Passenger pigeon

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)


For Canadians and Americans, the magnitude of the flocks made it inconceivable at the time that the passenger pigeon would one day become extinct, which partially explains why no real serious attempt was made to conserve the species.

As early as 1857, concerns were expressed that their numbers were declining in Ohio. The Ohio Legislature appointed a committee to investigate, which concluded: “The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having our vast forests as its breeding grounds ... no ordinary destruction can lessen the myriads that are yearly produced.”

But by this time, the march of civilization had already destroyed most of the pigeon’s habitat in the Eastern U.S. and it was in the midwest and north into Canada that the pigeon was to have its last stand.

E.H.G.G. Hay, a former police magistrate in Portage la Prairie, told George E. Atkinson (A Review-History of the Passenger Pigeon of Manitoba, 1905, Winnipeg Free Press Co.) that when he arrived in June 1861, the pigeons were abundant.

It should be noted that all early accounts, including those in newspapers, refer only to “pigeons” or “wild pigeons” and not to passenger pigeons, although that was the species observed.

“To give you an idea of their numbers, a Mr. Thompson, of St. Andrew’s, some mornings caught with a net about 10 square feet as many as eighty dozen ...”

On May 31, 1871, the Manitoba News-Letter  reported: “Pigeons — This morning pigeons passed over the town in immense numbers, and afforded rare sport for the disciples of Nimrod.” Nimrod, of course, was the mighty hunter in the Bible.

That was the problem. Anyone with a gun or some type of netting could be assured that they would take down enough birds to make plenty of tasty pigeon pies. Some even swung long poles to successfully knock pigeons out of the sky.

And amateur hunters, lacking the eye of a sharpshooter, could also bag a healthy number of birds. It was claimed by some that the pigeons were such easy targets that 100 would fall from the sky with one shot from a shotgun. The only limitation for a hunter seemed to be the amount of ammunition that was on hand or becoming too bored by the ease of shooting the pigeons.

Hay boasted of bagging up to 17 birds with a single shot in the spring of 1864.

In the 1832 publication, A Backwoodsman, Dr. William Dunlop describes a pigeon migration over York (now Toronto): “Some two summers ago, a stream of (pigeons) took it into their heads to fly over York; and for three or four days the town resounded with one continuous roll of firing, as if a skirmish were  going on in the streets — every gun, pistol, musket, blunderbuss and fire-arm of whatever description, was put in requisition … pigeons, flying within easy shot, were a temptation too strong for human virtue to withstand.”

One flock flying over Ontario in 1860 was estimated to number 3.5-million pigeons. And at Goderich, Ontario, Samuel Strickland in his book, Twenty-seven Years in Canada West; or the Experience of an Early Settler, 1853, said the mass of pigeons flying overheard were so numerous that they were impossible to miss. He wrote that he often shot 20 or 30 with one discharge of his gun.

It was their instinctive flock formation and massive numbers used to confound flying predators, such as falcons and hawks, which is a strategy known as “predator satiation,” that was their undoing in the face of people wielding guns.

John McKenney, the son of Henry McKenney, who in 1862 built the store that created the famous corner of Portage and Main, in a November 1, 1922, Winnipeg Tribune article said: “I remember that when the passenger pigeons used to come in such countless numbers. I used to catch them with trap nets set where the Child’s restaurant (205 Portage Ave; closed in 1960) is now. The trap nets were made of fish netting stretched on frames which we used to put in the ground, with one end raised a foot or two by a stick, with a string to it — we used to sprinkle wheat on the ground to lead the pigeons under the net. They were so plentiful that people used to salt them down in barrels.”

At Deer Lodge in Winnipeg, James McKay, the first speaker of the Manitoba Legislature, was also said to have captured large numbers of passenger pigeons using net traps.

In another Tribune article (March 25, 1922), John Macdougall, who was then the sargeant-at-arms of the Manitoba Legislature and had been the postmaster for Fort Garry before the community was named Winnipeg, also described how passenger pigeons were caught in traps. In June 1872, he arrived at Moorhead, Minnesota, and remembered “that for three days the sky was darkened by the immense clouds of passenger pigeons migrating northward (into Manitoba and Northwest Ontario). The trap-nets, used in taking them, were frames about as large as an ordinary door, covered with fish-net. These trap-nets were laid on the ground and propped up at one end with a stick. to which a cord was fastened. Grain, mixed with small stones, was sprinkled on the ground to lead the passenger pigeons under the net. When the cord was pulled, the frame fell, and they were trapped. I have seen immense numbers of them taken in this way, and salted down in barrels.”

