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Although the story that follows is fiction—it is taken from Hilary Masters' new novel Post, a work still in progress—it is nonetheless an accurate account of an appalling chapter in man's relationship with wildlife. Passenger pigeons existed in such numbers in 19th century North America that their flights literally darkened the sky. The ornithologist Alexander Wilson reported seeing a flock near Frankfort, Ky. around 1808 "that was several miles wide and 40 miles long." Wilson estimated the flight was composed of 2,230,272,000 birds—that's 2.2 billion. Yet little more than 100 years later, in 1914, the last surviving passenger pigeon, a hen named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.
Perhaps the sheer magnitude of the species' numbers doomed it to extinction, for the enormous flocks inspired awe and fear, emotions that seem to stimulate in man a desire to overcome, capture, destroy. For decades massive hunts took place in which pigeons were netted live for use by trap-shooting clubs or were killed and shipped to market for food (squab and pigeon pie were popular dishes on 19th century menus). Such "harvesting" of the birds was so routine that reports of pigeon hunts usually appeared in newspaper sections devoted to farm and agricultural news.
As for the hunt described here, there was in fact such a hunt in Wisconsin in the spring of 1881, although no detailed description of it exists. A story that ran later in the Milwaukee Sentinel related in part, "One man shipped 2 million of these birds out of the county, and the ground was strewn with the carcasses of young pigeons, too small for shipment, and for three weeks there was an area of several miles where such a stench arose as to sicken travelers." Masters says, "I mined separate accounts of other hunts in order to create a description of a hunt supposedly staged at Mauston, Wis. that would be a truthful portrayal of the destruction that took place in such a hunt."
In this passage Leo Post, the protagonist of Masters' novel, has the rapt attention of his listeners as he tells them about the passenger pigeon.
Imagine those two dozen swallows to be millions (said Leo Post). Imagine them to be millions—millions—and you have some idea of the awesome effect of passenger pigeons when they swooped into a forest. There is probably no more complete record of a species becoming extinct than that of this bird. The first descriptions we have go back to 1534: Cartier's account of a flock over Prince Edward Island. Of course, there are many before that in various Indian accounts. Then all the way to the last bird, poor Martha in the Cincinnati Zoo, 1914. Year by year, like the daily hospital record of a dying patient, a historic register was kept: where their great flights took them, the quantity of food they consumed, how they mated, the sounds they made—everything down to Martha's last sigh when she fell off the perch in Cincinnati. Her cage had been shielded from the public during her last few months so as not to disturb her. She had a weak heart, as all pigeons might at the age of 29.
I am talking about a bird that no longer exists. Columba migratoria, an American bird, the bird of liberty; not the eagle, but a pigeon. A dead pigeon, long dead. No constitution, no court of law can bring it back. And yet the great numbers of the pigeon were astonishing from the beginning. I had an ancestor, Captain Ira Leek, a famous shot who in his lifetime bagged more than 28,000 pigeons...and that only in contests, not in the field. After a while, clay had to be substituted for flesh and feather because there were no more real birds to use as targets.
In March 1883, Captain Leek was traveling to Milwaukee aboard the Red Diamond Express of the Richmond & Minneapolis Railroad. He had just eaten a very good breakfast and had gone back to his Pullman. The porter was making up his berth. The captain noted a certain haste in the porter's behavior, a hurried if not careless creasing of linen that was no credit to his training.
"George," my ancestor addressed him, "there seems to be something bothering you." The porter explained his haste by relating that additional cars had been added to the train as the Red Diamond Express click-clacked through the night; one in Lexington, another in Cincinnati, a third in Vincennes and so on, until by morning, when it pulled into Milwaukee, there were half a dozen more coaches on the train than there were when it left Richmond. The occupants of these added coaches were for the most part professional pigeon netters.
It seems that a great flock of passenger pigeons had nested in a forest near the small town of Mauston. The railway freight agent of that community had telegraphed the good tidings. Tickety-tack-tick-tack. One afternoon, the sky had darkened and millions of these handsome creatures winged in low over the village and over the still brown fields of early spring to glide into an oak forest, soon festooning the bare limbs with their flat, shaggy nests. Tickety-tick-tick went the telegraph key of the alert freight agent: come and get 'em.
When the netters in the near coaches learned that my ancestor was on the train, they sent him a special invitation to join them in their hunt. He had firmly established his reputation as a pigeon shot a year earlier in a three-way match in Chicago in which he killed 100 pigeons without a miss, using his second barrel, to quote a sports journal, with "marvelous effect."