24 October 2013

Wild Pigeons and the Great Shooting Tournament at Coney Island

A vast roost of nesting wild pigeons along the Canadian River in central Oklahoma — on the frontier a great distance in the west from Coney Island — was the source of live birds to be used as targets by shootists at a great shooting tournament on the Atlantic seashore. It was a significant event in many ways, with widespread reporting that indicate details of the birds' capture and transportation, results of the contest, and protestations against the slaughter of the pigeons. The variety of articles are especially interesting in conveying a unique perspective of the times, associated with the Passenger Pigeon as expressed by people involved in this endeavor.

It started with a schedule for a shooting match, and the need for lively targets. A contract was signed to acquire wild pigeons, so a bird-trapping company found a spot where thousands of birds could be captured and transported. The initial place of action was the indian territory of central Oklahoma. Thousands of adult birds — taken from their nesting grounds — were captured by the men employed by the trapping company of W.P. Thomas, then taken by horse-drawn wagons to the freight station for the Missouri and Kansas Railroad at Atoka. Once loaded onto a special car, there was a quick journey eastward, to pens where the captives where kept until their eventual release, as targets for men with deadly guns.

A Car Load of Pigeons to be Shot. — A car load of pigeons is to start from Topeka, Kansas, to-night for Brooklyn, for the use of the sportsmen who assemble at the twenty-third annual convention of the New York State Association for the Protection of Fish and Game, beginning June 20, at Coney Island, and lasting until June 25. It will require 20,000 pigeons to meet the demands of the protectors of game. — June 5
Seven thousand wild pigeons from the Indian Territory are now in the coops at Jersey City, and eight thousand more will arrive on the 17th instant. ... — June 14

There was contention underway before the match even started. Henry Bergh, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was making accusations in the press concerning the pending demise of thousands of wild pigeons. The president of the sportsman's group responded in a letter issued in Forest and Stream.

Mr. Crook to Mr. Bergh.
The following letter has been published:
New York, June 16, 1881.
Henry Bergh, Esq.:
My Dear Sir — My attention has been called to certain squibs in some of the daily papers to the effect that, as the President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, you had asserted your intention to break up the tournament of the New York State Association for the Protection of Fish and Game, to be held at Coney Island, commencing next Tuesday, and that I, a President of the last named organization, had returned the compliment by threatening to cause your arrest. I desire explicitly to deny that any such action has ever been contemplated upon my part. Had we the advantage of personal acquaintance with each other, such an unfortunate rumor could not have found its way into print. The association which I represent is largely composed of the most influential citizens of this State, embracing many who have honorably held seats in the State and National Legislatures and in the executive chair, and also including the representative business men of the several cities, towns and hamlets in this State, and also those who have been foremost in concerted efforts not only to protect but to propagate and cultivate fish and game. That such gentlemen should be classed with the cock-fighters and dogfighters neither just nor creditable to the person making such charge.

Nothing will afford me or the association which I represent greater pleasure than to assist your society in preventing anything which shall bear the resemblance of cruelty. The suggestion accredited to you to the effect that birds were to be drugged or mutilated could only originate in ignorance of the character, customs and purposes of the State organization. I assure you that due courtesy will be shown you and all others who may attend the tournament, and that nothing shall occur in any wise warranting any unfavorable criticism of our proceedings, and that the members of the association will prove your most reliable assistants in the humane work in which you are engaged.
Respectfully, etc., Abel Crook.

The final frantic push to get the entire lot of birds transported was evident from Oklahoma, as the start of the tournament was to commence.

Atoka, I.T., June 19. — Our little town was out in force last night, catching and hauling from pens and loading on cars 10,000 live wild pigeons for the use of the great New York State tournament, which begins on Monday, the 21st inst., at Coney Island. Capt. Elmendorf, Chairman of the Committee on Grounds and Pigeons, started on this morning's train in charge of the birds, and will arrive in New York on Tuesday evening. The energy displayed by the Captain in securing birds this time of year is worthy of imitation by our Western sportsmen. The car of birds with the car shipped from here last week is an ample supply, and assures the success of the tournament. — reported for June 19, as issued on June 20

There were daily reports of the shootist antics and events.

Sportsmen at the Seaside - The Opening of the Convention at Coney Island - The Shooting of Thousands of Pigeons Collected to Begin To-day - Essays Read Last Evening - $11,000 Offered in Prizes.

