them or insuring their safe use. The result was lots of collateral damage. Many innocent bystanders, neighbors, children playing out in the streets, workers, etc. suffered serious injuries and some deaths at the hands of folks who had gone pigeon crazy when large flocks flew overhead. When these flocks of many millions of birds would fly over towns and cities, people would leave their work stations, students would skip the rest of the school day, merchants would leave their customers to themselves and people of all walks of life would pick up a gun and aim at the sky from their doors, windows, streets, wagons, and wherever they could see the pigeons passing overhead. The sheriff of Toronto said, “It was found that pigeons, flying within easy shot, were a temptation too strong for human virtue to withstand.” By 1727, this phenomenon was becoming a serious problem to the general public and Quebec City became one of the first cities on the continent to ban the use of guns within the city limits and environs. Very quickly, city after city enacted similar laws to protect the citizens from errant bullets from amateur pigeon hunters. Ann Grant, from her memoir in 1731, stated, “This migration…occasioned…a total relaxation from all employments, and a kind of drunken gayety, though it was rather slaughter than sport.”

Guns vs pigeons
A Chicago minister in the 1840’s complained that he could not focus on writing his sermons because the constant firing by his pigeon-seeking neighbors proved too much a distraction. Samuel Cabot, a Harvard student, was walking on campus when a large flock of pigeons began passing overhead. He ran to get his gun and joined the many other students on a high ridge shooting pigeons. He bagged 18 birds very quickly. With the advent and improvement of shotguns, many more birds could be killed with a single blast. Some of the experiences on record defy credulity. A friend of Cotton Mather claimed he killed 384 pigeons in one shot. As the flocks were composed of birds so densely packed and stacked it may have been possible. A more modest, and plausible, figure is reported from the St. Lawrence Territory in 1662 – that a hunter claimed 132 birds win one blast. Another Canadian hunter told of killing 99 birds in one shot. When asked why not 100, he answered that he would not lie over one pigeon. Soldiers at a garrison used a cannon loaded with grape shot on the pigeons. It did kill hundreds of birds with a single shot but the birds were blown into so many pieces that it was impossible to calculate exactly many. One writer from New York provided instructions that pretty much came down to this, “Enter woods thick with pigeons, point gun muzzle up (that is, away from ground), blaze away, and, voila, pigeons will fall at your feet and hopefully not on your head.”

Human and avian casualties
Suffice it to say, that hunters over the years developed many shooting strategies and techniques to have the ability to take the most birds at any given time. The literature is full of hundreds of examples, many too gory and horrific to describe here. Not all birds shot were killed; many were wounded with serious injuries. Examinations of wounded birds revealed wounds from previous assaults, including, but not limited to: blinded or missing eyes; broken and disjointed legs; deformed bills that had been shot and grew back abnormally; missing toes or even a whole leg; breast wounds; and broken wings. Many humans were injured and killed from errant shots. It seems that the concept of shooting safely was totally ignored when hunters were whipped into a “pigeon frenzy.” The lack of common sense, gun knowledge and safety procedures, hunting experience, and, in some cases, simple stupidity caused most of the human injuries and deaths.

Shooting the birds with guns, especially shotguns, still seemed the preferred method for those who could afford the cost of ammunition and related supplies. However, for those who could not, a wide variety of other methods were utilized. Most commonly employed, anywhere the birds were found nesting or roosting, was the method of simply grabbing young birds from nests and adult birds as they slept, as large numbers of birds were easily within hands’ reach. Due to the extreme size of the flocks, the trees in these areas had branches that were weighted down and bowed down, or broke off, because so many birds crowded onto single branches and massive numbers of birds in each tree. Guns seemed to be preferred only when a single shot could easily take down multiple birds with each shot. Five birds or more at a time seemed to be the commonly accepted number in order to justify the expense. The birds, it seems, had little value other than protein, from the hunter’s perspective. There were just so many of them!

Bows and arrows
Native Americans only commonly used bows and arrows when encountered birds were beyond hands’ reach. Because native hunters were so skilled in this method, it was natural for them to use when it seemed appropriate. Otherwise, only boys who needed to play or practice their archery skills actually used bows and arrows. In a memoir by C. A. Fleming of Grey County, Ontario, written in the 1860’s, he described how he and his young friends crafted arrows from 18” long shafts of straight cedar and hammered a nail into the end of each one. The protruding nail head was ground to a fine point. Rock elm was the preferred choice of wood for the bow. Shooters would arm themselves with two or three dozen arrows, knowing that only about one in twelve arrows were likely to find their mark.

The Hussey brothers grew up near Terre Haute, Indiana, during the Civil War. In a memoir, one of them wrote of their experiences hunting Passenger Pigeons with bows and arrows: “When the great flocks of wild pigeons flew across the country so thick that you could not see the sky, we would send our arrows among them, and if it did not hit one going up, it would surely hit one coming down; and we would gather up the dead and wounded with that heroic feeling of boys who have been out and killed something.”

