Passenger Pigeons in Guelph
August 30, 2018
Publication Date: 1963
In 1931 the GummerPress limited, Guelph, Ontario, printed a very valuable pamphlet of 12 pages entitled "The wild or passenger pigeon." This pamphlet was written by Henry Howitt, MD, MRCS, Eng, FACS. The front cover had a print of a painting by Fred Dixon of Guelph of a male and female pigeon. The original stuffed birds were that that time in the possession of Mrs. F. Hall of “Riverslea”, Perth Street, Guelph.
Dr. Howitt remembered the migration of these birds very well. He recalled two incidents of his early days which fixed his attention on the ways and habits of the wild pigeons.
One event he recalled was that in October 1851 when he was 21 years and nine months old, he caught by chance of these birds. Dr. Howitt’s father had employed 6 or 7 boys to protect the grain when it was being sowed from being gobbled up by hordes of the voracious birds. Dr. Howitt remembered that he tried to beat the birds away with a long stick but they came to where he was standing.
A second incident he recalled was that he found a wild pigeon’s nest in the woods of well’s island opposite the old red mill, where now stands the large barns of the street cars (waterloo avenue). He brought home a downy squab of a few days of age. This bird he and his brother James tamed. Unfortunately, the bird was inadvertently shot by Henry in the fall of 1856.
He describes how the birds migrated in great flocks in April. They were in layers and moved over this area from East to West at an altitude of about a quarter of a mile. The small migrations had only 2 or 3 strata, the large migrations had 30 or more strata. The lowest stratum was largest and each layer above smaller so that there was a slope from top to bottom. The layers seemed to be about a foot apart. Thus the birds seemed to have enough space sideways to move their wings freely. The winds of the flock moved synchronously with the wings of the leader. The birds moved quickly – about a mile a minute. The distance from side to side of the layers was greater than from front to back. He says:
“In the early years of 1850 small and large flocks were so numerous as to dot the sky in every direction, and frequently a flock would darken the sun. After 1854 the spring flocks became less numerous and about 1869 practically disappeared in the neighborhood of Guelph but were still numerous farther west especially in Michigan.” (p.10)
He stated that in 1855 the last rookery of wild pigeons near Guelph was a small one in what was then called Hatch’s Swamp. In those days the swamp extended a mile or more along the Pound Creek from where today the Guelph Collegiate-Vocational Institute stands. In later years individual birds nested along the River Speed widely separated.
“Old inhabitants of that time frequently spoke of an immense rookery that about 1835 extended on both sides of the River Speed from Guelph to Rockwood. Within its bounds trees were broken down by the weight of the pigeons, and at the proper time wagon loads of the young birds could be easily obtained.” (p.11)
Dr. Howitt states on the next page that in the neighbourhood of Guelph no wild pigeons were slaughtered at any time for sale, although Guelph sportsmen shot many of the pigeons. Many birds were also killed by sticks.
“At the period of the great rookery between Guelph and Rockwood a very large flight of the young birds went for days within fifty yards of the home of the late much respected and worthy Jonathon Oakes, who lived less than a mile south of the village of Guelph. Whenever he wanted a family pie of tender pigeon-breasts, all he had to do was to take his fish pole, get behind a low bush in the line of flight and sway it among the pigeons.”
Dr. Howitt states that the autumn migration took place in late September or early October. They resembled in strata, altitude and speed of flight the spring migration. They went in a straight line from west to east.
The last wild pigeon that Dr. Howitt saw alive was a lone hen in July 1881. It sat on a dead branch on top of a tree near the river opposite where the Ontario Reformatory now stands. He concludes:
“It is generally known that the last living passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914; it was a hen bird, twenty years old at the time of its death. Under normal conditions the life of the wild pigeon was probably several years longer.”
The Guelph Herald dated June 17, 1851 contained this paragraph copied from the St. Catherines Constitutional:
There are none of our roaders that can be unobservant of the immense number of pigeons that at this season of the year may be seen passing over from one part of this continent to another, and yet few of them are probably aware of the immensity of their number – at the food required for their support, and of the law of nature that regulates their migration. Myriads of these beautiful birds have, during the past ten days, flown over this country taking a south westerly course and yet how few persons are conscious enough to enquire into their destination, the object of their flight, or of their general economy.
The author goes on to say that the birds build inadequate platform nests in which only one egg is laid. The time of incubation is 16 days. The male relieves the female in sitting during that period. The daily food required to sustain a large flock would be at least 60,000 bushels. The New York Evening Post informs us “that on the 31st of last month, seven tons of pigeons were carried into the New York market by the Erie railroad.”