March 18, 2012 at 2:47 pm

In Michigan History

Slaughtered to extinction: Passenger pigeons in Michigan

Businessman, mayor and outdoorsman William Butts Mershon lived his life in Saginaw. He was born in 1856, and as a teen in the 1870s he loved to hunt. His father, who owned a lumber mill in Saginaw, went hunting with William and their bird dogs Sport, Bob and Ranger.

He wrote much later as an adult: "You may be curious to know what I look like as we trudge along Indian file … I am a chunk of a country lad topped by a woolen cap with ear tabs pulled down over my ears, a tippet [a long dangling scarf] around my neck, yarn mittens on my hands … my everyday pants are tucked into calfskin boots. My Irish water spaniel 'Sport' is tagging along behind. My gun is a sixteen gauge muzzle loader, sub and twist barrels, with dogs heads for hammers."

Mershon's favorite game birds were passenger pigeons, which numbered in the hundreds of millions in Michigan — the most numerous bird in the state. He would wait for the first sign of their return in April:

"There was a flight of pigeons that morning, the first one of the season, and behind the foremost flock another and another came streaming. … They swept (in) like a cloud. Crossing the river to the west they reached the woods near Jerome's mill and skirted the clearings or passed in waves over the tree tops, back of John Winter's farm, and then wheeled to the south."

Once in range it took little time to shoot and bring home birds by the dozens. As he said, "I was reckoned a pretty good shot and have a first rate gun." The only blemish on his hunting experiences was poachers. These were "the low-down men who would steal my birds," grabbing them up after he shot them. Since he was a boy there was little he could do about them, and his hatred of these thieves would only increase as he grew up.

Most common fowl

Passenger pigeons — or as they were called in Mershon's days, "wild pigeons" — were the most common wild fowl found in the Detroit farmer markets throughout the 19th century. They were similar to mourning doves but larger, 16 inches in length, with a slender neck, long tail feathers and narrow wings. They were more colorful than mourning doves with a dark blue head, back, and shoulders, a golden hued neck, and a rusty breast that faded to white at the belly.

Of course, they were well known in Michigan to the native Indians. Pottawatomie Chief Simon Pokagon from St. Joseph was a nationally known nature writer for magazines like Forest and Stream. He wrote in 1895 that the birds were called "O-me-me-wog" and that "It was proverbial with our fathers that if the Great Spirit had made a more elegant bird in plumage, form, and movement, He never did."

They moved across the Great Lakes and Midwest north as far as Hudson's Bay and south to Texas and northern Mexico in staggering numbers, millions upon millions of birds in deafening and defecating flocks roaring over the forests, farms and Great Lakes. Michigan was an important source of food and roost (some birds roost at night to rest as a group for protection against natural predators), with large nesting areas near Petoskey, Traverse City, Ludington, St. Joseph and elsewhere; the Pigeon River Area of northern Michigan was so named because of the birds.

It has been estimated that at one time, one out of three wild birds in America was a passenger pigeon; between three to five billion of them flew in endless undulating flocks in the skies. Chief Pokagon wrote in 1895 for another outdoors magazine, Chautuaguan:

"When a young man I have stood for hours admiring the movements of these birds ... ever varying in hue; and as the mighty stream, sweeping on at sixty miles an hour, reached some deep valley, it would pour its living mass headlong down hundreds of feet, sounding as though a whirlwind was abroad in the land.

"The sound of the birds was a mingling of sleigh bells, mixed with the rumbling of an approaching storm. While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front, millions of pigeons … they passed like a cloud through the branches of the high trees, through the underbrush and over the ground apparently overturning every leaf. Statue-like I stood half concealed by cedar boughs. They fluttered all about me, lighting on my head and shoulders; gently I caught two in my hands and carefully concealed them under my blanket."

