Passenger pigeons, Show & Tell and my dad

As some of you may know my dad died on January 11th.  Exactly three months ago today. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer that had invaded his bones and I wrote this love-letter blog back in 2013 after learning his prognosis.  I did not share his news with blog readers–he would not have wanted that–but it was Father’s Day, after all.  It was good to be able to shower love on him publicly, telling him what he meant to me while he was still alive to hear it.

I read most of this blog at his funeral in January.  The funeral proved a sad and wonderful tribute to his life, with several of us telling stories and crying and laughing and sharing so much.

Nineteen of us had gathered in downstate Michigan on Christmas Eve with him and my mom.  Even though he was weak and unable to walk on his own anymore–it was a very challenging time of little sleep, pain, and the decision to place him in the hospital and nursing home–Christmas Eve shined as an amazing “Grand Finale”.  Dad told jokes from his chair at the center of the action, keeping us in stitches as we celebrated life.

Less than three weeks later he was gone.  We miss him awfully, but no one would have wanted him to continue in such rough shape.

Today I would like to share one of my husband Barry’s columns from the March 2nd L’Anse Sentinel newspaper with you.  Please read on to learn about Passenger pigeons, Show & Tell and my beloved dad.  (Passenger pigeons? you ask with raised eyebrows.  Keep reading:  it will all make sense soon!)

I hope you enjoy Barry’s column and learn a little about an amazing bird that once thrived in our country.


sheldon family

Our wonderful Christmas Eve “Grand Finale”. Please note passenger pigeon photo hanging over fireplace to the left.

Show and Tell:  Extinct passenger pigeons roost at Skanee school

by Barry Drue

Remember “Show and Tell”?  Those exciting times when you could share your treasures with your classmates?  When you, for a few precious moments, became the teacher?

Friday was Show and Tell day at Arvon Township School.  Unbeknownst to students, the school Business Manager had her very own special Show and Tell to share.  Wife Kathy unveiled a gift to the school and children–a beautiful framed and signed print of (are you ready?) the extinct passenger pigeon, from Wisconsin artist Owen Gromme.

The unusual print comes courtesy of Kathy’s father, Dale Sheldon, who died at age 81 in January.  He and Kathy’s mom Joanne befriended Wisconsin Dells businessman Bud Gussel in Florida.  Bud, a Wisconsin history buff, had learned of wildlife artist Owen’s print about the incredible passenger pigeons that were, in the late 1800’s, so plentiful their migratory flights literally darkened the skies of the Dells, and much of Wisconsin.

It was Bud’s mission to donate, with Owen’s permission, colored prints of the male and female passenger pigeons to 600 schools and libraries across Wisconsin.  In that spirit he shared several prints with Dale and Joanne.  Upon Dale’s passing it was his wish that Kathy would carry on that tradition and share the print and story of the passenger pigeon at her beloved Skanee school.  Friday she took that opportunity to fulfill her father’s wishes.

Millions, even billions of birds

The colorful passenger pigeon is distinct from the carrier or homing pigeon.  The passenger pigeon was a large bird whose meat was prized.  The birds were 17 inches tall, pinkish-gray and attracted a frenzy of hunters who flocked to nesting grounds in numbers near as great as the birds themselves.

In 1813 James J. Audubon documented a migrating flock so thick it darkened the sun for three days straight.  He estimated the flock to be over a billion birds whose wings sounded like thunder.  The pigeons were strong fliers, covering a hundred miles a day looking for food.  They feasted on nuts, acorns, chestnuts, beechnuts, blueberries, cherries, grapes, caterpillars and inch-worms.

The nesting grounds brought tremendous columns of birds over the western two-thirds of Wisconsin.  Dr. A. W. Schorger noted, “The main column passed through Beloit, Monroe, Janesville, Stoughton, Madison, Jefferson, Watertown, Baraboo and Kilbourn.  The Mississippi columns passed over LaCrosse, swinging northeast to Black River Falls, Sparta and Tomah.”  The columns averaged six miles wide, sometimes 75 miles long.  The nesting area covered 850 square miles.  Trees sometimes collapsed under the weight of the nests.

It is estimated that passenger pigeons once accounted for 40 percent of all the birds in the U.S.


Show & tell and passenger pigeons

Friday the Arvon students gathered in Kathy’s office upstairs in the school between the library and gym.  They listened wide-eyed and stared at the big picture as she told of the passenger pigeon’s colorful lives.  The pigeons were very social, more so than most birds.  They wintered in the south and returned to the Great Lakes–particularly Wisconsin–to nest.

The kids were amazed to learn that the pigeons were so plentiful they stacked on top of each other on tree branches to sleep. Sometimes the branches broke under their weight.  They almost never fought.

