On the second
morning a new sound was heard at dawn: the ring of metal on wood, the thwack of
axes chopping trees. Most of the nests that could be reached by the poles had
been tumbled, most of those reached by the fumes of burning sulphur were empty.
But there were still many others, a hundred thousand or more, that were
situated in the very top of the highest trees, so high that the clouds of gas
became diluted and were harmless to the squabs and their parents. The trees had
to be brought down. Axes and saws flashed in the early light of that second
dawn. Great oaks and ancient spruce fell through the forest's canopy and jarred
Many of the
squabs would be lost in the violence of the fall, but many, many more would
not. Moreover, the parent birds would follow their young down and be netted.
Large numbers of them were swatted out of the air with sticks as they flew
dazedly in thick clusters. One young man used his mother's rug beater with
And so on into
the night. By now some objections had been voiced about the dimensions these
hunts had assumed. An editorial in a Chicago newspaper criticized the netters
for their wasteful methods: "Surely a more humane method can be devised to
harvest these birds." Some of the residents of Mauston began to grumble
because rowdies and layabouts had accompanied the netters, and a tented brothel
was being visited by some townsmen, respectable husbands tempted by big city
debaucheries. A petition was passed around by the aggrieved wives. But the long
freights continued to ease into the station, all bells and whistles, and depart
with wheels slipping under the heavy cargo of packed pigeons.
On the third
night, the netters and their friends boarded Pullman cars that were waiting for
them on a siding. Most of the men had not slept, the farewell festivities
having been so continuous, and they dropped like stones into the thick
upholstered chairs and lounges of the special cars. The tents were struck and
packed, the temporary latrines filled and the entrails and waste from the
processed birds deposited in a marsh to become the nesting place of swarms of
It had been a
good hunt, the netters all agreed. Nearly 6,000 barrels of premium squabs had
been iced and shipped out in three days, and the price in Chicago was $20 per
barrel. Several thousand crates of salted birds, plus those that had been
pickled, also were expressed. Additional profits were made from byproducts.
Because of their lightness, pigeon feather ticks were prized in the summer
homes of well-to-do families. It took the plumage of more than 1,000 birds to
make one tick.
at dawn, the train passed the forest near the village. It appeared ravaged by a
tornado. Oaks a hundred years old or more had crushed younger trees and lay
where they had been felled in a tangled mass barely accessible to squirrels.
Most of the forest still standing had been scorched by the hot sulphuric smoke
and would remain leafless and barren, yet in all this devastation there were
nests that had not been disturbed. They had been too far from the eye of the
hunt, too deep into the forest to make it worth the effort to ravage them, and
so many thousands of fledglings survived the onslaught. Normality returned to
the village; the children resumed going to school, daily chores were picked up
and business as usual recommenced. The station agent leaned back in his chair,
wound his watch and waited for the two scheduled trains that stopped each day
in Mauston. All would be peaceful at night, though someone's dog might bark
far, far away.
About a week or
so after the hunt was over, the villagers were startled by a strange sound from
the woods. It was like the sighing of a huge beast. What they heard was the
sound of the remaining pigeons—the tens of thousands still alive—leaving the
forest, continuing their flight to its terminus in northern Canada. And now the
surviving squabs had made the first headlong pitch off the perch to discover
their wings. Their muscles grew quickly. After a week or so the young birds
could fly, and they, too, rose from the forest as one and left.
The villagers and
farmers around Mauston watched the pigeons go and remembered the great flock,
the great slaughter. A hurried recess was declared so schoolchildren could
watch, and remember. The station agent crooked his head out the bay window of
his office, wound his watch and remembered. But the pigeons did not remember.
They did not recall the decimation of their flock, and though some might have
felt strange with no young to escort north, by the time they had crossed the
border their instinctual sense of loss had been shoved aside by the demands of
So they climbed
in a glittering, raucous column from the blackened wood, as if it were an
untouched wilderness, thinking nothing was wrong, not remembering what had gone
wrong. They formed in a wave formation, not quite a mile wide because of their
reduced numbers, and swept north and out of sight and sound within five
minutes. At the last, they were a thin gray mark penciled along the horizon.
Then that was gone, erased by distance...a hint of their coming erasure in