Passenger Pigeons Nest in Petoskey
by Harriet Kilborn
First published in 1954
For centuries the pigeons ranged the forested areas of the North American continent in multitudes that stagger the imagination. Then, within a span of twenty-five years in the 19th century, were seen in continually diminishing numbers until not a trace of them was left. The last living specimen died in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden September 1, 1914. The species was extinct.
The unusual feature of the Petoskey nesting in 1878 was that it was the last great nesting on record. The birds that survived the slaughter took wing and disappeared to the north. The pigeon flock coming into the Petoskey area to nest for the second consecutive year, that spring of '78, was miles long and so thick as to actually darken the sky. The rustling sound of their wings was likened to an approaching tempest. The spectacle was repeated twice daily, in the early morning and late afternoon, when they were in flight to and from their feeding grounds, often times many miles away from the nesting area.
During the morning flights the Little Traverse Bay bluffs looked like a skirmish line. The shooters stood so close together, and there was such a continual roar, from the flying birds and the shooting, that no one knew who killed the birds. Each man had all the boys he could get as retrievers, and the one with the most boys got the most birds. The guns were all muzzleloaders, and every now and then, in the hurry to load and fire, a ramrod would be shot into the air.
Shooting at the pigeons in flight was a popular sport. With the exception of the use of boys as retrievers, the bluff scene was duplicated in Audubon’s description of a flight in Kentucky he witnessed in 1813. It was at this time Audubon estimated the flock to contain over two billion birds, and reckoned they would eat over seven million bushels of nuts, acorns, grains, and/or seeds per day.
The nesting area was a place of uproar and confusion. The birds settled on the trees in such number that large trees as well as branches and limbs crashed to the ground, destroying the birds underneath. This and the feeding spots were the places where the birds were slaughtered by the tens of thousands.
Netting pigeons and shipping them to the large city markets became a full-scale commercial business from the 1860s on. It has been estimated that from four hundred to one thousand men were engaged in the business. Railroads and telegraph made it possible for the commercial operators to arrive practically with the pigeons. They came to the Petoskey nestings the springs of 1877 and 1878 and the slaughter was on here, as it had been elsewhere in previous years.
The Petoskey area Mossbacks were hungry, many of them. If it had not been for relief supplies received during the winter, they would have had to leave or starve. Money was gone, there was no work available in the near vicinity of their homes, and they were still busy clearing the homestead lands and planting crops. The pigeons who came from the sky were a crop to be harvested.
Working with the professional pigeon netters, fish nets fifty to seventy feet long were rigged in such a way as to trap the pigeons in large numbers at one swoop. All through the country the homesteaders decoyed the pigeons, caught them and sold them. Wagon load after wagon load rumbled into town. Live birds were packed and shipped in crates. Dead ones were picked, packed in barrels, and boated out. Various estimates of the number of birds shipped were made at the time and the largest was one million birds. It isn’t a pretty picture, but each season’s catch put from $30,000 to $40,000 in circulation and the amount was sufficient to last the settlers until the first crops were harvested.
Early on-the-spot accounts show that by 1878 steps were being taken to try to stop the wholesale slaughter of the nesting grounds. A company of men, including the US Marshall, quietly checked in at the Cushman House in Petoskey. Following their arrival the Sheriff was kept on the hop bringing in all those they tagged for arrest. The local paper warned, after the Marshall’s party had departed, that new men were being sent in and that all who wished to catch pigeons had best stay the proper distance away from the forbidden area. A game law was apparently on the books at that time which made it illegal to go into the nesting area proper after the birds. This last great nesting at Petoskey is reported to have covered something like 100,000 to 150,000 acres.
The wild pigeon, once the most abundant species ever known in any country, is no more. Its story is so incredible as to seem a legend. Perhaps in centuries to come it will be told and retold as a part of the folk-lore of the early Americans.