16 May 2014

Passenger, or Wild Pigeon - An Extract

The multitude of wild pigeons is our woods is astonishing. Indeed, after having viewed them so often, and under so many circumstances, I even now feel inclined to pause, and assure myself that what I am going to relate is fact. Yet I have seen it all, and that too, in the company of persons, who, like myself, were struck with amusement.

In passing over the barrens, a few miles beyond Hardensburgh, I observed the pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye, in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence and began to mark with my pencil, making dot for every flock that passed. In a short time, finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 168 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on, and still met more the further I proceeded. The air was literally filled with pigeons, the light of noon day was observed as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots not unlike inciting flakes of snow, and the continued bur of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.

It may not perhaps be out of place to attempt an estimate or the numbers of Pigeons contained in one of these mighty flocks; and of the quality of food daily consumed by its members. The inquiry will tend to show the astonishing bounty of the great Author of Nature in providing for the wants of his creatures. Let us take a column of one mile in breadth, which is far below the average size; and suppose it passing over us without interruption for three hours, at the rate of above one mile in the minute. This will give us a parallelogram of 180 miles by 1, covering 180 square miles. Allowing two pigeons to the square yard, we have one billion one hundred and fifteen millions one hundred and thirty-six thousand pigeons in one flock. As every pigeon daily consumes fully half a pint of food, the quantity necessary for supplying this vast multitude must be eight million, seven hundred and twelve thousand bushels per day.

Let us now inspect, their place of rendezvous. One of these curious roosting-places on the banks of the Green River in Kentucky, I repeatedly visited. It was, as is always the case, in a portion of the forest where the trees were of great magnitude, and where there was little underwood; I rode through it upwards of forty miles; and crossing it in different parts, found its average breadth to be rather more than three miles. My first view of it was about a fortnight subsequent to the period when they had made choice of it, and I arrived there nearly two hours before sunset. Few pigeons were then to be seen, but a great number of persons, with bones and wagons, guns and ammunition, had already established encampments on the borders. Two farmers from the vicinity of Russellsville, distant more then a hundred miles, had driven upwards of three hundred hogs to be fattened on the pigeons which were to be slaughtered. Here and there, the people employed in plucking and salting what had already been procured, were seen sitting in the midst of large piles of these birds. The dung lay several inches deep, covering the whole extent of the roosting-place, like a bed of snow. Many trees two feet it diameter, I observed, were broken off at no great distance from the ground, and the branches of many of the largest and tallest had given way, as if the forest had been swept, by a tornado. Every thing proved to me that the number of birds resorting to this part of the forest must be immense beyond conception. As the period of their arrival approached, their foes anxiously, prepared to receive them. Some were furnished with iron pots containing sulphur, others with torches of pine knots, many with poles, and the rest with guns. The sun was lost to our view, yet not a pigeon had arrived. Every thing was ready, and all eyes were gazing on the clear sky, which appeared in glimpses amidst the tall trees. Suddenly there burst forth a general cry of "Here they come." The noise which they made, though, yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close reefed vessel. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by thc pole-men. The birds continued to pour in, the fires were lighted, and a magnificent, at well as wonderful and almost terrifyinq sight presented itself. The pigeons arriving by thousands alighted every where, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogsheads were formed on the branches all around. Here and there the branches gave way under the weight with a crash, and falling to the ground destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of efforts and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading. No one dared venture within the line of devastation. The hogs had been penned up in day time, the picking up of the dead and wounded being left for the next morning's employment. The pigeons were constantly coming and it was it midnight before I perceived a decrease in the number of those who came.

The uproar continued the whole night; and as I was anxious to know to what distance the sound reached, I sent off a man, accustomed to perambulate the forest, who, returning two hours afterwards, informed me he bad heard it distinctly when three miles distant from the spot. Towards the approach of day, the noise in some measure subsided; long before objects were distinguishable, the pigeons began to move off in a direction quite different from that in which they had arrived the evening before, and at sunrise all that were able to fly had disappeared. The howlings of the wolves now reached our ears, and the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears, raccoons, opossums and polecats were seen sneaking off whilst eagles and hawks of different species, accompanied by a crowd of vultures, came to supplant them, and enjoy their share of the spoil.

January 21, 1832. Boston Masonic Mirror 3(30): 23.5.