Published by
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      An Online Edition

    edited and annotated, with an introduction by by Dr. Luke A. Powers

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Thursday, April 23, 1914

[The Passenger Pigeon]




     Not all the tales told around the sparkling basin of the Fireman's fountain are so pleasant as those of the Wrens. There are among the Birds some stories which do not end happily at all. It was that long-winged and longer winded cosmopolitan, the Swallow, who yesterday, after replying to an inquiry about the length of his migratory flights, gave tragic the story of that much more extensive traveler, the Passenger Pigeon.

     "The little that is known of this unique creature," said he, "forms a marvellous, though fragmentary history. This swiftest of all birds of its size once ranged the continent in flights that swept over a third of the planet's curve. Today there is in existence only one living specimen, and she is in a cage.

     "Leading naturalists, after a careful search of three years' duration, have finally given up the quest, acknowledging that their investigation has not produced so much as a feather of the bird that was one of the zoological wonders of the world.

     "A century ago the coming of autumn to the Tennessee woods brought the Passenger Pigeon in enormous flocks to their regular roosting places. Four miles of woods were not more than enough for one of their roosts; there was the roar as of a waterfall in the air during the hour of their settling to rest, and a frequent breaking of overladen limbs. You may think this is an imaginary account. Very well. Ask some of the old settlers. It is untrue in that it does not suggest one-half of the magnitude of a flock of those pigeons as reported by trained naturalists at the time.

     "The Indians liked to camp near such a roost--a hundred Indians with their squaws and children, to live for a month or more on the fat and tender squabs. Later, as the country became settled, the white people joined in these camps, especially at nesting time, bringing wagons, axes, fryingpans and bedding. Sometimes just before the young were able to fly, the men would cut down a tree crowded with nests and secure a wagon load of squabs in a few minutes. Again, they fired the grass and underbrush by night, roasting the birds alive by the hundreds.

     "But the worst of the persecution that assailed the birds was in the form of [new paragraph deleted] nets, with the use of which gradual depletion of their flocks began. From the first occupancy of New England until about the year 1890, the netting of Passenger Pigeons never ceased. Thousands of nets were spread wherever Pigeons appeared. Early in the 19th century the markets were sometimes so glutted with Pigeons that they could not be sold at any price. But all the slaughter did not seem to diminish their numbers appreciably, until the railroads were built in the west and great markets established there.

     "Then the relentless machinery of man's civilization reached out for the pigeons, and thenceforth they were followed everywhere and always by men who made a business of netting and shooting them for market. Hundreds and thousands of barrels of birds were sent to every large market from St. Louis to Boston every season. Nesting after nesting was broken up and the young destroyed until in 1878, but a few localities remain, most of these in Michigan, where in that year the last great slaughter took place. Smaller nestings were known for ten years afterward, but they were ruthlessly followed up: men slew and spared not, as in former years. After 1890 the Pigeons grew less and less in number, until 1898, when the last captures took place, of which we have any certain record. So they slowly succumbed to the inevitable and passed into the unknown.

     "Now, in 1888, a naturalist from Milwaukee bought a pair of these pigeons from a Wisconsin Indian. From this pair he bred fifteen birds, six males and nine females. The little flock did not long continue to thrive, perhaps because they were weakened by confinement. In 1908 there were but seven left, in spite of the utmost care. All these died except one female, who was then sent to Cincinnati to be placed in the roomy cage of a solitary male there; but he too died soon after.

     "So this lonely female in Cincinnati is so far as I know, still living. I paid her a moment's visit one day last year, I clung to the bars and cried her a greeting from the wild world her fathers loved.

     "She is still beautiful, this wonderful survivor of a race that has gone down with  the Cherokee and the buffalo into the gloom of time. With her long, pointed tail feathers, her graceful curving neck and head, her mystical dark eyes and her trim, strong body and wings, she seemed a Southern lady of elegance and marked individuality. She is in all probability the last in existence of the vanished race.

     "The Passenger Pigeon went 'all at once,' as the buffalo went 'all at once.' Perhaps natural calamities helped to hasten their doom. There are stories of large numbers of Pigeons being drowned at sea; and the wholesale destruction of the forests probably had something to do with forcing them northward. They were sometimes overwhelmed by unseasonable snowstorms in the breeding season; this fate must have overtaken them with ever increasing frequency, as they were driven farther and farther into Michigan, into Canada. What a tragedy!--the last remnant of this proud and gentle race, a target for millions of guns, with no hope of safety except in the wilds of the northwest, where the rigors of nature forbade them to rear their young!

     "But the real cause of their extinction was simply the wasteful greed of man. And while men have been wondering why 'all at once' the Passenger Pigeon disappeared, their markets have been reaching out with the same rapacious cruelty for some delicious living morsel to take the Pigeon's place. Now I can see the flocks of curlew and plover rapidly dwindling from the same cause, and the ruffed grouse, or pheasant, the drummer of the Southern woods, is also menaced with extinction.

     "Ah, the Good Gray Mother! will men awake in time to save any of these birds? Will they never close their markets to the sale of native wild game?"




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