Friday 31 October 2014

The passenger pigeon

The 1927 Centennial edition of the Guelph Mercury provides a chronological listing of notable news items from the previous 50 years. Among those items is the following brief note:
1882: October 17. –Several flocks of wild pigeons flew over Guelph.
It is puzzling to think that editors of the Centennial edition would bother to mention some pigeons. However, it makes more sense when you realize that "wild pigeon" is what people usually called the passenger pigeon in those days.

The passenger pigeon was one of the most remarkable birds of North America. Individually, the male birds were regarded as attractively dressed, with red eyes, blue-gray heads and backs and brick-red breasts. The females were more brown on their upper parts and pale or buff colored below. Many artists made pictures or paintings of the bird, including the famous naturalist John James Audubon, whose picture of a young male being fed by its mother is reproduced in the postcard below.

The card was printed by Barton-Cotton Inc., Baltimore, taken from a painting made by Audubon in 1824.

Of course, the most notable aspect of the pigeon was its habit of congregating in enormous flocks. Often found in the tens or even hundreds of millions, the biggest flocks probably numbered billions of individuals. Descriptions of the flocks nearly always state that they darkened the skies for hours or even days. Perhaps the largest ever recorded was seen by Major W. Ross King at Fort Mississauga on Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario around 1860 (Greenberg 2014, p. 5). King reported that the flock stretched a mile or more in breadth and went from horizon to horizon. For 14 hours, more and more pigeons flew overhead in a dense column. The sight was repeated each day for days afterwards. Modern estimates of the size of the flock put it at about 3.7 billion birds, a number that staggers the imagination!

The reasons for the enormity of the flocks are unknown. Some birds collect into large flocks in order to collaborate on finding food and water and avoid predators. Swarms of Australian budgies seem to operate this way, flocking to share water sources, keep a look out for hawks, and challenge any threats that do emerge. Steven Pearce has posted some spectacular footage of swarming budgies on his blog.

A segment from a recent BBC documentary also features a big flock of budgies and notes that their congregations may function as a kind of super-organism, allowing the birds to access and process information as a collective that they could not do individually.

This footage provides perhaps a taste of what a massive flock of wild pigeons was like.

The pigeons flew across eastern North America from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson Bay and Maine to Montana. However, their home territory seems to have been centered on the southern Great Lakes region, including southwestern Ontario. They flew swiftly, at perhaps 90 k/h, and could cover large distances daily. One note from the Detroit Free Press observed that passenger pigeons shot in that vicinity were found to have rice in their crops, a grain that grew about 700 miles distant (Toronto Globe, 23 March 1850), presumably to the south. In other words, the birds had flown that far since their recent meal of rice.

Passenger pigeons seem to have subsisted on seeds and fruits. Local lore has it that they enjoyed acorns and beech nuts particularly, so that flocks would appear when those foods were abundant. However, they would take a variety of foods. One old timer describes the pigeon's diet as follows (Globe, 3 June 1905):

It lives entirely on vegetable matter, such as fruits, grain, nuts, seeds, bulbs and plants. I have taken from the crop of one more than a good handful of beechnuts, which would be packed so tightly that it must have seriously incommoded its flight. When nuts and grain are scarce they will eat nearly anything in the vegetable line, such as buds, tender shoots, grasses and some kinds of fungi. Although I have taken all I have named and more from their crops, I do not recollect seeing any animal remains, such as worms or insects, of which most birds are so fond.
They were also reported to feed in farmers' fields and were regarded sometimes as pests for that reason. Dr. Henry Howitt of Guelph reported that his father viewed them in this way (Steele 1967, p. 173):
[Howitt] also said that in the 1850s the pigeons were in large numbers in this area and he recalled the difficulty his father had with the spring planting of grain at that time on their farm near where the lime kilns are now situated.
That would be somewhere near Wellington St. and east of the Hanlon Expressway.

