Project Passenger Pigeon

Lessons from the Past for a Sustainable Future

markerMemorial to 1878 Petoskey nesting, located at Oden State Fish Hatchery

woodcarvingThis passenger pigeon wood carving by Mike Ford is on display at Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, MI.

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Passenger Pigeons in Your State, Province or Territory


MICHIGAN

(Compiled by Kyle Bagnall and Cindy Laug and edited by Joel Greenberg)

Passenger Pigeons once nested in enormous numbers throughout Michigan. Large Passenger Pigeon nestings were reported sporadically in Michigan from 1843-1860 and in alternate years from 1866-1878. In 1876 there were no fewer than three nestings in the State, one each in Newaygo, Oceana and Grand Traverse Counties. The “last grand nesting” of Passenger Pigeons known occurred near Petoskey in 1878, blanketing a region 40 miles long and three to ten miles wide.

Last Records of the Passenger Pigeon:
The last nestings of any size in Michigan occurred in 1880 along the Platte River, Benzie County and 1881 in Grand Traverse County. The last flock found nesting together in the State occurred in 1886 near Lake City, Missaukee County. The last reliable sighting of a large flock in flight occurred near Cadillac, Wexford County, in 1888. In October 1895 a single bird was shot by Dr. Ernest Copeland in Delta County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Three years later the last known specimen from the state was taken near Detroit. A small group were said to have nested on the headwaters of the Au Sable River in 1896. Additional sightings reported as late as 1905 are likely inaccurate.

Places Likely Named for the Passener Pigeon:
There are no fewer than 17 places in Michigan with pigeon in the name:

Pigeon Creek in Allegan County.

Pigeon Lake in Benzie County. (Benzie County was the location of a huge Passenger Pigeon nesting in 1874. For an excellent description, see Memorials of a Half Century, by Bela Hubbard. New York: G.P. Putnam’s & Sons. 1887. p.307-310).

Pigeon Creek in Calhoun County.

Pigeon River in Cheboygan and Montmorency Counties.

Pigeon River Country State Forest in Cheboygan, Montmorency and Otsego Counties. (Home of the largest free-ranging elk herd east of the Mississippi River.)

Pigeon Point and Pigeon Cove in Chippewa County

Pigeon Lake in Gogebic CountyVillage of Pigeon and Pigeon River in Huron County

Pigeon Hill in Muskegon County. (This large sand dune once soared 217 feet above Muskegon, along the Lake Michigan shore. An iconic feature of the region, it served as a backdrop for a well-known actor’s colony from 1908-1938. By 1938, sand mining operations had reduced the former Passenger Pigeon nesting area to nothing more than a series of sandy lumps, no more than 10 feet high. Today, a condominium complex is on the site.)

Pigeon Lake in Oceana County

Pigeon River, Pigeon Lake and Pigeon Creek Park in Ottawa County.

Town of White Pigeon and Pigeon River in St. Joseph County. (Named in memory of a Potawatomi Indian named White Pigeon or Wapmeme. He died in 1830, at about 30 years of age. In 1909 a monument to him was erected on the edge of town.)

Michigan Highlights:
Passenger Pigeons were an important source of food for Ojibwa, Odawa, and Pottawatomi peoples for many hundreds of years. An early written account from Michigan was recorded by John Tanner, who was captured by Native Americans in 1789 as a boy and lived among them for 30 years. He first hunted pigeons in 1792 near St. Ignace, in the eastern Upper Peninsula.

Archaeological records include a wing bone fragment found at the Cater Site in Midland County. This multicomponent site was first used as a seasonal Ojibwa village c.1815 and subsequently by a white settler c.1840.

Newspaper reports of pigeon shooting in Michigan are recorded as early as December 4, 1839 when the Niles Inquirer reported “Great pigeon shooting. Mr. Henry Keats recently shot 18 shots at 784 pigeons. They were on a sand bar where they had alighted for gravel and water.”

On May 20, 1848, the Detroit Free Press reported, “GET OUT YOUR FOWLIN PIECES. — Within the last few days large flocks of pigeons have passed over the City, and at some times the heavens seemed filled with them. A sportsman on the opposite side of the river killed over a hundred one evening last week, shooting into the flocks as they passed over.”

An excellent account of Passenger Pigeon nesting in Michigan was recorded by Chief Simon Pokagon, a Native American of the Potawatomi Nation, published in The Chautauquan in October 1895. Reprinted widely, the recollection reads, in part: “About the middle of May 1850 while in the fur trade I was camping on the head waters of the Manistee River in Michigan. One morning on leaving my wigwam I was startled by hearing a gurgling rumbling sound as though an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forests toward me. As I listened more intently I concluded that instead of the tramping of horses it was distant thunder and yet the morning was clear calm and beautiful. Nearer and nearer came the strange commingling sounds of sleigh bells mixed with the rumbling of an approaching storm. While I gazed in wonder and astonishment I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front millions of pigeons the first I had seen that season. They passed like a cloud through the branches of the high trees through the underbrush and over the ground apparently overturning every leaf. Statue like I stood half concealed by cedar boughs. They fluttered all about me lighting on my head and shoulders gently I caught two in my hands and carefully concealed them under my blanket...”

Pigeon shooting matches were popular in Michigan as early as 1858. Detroit, Pontiac and Flint were among the cities known for their contests, organized by wealthy sportsmen in groups such as the Detroit Pigeon Club. As early as 1860, matches drew wagers up to $300 a side, with 400 birds being shot at.

Market hunting for pigeons exploded in Michigan through the 1860 and 1870s. In 1860, eight shippers in Grand Rapids packed 688 barrels of pigeons from March 28th to July 11, totaling 105,855 pounds. Aggregate value from this single season totaled $523,520, not including “the great quantity consumed in our home market”. In 1878, the “grand nesting” at Petoskey resulted in an estimated 1,500,000 dead birds for the summer besides 80,352 living birds sent in coops for the sport shooting market.

The first book length account ever written on the species was authored by former Saginaw mayor and conservationist William Butts Mershon. Published in 1907, The Passenger Pigeon is a remarkable collection of personal memories, scientific information, and a collection of accounts representing the best that were available.

Michigan became the first and only state or province to ban all killing of the passenger pigeon. Unfortunately, the law was passed in 1898, way too late to save the bird but a significant moment in passenger pigeon history none the less. Another first in the history of the bird was the attempt by H.B. Roney and two others to limit the killing at the 1878 Petoskey nesting by seeking to enforce the weak game laws that were on the books. Several violators were fined as a result of their efforts.

An eloquent (and lengthy) description of Passenger Pigeon nesting behavior and the brutality of hunting methods used by market hunters appeared in the New York World in June 1874 and was reprinted widely. In part, it read, “Imagine if you can a tract of land about sixteen miles long and three wide, where every bough is occupied by a dozen nests and a hundred birds, where the air whirs from dawn till dark with ceaseless wings going and coming, where the flights that settle cover square acres with a living carpet, where from 250 to 400 men have for six weeks been engaged in trapping and killing without cessation, and yet not made them appreciably less; imagine fifty square miles of pigeons and that is the scene. As the old birds leave or are destroyed by millions, millions of young ones take the wing, and almost daily armies of reinforcements fly northward from far away Kentucky and Missouri, the beat of whose wings and whose countless numbers obscure the sky and emit a hollow roar as if a tornado or thunderstorm were approaching.

Lewis Cross of Spring Lake (near Grand Haven) was an accomplished painter who knew passenger pigeons first hand and wanted to preserve the spectacle they presented. His extraordinary works are displayed in various places including the Lakeshore Museum Center in Muskegon; Nature Education Center, Ottawa County Parks, Port Sheldon Township; the Tri-Cities Historical Museum, Grand Haven; and the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

A 4’x5’ oil painting, by Brian K. Wheeler in 1977 and life-size woodcarving, by Mike Ross in 2011 at Chippewa Nature Center in Midland. www.chippewanaturecenter.org

One of only three memorials to the passenger pigeon is located at the Oden State Fish Hatchery on US Hwy 31 North, about six miles north of Petoskey. It is a State of Michigan Historical Marker.

Michigan Locations Known to Have Passenger Pigeon Skins, Mounts, and or Skeletons:

Alma: Alma College

Ann Arbor: *University of Michigan Museum

Battle Creek: *Kingman Museum of Natural History

Bloomfield Hills: *Cranbrook Institute of Science

Burton: *For-Mar Nature Preserve and Arboretum — Genesee County Parks and Recreation

Centreville: *St. Joseph County Historical Society

Detroit: *Detroit Science Center

East Lansing: *Michigan State University Museum
                       Fenner Nature Center

Grand Rapids: *Grand Rapids Public Museum

Milford: *Kensington Metropark Nature Center

Muskegon: *Lakeshore Museum Center 

Niles: *Fernwood Nature Center

Olivet: Olivet College

Saginaw: Green Point Environmental Learning Center

* If an asterisk appears, at least one passenger pigeon is known to be on display; this list is mainly based on Hahn's Where is That Vanished Bird (1963). Please let us know of any changes including additional locations and/or birds on display, name changes of institution, if birds are no longer present, etc.

Read Fascinating Historical Accounts of the Passenger Pigeon in Michigan

Wisconsin’s A.W. [Bill] Schorger (1884-1972) spent many years researching the history of the Passenger Pigeon, and he summarized his findings in his 1955 book, The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction. At the time of its publication, the book was the most comprehensive account of the species. Schorger did an excellent job summarizing the nearly 10,000 historical records he discovered in libraries and historical societies around the country, but his original research notes contain many additional details.
For the 2014 centennial, Professor Stanley Temple of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has made all Schorger’s handwritten research notes available in digital form. This link will take you to a table that provides details of all the historical records Bill Schorger discovered for Michigan. [Schorger-MI.pdf]

Read Historical Accounts from Shorger's Original Field Notes about the Passenger Pigeon in Michigan

These sources are newly available on the Passenger Pigeon site (as of January 25, 2014). The links below give access to often-firsthand, eyewitness accounts of pigeons, the table includes a cross reference to the exact page in Schorger’s notes where you can read the full text of the account and find a citation of the original source document. All these historical documents are in PDF format in sizes ranging from 24mb - 60mb. These documents will open in their own window. Use the links below to find the page containing the account you’re interested in exploring further:
Schorger pages 1-329
Schorger pages 330-632
Schorger pages 633-959
Schorger pages 960-1242
Schorger pages 1243-1585
Schorger pages 1586-1890
Schorger pages 1891-2232
Schorger pages 2233-2556

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Your text contributions on passenger pigeons in the U.S. or Canada are welcome. Email your text notes to us. Include: first and last name, and the State or Province you reference in the Subject Line.

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