Ten traps will be kept going and several thousand pigeons a day will be shot at in the sports of the State Association for the Protection of Fish and Game at Coney Island this week. The prizes aggregate in value over $11,000. Yesterday the piazzas and halls of the Brighton Hotel were thronged by men wearing club badges, and as the day wore on their number was constantly increased. Most of them were stalwarts in their physical appearance. Thirty-six clubs are represented, each sending from five to twenty-five members. Altogether there were upward of 500 sportsmen gathered together last night.

Judge Henry S. Lott, at the head of a reception committee of twenty-five, took the sportsmen by the hand as they came in during the day, and at noon fed them with clam chowder. In the afternoon many of the delegates were taken up to Brooklyn to look at the prizes. Many preferred to look around Coney Island.

The convention of the delegates from the various local associations met in the evening. Many ladies were present. The order of business was interspersed with instrumental music, glees, tenor solos, recitations, and the reading of essays. The glee club of the Washington Gun Club brought out a fine original composition — "The American Sportsman's Song," with a Tally Ho chorus — which they sang with effect.

George A. Chappell, President of the Long Island Sportsmen's Association, bade the delegates welcome, and President Abel Crook of the State Association then opened the convention in a speech, briefly sketching the history of the association from its formation in 1859, and instancing some of the results of its labors. He claimed for it that it had initiated bench shows of dogs in this country, and had promoted fish culture and the protection of forests and game. Yet, he said, after an existence of twenty-three years, the purposes and work of the association were hardly known outside of the western and central portions of the State. To this he called the thoughtful consideration of members. The most valuable work, he thought, could be done by the local associations.

An essay by Gaston Fay, entitled "What Are You Going to Do About It? was read by F.K. Costner of the Nonpareil Club. It set forth, by some amusing anecdotes, the difficulty of enforcing game laws. Even if the writ of habeas corpus was suspended and the country put under martial law, the pot hunters would get a mess of birds whenever they could in defiance of a provost guard.

Nicolas Pike read an essay on the Game Birds of Long Island. He mourned the ravages of indiscriminate slaughterers and egg hunters. The robbing of birds' nests, he said, prevailed to a great extent even in Prospect park. Time was when the shrill cry of a blue jay, whistle of the quail, the melancholy note of the wood thrush, loud call of the black plover, and the varied tones of the yellow-breasted chat could be heard everywhere in wood and field. Now we can walk miles without seeing or hearing the commonest bird. The different varieties of game birds on Long Island were described by the essayist. — June 21

The reporting then got to the details.

Aiming at Flying Marks - The First Day of the Big Pigeon Match at Coney Island - Mr. Bergh and His Men Watch the Shooting with Field Glasses, but are Powerless to Interfere - Exciting Rivalry at the Traps.
Nine parti-colored tents, with club pennants flying, stood yesterday in a row to the right of the grand stand in the Brighton Beach race track. The members of a number of the Northern State sportsmen's clubs sleep in them by night, and receive visitors with lavish hospitality by day. In another very large ten open house to all comers is kept by the Brooklyn and Long Island clubs. The ten traps used to throw off the pigeons were pitched in the infield in front of the grand stand. White flags marked the boundary line of eighty yards within which a pigeon had to fall in order for the marksman to score a hit. In a pile of flat coops to the right of the marksmen's stand were 3,500 wild pigeons. Two squads of boys, some in red caps and some in blue, rushed out alternately to replenish the traps. During the shooting yesterday about 2,200 pigeons were used, of which about 1,659 were killed. The dead pigeons were barrelled up with ice and shipped to a Washington street dealer. ...

"This is the biggest shooting match ever seen on the face of the earth," said W.P. Thomas, who supplies the wild pigeons used at these contests, "and there never were better birds. Just see how they fly. Don't that fellow tower well?" he said, pointing to a pigeon which mounted straight up into the air. "There goes a tailer!" he exclaimed, as one flew straight away from the marksmen. "That's a driver" pointing to one that went skimming to the ground in rapid flight for safety; "they're hard to hit." The wind was blowing from the northwest with frequent hard puffs. "There are lots of incomers," said Mr. Thomas, as bird are bird came from the trap towards the marksmen. "That's because the wind blows in that direction. Ah, that fellow quartered well!" he said, as a pigeon went off to one side. "A quarterer makes the best shot," he added.