Voracious eaters, destroying trees and crops

They were called passenger pigeons because they flew in a mass like passengers from one spot to another. They did not migrate as other birds do from one locale to another as the seasons change, but moved north to south and back across the continent from roost to roost, feasting on the "mast," or seeds, acorns, hackberries, hempseed, huckleberries, beech nuts, hemlock seeds, pine seeds, worms, caterpillars, Indian corn, rye, and wheat in the trees, bushes, forest floor and — hastening their demise — farmers' fields. They could strip a field of wheat within a few hours.

The famous ornithologist Alexander Wilson estimated that pigeons he dissected averaged one half pint of mast in their gullets; therefore, one flock he observed that was a mile wide and 240 miles long consumed more than 17,424,000 bushels of "the fruits of the forest" a day.

The flocks excoriated the landscape not only of food but also of trees. The sheer mass of so many birds collapsed trees. Hundreds nested in single trees. Alexander Wilson described the destruction caused by the enormous flocks as they roosted:

"The ground is covered to the depth of several inches with their dung; all the tender grass and under wood destroyed; the surface strewed with large limbs of trees broken down by the weight of the birds clustering one above another; and the trees themselves, for thousands of acres, killed as completely as if girdled by an ax."

A fog or snowstorm over the lake produced thousands of dead birds that dropped, confused and exhausted. One merchant captain on Lake Huron recorded masses of dead birds in the water for three hours as he chugged along the foggy coast.

The farmers had no love of the pigeons. The Niles Republican reported in May of 1860: "The wild pigeons in various localities have been very destructive to corn. … We hear of farmers who have had from 10 to 20 acres pulled out. Their nesting places are in the woods near the shoreline from which they pour forth in the morning by the thousands in search of food."

Another report from the Detroit Free Press in 1858 stated: "Wild pigeons sweep the late planted cornfields clean, pulling up the stalks and devouring every grain. … They cannot be driven away for when fired at they only rise to light again within a few rods."

Fifty to 60 cents a dozen

Early on there was little need for pigeons beyond personal use. People baked them in a pigeon pie — called la tourtiere in Detroit. They pickled pigeon breasts in vinegar to preserve them. They broiled them, roasted them, fricasseed them and made them into soup. They made a form of duck confit called Jugged Pigeon. Farmers fed dead pigeons to pigs, and used them as fertilizer on fields. But soon there began to be a commercial market for passenger pigeon in the cities.

At first some farmers would simply take their pigeons to town and sell them for 10 cents a dozen. But others began using dealers to ship dressed pigeons. In Chicago they sold for 50 to 60 cents a dozen. Baby pigeons called "squabs" fetched even more. Pigeons were shipped to the southern U.S. to feed slaves. There was a burgeoning market for live pigeons to be used in shooting contests. But the big market was New York City and Boston, where pigeons fetched two dollars a dozen by the late 1870s.

The ornithologist John James Audubon recorded schooners in the Hudson River which he assumed were piled with coal but after a closer look he saw that they were mountains of dead passenger pigeons dressed and waiting to be sold to New York markets and restaurants. Michigan was a major source for pigeons sold to New York and New England markets since the eastern U.S. had been hunted out.

In Detroit the biggest wild game dealer was H.T. Phillips. He was known throughout the U.S. and even in Europe for wild game. Phillips supplied hotels with bear meat; he was the largest dealer of wild venison in the U.S., and he was the biggest dealer in Michigan for pigeons. Ironically, he was an active member of the Audubon Society, and unlike other dealers, bought pigeons only in season. He tried to get the small Michigan towns to stop sending so many pigeons and at times refused to buy them.

In Detroit during pigeon season Detroit historian Silas Farmer wrote that you could kill hundreds of birds by swinging a walking stick at them. Around 1880, Dr. Isaac Voorheis of Frankfort, Mich., captured 1,316 pigeons in one cast of a net over baited territory. Single birds were rigged to a stool and made to move about, which attracted hundreds of birds to be captured (and gave birth to the term "stool pigeon").

