The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter VI

The Passenger Pigeon
From "Life Histories of North American Birds,"[1]by Charles Bendire

GEOGRAPHICAL Range: Deciduous forest regions of eastern North America; west, casually, to Washington and Nevada; Cuba.

The breeding range of the Passenger Pigeon to-day is to be looked for principally in the thinly settled and wooded region along our northern border, from northern Maine westward to northern Minnesota; in the Dakotas, as well as in similar localities in the eastern and middle portions of the Dominion of Canada, and north at least to Hudson's Bay. Isolated and scattering pairs probably still breed in the New England States, northern New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and a few other localities further south, but the enormous breeding colonies, or pigeon roosts, as they were formerly called, frequently covering the forest for miles, and so often mentioned by naturalists and hunters in former years, are, like the immense herds of the American bison which roamed over the great plains of the West in countless thousands but a couple of decades ago, things of the past, probably never to be seen again.

In fact, the extermination of the Passenger Pigeon has progressed so rapidly during the past twenty years that it looks now as if their total extermination might be accomplished within the present century. The only thing which retards their complete extinction is that it no longer pays to net these birds, they being too scarce for this now, at least in the more settled portions of the country, and also, perhaps, that from constant and unremitting persecution on their breeding grounds they have changed their habits somewhat, the majority no longer breeding in colonies, but scattering over the country and breeding in isolated pairs.

Mr. William Brewster, in his article "On the Present Status of the Wild Pigeon," etc., writes as follows: "In the spring of 1888 my friend, Captain Bendire, wrote me that he had received news from a correspondent in central Michigan to the effect that wild pigeons had arrived there in great numbers and were preparing to nest. Acting on this information, I started at once, in company with Mr. Jonathan Dwight, jr., to visit the expected 'nesting' and learn as much as possible about the habits of the breeding birds, as well as to secure specimens of their skins and eggs.

"On reaching Cadillac, Michigan, May 8, we found that large flocks of pigeons had passed there late in April, while there were reports of similar flights from almost every county in the southern part of the State. Although most of the birds had passed on before our arrival, the professional pigeon netters, confident that they would finally breed somewhere in the southern peninsula, were busily engaged getting their nets and other apparatus in order for an extensive campaign against the poor birds.

"We were assured that as soon as the breeding colony became established the fact would be known all over the State, and there would be no difficulty in ascertaining its precise location. Accordingly, we waited at Cadillac about two weeks, during which time we were in correspondence with netters in different parts of the region. No news came, however, and one by one the netters lost heart, until finally most of them agreed that the pigeons had gone to the far north, beyond the reach of mail and telegraphic communication. As a last hope, we went, on May 15, to Oden, in the northern part of the southern peninsula, about twenty miles south of the Straits of Mackinac. Here we found that there had been, as elsewhere in Michigan, a heavy flight of birds in the latter part of April, but that all had passed on. Thus our trip proved a failure as far as actually seeing a pigeon 'nesting' was concerned; but partly by observation, partly by talking with the netters, farmers, men, and lumbermen, we obtained much information regarding the flight of 1888, and the larger nestings that have occurred in Michigan within the past decade, as well as many interesting details, some of which appear to be new about the habits of the birds.

"Our principal informant was Mr. S. S. Stevens, of Cadillas, a veteran pigeon netter of large experience, and, as we were assured by everyone whom we asked concerning him, a man of high reputation for veracity and carefulness of statement. His testimony was as follows: 'Pigeons appeared that year in numbers near Cadillac, about the 20th of April. He saw fully sixty in one day, scattered about in beech woods near the head of Clam Lake, and on another occasion about one hundred drinking at the mouth of the brook, while a flock that covered at least 8 acres was observed by a friend, a perfectly reliable man, flying in a northeasterly direction. Many other smaller flocks were reported."

"The last nesting of any importance in Michigan was in 1881, a few miles west of Grand Traverse. It was only of moderate size, perhaps 8 miles long. Subsequently, in 1886, Mr. Stevens found about fifty dozen pairs nesting in a swamp near Lake City. He does not doubt that similar small colonies occur every year, besides scattered pairs. In fact, he sees a few pigeons about Cadillac every summer, and in the early autumn young birds, barely able to fly, are often met with singly or in small parties in the woods. Such stragglers attract little attention, and no one attempts to net them, although many are shot.

"The largest nesting he ever visited was in 1876 or 1877. It began near Petoskey, and extended northeast past Crooked Lake for 28 miles, averaging 3 or 4 miles wide. The birds arrived in two separate bodies, one directly from the south by land, the other following the east coast of Wisconsin, and crossing at Manitou Island. He saw the latter body come in from the lake at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. It was a compact mass of pigeons, at least 5 miles long by 1 mile wide. The birds began building when the snow was 12 inches deep in the woods, although the fields were bare at the time. So rapidly did the colony extend its boundaries that it soon passed literally over and around the place where he was netting, although when he began, this point was several miles from the nearest nest. Nestings usually start in deciduous woods, but during their progress the pigeons do not skip any kind of trees they encounter. The Petoskey nesting extended 8 miles through hardwood timber, then crossed a river bottom wooded with arborvitæ, and thence stretched through white pine woods about 20 miles. For the entire distance of 28 miles every tree of any size had more or less nests, and many trees were filled with them. None were lower than about 1 5 feet above the ground.

