It became a
little hazardous for those netters working in the gloom of the forest floor,
slipping and falling in the muck and slime. Thousands of birds began to fly
blindly at them, at full speed, in and around the trees at ground level. Some
smacked into the solid oaks, some into the netters, who would slip and fall.
The men would laugh good-naturedly as they got up, covered in the bluish
excrement, and return to their task. Because the air was whizzing with crazed
birds, the nets were sprung.
The pigeons flew
straight into them, so fast and in such numbers that they quickly resembled
colonies of giant bees working about a comb. In most cases their heads and
necks went through the web of the nets, facilitating the task of wringing or
decapitation. Again, the entire crop had to be removed, though these birds
would have nearly empty ones because they had not fed recently. The bleeding
feathered carcasses were shoveled onto waiting carts for transport to the
wagons parked in the field at the forest's edge. Then the quivering cargo would
be hauled to Mauston, to the processing tent where the town ladies removed the
feathers, gutted the innards and packed the birds into barrels of salt or ice.
As the netting became routine, a continuous line of farm wagons shuttled
between village and forest. The towns-women could not keep up with the raw
supply, so large pickling vats were hastily put together and load after load of
birds were dumped into them.
In the village
the sound of the hunt was like Niagara crashing down on the prairie. Farm
animals became restless in their pens; cows upset milking pails and forced
their stanchions. Chickens left their roosts. Dogs barked and barked.
Then, from the
east, came a black cloud, taking shape in the sky like the threatening front of
a storm sweeping over the prairie. The male pigeons were returning to take
their turns minding the nests and to feed the squabs from the mast partially
digested in their crops.
Did anyone think
it a beautiful, awesome spectacle, as Alexander Wilson said it was, or as
Audubon and John Burroughs described it? The birds, flying very high, gradually
descended as they neared the nesting ground they had left at dawn several hours
before. The toms became crazed by the same unnatural terror that had struck
their mates. Where were the offspring they had left at dawn? Where were their
mates? And there was something else. When adult birds exchanged places on the
nest they would touch. It was the slightest of contacts, but to be denied this
caress of beaks, many of the hens already being dead, could drive a torn pigeon
beautiful birds had flown from the swamps of Louisiana to this forest in
Wisconsin to bear their young. They and their ancestors had made similar
flights for hundreds of years, thousands of years, nobody knows how many years.
Now as night began to fall, the wood outside Mauston turned into a theatrical
rendering of Hades.
The pots of
bubbling sulphur cast a hideous glow, half illuminating the vine-infested tree
trunks. Monstrous shadows of hooded figures passed among the convulsing
carcasses of the doomed, methodically separating heads from bodies. It was an
even larger flock than they had expected. Several of the netters were overcome
by the noxious fumes of the sulphur. The company was so exhausted after that
first day's killing that they worked in shifts thereafter.
their wives in the process tents so the women could return home to feed their
own offspring and tuck them into bed. The men rolled up their sleeves and went
to work, talking how they would use the extra income, speculating on the
economic effects of the hunt on their small village. It had been a profitable
day. The freight agent in Mauston signed a loading receipt for 1,500 barrels
that were shipped out by special train that first evening. There were
approximately 30 dozen birds to a barrel, or about 500,000 birds. The netters
had professional reputations to sustain; they were supplying markets that had
become very particular, so only the best of the squabs and birds left Mauston.
The other birds had become mangled or spoiled or befouled in the process of
capture, so that a great number of pigeons remained on the floor of the
Except for the
closing of the school and a few places of business, much of the routine of
daily life in Mauston continued, undisturbed by the slaughter occurring on its
outskirts. The Mauston Star carried the usual number of birth and death
announcements. There was a report of an excursion to Menomonee Falls by the
Lutheran Sunday School. Oliver Simms Rutledge, one of the leading orators on
the Chatauqua circuit, had agreed to speak at the annual Fourth of July
celebration. Marsh's Dry Goods and Variety announced the receipt of the latest
style of ladies' hats from Boston, along with the most recent patterns from
Harper's. The local grain merchant predicted bumper crops of wheat and
There were a few
items concerning the pigeon hunt. A brief mention that the flock's nesting area
had been sighted and that the station agent had alerted the world. A box on
page three of the four-page paper noted that Mrs. Avery Mueller had given birth
to a baby while plucking pigeons in the large tent near the railroad station.
Labor came on suddenly, and the birth took place on a spare table away from the
commotion—plenty of hot water was available. To commemorate the occasion, Mr.
and Mrs. Mueller named the baby girl Dove.