'A scene of uproar and confusion'

The opening of railroads linking the Great Lakes area with New York resulted in 300,000 passenger pigeons being sent to New York in 1855. However, the most devastating killings were during the 1860s and '70s. These figures were recorded as a normal part of commerce by H.T. Phillips' company:

  • 1860 (23 July) saw 235,200 birds sent east from Grand Rapids.

  • In 1869, Van Buren County, Michigan, shipped 7,500,000 birds to the east.

  • 1874 saw 1,000,000 birds shipped east from Oceana County.

  • 1876 saw 1,600,000 shipped east from Oceana County (400,000 per week during the season).

  • In 1880, 527,000 birds were shipped east from Michigan.

    Audubon describes the scene of these birds in 1816, a year in which a South Pacific volcano erupted and altered the climate in the U.S., which resulted in a failure of crops and a massive famine across the Midwest, including Detroit. Some areas had only passenger pigeons to eat. Audubon writes in his autobiography of his experience with passenger pigeons in Ohio:

    "… I arrived there nearly two hours before sunset. Few pigeons were to be seen, but a great number of persons with horses and wagons, guns and ammunition, had already established encampments on the borders. Two farmers from the vicinity of Russelville, distant more than one hundred miles, had driven upward of three hundred hogs to be fattened on the pigeons which were to be slaughtered. …

    "The dung lay several inches deep, covering the whole extent of the roosting place like a bed of snow. Many trees two feet in 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. Everything proved to me the number of birds … 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 sulfur (to burn and asphyxiate them) others with torches of pine knots, many with poles, and the rest with guns. Everything 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 … As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me.

    "Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole men. The birds continued to pour in. The fires were lighted and a magnificent as well as wonderful and almost terrifying sight presented itself. The pigeons, arriving by the thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another until solid masses as large as hogsheads [as in barrel-sized wine hogsheads] were formed on the branches all around. Here and there perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar 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."

    Petoskey, the pigeons' final stand

    Heavenly Father, bless us,

    And keep us all alive.

    There's ten of us to dinner

    And not enough for five.

    Hodge's grace, Anonymous, 1850

    The pigeon kill in 1878 outside of Petoskey, Mich., was considered the last big slaughter of pigeons which led to their extinction. By the 1860s there was a group of 500 men who called themselves "professional pigeoners." Their killing methods, the railroad, and the advent of the telegraph which kept them aware at all times of the flocks, ensured the pigeons' doom. However, most people who killed pigeons were farmers and their families.

    H.T. Phillips wrote to William B. Mershon regularly after he had retired in 1904, reminiscing about the pigeon business. As he said in one letter: "... there were six hundred names in my registrar book of pigeoners…. Nearly everyone of the farmers, and their wives and daughters were pigeon catchers."

    During these times, farming in and around Petoskey was brutal for the pioneer homesteaders. After purchasing the 40 or 80 acres of northern land from the land grant office in Detroit with little money, they sometimes walked more than 260 miles from Detroit to get there, toting their belongings on their backs.

    Once they reached the Petoskey area there were few roads, so they walked through deep forest to find their 40 or 80 acres. Many of them were veterans of the Civil War. Some of them were men who had lost their shirts in the Panic of '73 [also known as "the Long Depression," which lasted until 1876] and needed a new start.

    Very few of these settlers were woodsmen or experienced farmers and many had only enough money to get to Petoskey, being assured that they could sell the trees on their acreage for capital to get started. In most cases the trees were left untouched or were chopped and burned to clear the land, for at that time there was no profitable way to haul them through the woods and get them out to market.

    In northern Michigan they were called "mossbacks." These were the men and their families who lived in holes dug in the ground until they could get cabins up. They worked till they dropped from exposure and exhaustion. Then, in the spring of 1877, after an extended winter, fearful tales started coming out of Petoskey: the mossbacks were starving. From the view of the starving settlers the arrival of the pigeons was nothing less than a miracle, a gift from God.

