Project Passenger Pigeon

Lessons from the Past for a Sustainable Future


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Flights of Fancy

River of Sky

A Short Story by Ed Dvorak, Jr.

The old man shot a stub-twist Greener gun, the hammer kind, with a straight-grip stock of walnut burl that made you think of chestnut cats with yellow eyes. He tolled shy mallards with a brass-reed corncob call his father made for him when he was ten.

Sundays we sat beneath the oaks along the river, waiting for the summer ducks to fly, him with his fancy old gun, and me on a log beside him, and he'd tell about the wild pigeon times. The woods were bigger in the days he spoke of. They covered the banks of the river for miles. Our town was smaller then, too, than the forests that had fallen to make it grow.

The old man cradled the Greener as though he meant to kill the next duck even though he knew the new kind of shells were said to be dangerous to shoot in the gun's stub-twist barrels. "We used to call this place the pigeon woods," he said again. I nodded and let him go on. I had heard it all before, growing up, from him, from others who had taken part in it. He had fought on the Union side during the insurrection. He loved old things and old places. He surely loved these woods. Most of the trees were big even when he was a boy. Once he pointed to an oak where a limb as thick as he was forked from the trunk, and said he'd seen some Winnebagos hang a buck from it to cool before he was even old enough to know that they are a different people than us.

"You'd think it was thunder rolling when the pigeons came to eat the fallen mast," he said as though he still heard the beat of a million wings. "A flock would land then move like a tide, eating acorns. Then another bunch would land ahead of them, and the flocks would leapfrog until they ate every acorn and beechnut on the forest floor. It was like waves breaking and rolling and it sounded like ten regiments of drummers each time a bunch got up to move ahead of the ones behind it."

The woods were silent now. They had been silent during the years I had grown to manhood. Cat squirrels still barked in the morning, and in their season you heard the squealing of the summer ducks as they flew the corridors of the river; but the wing-thunder of the passenger pigeons had not been heard in my lifetime.

I reminded the old man of things he'd said when we'd sat here in other years. "A man could get twenty birds at a shot, you said."

"Easy," he said. "But men with guns didn't do nothing like the trappers with their nets. A pigeoner with a hundred feet of netting and a baited feed bed could kill two wagon loads of birds a day."

"They killed the squabs, too," I said before I realized that my voice carried the critical tone that my sister Maggie used on me sometimes.

"They brought more money on the market than the grown birds," the old man said. "When the pigeons began nesting it was the squabs you were after. People in the cities paid good money for them when they were in season because there never was such tender eating as a week-old pigeon squab. We got them by making smudge fires. They'd panic in the smoke and fall from their nests. Squabbing was as easy as picking up fallen apples. We never fired a shot or set a net for them, and very few lived long enough to learn to fly."

"They say whole tribes of Indians used to come to the woods to kill the pigeons," I said. "They'd been doing it since time began," the old man said, "but they never made a dent in them. They knocked the birds down with blunt arrows then smoked and dried the meat just like they done the buffalo. And they used pigeon fat like we use butter. Stored it in parfleches. It'd keep a long time before it turned rancid. Pigeons made the difference between living fat or lean through the winters for them."

The Winnebagos were on reservations in Nebraska now. The Sauk and the Foxes had been sent to Oklahoma, and the few Kickapoos and Potowatomis you still saw were dressed like farmers and spoke English. It was all I could do just to remember the names of the tribes that had lived here.

"I heard some Indians wouldn't kill squabs because they thought it was against nature."

The old man nodded. "The elders thought it was a sin against nature to kill them. But the young Indians killed squabs to get money."

A string of summer ducks flew up the river, twisting through the oaks, squealing. When they broke into the clearing where we sat I killed four drakes with the Winchester repeater. They fell in slow black water where the river reversed its current. I didn't retrieve them. The old man and I sat quietly and watched the dead ducks as they were drawn into an eddy that would bring them to our shore in a few minutes.

After a while I said: "You think it's like people say --- that the pigeons are gone forever?"

The old man shook his head, laughed; wiped his nose with the back of his hand, and looked a lot surer than he sounded.

"Hell no I don't think they're gone for good! They say big flocks of them are roaming the world. People have seen them in South America. Scientists!"

"Sometimes I think it's just a joke," I said, "and there never really was such a bird."

"They'll come again," the old man said. "We couldn't have killed them all."

They said that the limbs of grown trees often broke beneath the weight of nesting pigeons. I had heard of farmers who drove their hogs into the woods to eat spoilt squabs after the adults had been killed or trapped alive to be used as targets in shooting contests. There were pigeon decoys, nets, and all kinds of gear for taking the birds advertised in mail order catalogs. Growing up, I had seen forgotten jars of put-up pigeon meat festering on the dusty shelves of farm cellars. Every family had its stories of the days of plenty. Yet neither I nor any of the boys I'd grown up with had ever seen a live passenger pigeon.