"Pigeons are very noisy when building. They make a sound resembling the croaking of wood frogs. Their combined clamor can be heard 4 or 5 miles away when the atmospheric conditions are favorable. Two eggs are usually laid, but many nests contain only one. Both birds incubate, the females between 2 o'clock P.M. and 9 o'clock or 10 o'clock the next morning; the males from 9 or 10 o'clock A.M. to 2 o'clock P.M. The males feed twice each day, namely, from daylight to about 8 o'clock A.M. and again late in the afternoon. The females feed only during the forenoon. The change is made with great regularity as to time, all the males being on the nest by 10 o'clock A.M.

"During the morning and evening no females are ever caught by the netters; during the forenoon no males. The sitting bird does not leave the nest until the bill of its incoming mate nearly touches its tail, the former slipping off as the latter takes it place.

"Thus the eggs are constantly covered, and but few are ever thrown out despite the fragile character of the nests and the swaying of the trees in the high winds. The old birds never feed in or near the nesting, leaving all the beech mast, etc., there for their young. Many of them go 100 miles each day for food. Mr. Stevens is satisfied that pigeons continue laying and hatching during the entire summer. They do not, however, use the same nesting place a second time in one season, the entire colony always moving from 20 to 100 miles after the appearance of each brood of young. Mr. Stevens, as well as many of the other netters with whom we talked, believes that they breed during their absence in the South in the winter, asserting as proof of this that young birds in considerable numbers often accompany the earlier spring flights.

"Five weeks are consumed by a single nesting. Then the young are forced out of their nests by the old birds. Mr. Stevens has twice seen this done. One of the pigeons, usually the male, pushes the young off the nest by force. The latter struggles and squeals precisely like a tame squab, but is finally crowded out along the branch, and after further feeble resistance flutters down to the ground. Three or four days elapse before it is able to fly well. Upon leaving the nest it is often fatter and heavier than the old birds; but it quickly becomes much thinner and lighter, despite the enormous quantity of food it consumes.

"On one occasion an immense flock of young birds became bewildered in a fog while crossing Crooked Lake, and descending struck the water and perished by thousands. The shore for miles was covered a foot or more deep with them. The old birds rose above the fog, and none were killed.

"At least five hundred men were engaged in netting pigeons during the great Petoskey nesting of 1881. Mr. Stevens thought that they may have captured on the average 20,000 birds apiece during the season. Sometimes two carloads were shipped south on the railroad each day. Nevertheless he believed that not one bird in a thousand was taken. Hawks and owls often abound near the nesting. Owls can be heard hooting there all night long. The cooper's hawk often catches the stool-pigeon. During the Petoskey season Mr. Stevens lost twelve stool birds in this way.

"There has been much dispute among writers and observers, beginning with Audubon and Wilson, and extending down to the present day, as to whether the wild pigeon has two eggs or one. I questioned Mr. Stevens closely on this point. He assured me that he had frequently found two eggs or two young in the same nest, but that fully half the nests which he had examined contained only one.

"Our personal experience with the pigeon in Michigan was as follows:

"During our stay at Cadillac we saw them daily, sometimes singly, usually in pairs, never more than two together. Nearly every large tract of old growth mixed woods seemed to contain at least one pair. They appeared to be settled for the season, and we were convinced that they were preparing to breed. In fact, the oviduct of a female, killed May 10, contained an egg nearly ready for the shell.

"At Oden we had a similar experience, although there were perhaps fewer pigeons there than about Cadillac.

"On May 24, Mr. Dwight settled any possible question as to their breeding in scattered pairs, by finding a nest on which he distinctly saw a bird sitting. The following day I accompanied him to this nest, which was at least 50 feet above the ground, on the horizontal branch of a large hemlock, about 20 feet out from the trunk. As we approached the spot an adult male pigeon started from a tree near that on which the nest was placed, and a moment later a young bird, with stub tail and barely able to fly, fluttered feebly after it. This young pigeon was probably the bird seen the previous day on the nest, for on climbing to the latter, Mr. Dwight found it empty, but fouled with excrement, some of which was perfectly fresh. A thorough investigation of the surrounding woods, which were a hundred acres or more in extent, and composed chiefly of beeches, with a mixture of white pines and hemlocks of the largest size, convinced us that no other pigeons were nesting in them.

