The Passing of the Pigeons

There are different phenomena of nature in America we can experience in our lives that are so epic, so hugely beyond the ordinary, so grand and soul-lifting that when we witness them our spirits are awed and transported to a rarely tuned awareness of the majestic planet.  To stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or to be at Niagara Falls with the mist on your face and feel the solid bedrock under your feet vibrating from the thundering waters is to step into a heightened reality, and experience a visceral connection with the Earth.

That is what it was like to witness the flight of the Passenger Pigeons—simply breathtaking.  That is what they said about it anyway.  Unfortunately we will never know, nor will our children.

2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the official extinction of that profoundly abundant species of bird that once filled the American skies.  As a sort of memorial tribute, and as a cautionary glance to the future by way of the past, scientists and naturalists and historians of the world have initiated Project Passenger Pigeon to tell the story of the lost bird.

It seems appropriate therefore to make note of Richland County’s small footnote in the heritage of the passenger pigeon.

This lithograph from an 1881 Birds of America is one of few portraits done in the 1800s that attempts to portray the communal nature of the passenger pigeons.

This photo is of Martha, who was the last of her species.  She lived in the Cincinnati Zoo until 1914 when, with her passing, the pigeons became extinct.

Identifying a Passenger Pigeon

If you picture a mourning dove and then make it 1.5 times larger, make it a blue/slate gray color, and give it red eyes and a coppery breast that catches the sun, and then multiply it by about a million, you will be imagining the passenger pigeons.  People who knew them back in the day said that their collar feathers had an iridescence that flashed from gold to purple as they turned, and when a skyful of birds turned as one to bank in the evening sun it cast a hue that was unearthly and sublime.

This description from 1860 by someone who was really there gives a sense of how many there were:

“Early in the morning I was perfectly amazed to behold the air filled, the sun obscured by millions of pigeons darting onwards in a straight line with arrowy flight, in a vast mass a mile or more in breadth, and stretching before and behind as far as the eye could reach.  It was late in the afternoon before any decrease in the mass was perceptible, but they became gradually less dense as the day drew to a close.  The duration of this flight being about fourteen hours, from 4 AM to 6 PM, the column could not have been less than three hundred miles in length.”

Few passenger pigeon decoys survive from the 1800s.  The birds were so easy to catch that live birds were more commonly used to lure in passing flocks.

This delicate papercut of a pair of passenger pigeons was scissored by artist Seymore Lindsey (1848-1927) from Lexington.    
He was a man who had the opportunity to observe the birds closely for the best part of his life, and who had a gift for silhouette brilliant enough to accurately present their likenesses for posterity … even at 1” in height.

The Sad Story

We have records from the 1860s when there were reliable sightings of flocks numbering in the billions—yet by the 1890s birders were hard pressed to find even one flock that numbered over 100.

It boggles the mind to imagine how such a terrific volume of creatures could be eliminated so quickly, and scientists are ever offering new ideas as to how such an ecological catastrophe could unfold.  But reduced to its most basic factors the solution is quite simple: the pigeons were tasty and they weren’t hard to kill.  And in the 1870s there was a calamitous collapse of the US economy that made inexpensive food very attractive, and the more birds that got shipped to the cities in barrels, the cheaper they became.

The stories of their slaughter—like the stories of their glorious existence—are epic, astonishing, oversized and exuberant as the whole great American wilderness.

A Flock Passing Through Richland County

James Purdy wrote a letter from Mansfield in 1831 that referenced his excitement about making a trip to witness the sight of a massive roosting that took place in Richland County.  It had apparently been a year of abundance for nuts of the beech tree, and a flock had settled into the forest for a few days to feed as it was passing across the continent.

What impressed him most was the noise.  Another observer describing a roost of passenger pigeons wrote, “The sound was condensed terror.  Imagine a thousand threshing machines running under full headway, with an equal quota of railroad trains passing through covered bridges—imagine these massed into a single flock, and you possibly have a faint conception of the terrific roar following the monstrous black cloud of pigeons.”

Mr. Purdy didn’t specify exactly where this raucous congregation of pigeons took place, except that it was a “journey north” of Mansfield, and in Richland County.  This would likely place the event in the neighborhood of the settlement that would one day be named Shiloh, especially considering that in later decades folks from southern Richland County nicknamed the village Pigeon Roost.

For a farming community the visitation of a pigeon roost was a very mixed blessing.  So many hungry birds could wipe out a summer’s worth of labor in one day, and all a man could do was watch and weep.  On the other hand, a man with a rifle could put away enough meat in one day to keep his family stocked with pigeon pies all winter, and have enough left over as well to sell several wagonloads of dressed birds.

The long-term effects of a 3-day roost were equally mixed.  The day after a flock had lifted into the sky and moved on, as a great storm passes over the land, there was a scar and a shadow left behind.  The trees that hosted the massive party would never be the same.  Beaten, broken, often wholly uprooted from the weight of a thousand plump little birds, the woodlot looked like it had barely survived a tornado.

On the other hand, the land they left behind was incomparably richer as cropland for the next 20 years.  It is likely that the undisputed fertility of the fields around Shiloh is based in a solid foundation of 183-year old pigeon poop.

Years before it was the Village of Shiloh it was the site of a massive 3-day roost of passenger pigeons in 1831.  James Purdy said the noise was “jubilant and unnerving.”

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