Besides feeding and migration, the passenger pigeon also nested in vast hordes. Rookeries of the biggest flocks were reported to cover hundreds of acres. One retrospective report describes a rookery near Blenheim, Ontario as covering a space six or eight miles in length and nearly the same width (Globe, 15 Dec. 1894). Another report says that the biggest rookery occurred in Michigan and measured about 28 miles by three or four miles (Globe, 18 May 1907). The noise made by the crowds in these roosts must have been phenomenal, as is confirmed by one retrospective description about a rookery near Exeter, Ontario (Globe, 4 Feb 1899): "They could be plainly heard cooing three miles away."

Besides the area covered, the flocks were noted for their tendency to break down the trees where they nested. Indeed, they could decimate forests and fields with the weight of their bodies and their droppings. This report of a rookery along the Speed River at Guelph in 1835 is typical (Curry 2006, p. 251):

An immense rookery extended on both sides of the River Speed from Guelph to Rockwood; within its bounds trees were broken down by the weight of the pigeons and at the proper time, wagon loads of the young birds could be easily obtained.
Being in the midst of such a vast rookery must have been an other-wordly experience.

Of course, as noted above, the locals did not merely marvel at the abundance of the passenger pigeons. The birds were also taken as food. In his book "The Grand River Iroquois: Their music and customs", J. C. Hamilton records the tune of a Pigeon Dance performed by the Six Nations people who located here after the American Revolution. (Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate a copy of the book.) Probably, the import of this song was like the Seneca story about the bird, in which the passenger pigeon is called "Big Bread" and is offered to humanity as a tribute. One old-timer recalled how First Nations people continued to harvest the birds from a rookery in the early 1850s near Blenheim (Globe, 15 Dec. 1894):

No bird is more graceful in form and motion than the matured pigeon, and none is more awkward and unsightly than the "squabs", as the young are called. These were easily dislodged by the arrows of the Indians, who came in droves from the reserve on the Grand River. The squaws were laden with great baskets of the unctious fare, and many a wigwam and home had rich and dainty food that spring and summer.

Early settlers found that the birds provided food for them when they were threatened with starvation (Globe, 3 April 1869):

And the extra-ordinary statement is found in the M.S. of the late Mr. Merritt, that one old couple, too old to help themselves, and left alone, were preserved providentially from starvation by pigeons, which would occasionally come and allow themselves to be caught. The fact is stated by others, that pigeons were at times, during the first years of settling, very plentiful, and were always exceedingly tame. Another person remarks, that although there were generally plenty of pigeons, wild fowl, fish and partridge, yet, they seemed to keep away when most wanted.
It seems that, sometimes, the pigeons were greeted like manna from heaven.

As settlement proceeded, settlers refined their harvesting methods. At rookeries, fallen squabs might simply be collected from the ground. Others were dislodged from their nests with poles (Globe, 5 June 1900):

The rising generation is apt to discredit stories of pigeon-hunting with a pole and bag, but many remember the easy sport of knocking the birds from the trees. In the neighborhood of their roosts a bag of pigeons was as easily gathered as a bag of apples in an orchard.
Birds on the wing could be caught in nets. One technique was simply to erect nets in the flight path of roosting birds, as seems to be the case with the net from St. Anne's, Lower Canada, 1829 (Library and Archives Canada C-012539).

Another method was to entice pigeons into an open field and then propel a net over them. The pigeons might be baited with food or salt, or a stool pigeon could be employed. This was typically a pigeon linked to a special rod that could be moved up and down to cause the pigeon to hover and land, apparently suggesting to other birds that it was safe to land there (Globe, 15 Dec. 1894).

Of course, the most common method for obtaining pigeons was to shoot them. Whenever a flock of pigeons was sighted in a given area, the local newspapers would print a notice and urge local hunters to take advantage. For example, here is a notice from the Guelph Mercury (13 April 1876):

Pigeons. –Wild pigeons have not been so numerous in this neighborhood for a very long time as they are this year. People from the country tell us that in some sections they actually swarm. Sportsmen had better make hay while the sun shines.
News would travel widely by the telegraph lines laid alongside the railway tracks, and trains full of sportsmen and even professional pigeon hunters would arrive in return.

