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Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania, J.C. French, 1919
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Submitted by & ReTyped for Tri-Counties by Marion Scherer,
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From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French


Some Adaptable Foreign Varieties
Structure and Mode of Flight
Process of Netting the Adult Birds

 We now shall sketch briefly some foreign varieties of pigeons that have been, more or less, domesticated and some of them changed by the process of selective breeding and admixture of the original stock, thus creating strains that seem adapted to the desires of fanciers and those who consider utility for special purposes.  These original species are considered adaptable varieties, as well as some American pigeons.  The Stock Dove, (Colmba oenas), is about fourteen inches long and excellent for food.  It makes its nests in stocks and stumps of trees and is common in many parts of the eastern hemisphere, although a European bird.  The head, neck, back and wing coverts are bluish-gray; chin and sides of the neck being glossed with green, and the breast is purplish-red; the throat is wine-color, giving this bird the specific name “oenas;” the under surface is gray, of several tones, with white outer webs; the beak is deep orange, eyes are scarlet and the legs and toes are red.

 The Wood-Pigeon, (Colmba palumbus), is about seventeen inches long and is known by a variety of names in Europe, such as Cushat, Quist, Wood-guest and also as Ring-dove, owing to feathers of its neck, tipped with white, forming portions of rings set obliquely on the side of the neck.  The head, chin and part of the neck are blue-gray; the remainder of the neck and the breast are purple-red; the upper parts of the body are slate-gray, with wings a darkened hue, and primary qull feathers have black shafts, outer edges bordered with white; the under surface of the body is several shades of gray; the beak, orange, and eyes are topaz-yellow; base of beak is nearly white.  It is one of the commonest of European birds, breeding in almost every copse of trees and inhabiting the forest grounds in great abundance.  They are held in great estimation for the table, especially the squabs just before they are able to fly.  They are caught by boys who tie a string about their legs, fastening them to the branches while young, so they will be there in their nests when wanted.

 Domestic pigeons are chiefly modifications of the blue Rock-Pigeon, (Columa livia), and if permitted to mix feely display a tendency to revert to the original type of rock-dwellers, with simple plumage and black bars across the wings.  The adult bird is about a foot in length.  The adult bird is about a foot in length.  It is common over most of Europe, Northern Africa, and has even been found in Japan.  The pouter, the Jacobin, trumpeter and the fantail are all developed from this original race-stock by careful management and selective breeding, we have been told by fanciers.  The homing instinct has been developed for ages, and before the electric telegraph was utilized the carrier pigeon carried messages in many parts of the world.  When released, far from home, they rise to a great height, hover about for awhile in an undecided manner, and then they are off like the flight of an arrow on the return trip.

 The pigeons have their larger bones hollow, instead of solid or filled with marrow, like animals, being of a lighter make, combining great strength and surface for muscle leverage with least weight.  These hollow bones communicate with air sacs which open in to the lungs, so the hot, rarified air may be forced from the lungs into the hollow bones, thus effecting great buoyancy for their bodies as more atmospheric air is consumed in respiration, the dioxide being exhaled, and flight becomes more rapid and easier as they proceed into a long flight.  The hollow quills, perhaps, do a like service, as the bones, in assisting buoyancy in proportion to the exertion in the air, making the inhalations more abundant, oxidization rapid, and releasing the expanding gasses to charge the cavities, while carbonic acid gas, dioxide, is exhaled, to fall below, being heavier than atmosphere.

 The passenger pigeons were provided with a breast bone that was large and furnished with a deep keel, affording attachment for muscles of enormous size, which were devoted to drawing the wings forcibly downwards, in lifting strokes, while the conformation of the wings, to give the slight rotary action, so that the feathers beat the air with their flat sides, gave progress and speed, but presented their sharp edges as they returned for another stroke, like an oarsman “feathering” the blade of his oar in throwing it back for another stroke.  Their power of sight was remarkable, being adapted for near or distant objects, like many other birds, so that when passing a freshly sown field, like a streak in the air, they would swoop down, pick up all the grain in sight in a few moments, and go forward again, like a raging tempest, in haste to overtake their fellow flocks that had passed too far to right or left to observe the grain in the field, or they had been steering for another prize.

 In starting upon a journey from perches in the tall trees, passenger pigeons, at first, dipped slightly toward the earth and tobogganed down the decline with increasing velocity, in the general direction they wished to go, and skimmed along the valley, between the hills.  Then they began to rise above the hills and when high in the air, they trimmed their course by curving toward the exact place they sought, accelerating the pace until a speed of nearly a hundred miles an hour was attained, and maintained to the end of their trip, when they circled in a wide, declining plane and gently alighted upon the ground, with a roaring of wings like a fearful tempest, or sought the branches of trees beyond, in a graceful upward sweep that absorbed much of the momentum they had attained.

 To get the old pigeons as they passed along the valleys during the first dozen miles of their trips to their feeding grounds, the men rented cleared places upon the sandy flats along the rivers, removed the sod of a square rod, built a tepee of boughs at one side to form the ambush of two men, set their net at one edge of the bared ground, tied “stool-pigeons” to stakes in the ground, scattered corn and buckwheat around them to complete the “bed” that was ready for victims, and retired to the shade of their ambush to await the flocks of the morning flight.  The net was fastened at one square side to the ground and had weights of lead attached to the other three sides, with springs to throw it over the bed, whenever the controlling ropes, held by the men, should be given quick pulls, as the pigeons that alighted were picking up the grain.

 The stool-pigeons were captured wild pigeons, with eyelids sewn together, so they were blind for the time being, tied with strings two or three yards long, so they could fly up a little and drop down again upon the bed when they heard the flocks above their heads, thus attracting the passing pigeons to alight and partake of the grain around them, which they also saw and desired.  A few hundred would alight and crowd together on the bed as they hastily picked up the kernels of corn and then the smaller buckwheat, too absorbed to notice the net as it was sprung over them.  Their heads, raised through the meshes of the net, were then pinched between thumb and finger or crushed by the teeth of the men.

 From the Record and Star, Watsontown, Pennsylvania, July 13, 1917, Lew C. Fosnot, the editor, in describing a driving trip through the Pennsylvania mountains in which he had recently participated, says:  “Brush Valley furnished a diversion to our party in the shape of a wild- pigeon story that in spite of the earnestness and apparent lack of incentive to prevaricate or exaggerate on the part of our informant, is to be accepted with mental reservation.  Mr. Snook, a farmer residing near the Stover home, reports that last fall-in buckwheat time-he was visited by a flock of at least five hundred wild pigeons, and that the previous spring a flock of about half that size were seen on his place.  In the face of the fact that naturalists and wild bird lovers have been offering big rewards for even a single pair of wild pigeons, and that the species have long been regarded as extinct, this story seems highly improbable.  Notwithstanding the remoteness of the section of alleged visitation, it is too important an occurrence not to have been reported or discovered by interested persons.  The further fact that none of Mr. Snook’s neighbors saw the birds, which in such numbers should have been noticed throughout the entire valley, puts a climax to the doubts of the veracity of the story, forcing the conclusion that it was only a dream.

 (Brush Valley, Centre County, is the wildest section of the central part of Pennsylvania, lumbered over many years ago, and is nicely grown up with a new forest.  William Snook avers that he saw the wild pigeons in May and September, 1916.)

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