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Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania, J.C. French, 1919
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From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French

Chapter II
Customs, Flights and Nesting Grounds – Last Appearance, Of Noted Birds in the Central Hardwood Belt

 Upon the subjects of nesting grounds and of the migratory flights of the Passenger Pigeons the legends have been numerous and wonderful, during the last 200 years and more.  Wherever the beech-mast was plentiful, which may roughly outlined as “the central hardwood belt, “ and many conifer regions surrounding the same, in which grew much beech timber in groves of many other kinds of trees.  From the Niagara it ran east, then south, passing through central New Jersey; thence southwest, following the eastern and southern edge of the Piedmont plateau to central Alabama; thence in a westerly direction into Oklahoma; thence north through that state to, approximately, its northeastern corner; thence continuing in a northeasterly direction through Missouri and Illinois to the northwest corner of Indiana; thence northeast to Lake St. Clair in Michigan; thence east through Ontario to the place of beginning.
 The territory thus included embraces parts of Canada, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois and Michigan.  Entirely included within this boundary are Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.  From Lake St. Clair the belt of hardwoods, including beech timber, extended in a north west direction to the northern peninsula; thence west to the head of Lake Superior in Minnesota, and thence north and east to the vicinity of James Bay.
 Throughout this hardwood belt the Passenger Pigeons were known, and far beyond, when they sought the foods of seasons when beech-mast could not be obtained.  In small flocks they spread abroad over the adjacent forest and plain to procure subsistence.  Scouting flocks followed the receding snow line toward the north, in spring, to locate their favorite food for rearing their young.  When it had been discovered in vast quantities, the news spread and, flock by flock, their fellows came, formed colonies in the secluded nooks of the forest, near the heads of the brooks where they loved to drink and bathe.
 Nests were prepared – flimsy affairs in the tree-tops, consisting of platforms of twigs and sticks laid across the branches and loosely bound together – as soon as a colony had gathered in one spot.  Other wards assembled in other streams near the first colony, until a city extended forty miles or more, along the chain of hills from which the streams flowed to meet some river or larger creek.  The width of the city might be two or three miles or much more, sometimes twenty miles.  Between the wards of the pigeon city there were avenues in the forest where no nest were built.  These might be one milre, or five miles wide, so the actual nesting colonies occupied only 3 per cent of the townships and counties the pigeon city was built across, sometimes much less than 3 per cent.
 In early days pigeons were so plentiful that a forest would seem almost entirely occupied by nests and the roosts of numerous pigeons that had no nests.  The males cover the eggs and the young about half the time the females go in separate flocks to feeding grounds.  The sexes seem to be divided into shifts, for all the males at one period and all the females at another equal period.  But in this there are variations, owing to distance from feeding grounds.  The male is on duty while the female is away.
 After choosing their mates their custom seems to be of strict loyalty to each other and so devotedly attached that when death takes one of them the other remains single.  With abundance of their favorite food available, two eggs are usually laid at a nesting; but it has been averred by unimpeachable testimony that in the larger cities the general rule is, but one egg to each nest.  They usually nest three or four times in summer, as they follow the snowline northward; but in winter they loaf in the southland and become fat.
 The chronicles of earlier writers indicate that Pennsylvania streams all had pigeon cities in their environs, the Delaware, Susquehanna and Allegheny valleys.  In 1870 there was a large city, and in 1886 the last pigeon city, along the Allegheny and its tributaries.
 The winter of 1876-7 was an open one.  The farmers of our northern tier counties did their plowing in December and January, and the later half of February was similar to Indian Summer; so oats were sown in the first days of March and many migratory birds remained all winter, at the north.  Heavy snow, falling in March, caused the death of many by starvation and exposure.  Concerning pigeons in the southern counties of Pennsylvania, Mr. Hench, of Altoona, told the story in a letter to the Altoona Tribune, last winter, as follows:
A.L. Hench of Broad Avenue, Altoona Writes of Great Flocks and Hunting Them at Their Feeding Grounds
 Atcheson L. Hench, of 2527 Broad Avenue, is numbered among the residents of this city, that hunted wild or passenger pigeons in this vicinity when they were numerous at masts in Cambria County back some forty-two years ago.  In the following letter he relates some of his experiences in hunting the pigeons and throws some light on the habits of the birds:
 When a boy in Perry County, Pennsylvania, I saw many flocks of pigeons in wheat planting season, and I saw their depredations on the wheat fields.  In December of the year 1872, I removed to Alum Bank, Bedford County, Pennsylvania, and during the winter of 1875 or 1876, about the first of January, that portion of the Allegheny mountains, where the line divided the counties of Cambria and Somerset is located was visited by millions of pigeons.  There was no snow on the ground during January and February of that year, and mast in the form of beechnuts and chestnuts was abundant.  It was not generally known that they were there, although I lived within eight miles of this locality, until February 1.  About that date, their presence became known to me and I, with others, went up to hunt for them.  When we arrived we found hunters there from Bedford, Johnstown, Pittsburgh, Altoona, and even such distant points as New York.
 The pigeons roosted in the cedar swamps in northeastern Cambria County, and in the morning they would fly from their roosts and cover thousands of acres.  When in flight, they made a noise like a passing freight train.  You could stand for an entire day on one spot and either shoot at those on the wing or at those which settled on the trees nearby.  I made several trips during the month of February and about the first of March, several of us took provisions and feed for our horses and set out, intending to make a two days hunt.  We spent the night at the house of a friend near the feeding grounds of the pigeons.  During the night, snow fell and covered the ground, burying the mast.  We went into the timber in the snow, but only a few pigeons appeared.  After that no more pigeons were seen, having left for parts unknown.  Some people, more greedy than myself, visited their roosts at night and shot them from their perch, bringing them away by the bag-full.
 At this time referred to, there were thousands of acres of virgin timber, consisting of beech, hemlock, sugar and chestnut, in the locality where the birds were seen.  Since then the mountain has been denuded of large timber by the operation of large sawmills and coal operations. – Altoona Tribune.

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Published On Tri-Counties Site On 7/23/2001
By Joyce M. Tice