SI Vault
Hilary Masters
November 28, 1977
The extinction of the great flocks of passenger pigeons is a familiar story. Here, however, is a stark account of what actually happened to the birds, and why
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November 28, 1977

A Hurricane Of Death

The extinction of the great flocks of passenger pigeons is a familiar story. Here, however, is a stark account of what actually happened to the birds, and why

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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 the ground.

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 deadly effect.

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 flies.

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.

Leaving Mauston 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 survival.

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 time.

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