Flocks of pigeons often flew low to the ground, where armed men could simply blast away at them. Another tactic was to wait until the birds had roosted in dense quarters for the night (Globe, 15 Dec. 1894):

But it was in the autumn when the rarest sport was afforded. Then the pigeons gathered in some low, dense, second-growth timber to rest at night. These trees grew closely together, and were seldom over twenty feet in height. The hunter waited till darkness gathered like a pall, and then, provided with a pitch-pine torch, the slaughter began. No artist could ever paint such a scene. The tops of the trees were covered by what, looking in the flashing light [of gunshots] seemed like snow balls. These were the startled victims, with breast-feathers erect. At each discharge the ground was strewn with fluttering game, and those not touched were attracted to the fatal light, awaiting their doom.

Although a wild animal, the passenger pigeon's way of life lent itself to inclusion into the industrial style of food production that was taking shape in the 19th century. The eastern half of North America was being turned into a vast food-making machine through farming and railway technologies. Pigeons could be killed in the thousands and packed into apple barrels for shipping to eastern urban centers, as noted in this news item (Globe, 15 Jan. 1883):

A hunter recently killed, during four weeks, 30,000 wild pigeon in a pine forest near Fayetteville, Ark. He found a market for them all in Chicago, Ill.
In 1855, is was estimated that 25,000 dozen wild pigeons were sold in markets in New York City (Globe, 3 Dec. 1855). Vendors quoted prices in the newspapers, e.g., $1 / dozen in Toronto (Globe, 5 Sept. 1857) and $2.50 / dozen in Montreal (Globe, 3 March 1880). The passenger pigeon had become a commodity.

In addition to their use as food, pigeons were captured for sport. Gun clubs would purchase multitudes of pigeons for trap shooting contests. Each shooter would have a given number of birds to shoot at, one-at-a-time, and the winner was the one who shot the most. Onlookers could gamble on the results. Large competitions could consume thousands of birds, e.g., (Globe, 31 May 1873):

The State Shoot. –The Buffalo Commercial Advertiser understands that the Dean Richmond Shooting Club, of Batavia, have now on hand about two thousand wild pigeons, for the coming Sportsmen’s State Convention at that place. Mr, Knapp, who went West for the purpose of securing birds, left Wisconsin on Monday last with twelve thousand more, so that it is not likely there will be any scarcity of feathered marks for the boys to ‘bang away’ at. …
Guelph newspapers carried detailed records of pigeon shooting matches held in the city or attended by residents. George Sleeman, the brewer and Mayor, was especially fond of the sport and often hosted matches on his estate at the west end of town. Matches could be between teams, e.g., Guelph vs. Berlin (now Kitchener), or individuals, e.g., (Mercury, 6 Dec. 1880):
Pigeon Shooting. –On Saturday afternoon a friendly pigeon pop took place on the last near Sleeman's brewery, between Mayor Sleeman and John Leanly. The following is the result: Leanly 3; Sleeman 8.
A team match between Guelph and Aberfoyle required 200 birds (Mercury, 8 Nov. 1881).

The sport of pigeon shooting could be controversial. For one thing, safety was often not a priority for the managers of the shoot, and the handling of the birds attracted criticism. Consider the following report from the Guelph Mercury (26 Dec. 1883):

Dangers of Pigeon Shooting. –... There were two pigeon shooting matches in progress during the day, the one near the water works and the other in the vicinity of Mr. George Sleeman's brewery. There was a considerable number at both, and several reports have come to hand about the careless manner in which the shooting was conducted, shots being fired in all directions. While Dr. and Mrs. Hewitt of Toronto, were driving along the Waterloo Avenue from the city a shot went through Mrs. Hewitt's bonnet. It is also reported that Mr. Mair, Manager of the Federal Bank, and another gentleman were struck by stray shot. These things should teach City Council that a by-law is necessary which will prevent shooting off fire arms within the city limits altogether.
Perhaps holding the event at a brewery was not a good idea.

However, the article continues on to challenge the sport itself:

Pigeon shooting is inhuman sport at any rate; in England it has been stopped by a law made last session, and although there is no such act in Canada, a cruel amusement would be stopped and the dangers of a careless use of firearms lessened as far as this city is concerned by such a by-law as we speak of.
Indeed, Westminster had just passed a law prohibiting the sport on the grounds of the customary treatment of the domestic pigeons used in Britain (Globe, 27 March 1883):
It ... is a common practice to mutilate pigeons before placing them in the trap by pulling out their tail feathers and rubbing pepper into the wound, in order to make them fly. A still more fiendish act of barbarity is the gouging or pricking out of one or other of the bird’s eyes so as to ensure its flight to the left or right side as may be desired. These and kindred atrocities are continually practiced by those who have the handling of the birds, with the object of making them swift or slow in flight according to the arrangements made by those who have money bet on the matches.
It is known that stool pigeons in Canada could be blinded (Globe, 15 Dec. 1894), so it appears that passenger pigeons in Canadian pigeon pops sometimes received similar treatment to those in Britain. I am not aware that the shoots were ever banned. Instead, passenger pigeons simply became more and more scarce.

Indeed, passenger pigeon flocks began to dwindle in Ontario so that the appearance of one at Guelph in 1876 was the first "in a very long time". The appearance reported in the Mercury in 1882, quoted above, was certainly noteworthy but the last sighting I have found in that paper is in 1897 (8 April):

Wild Pigeons. Thirty or forty years ago wild pigeons used to make this locality their breeding ground. For the last quarter of a century they have almost disappeared, with the exception of a stray one now and again. On Tuesday morning about ten o’clock Mr. Thos. Weir and others saw a large flock flying northwards.
The last wild specimen on record was shot in 1900 in Ohio. Odd sightings were reported for two or three decades later but these were probably mourning doves that were mistaken for passenger pigeons. Explanations for their disappearance varied. One theory had it that the pigeons had flown to South America where, like fugitives, they could avoid the hunting they faced in the north (Globe, 30 June 1900). Given some time to recover, it was hoped that the birds would return northwards once again. Others held that flocks simply could not find sufficient food, since the forests on which they depended had been converted to agriculture by settlers (Globe, 18 May 1907):
Though the forests of the early days supplied them with food in abundance, a modest calculation of their needs shows that the survival of the great flocks would have made the cultivation of the land impossible. It was as necessary to clear away the wild pigeon from the forest lands of Ontario as it was to clear away the buffalo from the prairies of the west.
Another thought was that the birds had succumbed to some natural disaster such as flying out to sea in a fog or being slain in a storm. Such misadventures had happened to individual flocks before (Globe, 25 Feb. 1899):
I was reminded of an incident told me by a friend of mine who worked at Jarvis Island mine on Lake Superior, while Captain Plummer was in charge of the mine. He was crossing from Jarvis Island to Port Arthur in a sailboat early in May. There had been a squall, with heavy hailstorm, and shortly after he left the boat ran through acres of wild pigeons floating on the water. They had evidently been beaten down by the storm and drowned while crossing the lake. He said there were hundreds of thousands of them. No doubt many others have been destroyed in the same way. ... Can it be possible that storms on the great lakes have destroyed them all, or do they exist in other countries.
Few people seemed to blame the increasingly efficient slaughter and consumption of the birds. It seemed inconceivable that a bird once present in the billions could be wiped out in a matter of years.

The birds were missed after their extinction. Many writers who wrote in to newspapers to report late sightings reminisced about the pigeons as if they were childhood friends encountered once more, e.g., (Globe, 9 June 1900):

To the Editor of the Globe: Your correspondent who speaks of the disappearance of the wild pigeon is nearly true. I have hardly seen any for about thirty years, but about three weeks ago while driving from Kingsville to Harrow I saw a pair. They flew from near a culvert over a small stream, into the bush, where they lit in a small tree, and I knew them.
I felt just as though I had met a friend of my boyhood days. I have killed great numbers when they were plentiful. Toronto, June 4. Joseph Barrett.

