Pigeon – the Bird and the Town

In his book, The Wisconsin Frontier, Mark Wyman describes a bird with slatey gray body, blue head, and rosey breast which measured 22 inches from head to tail. Seemingly endless in number, this passenger pigeon, so Wyman thought, was “an apt representative of the Wisconsin frontier.”

According to Ron Johnstad in Pigeon Falls … As I Remember It, the hometown of the Borreson and Estenson families was so named because of the pigeons (perhaps passenger pigeons among them?) which flourished there in abundance. That would soon change.

In 1871, not long before our families arrived in Pigeon Township, a newspaper in nearby Black River Falls noted that the area was “literally alive with pigeons from three to seven miles in extent in every direction” (280-281). Hunters were shooting and selling pigeons to nearby markets like Wisconsin Dells, and then on to Milwaukee, Chicago, and points east. The 1871 Wisconsin nesting was one of the largest, estimated to contain 136 milliion birds covering 850 square miles (281). Less than 30 years, not one passenger pigeon remained.

What caused their incredible demise? Along with the belief that this bounty of nature was inexhaustible, intense hunting and the desire for wealth were at the core. Add to these the critical loss of hardwood forest environment and the impact of disease and crippling storms. Some scientists also concluded the pigeons were unable to mate unless in large flocks.

The last major sale to city markets took place in 1882. By 1887, there were no large nestings. Indicative of the mania passenger pigeons caused was the sighting of a flock near Racine in 1885: within one hour, 500 men with shotguns were on their way – and this was repeated time and again. The 1877 legistation to protect these birds was unsuccessful. The last passenger pigeon fell to a hunter in Babcock (Juneau County, central Wisconsin) in 1899.

One year earlier, May 10, 1898, the Eau Claire Leader reported on page 2: “People of Lime Ridge, near Reedsburg, declare that a fortnight ago they saw a flock of pigeons go by – not a few, but a great cloud of them…. For fourteen years these birds have been supposed to be extinct. Older people have caused children to marvel by tales of the pigeons hiding the sun. Even collectors willing to pay any price have not been able to get a bird to stuff. They were killed spring and fall in great numbers, for they were good eating and [an] easy mark…. Others have reported seeing small numbers around Reedsburg in later years, and it is hoped they shall return….” It was not to be.

Other wildlife disappeared from Wisconsin in the fateful 19th century: the last buffalo in 1832, caribou by 1840, and elk by 1868. Beaver were almost trapped into non-existence by 1900, deer moved north, and wild turkeys harmed by three harsh 1840s winters also were soon gone (282-283).

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