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The hunters moved quietly off the road and across the wheat field toward the edge of the forest. We can assume that the farmer who owned the field was compensated for the damage done to his crop. Near the woods, tents were erected for dormitories, a mess hall and a small infirmary. At a suitable distance, an orderly network of latrines was dug. The camp was under the supervision of a retired master sergeant of the U.S. Cavalry, a veteran of the Indian wars. Other tents were erected, and in these were placed long tables, piles of gunnysacks, barrels, bags of salt. Practically every woman in town was there, sleeves rolled up, heavy canvas aprons tied snugly. It was now near full day and the first sweep had to be started before the male birds returned While the camp was being established the hunters had set large nets between the trees of the forest. Some called these purse nets, and it was a good name for them. Others set up big iron pots in the woods over fires to cook sulphur. Yet others cut long limbs to be used as poles.
Above them, the pigeons' saucer-shaped nests clotted the branches of the trees like fungus growths. It was too early in spring for leaves to be on the trees, but the number of these nests was enough to subdue the light, making the men's work below more difficult. We're talking about more than half a million pigeon nests, each one with a plump, fuzzy squab in it peering over the edge.
These small pigeons, their crops swollen with the food their parents pushed down their throats, were the prime objects of all this preparation. These downy fledglings were what had caused that freight agent to finger his telegraph key. The delicacy of squab. It was a favorite of Diamond Jim Brady's when he dined at Luchow's. The appetite for these succulent birds was never sated and indeed increased worldwide as processing and transportation techniques improved. Adult pigeons were also trapped for the market and, though tougher and gamier, they brought a better price than chicken. The flavor of the flesh could be improved if the birds were trapped live and fed a diet of grain before being prepared for the table.
From their nests, the fat little squabs watched all the activity below, their black bills turning this way and that as their soft breasts pressed against the coarsely woven mats of twigs. They were about a week from their first flight. The larger female birds were creating a dreadful racket, screeching as they whizzed through the trees like gray missiles. Audubon said these birds retained a vestigial coo that was used only in quiet moments of courtship. Otherwise, their great numbers demanded a cry that could be heard. Thoreau said their call reminded him of creaking tree limbs. Every one of them—millions of them, you must remember—was putting out a full-throated keeck-keeck, keeck-keeck that became a roar that could be heard miles away.
Their best defense was their droppings. It would have routed any rambler who might have stumbled upon the nesting ground, for it fell in a steady bluish-white rain. But the professional hunters were prepared: each wore a leather or cloth helmet and an armorlike suit of sackcloth to protect against the drizzle of excrement. Heavy boots were also necessary, for in some places the stuff already covered the forest floor.
Did anyone give a signal? Did anyone stand at the edge of the forest, when all was ready, and blow a bugle? Did anyone vault into the crook of a tree, raise his cap and cry, "C'mon, boys, c'mon"? My ancestor makes no mention of any such command, but perhaps the mayor of Mauston raised a handkerchief or lit a flare. Something. I'd like to think that someone said something, gave the order, rather than that the slaughter commenced unbidden, casually.
In any event, the large pots of sulphur were cooking, sending up suffocating fumes. The small birds, unable to fly, wobbled out of their nests, took one or two steps along a weaving limb, then tumbled to the ground. Nests close to the ground were pushed over by the poles and the nurslings caught. Some of the squabs were so fat that they burst apart on impact with the ground, which, of course, rendered them quite useless.
The great number of them were prepared for market with almost no effort. There were few feathers to pluck. Most important was the removal of the crop; for if this pouch in the neck were not removed, the undigested food it contained would quickly spoil, making the bird unpalatable. The size of the crop was often equal to the body of the young bird. Removing the crop was easy to do with the small birds because their flesh was so tender, butter-soft, that the whole head and crop could be plucked off in one easy gesture. Local schoolchildren who accompanied the netters became quite good at it—they were paid a penny per two dozen squabs delivered to the tents in the field.
The larger birds required more work. Imagine millions of these adult birds dipping and sweeping through the woods. Each pair of adults tended the one egg, taking turns at the nest until just before the squab took wing. All of a sudden in that big wood outside of Mauston there were thousands of female birds discovering their nests empty, their young tumbled below. The birds frantically sought another nest to tend, another young bird to care for, only to have the same thing happen again. Something would shake the nest, tip it, and the fledglings would disappear; or, to escape the heavy smoke that blanketed the treetops, the squabs would wobble out of the nest. The parent birds would scold and screech, but the fumes were too thick, the squab was smothering and it would do anything to escape. Two, maybe three, steps would be all before the squab lost its balance and down it would go.
As you can see, all of their natural instincts were turned around or thwarted. They were faced with an unknown; an unknown that choked them, destroyed their nests, set up a clash of drums, pots and pans, a shouting din that almost drowned out their own cries. Unlike us, the pigeons could not remember the last time their kind was slaughtered, or by whom; so this attack was as strange to them as it was terrifying. The full-grown birds went berserk.