“And do you know what they did to take a bath?” Kathy asked. “They bathed in shallow water and then they lay on one side to dry.  Then they rolled on the other side and stretched the other wing to dry!”

A student asked why there weren’t any more passenger pigeons.  Kathy had to tell of the relentless hunting, netting and killing of the majestic birds before the turn of the 20th century.  She attempted to gently leave the sad message of extinction with the young students.

In 1871 a hunt drew an army of gunners to what is now the Wisconsin Dells.  They came by train from Chicago, Milwaukee, Portage, perhaps 100,000 of them.  They targeted adult birds from a huge nesting site, and also the young, more delectable “squabs”, toppling them helplessly from nests with poles.  Tons were packed into barrels for shipment to market.

Attempts to legislatively protect the birds were unsuccessful as it was the belief that they were so numerous they needed no protection.

The last documented shooting of a wild pigeon was near Babcock, WI, in 1899.  A few survived in captivity in Cincinnati and Chicago, but the last survivor, known as “Martha”, died at the age of 29 in 1914.

With that, the children of the Arvon School are busy working on naming the male and female portrayed in the print that has been donated to the school on behalf of Kathy’s father, Dale Sheldon.


Here’s to Passenger Pigeons (and you, too, Dad…)

About Kathy

I live in the middle of the woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Next to Lake Superior's cold shores. I love to blog.
This entry was posted in April, 2016 and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Passenger pigeons, Show & Tell and my dad

  1. sybil says:

    It is so hard to believe how incredibly stupid an short-sighted humans can be. Glad you buck the trend Kathy and I’m glad you’re telling your dad’s story to a new generation.

    Hugs, Sybil

    • Kathy says:

      Isn’t it truly dumb-founding, Sybil? And such a lesson for all of us. It goes to show that all species–no matter how numerous–can be decimated without care and conservation. I am glad that my dad helped spread this story, so that we call learn.

  2. debyemm says:

    I had read about Martha and the Passenger Pigeons in Science News some time ago. Like you, I lost my Dad this year on Feb 3rd. He would have been 81 had he lived until his March birthday. I am grateful for the brief time I had of more involvement with him during the months after my Mom’s passing in late Sept. Glad you were able to “appreciate” your Dad when he was still living as well. Hugs !!

    • Kathy says:

      Yes, we both lost our dad within a month of each other. But you have the added challenge of losing a mom, too, in such a short time. Can not imagine how that must feel. Yes, it felt good sharing my love with him on that blog back in 2013. How many people wait to share words until a funeral, when our loved one is already gone? Thanks and hugs back…

  3. egoboyness says:

    You always bring reminders of important things, like Passenger Pigeons and special people like your father. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Ruth Maki says:

    Thank you for sharing. A great show and tell.

    • Kathy says:

      And you are one of the few people who will read this blog and know exactly where that picture hangs. I hope to show you in *person* one of these days. Thank you, dear Ruth!

  5. Brenda says:

    Kathy, this is such a thoughtful gift by your Dad to the school where you work. So much of our history, (and the world that used to be) is forever gone. Whenever someone can tell the stories of our past and bring them to life for our children are bridging the gap between then and now.
    Anytime you can find and share memories of your Dad it will bring a bit of healing. Even if the sharing is just between you and a couple special people. I know this has helped me since my Mom’s death.
    I’m sending you hugs and prayers for peace ❤

    • Kathy says:

      His gift was SO appreciated, Brenda. The odd thing is that the board authorized me to get a picture for that wall a couple of years ago and the Universe didn’t comply. I looked and looked–to no avail. And then Dad offered the picture and it amazed me that the exact color in the picture matched the wall. The Universe seemed to know the picture was destined to hang there.

      • Brenda says:

        Yep–sometimes the Universe knows exactly what goes where and who will benefit from the presence of the gift. ❤

  6. lisaspiral says:

    Fabulous way to honor both your Dad and the passenger pigeons.

  7. Barb says:

    I believe your dad lived fully until his last breath, surrounded by love, respect, and caring. Look at that smile on his face on Christmas Eve, buoyed by the joy of family. Now, the family carries on his legacy. I enjoyed learning about the passenger pigeons. I also enjoyed seeing you standing among the children, the next generation of learners. Hugs from CO, Kathy.

    • Kathy says:

      Barb, he DID live surrounded by all that–thank you! It was such a special Christmas Eve and he smiled and laughed and thoroughly enjoyed himself. I am glad you paused to read about the passenger pigeons, too. You wouldn’t believe all the stories told about my dad and how much he’s taught the next generation–sniff, sniff, now tears are pricking.

