Historical Markers
Pigeon Historical Marker
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Allegheny National Forest Region


Marker Location:
PA 66, 6 miles NE of Marienville

Dedication Date:
June 3, 1948

Behind the Marker

In the 1870s, Winthrop Sargent and W. W. Atterbury climbed the Woposonock Mountain north of Altoona to witness one of the great natural wonders of the world. It began with what sounded like an approaching tornado. And then they saw them: a fast-moving cloud of millions of wild pigeons veering and sweeping in tight formation as they returned to their roosts. As they flew overhead, the sky darkened and dung rained down like hail. Atterbury and Sergeant couldn't hear each other talk, for the flapping of the pigeons' wings "made a louder sound than the heaviest freight train."

John Audubon's painting of the passenger Pigeon.
John James Audubon, pastel and ink sketch of Passenger Pigeon A.W. Columbia...

For thousands of years, passenger pigeons foraged the forests of eastern North America from Hudson's Bay south to the Gulf of Mexico. Each spring, millions migrated through Pennsylvania to feed on beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, elderberries, poke berries and other forest nuts, then headed south again in fall. The passenger pigeons adored beechnuts, which they beat from the trees with their wings, then gathered from the ground, covering the forest floor in a sea of blue feathers.

At night they congregated in huge pigeon "cities," roosts that covered dozens of square miles. Fifty to one hundred birds nested in a single tree. When they moved on, the ground could be covered to a depth of several inches with their dung, its surface strewn with large limbs broken from the trees above by the sheer weight of the nesting birds. Roosting pigeons could temporarily devastate – and fertilize – thousands of acres, killing, marker as one observer described, "as completely as if girdled by an ax." But the forests of North America were vast and soon recovered with seedlings grown from nuts dropped by the birds.

The pigeons were a feast for predators. Owl, hawks, buzzards, fox and wolves fed on the countless birds. The Susquehannock, Delaware and other Indian tribes of Pennsylvania looked forward to the spring migration of pigeons to their woods. In Forest County, the Seneca gathered near present-day Marienville for an annual hunt. There they would build a village in preparation for the arrival of the pigeons. When white settlers arrived they named the settlement "Pigeon" after the birds that roosted there in such great numbers.

When the pigeons arrived in a new area, armies of trappers would head for the roosts. Armed with guns, clubs, nets, pots of sulfur and other weapons, they killed the birds by the tens of thousands, using pigeon tongs to crush their heads. Snyder County pioneer Daniel Ott recalled crushing their heads with his thumbs until they became so sore he used his teeth. The hunters then filled their sacks and drove their carts to market where they sold the carcasses for pennies per dozen.

Alarmed by the disappearance of the pigeons in most of its counties, Pennsylvania adopted the first of a series of laws to restrict pigeon hunting in 1873. Convinced that nature would always provide, the hunters ignored the laws and the wild pigeons soon disappeared. Seth Nelson saw the last passenger pigeons fly through in Clinton County in 1876; William Wagner saw the last in Lycoming County in 1881.

After the disappearance of pigeons in Pennsylvania, the hunting continued with equal voraciousness farther to the west. In the 1880s and 1890s, hunters wiped out the last great roosts in Michigan and Wisconsin. Even as the birds' numbers plummeted, hunters refused to acknowledge their coming extinction which took place so quickly few understood its causes. Hunting and the loss of habitat from the clearcutting of the nut-bearing trees upon which the flocks depended played a major role in the pigeons' disappearance. Refusing to believe that a species once so plentiful could be wiped off the face of the earth, the pigeon hunters insisted that the birds would return.

Only later would ornithologists learn that passenger pigeon reproduction and survival depended upon the mass of the flock and that they could not be bred in captivity. The world's last passenger pigeon, Martha,(named after Martha Washington), died in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden on September 1, 1914. In ‘Birds of Western Pennsylvania,’ W.E. Clyde Todd would write ‘The story of its passing is a shameful record of human cruelty, avarice and indifference – a story one wishes had never been told.’ 

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