With the netters,
he boarded a special train in Milwaukee, a train with coaches for the netters
and boxcars for their equipment and supplies. It was a most felicitous journey.
Several of the company were talented musicians and had brought their guitars
and mouth organs. Fine bourbon was shared, stories were swapped, and, all in
all, the good-natured manliness of the occasion started many down the path
toward lifelong friendships.
upon request, demonstrated the proper stance for making a good wing shot: left
foot slightly advanced, right foot as a brace, and left hand advanced to the
tip of the fore-end; the gun stock not at the shoulder but halfway between
elbow and armpit. Should the bird fly either to right or left, the right foot
is used as a pivot on which the body swings around.
fraternity of sportsmen plied the famous marksman with questions. Should the
shotgun barrels be choked or not? What is the optimum distance for a clean
kill? What effect has the Parker Trap had on the sport of pigeon shooting? Is
it true that clipping the toes off will make the bird fly like a rocket when it
is released from the trap? Had Captain Leek ever shot against this new man
Bogardus? When Annie Oakley and Captain Leek held their famous match in Seneca,
N.Y., was it true that she shot her first 50 birds from the hip?
By the time the
special train arrived at its destination, the small town of Mauston bustled and
hummed with preparations. A tent city had been put up along a rail spur,
because the number of netters and curious hangers-on was triple the population
of the village. Cargoes of salt and empty barrels were unloaded and stored.
Heavy wagons crashed back and forth through the town, drawn by teams of horses
whipped this side of madness. Small boys ran errands, each one with the
breathless certainty that the success of the whole endeavor rested on his
mission. On the appeal of the freight agent, the town bank closed down for a
couple of days so that the tellers could help with the freight accounting and
bookkeeping. More netters and a few journalists, including a team from The
Police Gazette, arrived on the evening train, and a string of silent, sealed
freight cars came in later from the north. A glistening patina of frost on the
sides of the freight cars indicated the cargo was ice, freshly cut from the
still-frozen lakes of Canada.
A large tent was
erected behind the station to be used for processing and packing. Just across
the tracks another sort of processing plant had been set up by a group of
amiable young women who had arrived from Chicago on the noon train. The Bible
Institute of Cairo, Ill. established a small mission to serve soup as well as
spiritual sustenance. The Carnegie library shipped in a load of books. Thus, in
a matter of 48 hours, the weight of Western culture followed the railroad
tracks into this small prairie village in Wisconsin.
It's not easy to
tell this tale straight, for it can become just another numbers game. We seem
possessed by numbers these days. We consume zeroes. We have become saturated
with accounts of fire and bombings, mass slaughters and controlled starvations.
Figures like 2,500 dead only whet the appetite for 44,000 lost, and that makes
us hungry for, say, 500,000 annihilated, which in turn gives us an appetite for
1 million dead. What I am getting at is that at the end of the kill it was
estimated that 2 million—2 million—pigeons were trapped or killed. This does
not include those left to rot on the forest floor or to be gobbled by pigs that
local farmers were permitted to turn loose in the woods. Thousands and
thousands of birds were iced or salted, packed in barrels and shipped off to
market. Captain Leek paid for 550 birds, captured alive and unharmed, that were
shipped to the grateful membership of the Dexter Park Sportsman Club of
Providence, R.I. as a gift in appreciation for the warm reception given him
earlier in the year. All of the birds Leek sent survived the trip in good
shape, although taking about three times as long by freight as they would have
on their wings—if they migrated east and west instead of north and south. The
pigeons turned out to be, in the words of the club secretary's note of thanks
to Captain Leek, "the most challenging birds at 20 yards we've ever
released, flying straight and clean. It was a splendid afternoon you provided
It's all there,
in papers and books, in Captain Leek's journals, in the journals of others, in
newspaper stories, historical society reports...I've added nothing, exaggerated
began in the morning when an army of hunters left town on greased axles and
muffled hooves. Several miles down the road was a small rise that gave a fine
perspective in all directions. The countryside appeared to be one vast wheat
field. To the southwest lay the forest, thick and wild, with large oaks as well
as sycamore, dogwood, some spruce and elm. Captain Leek always carried two
shotguns in his personal baggage when traveling, but he did not take either one
to the hunt, for fear there might be a law against it in Wisconsin. New York
State had passed a law in 1862 that prohibited the discharge of any firearms
within one mile of a pigeon nesting. Some journals had hailed that law as a
measure to preserve the pigeon, until they began to suspect that the strongest
lobby for the bill, the one really responsible for its passage, had been
financed by the wholesale poultry industry. In effect, the New York law
permitted professional netters and trappers to go about their work in peace,
with no danger of being wounded by stray shots.
Suddenly the pale
dawn sky went black, as if one of those early photographers had fitted a cap
over the lens of heaven. An eerie sound swept over the hunters, like that of a
gale roaring down the prairie, but not a blade of timothy, not a finger of new
wheat stirred. The sound screamed in their ears and some of the horses reared,
looking wildly about for the destruction that surely was upon them. Close to a
million pigeons were rising from the forest. They took off in a gigantic
column, formed themselves into a gigantic blot and swept in a wide flank across
No, they had not
been frightened by the men. This was a normal feeding procedure, for the
passenger pigeon rarely ate and nested in the same place. A fastidious bird.
Quite often, as in this case, the feeding ground would be at some distance.
This flight of birds was on its way to a near-primeval beechwood 50 miles off.
These were adult males that had taken off, leaving the hens to tend the nests,
for they took turns, and the toms usually left the nests in the morning.