Although gone, the birds retain a shadowy presence in Ontario. Many place names in the province reflect their former haunts. Mitchell (1935, p. 62) notes several locations bearing the First Nations' names for the bird, which was "O-me-me-wog" in Pottawattomie and "Omimi" in Chippewa and Cree. These locations include Mimico in Toronto at the mouth of the Humber River, Omeme on the Pigeon River west of Peterborough, and Omeme(a) Island, next to The Massasauga Provincial Park near Parry Sound. In addition there is Omeme Lake in Quetico Provincial Park west of Thunder Bay.

English place names containing the term "pigeon" also refer to the passenger pigeon. The Natural Resources Canada website lists 29 such places in Ontario. Some of these include Pigeon Falls, along the Pigeon River west of Thunder Bay, which forms the border between the U.S.A. and Canada, several Pigeon Lakes, such as the Pigeon Lake west of Peterborough, fed by Pigeon Creek and the local Pigeon River past Omeme, Pigeon Hill northwest of Renfrew,
Pigeon Point in Georgian Bay just west of Collingwood, and Pigeon Bay on the north shore of Lake Erie from Kingsville to the end of Point Pelee. This last area is famous as a resting place for migratory birds, and the passenger pigeon seems to have frequented it also in times past. (If you know of others pigeon-related places in Ontario, leave them in the comments please!)

Although the passenger pigeon is long extinct, it is possible to see some. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) has recently brought its collection of stuffed birds out of retirement. The ROM houses one of the biggest collections of pigeon remains, about a half-dozen of which originated in the Guelph area (Steele 1967). Some of the stuffed birds are now on display in the Gallery of Birds section devoted to Life in Crisis. The birds are depicted in a mural scene set in Forks of the Credit. The display continues until 12 April 2015. Here is a photo I took of part of the display.

Passenger pigeons!

There are at least two reasons for bringing out the pigeons. First, 2014 marks the centennial of the death of the last passenger pigeon, Martha, kept in the Cincinnati Zoo. Second, the Long Now Foundation is launching a program to recreate (or "de-extinct") the passenger pigeon using biotechnology. (You can watch Stewart Brand explain the idea in a TED talk.) The idea is explored and critiqued in this very good PBS video:

On the one hand, witnessing the passage of a massive flock of passenger pigeons would surely be awe-inspiring. On the other hand, people might not welcome what could be taken now for an invasive species. Ontarians might recall when, in the 1960s, Canada geese were introduced into the province where they had become relatively rare. Would billions of ravenous wild pigeons truly be warmly received?

It is remarkable that, 100 years after its extinction, the "wild" or passenger pigeon can still inspire awe and ambition. It is no wonder that the editors of Guelph's Centennial newspaper thought it deserved a place in their history of the early days of the Royal City.