    By this time William B. Mershon was already a wealthy man. He'd made a fortune in the lumber business. With his brother he started a successful band saw business and had several other ventures. Later, he was the mayor of Saginaw from 1895 to 1896. An avid outdoorsman, he had a train car he called "the City of Saginaw" equipped for hunting parties across Michigan and the western U.S., with guests such President Grover Cleveland.

    He was a gourmet cook, had a respected wine cellar, and read and wrote poetry along with essays on fishing, hunting and the outdoor life. But like many outdoor sportsmen, the relentless slaughter of wildlife — such as passenger pigeons — infuriated him and left him sickened; professional pigeoners were no different than the poachers who stole his kill as a boy.

    There were laws protecting pigeons, but they were weak, unenforceable and completely ignored. The coming pigeon kill in Petoskey was well known. Mershon equipped his train car and sent four friends to Petoskey to witness the law breaking.

    Killing birds from daylight to dark, for 50 days

    The pigeoners poured into Petoskey. Mershon's friend noted from the hotel register that they came from New York, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland, Iowa, Virginia, Ohio, Texas, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota and Missouri. The pigeoners hurried about town, comparing market reports, discussing the price for squabs and quotes for live birds. They established packing houses and wagons with teams for hauling out dead birds. Locals would be hired for these jobs as well as being trained on trapping and killing birds.

    The pigeons arrived by the millions to roost and the pigeoners were stretched out alongside the birds for 40 miles. They killed birds from daylight to dark, hauling wagon after wagon of dead and live birds for 50 days. It was estimated that they may have killed a billion birds.

    Mershon's men rode horses up and down the line, breaking traps, harassing the pigeoners, prodding the lone overworked sheriff to prevent illegal slaughter. They were seen as a nuisance and chased off with shotguns.

    Eventually by summer it was over. They wrote about their efforts "to check the slaughter" in a Chicago publication, American Field Magazine. A music professor and friend of Mershon's, H.B. Roney, who led the group, said that the work was futile: four against 2,000 (professionals and locals).

    To counter the bad publicity, one Chicago game dealer, E.T. Martin, who Mershon later referred to as "the pigeon butcher" in his book, issued a pamphlet in which he justified the killing of pigeons in Petoskey:

    "This whole pigeon trade was a perfect Godsend to a large portion of Emmett County. The land outside of Petoskey is taken up by homesteaders, who, between clearing their land, scanty crops, poor soil, large families, and small capital are poorer than Job's turkey's prodigal son … and in years past have had all they could do fighting famine and cold … harrowing tales of need and destitution. … "

    Gone for good

    Mershon spent the rest of his life trying to find remnants of the great flocks of passenger pigeons, hoping they were not extinct but merely scattered or relocated. He wrote to people across the country; he exchanged letters with John Burroughs, the famous California naturalist who reported seeing passenger pigeons in Texas and New York in 1906. Chief Pokagon reported small flocks of nesting pigeons at the headwaters of the Au Sable River. Mershon would take his rail car out to try to confirm sightings but he could never find the pigeons.

    In addition to the wanton slaughter, other factors likely contributed to the pigeons' extinction. Contemporary biological studies of the birds show that they were highly gregarious birds that required huge numbers to court and nest. A pair usually raised only one squab. A reduced food supply might have sent the birds farther and farther north, where they may have become subject to intolerable temperatures and unfavorable nesting conditions, or perhaps they were hit by an epidemic of trichomoniasis (pigeon canker), the scourge of mourning doves in the South.

    So far as records show, the last wild specimen in the United States was shot in Downriver Detroit near Delray in 1898 by H.P. Clements of Detroit. A captive pigeon named Martha, believed to be the world's last passenger pigeon, died Sept. 1, 1914 in Cincinnati.

    W.B. Mershon died in Saginaw in 1943 after a long illness, his pigeons "that swept like a cloud across the sky" long gone. In his quiet days alone, the lines of the poem "In Evening Air" by the great Saginaw poet Theodore Roethke might have been something he understood.

    "I see, in evening air, how darkness comes down on what we do."