My Passenger Pigeon: One Man’s Search
by Garrie Landry
Since my childhood days I have always been totally captivated by Passenger Pigeons, now to own one is truly a god send and I am still at a lost for words to describe how I feel.This is a mature male Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, which I recently acquired. After 2 years, (Dec. 3rd, 1999 anniversary) I still can't believe that I have it! This specimen originated in Michigan. It measures 17 inches from tip of beak to tip of tail. That's 6-7 inches longer than a Mourning Dove.
The Pigeon is housed in an beautiful original octagonal wood and glass case. There is a mural painted on the inside back of the case. It perches on a natural branch of what appears to be Winged Elm and "real" lichens were used to adorn the base of the painting to resemble the tree's bark. The taxidermist truly did a superb job in every aspect of preparation of this display. Surely even then he must have known what a treasure he had as he obviously devoted lots of time and effort to complete the work. The bird's plumage is in superb condition. The pose is very realistic. And its eyes! its eyes are even the correct color, bright red! This is a beautiful specimen and so well done, that it really looks like it's alive. And just think for a minute, this Passenger Pigeon is well over 111 years old! It is truly an awesome bird to behold!
How I came to own it
One does not really ever aspire to own a Passenger Pigeon, or for that matter any extinct bird, but perhaps I thought of it a time or two. For as long as I can recall, even as a kid, I have had a fascination with Passenger Pigeons. So when the opportunity presented itself to actually own a real Passenger Pigeon, I knew if I did not at least make an effort of acquire it, I would forever regret it. We all know that some opportunities only come around once in a life time! The bird was put up for auction, and I happened to be at the right place at the right time, and I won the auction. Truly unbelievable!
Once I had the bird, I became determined to research as much historical information as possible about this particular Passenger Pigeon. Such information would not only be interesting to know, but it would make the specimen more historically important. I just had to find out as much as I could about it.
* Where was it collected?
* Who collected it?
* Who mounted it?
* Who painted the mural on the inside back of the case?
* Where has it been during the past 100+ years?
Where I enter the Birds History!
I obtained the Passenger Pigeon in December, 1999, from George Puth of Thousand Oaks, California. George had owned the bird for 18 years. He purchased it from Norman Kasavage of Union Lake, Michigan in 1982. Kasavage had placed a small classified ad in Hemming Motor News, of all places, advertising the bird for sale. That is how George Puth learned of it. (both guys had a fascination with antique cars)
That's all the information I obtained from Mr. Puth, he knew nothing else about the bird. However he did have the original shipping receipt from Norm Kasavage, with Norm's address on it. Additionally, after I obtained the bird, I noticed on the back of the wooden display case there was another name and address, written in pencil. What is written, appears to be: "Schummer", 651 Bates, B'ham, Mich.
Could this signature be that of the first owner? Or perhaps it was of the taxidermist who prepared the specimen? Regardless, there had to be a connection between this name and address, a previous owner and the bird's history.
Thus I began my search. I was unable to reach Norm Kasavage by phone but I was able to determine that he still resided at the same address as on the shipping receipt. So I wrote to him, and told him that I now owned the bird and had obtained it from Geo. Puth whom he had sold it to. I inquired as to how he, Kasavage, had obtained it. Much to my delight, Norm telephoned me after he received my letter. He was so surprised to hear from someone who now owned the bird, after all these years. He was very eager to tell me what he knew.
Norm received the bird as a gift in 1974 from his friend, George Schwimmer of Detroit Michigan. He knew that George had inherited the Passenger Pigeon from his father. Norm said that George had never told him any additional history or other information. Furthermore, George had died in 1978. After that time Norm lost contact with the family. He did not know the names nor whereabouts of any surviving Schwimmer relatives. That was all of the information he was able to provide.
Norm was unfamiliar with the 651 Bates Street, Birmingham Michigan address. In fact, much to my amazement, neither Norm Kasavage nor George Puth had ever noticed the writing on the back of the case during all of the years they possessed the bird. (I found it in the first 10 minutes)
Part 2: Never underestimate who can help!
