This is the time of year that armed Knoxvillians started looking hopefully to the sky. Fall was the season of the passenger-pigeon migration, and that meant good eating for everybody.
Ijams Nature Center has lately been emphasizing its Lost Species Exhibit, and has on display a stuffed passenger pigeon of unknown provenance on loan from the McClung Museum. A few weeks ago I wrote about Ijams Director Paul James’ quest to gather information about the movements of passenger pigeons.
We know they crossed Tennessee most years, up into the 1880s, migrating from the Great Lakes to the Deep South. Paul’s interested in tracking them, insofar as we can, at this distance.
I didn’t really expect to hear much. No one alive today remembers seeing a passenger pigeon in flight. They haven’t been seen in the wild anywhere since about 1900. But for short periods, they were sometimes the most plentiful birds in East Tennessee.
Poking around the Reconstruction era, working on another project, I’ve found a few.
Passenger pigeons were larger, faster, and more colorful than common park-variety pigeons, and unlike them, tended to migrate in huge numbers. When they were plentiful, passenger pigeons were known around here as “wild pigeons.”
It was a long time before anyone guessed they were endangered. The passenger pigeon was long the most common bird in America, numbering in the billions.
The first article that caught my eye, titled “Wild Pigeons,” was in the Knoxville Press & Herald in November, 1869.
“The woods of the surrounding counties are thick with wild pigeons at the present time, and large quantities of them are being brought to town and offered in our market.”
That would be Market Square. In what condition, it doesn’t say; there was a market for both live pigeons, captured in big nets, and shot ones. By some accounts, their meat was just “tolerable,” but it was plenty and cheap. More delicious were the young ones, the squabs, which were a big-city delicacy.
Glenn’s Restaurant, on Gay Street near the river, ordinarily specialized in “the best and cheapest oysters in the city.” But that fall of 1869, Glenn’s ran this ad:
“Here You Are! 300 Wild Pigeons and Quails on Toast.”
Then, under the headline, “Some Shooting,” an article about some handy hunting on the south side of town, which in 1869 was reachable by ferry; the wartime bridge had been swept away in a flood, two years earlier, and it wasn’t until 1871 that a new bridge was completed.
“A few days ago, a couple of gentlemen doing business on Gay Street went across the river and in six hours [had] done what they bragged on as a good day’s shooting, having killed 42 birds...” It was an impressive total for a day’s hunt so close to town.
“But they must doff their caps, for a time at least...to Messrs. McClung and Caswell, who on Thursday last, three miles from Mossy Creek [modern-day Jefferson City], killed 76 birds with six hours shooting. When ‘uptown’ can beat that, we shall be pleased to chronicle the fact.”
Some October, 1871, reports recount the adventures of some professional pigeon hunters, down from Pennsylvania, having followed “a large body of pigeons” from Michigan through Indiana and Kentucky, through the Cumberland Gap, and into East Tennessee. They were netting them for the New York market, where they were selling for $2 a dozen.
The last reference I found was from October, 1877, and it was a special planned event. So sociable they were easily captured in nets, passenger pigeons were sometimes kept alive until they could be slaughtered for market, but sometimes they were released for shooting competitions. That was apparently the event that took place on Oct. 13, 1877, at Fort Sanders.
Back then, the phrase “Fort Sanders” always referred not to a neighborhood, but to the intact ruin of an earthen fort on the ridgetop between what’s now 16th and 18th Streets, where the ramparts were still obvious and steep. It was one of the handiest semi-rural places within walking distance of downtown.
The article, headlined “The Pigeon Shooting,” described an event sponsored by the East Tennessee Huntsmen’s Club.
“Quite a large crowd gathered on Fort Sanders yesterday evening to witness the pigeon shooting.” There were 16 participants, mostly old-family Knoxvillians, with one Nashvillian in the mix. The $10 entrance fee weeded out the hoi polloi; if we can trust inflation-conversion charts, that was the equivalent of around $250. Several of the contestants were named McClung. In fact, the three top shooters that evening were named McClung: Frank McClung, E.S. McClung, Matt McClung.
They were vying for some pretty valuable prizes, all of them guns, from a $100 shotgun down to a $15 Smith & Wesson pistol.
“The shooting was good by all the participants, and everything went off pleasantly,” went the report. “The few pigeons that escaped from the shooting ground were met by a heavy volley from the boys who stood on the outskirts of the grounds.”
The winner, Frank McClung Jr., bagged 10 pigeons. He’s the son of the fellow who, about 80 years later, would have a museum named after him that would obtain what’s probably the only passenger-pigeon specimen in Knoxville.
It’s hard to point fingers. When passenger pigeons were coming through East Tennessee, they were much more common than other poultry, like ducks or geese or chickens. They seemed nearly as common as mosquitoes. Ornithological groups were just beginning to express concern about the wild pigeons’ apparent decline. A year after the Fort Sanders shoot, some naturalists up north were raising an alarm, an effort that eventually led—20 years later—to state laws in Michigan protecting the passenger pigeon.
Watching these flocks that remained huge for years to come, most ridiculed the early warnings. Industry experts debunked the alarmists. There were still more than a billion of them. It seems perfectly obvious that such a vigorous species would thrive forever. Why, anybody could see that.