About seventy-five per cent of the pigeons were brought down. Some of the birds dropped like lead, and most of those hit fell close to the traps. The green sward was thickly strewn with feathers torn out by the shot. Sometimes a bird would be seen in strong, rapid flight after the smoke cleared away, and it would be impossible to tell whether it had been hit or not, until suddenly it would plump helplessly down. Sometimes they would have strength enough to fly out of bounds before falling. A crowd of boys hung about the outskirts of the field to pick up such birds, and the sometimes got dangerously into range. early in the day, while a policeman was chasing one of these boys, a boy fell into a ditch and broke his arm. Sportsman doctor set it for him.

Early in the day boys had distributed printed copies of an appeal from Henry Bergh. It was illustrated by a picture representing the writhings of wounded birds. The chief portion of the appeal was an imaginary speech of a bird begging sportsmen not to "immolate him on the blood-stained altar of inglorious rivalry." Between 12 and 1 o'clock Mr. Bergh, attended by a number of his officers, presented himself at the members' gate. He wore the big badge of his society, and he demanded admittance as an officer of the State. President Abel Crook told him that their sport was protected by law, that he had no rights in the premises as an officer, and that none but members could be allowed in the in-field.

"If you will come in the capacity of a gentleman," said Mr. Crook, "we shall be happy to escort you about, and to do you any service in our power."

"I desire to come in as an officer of the State," said Mr. Bergh.

"We do not admit any save gentlemen to the in field," said Mr. Crook, smiling, "and if you cannot come in that capacity you cannot come at all."

Meanwhile the steady popping of the guns went on. At every report Mr. Bergh winced and his features twitched. He harangued Mr. Crook upon the brutal and unsportsmanlike character of the shooting, and declared that he would forthwith apply to the State legislature for a law prohibiting it. Mr. Crook defended the sport in some good-natured remarks. Formerly, he said, when wild pigeons were netted for market, they were killed by crushing their heads with pinchers, as they popped up through the meshes of the net. Now that they were reserved for sportsmen to kill by shooting he could not see where the inhumanity came in. The discussion was carried on good-humoredly. Mr. Bergh and his officers then took seats in the grand stand and surveyed the scene through field glasses. They soon tired of this, and departed. Mr. Bergh prepared his bill and sent it to Albany as soon as he got home.

The real interest of the pigeon-shooting test was in the shooting of the ties. In the first ten rounds 26 marksmen killed their 10 birds apiece, 42 killed 9 apiece, 38 killed 8, and 39 killed 7. There was time to shoot off only the first class yesterday, and the three remaining will be shot off to-day. The prize of the leading score in this class was a parlor suite valued at $1,000; the second was $50 in gold. The distance from the trap was increased from twenty-one yards to twenty-six in this contest. On the first round eleven missed and dropped out. On the second round five more dropped out. There were only fine who killed their five pigeons apiece — F. Burritt and J. Langeake of the Long Island Sportsmen's Association; J.P. Fisher, Audubon of Buffalo; H.F. Gale and G. Loder, Onondaga of Syracuse.

The excitement over the contest between these five was intense. Members clustered thickly around the shooting stands, standing in perfect silence until the marksman fired, when a lusty cheer would go up if the pigeon tumbled. The wind was blowing hard, the sun was setting, and the judges had to stoop down to the ground in order to follow the flight of a "driver." Mr. Burritt fired first. His bird was a driver and skimmed along close to the ground. Bang! "She's hit; she's hit," said some. The bird winged out of bounds and was lost in the twilight. There was a deep "Ah! ah!" from the crowd. The rest brought down their birds close to the traps. On the next round Langeake missed and retired, but the others scored. On the third round Loder dropped out, and the contest was now between Fisher and Gale. Fisher is a large, burly man, and in his big white felt hat and gray flannel shirt looked like Buffalo Bill. Gale was bareheaded and in his shirt sleeves. He has shapely-cut features, and had as earnest a look as if he were William Tell shooting at the apple on his son's head. Buffalo Bill came forward for his fourth shot. The bird was an incomer, and dropped like lead. There was a loud hurrah. William Tell leaned anxiously forward and gave the word to the trap springer. The pigeon tumbled over before his wings had flapped a dozen times. The cheering was tremendous. Buffalo Bill came forward again. The pigeon was a driver. As the smoke cleared away he was seen winging his way into the distance. The Buffalo men who had crowded around their champion groaned with disappointment and turned to watch Mr. Fisher's luck with intense anxiety. He gave the word at once, and as the pigeon rose he struck it so plump and full that it fell without a flutter. Then there was a rush of congratulations on Mr. Gale and three hearty cheers were given. He had narrowly escaped being excluded from the class contest altogether. Although he killed ten in the first shooting, his name had been accidently omitted from the list of ties. When it was restored he had left the infield, and when his name was called did not respond. "Pass him over," said one of the judges. His friends objected, and it was decided to wait a minute or two for him. He came in and won. The last shooting was done at 31 yards rise. The second prize was won by Mr. Fisher. ... — June 22