My search continued in Birmingham, Michigan, where I met Karen Ansley Krugman. What a time saver!! I really have to thank Karen for her help in tracking down the dates of the residents who occupied 651 Bates Street. Karen works on genealogy and resides in Birmingham. She was instrumental in learning the correct spelling of original name, Schwimmer not Schummer, and the dates when the Schwimmer family occupied the Bates Street residence.
The first name she discovered was that of Edwin Swhwimmer who occupied the house at 651 Bates Street . He died in 1958. After that time the name Edward Schwimmer was attributed to the address. She did not find any reference of George Schwimmer.
Once I had that information, I obtained the names of the Schwimmer families in Michigan of which only 4 were listed. I made one phone call and low and behold once I told the lady who answered what I was searching for, she said "you need to speak with my father Edward Schwimmer", and proceeded to give me his phone number.
Part 3: The History begins to unfold!
I phone and spoke to Edward Schwimmer, the grandson of Edwin C. "Skipper" Schwimmer (1880-1958). Edward vividly remembered the Passenger Pigeon hanging on the wall in the hallway of the house at 651 Bates Street. He had grown up in that house "and saw that bird every day of his childhood." I learned from Edward that George Schwimmer (friend of Norm Kasavage) was his father and of course Edwin C. Schwimmer was his grandfather.
George Schwimmer had inherited the bird upon his fathers death. Edward told me that his grandfather, "Skipper" Schwimmer, as he was known by friends, was a pioneer photographer and documentary maker. He traveled extensively throughout the US and the world and he was an avid collector of natural history items. Much to my delight Edward's mother, Helen, now 92, wife of George, was sitting right there as Edward and I spoke. When I asked if he knew how his grandfather had acquired the Passenger Pigeon, he turned and asked his mother. She replied, that she thought he purchased the bird about 1940, on one of his many trips thoroughout the US. She thought perhaps somewhere in the southern part of the US, while on a trip to Florida, but she was not certain. Unfortunately she did not have any more precise information of its origin. Edward then told me that his mother is the last survivor of the generation that would have had any knowledge about the Pigeons origin.
It would appear that the only person who could have provided more information was the grandfather, Edwin Schwimmer who died in 1958. Oddly, neither Edward nor his mother had any knowledge of what had become of the Passenger Pigeon, until I phoned them. It was a truly a great conversation, and I could tell we were all filled with excitement.
Well, I feel very fortunate to have gotten as far as I did in my quest. It is unfortunate that the first home of this Passenger Pigeon may never be known beyond what I have discoverd. I would still like to find out when, where, and by whom was it taken? But perhaps too many years and lives have passed to recall that information.
When could it have been collected?
This Passenger Pigeon was probably taken from the wild some time between 1870-1888. Considering the excellent condition of the specimen, it is unlikely to have come from a much earlier decade, but even that is possible. Records indicate that Passenger Pigeons were still common in some areas of the US during the ten year span from 1870-1880. The very LAST GREAT NESTING occurred in Petosky, Michigan in 1878. There is a good possibility that this specimen could have been taken after 1880 but before 1888. Passenger Pigeons became very uncommon after 1888, but there are records of numerous specimens taken as late as 1886 and even 1888. However, it is unlikely that the Pigeon would have been killed after 1890. It seems from that point on there are almost no specimens on record. It appears that by 1890 the doomed fate of the few remaining wild Passenger Pigeons was sealed. They were now very rare, and the few that were left were seldom seen.
The End? Not likely...A final somber note.
During these past months after acquiring this Passenger Pigeon, I have come to realize what a real privilege it is to have this bird in my care. This is not just any bird, and I do not take it lightly! I also have come to realize that I am but one of many who have held this Passenger Pigeon for a period of time, and for the time being I am only the temporary custodian of this Passenger Pigeon. One day someone will take my place, and hopefully continue to give "George" the recognition and remembrance his race truly deserves.
While we will never see any Passenger Pigeons fly over head as they did in the 1800's, we must never forget what those who came before us saw! It is our duty to keep that memory alive, for the birds and for all generations to come.
Garrie Landry is a botanist at the University of Louisiana (Lafayette) who for ten years has maintained a web-site devoted to passenger pigeons and has collected an outstanding array of passenger pigeon materials. Garrie is also a lifelong aviculturist.