Original Document
Original Document
Edwin Haskell, Recollections of Passenger Pigeons in Potter County, PA, October 21, 1903.

In April, 1868, I think it was, pigeons nested in Bingham Township, Potter County, Pennsylvania; but a fall of snow five or six inches in depth, caused them to desert their nests. Luckily for them, however, a frost had occurred, in many localities, before the beechnuts were fully ripe, and the nuts had not fallen out of the burrs. At that time I was preparing to make sugar. In some parts of the woods were many beech trees, from which a large proportion of the nuts had not fallen. For two or three days after the snow storm, along in the forenoon, pigeons would come in immense flocks and feed on these nuts. By a peculiar flapping of their wings, they would hold themselves suspended in the air in an upright position, at the ends of the twigs of the trees, and pick the nuts from the burrs. The noise made by the flapping of wings was almost deafening, and could be distinctly heard for a half mile or more.

In a few sunny places at the edge of the woods the snow had thawed, exposing the bare ground. Upon such places great flocks of pigeons would swoop down, struggling and scolding, to get the few nuts to be obtained.

The difficulty with which the pigeons could obtain food was the pigeon netter's opportunity. A bed would be made by clearing the snow from a small section of level ground. Upon this wheat or buckwheat would be scattered. Beside this bed a net would be arranged, and so folded back, that by the means of springs, it could be thrown forward quickly up and over any birds that might light or hover over the bed. For the purpose of concealing the netters, a booth or hut of boughs would be built near the net, care being taken to have it resemble as nearly as possible a bunch of bushes. From this hut the net could be sprung, and flyers thrown up. A flyer was a pigeon with a string tied to its legs by which it could be pulled down after having been thrown up, in such a manner as to give it the appearance of hovering over a feeding place. Another pigeon, called a stool pigeon, would be set upon a sort of tilting perch near the ground, in the middle of the bed. This bird was blinded by having its eyes sewed up. By tilting this perch this pigeon would lift its wings in a way pigeons had upon alighting to feed. There might have been various other ways of luring the birds to the net. At the right moment the man in the hut would pull a string and spring the net over the birds. So skillful were some of those netters that no device other than the flyers would be used to lure the birds. When a passing flock would swoop near the ground to see what the flyers had found, the net would be thrown at the right moment for the birds to pile into it. The number that would be caught in this manner was dependent upon the length and width of the net and the size of the flock.

Netting Pigeons and the Slaughter

In one instance it was my good fortune to be in a booth when an enormous haul of birds was made in this way. The net was thrown just in time to scoop in a large portion of a flock skimming near the ground past the hut, having been attracted there by the flyers. As the net came down the momentum of their flight piled them up several courses deep. In a moment a pigeon's head protruded from every mesh in the net. So great was the number of the birds, struggling desperately to free themselves, that I was called upon to throw myself upon the net and help hold it down else the pigeons would escape. With our weight and using both hands and feet to the utmost of our strength, for a time it seemed as though the net would be raised in spite of our efforts. What else to do was difficult to determine. We could not let go of the net to kill the birds with our hands - what, then, was to be done? The old pigeon catcher who had sprung the net decided quickly, by setting an example and yelling to me;

"Bite their head! Bite their heads! Do you hear?" "Not for all the pigeons in the world," I replied. "Pshaw! Don't be squeamish! See how its done!" he called out impatiently, and went on crushing the skulls of the heads protruding through the meshes of the net, until the difficulty of holding it down had passed and a less revolting, if not more merciful, method of killing the remainder of the birds could be devised.

I could kill pigeons with a gun without any compunction. But crushing the skulls of live birds between my teeth! Faugh! It makes me shudder to think of it.

Credit: Edwin Haskell, "An Observer's Recollection of the Passenger Pigeon, Once So Numerous, Now Extinct. From Potter County Journal," in John C. French, The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania, Altoona, PA: Altoona Tribune Co., 1919.
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