During this time, pigeons were being sold at the New York City market for $2.50 to $2.75 per dozen.

Problems at the shooting event were soon apparent, according to news reporting.

The Coney Island Sports - Another Day of Pigeon Shooting by the State Clubs - Wounded Birds Flying Far Outside the Bounds - Shooting off the Ties - Challenges - The Tournament Likely to be Prolonged. Twenty-four hundred fresh pigeons were taken upon the Brighton Beach race ground yesterday for the second day of the sportsmen's tournament. The shooting was poor compared with that of the day before. May birds were so slightly wounded that they were able to fly far out of bounds into the reach of a horde of club and stone throwers on the lookout for crippled birds. May birds escaped the shooting at the traps only to be popped over by pothunters hanging around for chances to get a shot at a stray bird.

The poor quality of the shooting caused frequent challenges and called the talents of the retrievers into play. A bird as badly wounded that he can be caught with the hands in bounds is scored as a dead bird. When a bird is challenged the marksman may go or send after it. If the person who goes is an unskilled retriever, he may flush a crippled bird so abruptly as to scare it out of bounds, in which case the shot counts as a miss, although the bird may drop dead with the effort. A wary retriever will cautiously approach his bird from the outside, so that if he misses his grab the bird will be apt to struggle further in bounds and give him another chance to catch it. One pigeon yesterday made two strong flights, and could easily have gone out of bounds had it not been for the wariness of the retriever, who finally grabbed it right behind the judge's stand. ... — June 23

Rather than just report the scores, a sordid, apparently news-worthy angle was presented to convey how the wild pigeons respond once shot.

Contest of the Crack Shots. The behavior of birds when shot is very curious. Sometimes, although a fluff of feathers in the air shows that the pigeon has been hit, he will keep on in strong, rapid flight, the marksman anxiously watching to see whether he will escape bounds. Suddenly a slight unevenness will appear in the pigeon's flight, and a moment afterward down he drops all in a heap. Many times in the course of the match a bird has died just outside the boundary. During the shooting off of the ties of fifteen in the Pierce diamond badge contest, one bird went circling round to the right, striking the fence of the track just where the boundary string was tied, and rolling over dead. When the judges came up to look at its position it was just about two inches outside the line. A load of shot plump in the breast drops the bird like a plummet. A shot in the head sometimes has a peculiar effect. the bird will rise straight up in the air, fluttering convulsively. As a height of fifty or sixty feet his wings suddenly drop, and down he plumps to the ground without a flutter. Numbers of times birds when hit have dropped at the feet of their slayers. Once a bird dropped on one of the judges. On Thursday a bird darted off to the right with so strong a flight that at the marksman's stand there was a shout of "missed." The pigeon flew through the press stand so close that he could have been grabbed. He had a bloody side, and the shout went back, "No, he's hit!" He dropped close to the boundary line. Yesterday a bird flew right across to the place where the dead birds are piled up and dropped alongside one of the barrels in which they are packed. A pigeon hit so hard that he is not able to get out of bounds is scored as a dead bird; but often birds are only technically dead, for as many as half a dozen at a time may be seen flopping in the grass. Sometimes they may be seen walking around. Yesterday, in walking over the ground after the match, the reporter came upon a bird that had crouched down and died, his feathers spread and head drawn in as is he had been brooding over a nest. — June 25

The poor condition of the remaining pigeons was evident on the last day of the tournament.