Trapping/netting techniques
Trapping and netting techniques were devised to capitalize on the ability to capture large quantities of birds. These methods were ideal for the live bird market. Some people, particularly urban dwellers and pet owners, demanded live birds. These birds could be fed special diets for a few weeks to make their meat sweeter and more tender and then slaughtered for the dinner table. Others wanted these birds as pets. So, there was a smaller market for live birds without injuries and the pet industry paid and charged the most for the best possible specimens in mature plumage with the most colorful field marks. Traps were both more efficient and less expensive that guns, and provided the only reliable method to satisfy the live-pigeon markets. By the 1870’s, however, the birds recognized traps and became too spooked to approach baited traps. Baited traps of every possible design and material were introduced into the relatively short-lived live bird market. Most people who trapped or netted birds did so to augment their incomes. They would keep any number of birds they thought they could use in a relatively short time and sold the rest to neighbors or to the direct market. After all, buying a live bird insured the freshest meat of all.

Use of “Stool Pigeons”
Many readers are familiar with phrase “stool pigeon” but most do not understand its meaning or origin. Traps would be baited, usually with grains or seeds, and captive live birds would be tethered to the legs of a stool placed near the entrance of the baited traps or underneath the large nets designed to fall onto the birds once they were feeding. The owners of these stool pigeons chose the birds that were male adults, as they were larger and had more field marks and coloration, which it was believed, would better attract the attention of wild pigeons passing overhead. The stool pigeons had to be trained in how to behave once they were tethered and most birds did not pass the training stage. One pigeon trapper/netter complained that only about one in fifty birds could be trained well enough to become stool pigeons. The wild pigeons would, hopefully, observe the stool pigeons performing the routines they were taught and would thereby join in and soon find themselves captive as a result. Therefore, stool pigeons were akin to living breathing decoys and a good stool pigeon could command a price of between $5 and $10, sometimes even more. This was a considerably large amount of money at the time, probably equal to several hundred of today’s dollars. Many of those who used stool pigeons believed they performed best when temporarily blinded, so “the stoolies” would not see the large overhead flocks approaching and want to join them. They perfected the sewing of the birds’ eyes closed while they were “performing” with the stool and afterwards the blinding thread removed. However, the holes in their eyelids remained, much like the holes in our ears for pierced earrings, making it easier to sew up their eyes on subsequent occasions.

Netting techniques and baiting
The netting techniques varied but offered the most efficient and effective way to capture hundreds of birds at a time. The nets grew in size as the popularity of netting increased. Many of the preferred larger nets measured 80 feet long and 40 feet wide. The best of the nets were made of linen, created from hand-spun flax into meshes of between one to two inches. Many were stained with butternut bark to make them less conspicuous. Dozens of trap designs emerged to accommodate the growing sizes of nets that the “pigeon netters” used. The bait used to attract birds that were flying overhead had to be appealing enough to cause hundreds or thousands to leave the security of the large flocks. Least effective were many of the common grains, such as corn, barley and rye. Buckwheat proved to be the best grain bait, as more birds were attracted to it and tended to stay on the ground longer, which suited the netters fine. After breeding was over, grain became a less effective bait to attract pigeons. Angleworms, it was discovered by Pennsylvania pigeoners, produced much better results in the off-season. However, other pigeoners experimented with making homemade bait recipes they claimed worked better than anything else.

Bait recipes
Eliza Tucker, who lived near a large pigeon rookery in Ohio, created several recipes for “Pigeon Bate” to use in the trapping and netting. The recipes were dated from January, 1826. One called for the seeds of fennel, anise, and fenugreek pounded fine and boiled with “alwine”. Two grated potatoes were added to the mixture and covered for 12 hours before being suitable as bait. Another recipe used boiled sassafras and wheat and gave the reader specific instructions on how to use it: “When you make your (trap) bed – to bait Pidgions – make it level – and smoothe – don’t spit about it – nor make water – not handle guns – nor Powder.”

Netting records
Using stool pigeons correctly would provide excellent results, meaning a minimum of 1000 to 1200 birds with each netting/trapping session. Netters would not even bother springing their traps if the likely haul was less than 40 or 50 dozen birds at a time. From kept records dating from the 1870’s, we know that some of the largest hauls of pigeons captured in this manner were at or near some of the largest rookeries in Wisconsin and Michigan: 40 bushels of corn bait yielded more than 3500 birds; 300 dozen at another trapping bed;132 dozen at another trapping location (not counting the birds that escaped). Over 50,000 pigeons wound up in the nets of one three-man team who worked the 1878 Petoskey roosting site in Michigan. Killing the birds before they could escape proved to be a horrific and time-consuming activity. While there is much recorded about the methods used to killing and preventing escapes, it is much too gory to mention the details in this article. The more southerly populations were already crashing, and still, no one ever believed they would see a reduction in the overall population that once covered the entire eastern half of the continent.

Part Three will focus on the remaining, but dwindling, numbers of wild Passenger Pigeons, early conservation efforts, pigeons in captivity, the last individual of the species dies in 1914, and contemporary efforts to reintroduce this extinct species, and others, through modern technology.

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