If you had been an early settler in Southwest Wisconsin, you would have had lots to do to prepare for spring. It was time to get the tools ready to break ground for the coming planting season, and to order seeds for a summer and fall harvest that would get the family and livestock through the next long winter. A little luck and a lot of hard work, and you had a chance to prosper.
These hardy people used their knowledge of nature to help them compensate for what they didn't grow. There was always something that nature could provide for them. In the fall, hickory and walnuts were gathered in sacks, to be used throughout the year. In March, watercress from a spring pond tasted fresh and new after a whole winter of going without live greens. In May, there were wild mushrooms to be harvested. These special fungus treats were dried or canned and enjoyed year-round.
There were many gifts from the wild that these farmers depended on for survival. They paid close attention to the natural signs that told them when it was time to gather nature's bounty.
Early March was time to think about another important harvest. Soon vast hordes of wild pigeons would return to their nesting grounds in the north. These weren't just any old pigeons; they were the highly sought-after passenger pigeons. The truth is, that not only the farmers, but everyone dropped what they were doing to harvest pigeons when the big flocks came.
The native passenger pigeons were about twice as large as a mourning dove, and were excellent table fare. Their breast meat was canned or stored in salt for future use. When the pigeons came, everyone took advantage of a chance to profit from them.
The passenger pigeon is said to have at one time been the most numerous bird on earth. Their flocks must have been even more spectacular than the great herds of buffalo that once roamed the western plains.
The larger flocks of pigeons may have been a mile or more wide, and the same flock could pass over for three days. These enormous flocks of birds could consume an estimated 1.5 million bushels of nuts, acorns, and grain per day. Their night-time roosts meant a hundred or more birds to each tree limb, often causing the limbs to break from their weight.
It's hard to imagine what it must have been like to see and hear so many birds flying over. Alexander Wilson, one of America's great early ornithologists, gave an incredible account of seeing a single flock of passenger pigeons in 1806 that was 240 miles long and contained over 2 billion birds. No wonder everyone was excited when the pigeons came.
All along their spring migration route, people shot into the flocks as they passed over. Anyone who could shoot a shotgun or wave a tall pole was out to get their share of the pigeons. The felled birds that weren't eaten were sold by the thousands to eastern markets and restaurants. Passenger pigeons were quite delicious and brought a good price. The extra income from the sale of wild pigeons helped many early homesteaders make ends meet.
The great flights of pigeons ranged from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River, and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, through the middle of the nineteenth century. It's hard to believe, but this populous species would become extinct before the end of the century.
The birds were often allowed to start nesting in huge communal groups, covering miles of forests. Young squabs would double their weight each day, and would be full-grown but still flightless in less than two weeks. During this time, people would come at night and, by the light of their lanterns, harvest every pigeon they found. When they had enough for food and the markets couldn't handle any more, they would kill the remaining pigeons by the wagon load and feed them to hogs.
As this practice continued year after year, the pigeon flocks began to dwindle. There were still small flocks of birds by the 1870s and 1880s, but it was too late to protect them. The smaller flocks would return each spring, but they would spend the whole breeding season looking for the larger flock they were accustomed to nesting with that no longer existed. No longer reproducing meant doom for the passenger pigeon. The very last one died in the Cincinnati Zoological Park in 1914.
If I could go back in time for a day, there's many things I would like to witness. Lots of natural wonders are long since gone, including the vast herds of buffalo, endless flocks of waterfowl, or even a single ivory-billed woodpecker. While all of these would have been breathtaking, what I would most like to have seen is the passenger pigeon migration. Wild flocks of the most numerous bird on earth, and the roar of 3 billion wings, must have been the most wondrous creations of mother nature.
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