What made it possible to take such numbers of pigeons was that Moorhead was then on the Northern Pacific Railroad line, which allowed the barrels to be easily transported to waiting customers in towns and cities.

The passenger pigeon’s former range was east of the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast (as far as P.E.I. in Canada) from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson Bay. Historically, birds were found in Manitoba from the south of the province to its far north. In 1795, Samuel Hearne reported passenger pigeons were abundant inland from the southern portion of Hudson Bay.

At Cumberland House, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in present-day Saskatchewan near the province’s border with Manitoba, Hearne said he saw 12 pigeons felled by one shot from a hunter’s gun.

“A few hordes of Indians who frequent the low flood districts at the south end of Lake Winnipeg subsist principally on the pigeons during the period when the sturgeon fishing is unproductive and the wild rice is still unripened, but farther north the birds are too few in numbers to furnish material diet,” reported Sir John Richardson in 1827.

Normally, First Nations people preferred eating juvenile birds, termed squabs, and were careful not to disturb the adult pigeons for fear they would abandon the nesting grounds. The squabs had a great deal of fat that was rendered down into a form of butter to be used during the winter months.

Along the east shore of Lake Winnipeg is the community of Pigeon Point, and the Pigeon River, which flows into the lake. Pigeon Lake is found near St. Francois-Xavier. All these locations were presumably named by First Nations for the frequent visitations by passenger pigeons (omiimiikaa in Ojibway).

Passenger pigeons were migratory birds that flew from their wintering grounds in the southwestern U.S. to their northern nesting grounds, which primarily centred around the Great Lakes, but there were also reports of summer-time nesting grounds in Manitoba. Their Latin scientific name, Ectopistes migratorius, describes their behaviour of not only migrating in the spring and fall but also being continually on the move to find feeding grounds. Ectopistes means “moving about or wandering” and migratorius means “migrating.”

Their common name is from the French passenger, meaning “passing by.”

HBC trader T. Hutchins made copious notes, published in 1785, about the birds he encountered near Hudson Bay during his 25 years with the company. In 1771, he received a specimen which he sent to England for verification and was later informed it was a passenger pigeon.

“They are plentiful about Moose Factory (along James Bay) and inland,” he reported, “where they breed, choosing an arboreous situation. The gentlemen number them among the many delicacies the Hudson’s Bay affords our tables.”

Hutchins said passenger pigeons were observed as far north as York Factory, an HBC post in present-day Manitoba, in 1768, but only remained two days. Presumably, the weather was too harsh even for what he described as “hardy” birds.

“The first time I remember having seen pigeons in Manitoba was at White Horse Plains (St. Francois-Xavier) in 1865, where they were very numerous, many of them breeding in the oak trees in that district,” William Clark, a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) employee, told Atkinson.

F.K. Herchmer said that pigeons throughout the 1870s were thick in the woods along the Assiniboine and Seine rivers.

“When living at the foot of Smith street I used to paddle across the Assiniboine in the evenings and shoot as many as required within short walking distance of the river, there being no houses of any sort then west of the Pembina highway — your Main street south” (Winnipeg Tribune, January 16, 1936).

Herchmer also said pigeons were common along the Assiniboine River near Fort Ellice, which is just east of the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border.

Alex Waddell wrote in a letter that when he came to Rosseau River, Manitoba, in 1874, “there was a goodly stock of the pigeons. They had a suitable home in the heavy woods ...” (Winnipeg Free Press, April 8, 1960).

Waddell noted that when the St. Paul and Manitoba Railway was established in 1878, the pigeons began to disappear.

But passenger pigeon numbers in Manitoba never approached the magnitude of other locations in North America where hardwood trees were more plentiful, such as in Ontario where individual flocks could contain as many as one to three billion birds.

(Next week: part 3)