It’s been a long time since just a few geese decided to make the warm water run-off from a manufacturing plant in Fergus Falls their winter resort. News flies fast in goosedom so every year more geese have decided that Fergus was a very good place to spend their winters. The flock grew rapidly as more and more geese reached the same conclusion, leaving the residents of the city to clean up after them — not only in the winter time. A lot of them are making that Minnesota community their year-round home.
We do have pigeons that stick around all year, but most of them head for the southland before the weather turns cold around here.
Several decades ago a Willmar church arranged with one of those hunters who could spin tales about his hunts and the huge numbers of birds to be found in this area at one time, to keep the pigeons off the church roofs as much as possible. This elderly gentleman took his job seriously, so it was common to see him heading for the church, with a .22 rifle over his shoulder. He’d fire a couple of shots from the rifle he’d converted to a very high-powered BB gun. The birds would fly from one side of the church to the other and remain there ‘til Bill could step around and tire some more. He’d shoot some birds, then sit down on the church steps to rest just a bit before he went bird-hunting again. It so happened that Bill was out there shooting at pigeons on a Saturday morning. He followed his usual routine. Shoot some, then sit down on the church steps, rifle on his knees, to rest. This particular day was different. One of the ladies of the church had been delegated to ask him to quit shooting and resting with his gun on his knee, until he shot again. This time it was different. The lady asked him to please leave the church just as it stood and forget about shooting any more birds there that day. It seems that there was to be a wedding in the church, and guests might come to the wrong conclusion seeing a man with a rifle waiting out there.
The old-timers who lived around here maintained their bragging rights about the passenger pigeons.
They really were something. Not only would they make their famous sun-blotting flights around here, they were doing them all around the world. It has been estimated by people who should know, that they accounted for about 45 percent of the bird population of the entire United States.
Hunters in Minnesota used to take great pleasure in recalling the pigeon flights they had seen and hunted here. Their stories were usually taken with a grain or more of salt — they seemed too big to be real. It took naturalist John James Audubon to set things straight early in the 19th century. His reports were accurate and factual even if they sound rather “windy.”
He reported on just one flock that took three days to pass his observation point and, in doing so it totally blocked out the sun so that the entire area lived in a bird-created total eclipse. When that flock landed it occupied an area forty miles long and three miles wide, made up of an estimated three billion (yes, billion) pigeons, and that that flock had traveled at the rate of three hundred million birds an hour. The sound of their passage was heard six miles away. His conclusion was that they sounded to him as “the wind in a very hard gale at sea through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel.”
He believed that there were so many passenger pigeons in this country “that they need no protection.”
Unfortunately that estimate did not allow for the hunting weapons even at that time.
Passenger pigeons were their own worst enemy. Their droppings would wipe out acres of crops. In addition they were easy to hunt and very delicious eating. The guns at that time could fire loads of bird shot that would kill up to two hundred birds. There were other ways — burning sulphur under a roost killed millions of them, large poles killed thousands of low flyers, making artificial salt beds, soaking grain in alcohol and sprinkling it on the ground are only a very few of the methods our forefathers used to destroy the birds.
Finally their numbers had been lowered to a workable amount, and the killing continued. One hunt in Michigan lasted 30 days and accounted for 300 tons of dead birds.
Eventually the only passenger pigeons left alive were in zoos. On Sept. 14, 1914, the last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo.