In Search of Something Lost

Millions of passenger pigeons once darkened Adirondack skies. A few names on maps are all that remain

On a cool, gray morning that would soon melt into a steamy midday, Bill Schoch, a friend and avid hiker, and I stepped out the kitchen door and marched into the woods. The blackflies were all but gone, the mosquitoes thin. With few insects to swat, we moved quickly on fresh legs, reaching Grass Pond in the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness Area in exactly an hour.

Right from the start I was feeling like a Don Quixote who had pressed Bill into the unenviable role of Sancho Panza. The idea for the hike bordered on crazy. For three years, in all seasons, I had gazed out across the wilderness from our house near Bloomingdale. Time and again my eyes found greatest interest not on Whiteface Mountain, rising like a ziggurat on the eastern horizon, nor on Moose, nearer and wearing a landslide like a crooked necktie, but on a low, little-known peak, for­ested all the way to the top, named Pigeon Roost.

Two and a half miles north and east of Moose Mountain, Pigeon Roost bulges 2,769 feet toward the sky. Digging into its history, I’d confirmed my suspicions about the name. In the 1800s, and perhaps for centuries before, Pigeon Roost had hosted a breeding colony of passenger pigeons.

The passenger pigeon was a native North American bird. It’s not to be confused with the carrier pigeon, which is simply a domesticated pigeon trained to deliver messages. The passenger pi­geon was the most abundant land bird in the world, or so or­ni­thologists believe. Until its numbers collapsed in the middle and late 1800s, the bird migrated north and south through the forests of eastern North America in flocks so large they challenged the imagination. Early ob­servers such as Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon estimated individual flocks to hold more than a billion birds. Migrating pigeons blackened the sky and broke stout limbs off trees when they landed. The population at the time of the European discovery of America has been estimated at three to five billion. No other species of land bird matched that number then, and none does now.

Today, not a single live passenger pigeon remains.

My inspiration, or foolishness, was to hike two miles into the woods on an abandoned logging road, then slog more than three miles through woods cluttered with blowdown to reach Pigeon Roost. I was de­termined to go in late spring or early summer. Call the timing sentimental. I wanted to visit the humble peak when the birds would have been there—by the hundreds of thousands. No one climbs Pi­geon Roost today, at least no one I know of. It’s be­come ob­scure. But I felt that someone should go: to honor the birds’ absence, to shed a few tears, to remember a species that disappeared forever on September 1, 1914, the day “Martha,” the last of the passenger pigeons, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.

Bill had let himself be persuaded to make the pilgrimage with me, and I was glad for his company. He understood my motivation. He’s a skilled route-finder and would help get us there and home again. He’s of my vintage and in a similar state of fitness, so he’d neither wear me out nor slow me down. And most important when recruiting a partner for a long, hard bushwhack, he’s even of temper and a good conversationalist.

When most people in nearby Bloomingdale were home eating scrambled chicken eggs and toast, Bill and I were standing at the edge of Grass Pond, watching a great blue heron flap off toward Whiteface. Behind us lay two miles of brisk but easy walking along the logging road. Ahead lay the bushwhack: a little more than three miles as the pigeon flew, almost due east. We’d follow a densely wooded valley that squeezes between Slide Mountain in the north and Moose Mountain to the south. Accurate navigation would be critical. In the deep forest, Pigeon Roost would be lost from view. Making things even trickier, our target was one of four promontories—Blue Mountain, Owls Head, Pigeon Roost and Mount Alton—that line up from north to south. If we deviated even slightly, we’d end up climbing the wrong hill.

We picked our way across the beaver dam that impounds Grass Pond, took deep breaths, and checked the map. I’d pieced it together by photocopying the corners of four quadrangles. Out came compasses, Bill’s and mine. Bill also carried a GPS unit, but under the canopy of leaves, its high technology proved useless.

As we trudged forward, picking our way over fallen trunks and skirting thickets and boulders, we saw little animal life. But we recognized the voices of birds: black-throated blue warbler, red-eyed vireo, Blackburnian warbler, winter wren, swamp sparrow, black-throated green warbler, Nashville warbler, blue-headed vireo, red-breasted nuthatch, American redstart and hermit thrush. At first, the forest was young, and in one place it showed evidence of recent fires. Deeper in, we walked at the feet of giants. Bill and I were moved by the thought that these massive, old-growth trees (sugar maple, yellow birch, American beech, eastern hemlock) had likely known the weight of passenger pigeons resting in their limbs.

Bill wanted to hear what I’d learned about Adirondack passenger pigeons in general and the Pigeon Roost birds in particular, so through most of the morning, that’s what we talked about. Conversation diverted our minds from the work at hand: constant climbing over and around blowdown.

At first I had found the historical record thin. Adirondack histories tended to leave the passenger pigeon out, despite the fact that probably two out of every five birds in the Adirondacks had been a passenger pigeon when my great-great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Brownell settled in Northville, around 1795. The lack of attention appalled me. It was as if the tragedy of the pigeon’s extinction—no, call it extermination—had been expunged. This in itself would be a tragedy.

The story of the passenger pigeon is a cautionary tale. The thoughtlessness with which our ancestors exhausted a seemingly limitless resource of flesh and feathers brings to mind a twentieth and twenty-first century echo: the civilized world’s ravenous consumption of petroleum. Oil and all the products derived from it are marvelous gifts, yet we—I count myself guilty here—burn through the supply like it’ll last forever.

Persistence, however, bore fruit. I studied place names on maps. In the Adirondacks I found not only Pigeon Roost in Essex County, but also Pigeon Lake—and surrounding wilderness area—in Ham­ilton County and Pi­geon Mountain in Fulton. The Mohawks called the bird ourité. They, like Native Americans elsewhere in the East, un­doubtedly feasted on the pigeons. The Dutch historian Adrian van der Donck, reporting from the Hudson Valley in the seventeenth century, wrote that the “Indians, when they find the breeding places of the pigeons . . . frequently remove to those places with their wives and children, to the number of two or three hundred in a company, where they live a month or more on young pigeons, which they take, after pushing them from their nests with poles and sticks.”

Accounts of Adirondack passenger pigeon sightings are few—not, I suspect, because the birds were scarce, but for the opposite reason. Commenting on a bird so extravagantly abundant was to state the obvious. But a smattering of spring, summer and fall reports comes down to us. The Swedish botanist Peter Kalm, visiting the region in the eighteenth century, saw wild pigeons in the Lake Champlain Narrows and at Crown Point. State zoologist James DeKay, writing in 1844, called the passenger pigeon “a very prolific species. The Wild Pigeon, as it is universally called in this country,” reported DeKay, “. . . in certain years . . . [appeared] in almost incredible numbers, literally darkening the sky and breaking down trees with their weight.”   In 1863 the naturalist John Burroughs wrote of seeing “a solitary wild pigeon” at the Upper Works, near Ta­hawus. At nearby Lake Sanford, he found the birds “quite numerous.” Young Theodore Roosevelt recorded no pigeons while assembling his now-famous 1877 bird list at Paul Smiths. Perhaps the difference between 1863 and 1877 is telling. By the time Roosevelt made his observations, passenger pigeon populations were crashing.

Millions of passenger pigeons likely nested in the Adi­rondack Mountains. Surely, I thought, at least one specimen must “survive.” But where? I called the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake. Its lone specimen was on loan from the Pember Museum, in Granville, where it was killed in 1863. The New York State Museum? No luck. The New York State Environmental Science and Forestry School in Syracuse? Same answer. Mike Peterson, one of the Adirondacks’ great bird experts, knew of a specimen “collected” (ornithological parlance for “shot”) by Augustus Paine in Willsboro on October 9, 1891. He said the bird’s skin had been transferred to the State Museum in Al­bany, but I asked, and the museum had no record of it. Eventually I found the bird. The creature had mi­grated to the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City. I felt re­lieved. At least one Adi­rondack passenger pi­geon remains to re­mind us what can happen when we ex­ploit a natural re­source thoughtlessly, and government fails to intervene for the public good.

The pigeons of Pigeon Roost had left a faint trail of paper. John Duquette, writing for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in 1988, told of a Wil­liam Ryan who, “in the late 1800s,” tended dairy cows near Franklin Falls. Ryan ap­parently managed to drive a wagon near the roost. There, reported Duquette, the “manure” of the pi­geons “covered the ground to a depth of 3 or 4 inches.” Ryan held his nose, dug the stuff up, hauled it home and used it as fertilizer. By this time, the pigeon colony had probably been de­stroyed, but for years their droppings would have persisted. (Audubon, traveling in the South, described pigeon guano that “lay several inches deep, covering the whole extent of the roosting place, like a bed of snow.”)

According to John Bull’s 1974 book Birds of New York State, “the last great pigeon roosting in New York” likely came in 1868, when “millions” spread their nests over fourteen miles of forest in Alleghany County near the Pennsylvania border. The Pigeon Roost birds, more remote and perhaps known only to locals, may have persisted longer. John Burroughs saw a last flight of pigeons move up the Hudson River Valley in April 1875. Who knows? Maybe they were bound for the place we were seeking.

The bushwhack was taking longer than Bill and I ex­pected. Three hours after we’d left Grass Pond we were only beginning to climb a slope that, if we’d done a good job navigating, would lead to Pigeon Roost’s summit. We hadn’t dawdled or stopped to rest for more than a couple of minutes. Our rate of progress measured less than a mile per hour. Passenger pigeons, which had long wings and sleek bodies, were estimated during migration to zoom along at sixty miles per hour.

A little after noon we came face to face with a bulwark of rock, ferns and scabby lichen. The idea of making a long detour held little appeal, but we didn’t dare climb. Our knees had turned to rubber. This was no place to break a leg. So we circled to the north and then east again, hauled our weary carcasses higher and higher, and at last arrived at a view. Through a small opening in the ma­ple and birch leaves we could see all the way back to Grass Pond.

The moment brought gladness and pain. We could see we’d come far, yet it was ob­vious the summit still lay a few hundred feet above us. And there was the matter of all those miles we’d have to retrace on the way home.

When bushwhacking, it’s a good idea to set a turn-around time. This is the hour when, whether you’ve reached your destination or not, your party agrees to start homeward. It’s easy in the middle of an ad­venture to say, “Let’s go a little farther,” and then, “Let’s go a little farther still.” Before you know it, you’ve left too little time for the retreat. You struggle out in darkness or spend a cold, uncomfortable night under a tree. Bill and I had agreed to give up the quest at one p.m. The time came, but we persisted.

Fifteen minutes later we came to a place where the trees thinned, and we gained views in three directions. To the northeast we could see a rocky prominence, the apparent summit. Looking south we could see Lake Placid’s Main Street, the Olympic arena and Mirror Lake. In the southwest we looked toward the mesa-topped summit of Moose Mountain. The GPS unit still struggled, so I spread the map on the ground like a tablecloth, oriented it to true north, and took bearings for the Olympic arena and Moose’s summit. The lines I sketched on the map intersected—hooray!—on the western flank of Pigeon Roost. We’d fallen short of the top, but at least we’d discovered the right mountain.

Bill and I dug into our packs for drinks and nibbles. Giving up swatting mosquitoes just long enough to take on fuel, we talked about the fact that if this had been 1850, we’d likely have been seeing, hearing, smelling and perhaps even lunching on pigeons. Audubon reported that the roar of the birds leaving a roost in the morning or returning at night could be heard for three miles or more. During the day, the female birds sat on eggs or brooded nestlings, at least until the young were ready to clamber through the branches and forage on their own. Mother birds were reported to leave the nest only once a day, while the males commuted to and from feeding grounds often miles away. In the Adirondacks the pigeons would have gorged on beechnuts, pine seeds and the fruits of a great many woody plants, including elms, maples, alder, birch, pin cherry (formerly known as “pigeon cherry”), black cherry, chokecherry, juneberry, dogwoods (red-osier, gray-stemmed, bunchberry), mountain-ash, sumac, partridgeberry, wintergreen, blueberry, wild strawberry, pokeberry and more. Nestlings were fed “pi­geon milk,” a blend of ground-up food and parental secretions regurgitated mostly by the males. (Prolactin, the hormone that stimulated the pigeons to produce milklike nourishment, is the same hormone that provokes the females of our species to make milk for their babies.)

In trying to imagine what it would have been like to visit an Adirondack roost when pigeons ruled it, we have the benefit of a first-hand re­port by newspaper editor and travel writer Samuel Hammond. In his 1854 book, Hills, Lakes, and Forest Streams, Hammond wrote of a visit to a pigeon col­ony near Tupper Lake. His ac­count is lengthy and detailed, one of the finest descriptions of such a place ever written. “We were startled, in the gray twilight of the morning, by a distant roaring; not like a waterfall, or far-off thunder, but partaking of both. We heard it several times, at short intervals, and were unable to ac­count for the sound, until, as the light grew more distinct, we saw vast flocks of wild pigeons, winging their way in different directions across the lake. . . .

“We paddled down the lake, to a point opposite where [the breeding place] seemed to be, and struck into the woods. We had no difficulty finding it, for the thundering sound of these vast flocks, as they started from their perches, led us on. About half a mile from the lake we came to the outer edge of the roost. Hundreds of thousands of pigeons had flown away that morning, and yet there were hundreds of thousands, and perhaps many millions, old and young, there yet.

“It covered acres and acres—I have no idea how many, for I did not go round it.”

Wading straight into the colony, Hammond witnessed a scene of biological exuberance unimaginable in the Adi­rondacks today. “The trees were not of large growth, being mostly of spruce and [stunted] birch, hemlock, and elm, but every one was loaded with nests. In every crotch, on every branch, that would support one, was a nestful of young of all sizes, from the little downy thing just escaped from the shell, to the full-grown one, just ready to fly away. The ground was covered with their offal, and the carcasses of the young in every stage of decay. The great limbs of the trees outside of the brooding place were broken and hanging down, being unable to sustain the weight of thousands that perched up on them. . . . Every few minutes, would be heard the roar of a flock of the birds, as they started from among the trees.”

Hammond ended his tale in classic fashion. “We struck inland to an island,” he wrote, “where we break­fasted upon young pigeons, broiled over the coals. They were very fat and tender, and constituted a pleasant change from fish and venison, which, if the truth must be told, were becoming somewhat stale to us.”

All the way to Pigeon Roost Bill and I had joked about the prospect of finding the colony still ac­tive—a veritable lost civilization in the jungle, this one populated by birds. Perhaps we’d see what Au­dubon saw, a wild pi­geon “gliding through the woods and close to the observer, it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain.” Of course, we knew this was impossible. Yet some impractical, Quixotic part of me really did hold out hope of seeing a passenger pigeon. The history of ornithology abounds in birds, long believed extinct, that turned up alive.

My hope, of course, came to nothing.

If a wild pigeon had materialized, what would it have looked like? We’d have seen a bird reminiscent of a mourning dove, with longer wings and a more extravagant tail. The eyes would have been colored a dazzling red, the bill black, the plumage vaguely like a dove’s but with a gorgeous blue spreading down the head and neck, a metallic iridescence on the nape and shoulder, a smattering of black spots on the wings, and flanks brick-red or softly purple. Perched, the bird might have cooed like a domestic pigeon, but with a less wavery tone. In flight it might have uttered a staccato cry, a sound that reminded Henry Thoreau of the screeching of hawks.

On wobbly knees and plundered feet, Bill and I made the arduous journey home. All we had left to ponder was the tragic destruction of a magnificent bird, the relentless raiding of the nesting colonies for human food and for the sustenance of hogs, and the heartbreaking convergence of rapacity, prosperity and technology that sealed the species’ doom. The “ifs” in the passenger story are painful to mull. If a strengthening North American economy had not permitted the capturing and releasing of pigeons for shooting (hence the term “trapshooting”) to become a popular sport; if railroads had not come along when they did, allowing meat packers in Utica, Plattsburgh and elsewhere to ship barrels full of iced pigeons to hungry city-dwellers; if weapons that fired breech-loaded cartridges in rapid succession—modern shotguns and rifles—had not proliferated; the passenger pigeon might have survived. But a deck stacked like this couldn’t be beaten. The Plattsburgh Republican reported, possibly with exaggeration and possibly not, that 1.8 million pigeons were shipped to market in 1851 alone.

When the heart of the last Adirondack passenger pigeon pumped its last drop of blood we’ll never know. The final report of an extensive flock came from Henry Felshaw, who witnessed about three hundred wild pigeons flying over Constableville, just outside the park in Lewis County, on May 22, 1896. The last known nesting in New York, near Rochester, occurred in 1904.

Some have argued that the passenger pigeon died out because the forests on which it had depended for sustenance were cut. Biologist A. W. Schorger, author of The Passenger Pi­geon (1955), the definitive book on the spe­cies, assembled a mountain of evidence, then concluded this was not the case. “The fact re­mains,” he wrote, “that the supply of beechnuts and acorns was far in excess of the needs of the pigeons throughout the last half-century of their existence.”

The truth is ugly. Perhaps that’s why it’s been kept out of all but a few of our history books. The birds nested, as far as we can tell, only in big concentrations. The concentrations were easy to find. People found them. The parent birds were killed, nests were knocked to pieces, eggs were smashed or gathered, and young were snatched for food or spilled into the mouths of hogs or left in the trees to starve. Guns, sticks, stones, clubs, traps, nets and railroads all played their parts. It was obvious to just about everyone that the supply of birds had no limit. But just about everyone was wrong.

Bill and I limped home before dark. For dinner there would be none of that old American staple, pigeon pot pie. But we did have the pleasure, shortly after peeling off our boots, of looking out the kitchen window and seeing a black bear raid a bird feeder. Conservation laws came along too late to save the passenger pigeon. But the bird’s horrific loss, and the destruction of the Adirondack wolf, moose and mountain lion, sounded a wake-up call. Along came hunting seasons, bag limits, and a conservation de­partment to adjust and en­force them. A better way of treating Adirondack wildlife has come to the woods to roost.

Update, May 5, 2015: Naturalist and author Edward Kanze’s most recent book is Adirondack: Life and Wildlife in the Wild, Wild East (2014, SUNY Press).  This article, which appeared in the June 2004 issue of Adirondack Life, was that year’s winner of the John Burroughs Association Essay Award.


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