"All the netters with whom we talked believe firmly that there are just as many pigeons in the West as there ever were. They say the birds have been driven from Michigan and the adjoining States, partly by persecution, and partly by the destruction of the forests, and have retreated to uninhabited regions, perhaps north of the Great Lakes in British North America. Doubtless there is some truth in this theory; for, that the pigeon is not, as has been asserted so often recently, on the verge of extinction, is shown by the flight which passed through Michigan in the Spring of 1888. This flight, according to the testimony of many reliable observers, was a large one, and the birds must have formed a nesting of considerable extent in some region so remote that no news of its presence reached the ears of the vigilant netters. Thus it is probable that enough Pigeons are left to restock the West, provided that laws sufficiently stringent to give them fair protection be at once enacted. The present laws of Michigan and Wisconsin are simply worse than useless, for, while they prohibit disturbing the birds within the nesting, they allow unlimited netting only a few miles beyond its outskirts during the entire breeding season. The theory is, that they are so infinitely numerous that their ranks are not seriously thinned by catching a few millions of breeding birds in a summer, and that the only danger to be guarded against is that of frightening them away by the use of guns or nets in the woods where their nests are placed. The absurdity of such reasoning is self-evident, but, singularly enough, the netters, many of whom struck me as intelligent and honest men, seem really to believe in it. As they have more or less local influence, and, in addition, the powerful backing of the large game dealers in the cities, it is not likely that any really effectual laws can be passed until the last of our Passenger Pigeons are preparing to follow the great auk and the American bison."

In order to show a little more clearly the immense destruction of the Passenger Pigeon in a single year and at one roost only, I quote the following extract from an interesting article "On the Habits, Methods of Capture, and Nesting of the Wild Pigeon," with an account of the Michigan nesting of 1878, by Prof. H. B. Roney, in the Chicago Field (Vol. X, pp. 345-347):

"The nesting area, situated near Petoskey, covered something like 100,000 acres of land, and included not less than 150,000 acres within its limits, being in length about 40 miles by 3 to 10 in width. The number of dead birds sent by rail was estimated at 12,500 daily, or 1,500,000 for the summer, besides 80,352 live birds; an equal number was sent by water. We have," says the writer, "adding the thousands of dead and wounded ones not secured, and the myriads of squabs left dead in the nest, at the lowest possible estimate, a grand total of one billion pigeons sacrificed to Mammon during the nesting of 1878."

The last mentioned figure is undoubtedly far above the actual number killed during that or any other year, but even granting that but a million were killed at this roost, the slaughter is enormous enough, and it is not strange that the number of these pigeons are now few, compared with former years.

Capt. B. F. Goss, of Peewaukee, Wisconsin, writes me: "Ten years ago the wild pigeon bred in great roosts in the northern parts of Wisconsin, and it also bred singly in this vicinity; up to six or eight years ago they were plenty. The nest was a small, rough platform of twigs, from 10 to 15 feet from the ground. I have often found two eggs in a nest, but one is by far the more common. These single nests have been thought by some accidental, but for years they bred in this manner all over the county, as plentifully as any of our birds. I also found them breeding singly in Iowa. These single nests have not attracted attention like the great roosts, but I think it is a common manner of building with this species."

Mr. Frank J. Thompson, in charge of the Zoological Gardens at Cincinnati, Ohio, gives the following account of the breeding of the wild pigeon in confinement: "During the spring of 1877, the society purchased three pairs of trapped birds, which were placed in one of the outer aviaries. Early in March, 1878, I noticed that they were mating, and procuring some twigs, I wove three rough platforms, and fastened them up in convenient places, at the same time throwing a further supply of building material on the floor. Within twenty-four hours two of the platforms were selected; the male carrying the material, whilst the female busied herself in placing it. A single egg was soon laid in each nest and incubation commenced. On March 16, there was quite a heavy fall of snow, and on the next morning I was unable to see the birds on their nests on account of the accumulation of the snow piled on the platforms around them. Within a couple of days it had all disappeared, and for the next four or five nights a self-registering thermometer, hanging in the aviary, marked from 14° to 10°. In spite of these drawbacks both of the eggs were hatched and the young ones reared. They have since continued to breed regularly, and now I have twenty birds, having lost several eggs from falling through their illy-contrived nests and one old male."

The Passenger Pigeon has been found nesting in Wisconsin and Iowa during the first week in April, and as late as June 5 and 12 in Connecticut and Minnesota. Their food consists of beech nuts, acorns, wild cherries, and berries of various kinds, as well as different kinds of grain. They are said to be very fond of, and feed extensively on, angle worms, vast numbers of which frequently come to the surface after heavy rains, also on hairless caterpillars.

Their movements, at all seasons, seem to be very irregular, and are greatly affected by the food supply. They may be exceedingly common at one point one year, and almost entirely wanting the next. They generally winter south of latitude 36°.

Their notes during the mating season are said to be a short "coo-coo," and the ordinary call note is a "kee-kee-kee," the first syllable being louder and the last fainter than the middle one.

Opinions differ as to the number of broods in a season; while the majority of observers assert that but one, a few others say that two, are usually raised. The eggs vary in number from one to two in a set, and incubation lasts from eighteen to twenty days, both sexes assisting. These eggs are pure white in color, slightly glossy, and usually elliptical oval in shape; some may be called broad elliptical oval.

The average measurements of twenty specimens in the U.S. National Museum collection is 37.5 by 26.5 millimetres. The largest egg measures 39.5 by 28.5, the smallest 33.5 by 26 millimetres.

  1. The first volume of Captain Bendire's monumental work was published in 1892, by which time the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon was foretold as a matter of a few more years. His contribution to the subject therefore deals with a much later period in the history of the bird and links the studies of Wilson and Audubon with the present day.