The sun went into the oaks making light as red as the eye of a summer duck. I killed another pair before the old man spoke again. He was looking at the sky away up where the hawks fly when winter is coming on.

"They're pretty birds with bronze backs and pinky breasts. When they come in the spring they fly real high, with scouts in front of the flocks that lead them to woods where there's food. They can cover hundreds of miles in a day because it takes an awful lot of mast to feed them. There's so many in a flock that you never see an end to it. When they jink and the sun strikes their feathers just right they sparkle like a big river flowing in the sky."

I tried to imagine a river of pigeons in the sky. “Wide as the Wisconsin?"

"Wider," the old man said.

We didn't talk for a while. The sun dropped lower in the oaks. A pink light commenced to come onto the woods and the thin flat clouds behind the trees looked dusky-coppery and blue, and made me think of the colors the old man had painted on the flocks of wild pigeons in my mind. Then he said: "The bottom of the Whiskey's paved with pigeon bones, you know. It's something no one likes to hear talked about but it happened all the same."

It was one I hadn't heard. I thought the old man was having fun with me until I saw the look on his face.

"How did pigeon bones get into the river?"

"Sometimes we couldn't get the birds to the trains in time and they just went rotten." He looked at the ground. "Hundreds of barrels of squabs at a time. The biggest mudcats were taken on setlines after each nesting. The river smelled like a battlefield for weeks."

He had fought at the Wilderness. Sometimes, long after it was good for him, he spoke of bad dreams and good men from both sides killed, and it seemed regrets that burden a man's old age had found him.

It was nearly dark now and a soaring moon made sparkles of light on the water as though it were lit by a million candles. Leather creaked in the woods. The clop of hooves as big as snapping turtles and the heavy, measured breath of Cyclops, our one-eyed horse, traced the river road.

Maggie sat the wagon bench. She was dirty, tired from a day in the crop fields. Her red hair was tied up in a scarf. She looked like a tender boy.

The old man and I began to toss the dead ducks into the bed of the wagon. Many of the pretty lemon-black feathers were ruined by bloodstains.

Maggie didn't watch.

"Thirty seven," I said when we finished. "A dozen fancy hats for the ladies of New York."

Maggie didn't turn around. "I don't want to see them," she said. That thing was in her voice again.

The old man straightened, broke his gun open. Two empty chambers gaped at its breech. He had been sitting with me all afternoon with an unloaded gun.

Maggie asked politely, "Will you ride home with us, Mister Miller?" "No," the old man said. "I'll walk home alone tonight. I like to see the coons come down to the water."

A last string of ducks flew down the shining river. Their voices, the whistle of their wings carried in the bowl of oaks; but you could not see them for the darkness that was come on the land.


About “River of the Sky" and the Author

The story takes place about 1897-98, when there was hope that the passenger pigeon had not become extinct. The Greener is a very expensive English double-barrel shotgun (still being made today). "Stub-twist" barrels were made by welding iron strips made from horseshoe nails around a steel mandrel, producing a pattern in the metal which, when browned, was quite beautiful.

In their times such barrels were considered the best quality. However, when smokeless powder came in around 1890-95 it produced higher breech pressure than the commonly used black powder, and shells loaded with it often blew up the barrels of even the most expensive guns, frequently injuring the shooter.

The narrator is using a new Model 1897 Winchester repeating shotgun capable of firing six shots without reloading. These guns were the favorite of market hunters (men who killed game for money) in the slaughter of waterfowl by the millions after the turn of the century.

Mr. Miller, the old man who tells of the heyday of the passenger pigeon, was a veteran of the Civil War, and had fought at one of the most terrible battles, called "The Wilderness" -- where wounded soldiers of both sides were burned alive as they lay on the forest floor after the woods were set afire by the muzzle flashes of rifles.

The "Whiskey" referred to is the Wisconsin River.

"Summer duck" the most beautifully plumaged duck in America was called in those days. Its feathers were used in the womens' hat trade until the turn of the century when it too nearly became extinct. Today we know this bird as the woodduck: saved from extinction by the efforts of sport hunters (men who killed small amounts of game for their own consumption and supported legislation to protect all game species).

At story's end we learn that Mr. Miller has not even loaded his gun. Oversight -- or a palliative for his role in the slaughter of the pigeons?

Ed Dvorak, Jr. has been a hunter, trapper (as a lad), self taught naturalist, real estate broker, writer, Manuscript Editor of Gray's Sporting Journal (where "River of the Sky" as a short story was published), maker of hundreds of knives bearing my name, now old and still loving my family, fishing, voluminous reader. He later expanded this story into a novel of the same name.

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