Guelph and its vicinity were frequented by the passenger pigeon. Here is a list of sightings of and interactions with flocks of wild pigeons gleaned from various sources:
  • 1834: "Nichol, Elora ... Two or three lots, trees filled with nests." (Mitchell 1935, p. 39)
  • 1835: "An immense rookery extended on both sides of the River Speed from Guelph to Rockwood; within its bounds trees were broken down by the weight of the pigeons and at the proper time, wagon loads of the young birds could be easily obtained." (Curry 2006, p. 251)
  • 1849 & 1851: “A singular feature of the present ?? large flights of wild pigeons now ?? country. We have observed ?? immense extent, pass over Galt. In Blenheim and Puslinch, they ?? we are informed, than during ?? hatched there in 1849. From ?? flock follows flock in endless succession ?? the morning towards the north, ?? turning to roost in the south. ?? to prove that the season is less ?? than with us, inasmuch as the ?? living here, which they cannot ?? owing to the depth of the snow. ?? part of the prodigious fall of snow ?? lands, came from eastward, ?? therefore comparatively free. ?? these pigeons are killed—at this ?? they are mere bunches of skin ?? worth the powder that brings them ??—Galt Reporter” (Globe, 11 Jan. 1851)
  • 1850s: "Mr. Fred Fennell of Guelph has told me many times that his father as a boy lived in what is now Riverside Park, in 1870s, and he often related how the pigeons lighted in the hardwood trees of that area in great numbers and that his father before him recalled huge flocks feeding on beech nuts in that forest which stretched along the river." (Steele 1967, p. 173)
  • 1854: “Wild pigeons in abundance have appeared in this part of the Province during the past two weeks, and command the attention of the amateur sportsmen.” (Guelph Advertiser, 19 June 1854)
  • 1855: "The last known nesting site in this area was Hatch's Swamp, 1855, where the Collegiate Institute now stands and stretching a mile or more northward..." (Steele 1967, p. 172)
  • 1860s: "North of Guelph is a small settlement known as Marden, and here lived the Blyths, early pioneers of that area, and their land had a stream flowing through it and hardwoods and bush on either side and they told how they shot the pigeons in great numbers in the hardwood and bush, and their story was that if the swamp there could be drained, you would be able to collect a ton of shot that was expended at the pigeons. This of course is just a story but it helps to prove that the pigeons were in great numbers there at the time, in the 1860s. Mrs. Charles Blvth said that her father, Mr. Charles Atkinson, used to bring pigeons home by the sackful from that bush." (Steele 1967, p. 173)
  • 1869: “Wild pigeons have lately been on the wing northward in great numbers. This is considered a harbinger of early spring, but not one that can be trusted.” (Mercury, 5 April 1869)
  • 1876: “Pigeons. –Wild pigeons have not been so numerous in this neighborhood for a very long time as they are this year. People from the country tell us that in some sections they actually swarm. Sportsmen had better make hay while the sun shines.” (Mercury, 13 April 1876)
  • 1870s: "The late Jack Smith of Guelph who was the eldest of a family of noted hunters and trappers, stated that as a boy he and his brother Joe, next to him in age, and his father shot pigeons in Heming's Bush in the late 1870s, which is in close proximity to what is now the main part of the city of Guelph." (Steele 1967, p. 174)
  • 1882: “Several flocks of wild pigeons flew over Guelph.” (Mercury, 17 Oct. 1882)
  • 1887: “Wild Pigeons. Thirty or forty years ago wild pigeons used to make this locality their breeding ground. For the last quarter of a century they have almost disappeared, with the exception of a stray one now and again. On Tuesday morning about ten o’clock Mr. Thos. Weir and others saw a large flock flying northwards.” (Mercury, 7 April 1887)
  • 1897: “Guelph. … On Tuesday morning a flock of wild pigeons was seen flying northward. Such a sight has not been witnessed in this vicinity for the last quarter of a century.” (Mercury, 8 April 1897)
If you come across any further flock sightings in this area, please leave them in the comments!
Here are some sources that I have used for this posting that you may wish to consult.

Greenberg, Joel (2014). A feathered river across the sky: The passenger pigeon's flight to extinction, New York: Bloomsbury. See also the related Project Passenger Pigeon online!

Mitchell, Margaret H. (1935). The passenger pigeon in Ontario. University of Toronto Press.

Steele, William S., (1967). The passenger pigeon in Wellington County, Ontario. Canadian Field Naturalist 81: 172-174.

Thanks to Chris Early, Leslie Rye, and Alan Watson of the University of Guelph for helping me to track down our local passenger pigeons and William Steele's paper.

Thanks to Mark Peck of the ROM for his help in this effort also. As a postscript, Mark notes that you can see one of the Guelph birds nearby at the AGO:

None of the birds listed are on display at the ROM but, we had one of the birds (ROM #94346), remounted this year by one of our taxidermists', Ken Morrison of Feathers Alive in Huntsville, and it is now on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario for one of their temporary exhibits.
This bird was one of those males collected by William Steele in Guelph (Steele 1967, p. 174). So, if you are in neighbourhood, you can go and see this historic Guelphite for yourself.