The End of the Pigeon Shooting. The pigeon shooting at Coney Island came to an end yesterday. Only two matches were shot, but both of those dragged so that it was dark before the last was finished. The birds were in very poor condition, many being too weak to fly when sprung from the traps. The first contest was a class shoot of five-double rises, G.F. Gildersleeve of the Brooklyn Gun Club was the only marksman of the twenty-three entering who made a clean score, and he thus won without further contest the first prize, a bronze game piece, valued at $100. J.M. George of Bradford, Pa., won the first prize in the ties of nine, a $75 gun; C.A. Tucker of New York won the second prize of this class, a $35 suit of corduroy. The $25 clock, which was the prize for the leading score in the lies of seven, was won by J.M. Hersher of Osage City, Kan. ... During the tournament about 16,000 pigeons were shot. Although the attendance at the grand stand was not great, the entrance fees were so large that the tournament resulted in a small profit to the State Association. — June 30

A protest again the shooting of the pigeons soon made it into a Pennsylvania newspaper.

That indefatigable and over-zealous friend of dumb animals, Mr. Henry Bergh, President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is just now making himself rather ridiculous in connection with pigeon shooting. ... Mr. Bergh raves over this "cruelty" and talks nonsense about the birds being drugged with laudanum to make them unable to fly quickly. Now the members of the Convention are sportsmen, and men of position, and would not countenance any such proceeding, and the battues on such an occasion, are no more inhuman that is any sort of gunning. Mr. Bergh is determined to be present with his officers to look out for infringements of the law of 1875, which amply protects sporting clubs. — June 25, Carbon Advocate

There were additional indications of an obvious displeasure, readily indicated by derisionary tone and language.

It was computed that over eleven thousand pigeons were either killed or maimed at the so-called tournament of brutal fellows styling themselves sportsmen on Coney Island last week, leaving about as many more to be slaughtered or crippled during the present week. In addition to the natural bewilderment resulting from being thrown from a dark trap into a noisy crowd of the riff-raff of a great city, the pigeons in this case were greatly emaciated by the long and close confinement incident to their transportation from Kansas, thus making them an easier prey than usual to the marksmen. It is, therefore, not surprising that what they call the score is one of the best on record. But how the participants in the cowardly and inhuman pastime can go home and look their wife and children in the face, after indulging in it, is more than most people can understand. — June 27, Washington D.C. Evening Star

There were other editorials with a similar theme.

The pleasure to be derived from hunting something seems to be the only explanation for the use of pigeons in the shooting matches. Balls can be sprung from a trap just as surely as birds — in fact, even more certainly, as springs of metal answer more directly than those of living tendon. The ball responds to the crack-shot with unfailing proof, and scores his work with a precision that cannot be extracted from the quivering limbs of a trapped pigeon. The much-vaunted masculine contempt for fuss and feathers might be expected to assist in the decision of this question, unless it is counteracted by a barbarous taste for blood. — July 1
Barbarous Pastime. The bringing of twenty thousand unhappy pigeons from the prairies of the West to be shot by persons who call themselves sportsmen is a barbarous business and a blot on our civilization. the socalled sport is no more ennobling than that witnessed in the most depraved rat pit or dog fight. It is a case of the strong against the weak, to the great disadvantage of the latter. Let the sportive gentlemen who are pegging away at the pigeons test their skill on some less helpless game. Let them try a few vultures, or bald eagles, or South American condors, or owls, or hawks, or even bats. The larger of these birds would turn in destructive vengeance on their tormentors, while the smaller ones would cause them grievous annoyance. the bats would scare the sportsmen by the insertion of sharp claws among their hair. Why need they confine themselves to these creatures which navigate the air? Let them try rats. It is quite as noble to shoot a rat as a pigeon. Rats are vermin and pigeons are not. The rat is an unlovely being, whose flesh is not highly prized for food. Much skill is involved in shooting a rat which has a few seconds start of the shooter. Yet the murder is cruel. In the State of New York, where the butchery of the pigeons is going on, the "sport" happens to be legalized by a special enactment. Even if Legislatures will legalize such wanton cruelty, public opinion should frown it out of existence. — July 5, Memphis Public Ledger

There would be changes, as indicated by the targets used in subsequent shooting tournaments in different states. In 1885, numerous reports indicated the use of clay pigeons. Pigeons were still being used at multiple events, especially in Texas and California, though any indication of the actual species was not obvious with the scant details reported.