Hagerbaum painting of ppigeons through a beech woods.

Sunday we drove through Pennsylvania pigeon country, much of which is protected as the Pennsylvania Wilds. In the late 1860s and 70s, the last period when there were still lots of pigeons, the huge flocks generally gathered to nest (there were exceptions) in either NY, WI, MI, ON, or PA depending on where oak or beech had produced a surfeit of nuts. “The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania” by John French, one of only four books on the species, is filled with great stories of this bird and the people who hunted it so relentlessly. Potter, McKean, and Warren Counties provided beech-covered hills and numerous streams that drew the birds during masting years.

A major sub-obsession of mine has been a search for photos of dead passenger pigeons.    Despite the many written descriptions spanning three centuries of the killing of these birds there seems to be a total absence of photographic documentation: no photos of a guy with one dead ppigeon, none of wagons filled with dead birds, none of barrels of pigeons being lined up along a railroad track or a Great Lakes dock, none of dead bird hanging from the stall of a game market, none of coops with live birds to be used for food or shooting, or of shooters at urban trap meets showing off their dead birds. When we stopped at the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum in Galeton, I asked the staffer if she knew of any archives where I might find such photos. She immediately told me about Bob Currin, the expert on local history. She called him up and he agreed to meet us at the Potter County Historical Society in Coudersport. It turns out that society collection lacks any photos (except for one of a live Martha, the last of the species), but it does have a net that was used to catch pigeons. And even more exciting, they have a stool on which blinded (with thread) “Judas” pigeons would perch. When a wild flock flew over, the pigeoners would yank a thread causing the stool to move and the bird to flutter. This would hopefully lure the birds to descend where they could be caught. (Hence the name, by the way, stool pigeon.)

Bob Currin at the Potter County Historical Society, showing us a net used in trapping pigeons and a stool where a live decoy would be placed to attract passing flocks.

Bob than took us on a driving tour. We visited Dingham Run, a creek that hosted one of the last nestings known in the state. As I took photos, I was serenaded by a young raven, a sound I rarely hear. Then we headed to a seemingly undistinguished rise that is in fact unique: it is the head waters of three rivers that each flow towards very different destinations. The Genessee flows north into Lake Ontario; the Susquehenna heads east towards the Atlantic Ocean; and the Alleghany feeds the Ohio on its way to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.

A triple divide.

On our last morning we met Stephen Gordon, representative of the Faithkeeper School in Steamburg, New York, on the Seneca Nation of Indians, Allegany Territory. The school was founded as a place to teach children the language and culture of their Seneca heritage. The relationship between the Seneca and the passenger pigeon is the best documented of any Indian nation. Part of this is due to their occupying upstate New York and having encountered the Jesuits and other early white visitors who kept detailed records. It is also because a number of Seneca were interviewed in the early twentieth century about their participation in pigeon hunts. One aspect of interest is that the Seneca would refrain from killing nesting adults and would take only squabs of a certain age. This would ensure that the adults would complete the process and not be forced to leave before young were produced. And the Indians tended to use blunt arrows to knock the squabs from the nest and other more quiet means of collecting birds in contrast to the white approach of blazing away with rifle fire.

Steve gathered an impressive group to hear our presentation, including Brad John, Seneca Nation of Indians Treasurer. We had visited the Seneca-Iroquois Museum the afternoon before and were pleased that Jare Cardinal of the museum was present. She has wide experience in the museum world and was enthusiastic about the project. One idea that came up was making a video highlighting the connection between the Seneca people and the passenger pigeon, including footage showing the pigeon dance, a social dance often performed at community gatherings. That is precisely the kind of material that could make this effort so engaging to a wide audience.

Everyone was in a big circle but Steve graciously acceded to my request that I sit at a table so I could take notes.  The use of the word “spiritual” to describe someone is grossly over used in my view, but I have met a small handful of people who manifest such calm, caring, consideration, and depth of thought and feeling that the word is appropriate. Steve is such a person. He introduced me and the project by sharing his concerns that unless we heed the message of the passenger pigeon, we might lose many species that we now take for granted: if the passenger pigeon can disappear, so might the red-tailed hawk. Steve gets it.

Members of the Seneca community plus guests.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>