  8. john k. says:

    Kathy, over the years you have told a number of stories about your Dad, and many of your family as a whole. I believe your family knows more about how to live a good life by having your Dad as their patriarch. To miss him is a blessing for you all had the good fortune to be a part of his life. The people who are the real losers are those of us who never got to meet him.

    • Kathy says:

      John, it’s so interesting to think that many people feel they know my family through the stories told here on this blog. I was trying to explain that to my mom last month. That once you start telling stories people DO feel a connection and closeness. So thank you for saying this. I wish you’d been able to meet him. He came up fishing with Barry and John Evans one year and had a blast fishing (mostly yakking away telling stories) on the Keweenaw Bay.

  9. Linda Turner says:

    I so enjoyed this article about your Dad and you. I always admired your Dad from the time I went to work at the drug store. Your parents were great people & raised a beautiful, smart daughter & 2 very nice sons! So sorry to hear about your Dad, please tell your Mom I am so sorry for her loss. Job well done on the passenger pigeons, thanks for sharing.

    • Kathy says:

      Linda, it is SO delightful to see you here on the blog this morning. What a treat!! I will pass along your message to my mom. After the reunion I told her and Dad about meeting you again after all these years–what a joy that was to remember you existed and to see your smiling face again. They both had fond memories of you. Many blessings and appreciation for reading the blog and adding these lovely words.

  10. What a beautiful story and family as well! I have lost both my parents, the world is never the same……thank you for sharing. Isn’t God amazing how he weaves it all together? Love and blessings!

    • Kathy says:

      Gay, I am sorry to hear that you’ve lost both parents. I can not yet imagine how bereft that makes one feel… I DO love the weaving! Thank you for reading this rather long story and adding your blessings.

  11. I am so sorry to learn of your dad’s passing. I see from the pics that he was suffering. I know the school is thrilled to receive the print. I can hardly look at the print and not want to cry. How folks back then were so dang stupid is beyond comprehension. Those dodo should have been shot (not the birds that also became extinct because of man’s stupidity).

    • Kathy says:

      Yvonne, thank you for your kind words. It was challenging watching him go downhill recently. He was suffering at the end, but he also had many lucid and joyful moments. I remember once at Christmas he looked at Barry, my mom and me and said, “You do know where the passenger pigeons summered, don’t you?” We looked at each other, eyebrows raised. “The Bay of Fundy!” he said, shaking his head, as if we couldn’t pull it together. The rest of us looked at each other wondering where the heck the Bay of Fundy might be. What’s interesting is this blog that Sybil just posted recently:

  12. Lovely, lovely post. A tribute to your dad in all the best ways.
    The Bay of Fundy – Nova Scotia. I traveled there once, and camped all around that island. The Bay of Fundy is an incredible place – a perfect place for those summering pigeons.

    • Kathy says:

      Thank you, Pam. I so appreciate that you took the time to read–it was rather long. 🙂 But it felt important to put it up here on the Internet for my dad’s sake. So his spirit can see he taught us so many things… You would have won the Jeopardy challenge “Where in the Bay of Fundy?” My dad would have been proud!

  13. Gerry says:

    Kathy, I am so sorry for your loss – but so happy to see how your dad’s memory lives on in his family and in a whole new generation of Skanee students. They will not forget the passenger pigeons.

    • Kathy says:

      Thank you so much, Gerry. You should have seen the interest in the eyes of the kids. The oldest boy actually contributed a lot of information to the show and tell. The others were mesmerized. A couple of the kindergarten girls even got a tear in their eyes as they despaired about the extinct passenger pigeons.

  14. I think there is yet another piece to this, Kathy. By sharing the picture and the story of the passenger pigeons, you are showing these children something your father cared about and you are honoring his memory. When they in their turn lose a beloved parent, they will have one example of how to honor and live with their loss.

    • Kathy says:

      Esther, I never thought of that–thank you so much for pointing that out. It has felt so important to share this with others, and now maybe I know why.

  15. lom says:

    Lovely post Kathy, and still we haven’t learnt, still we hunt and kill and abuse our earth.

    Sending love and bright blessings your way.

    • Kathy says:

      We still haven’t learned, have we? One of these days we must–hopefully. I like the love and bright blessings coming this way. It’s mingling with the sunshine and feeling good.

  16. Bonnie says:

    And here’s to you Kathy, and your wonderful Dad, and the passenger pigeons, long gone. Thanks to you and your Dad, the kids hopefully will realize how important it is to treat our world with love and protect the species at risk.

    • Kathy says:

      Bonnie, I so appreciate you reading and stopping to comment. This post has meant a lot to me to share. I do have hopes about the kids understanding–their generation has to be our hope for a better honoring of our planet.

  17. Val says:

    Kathy, I’m very out of touch with blogging so somehow hdn’t realised that your dad was ill let alone that he had passed away in January. Even though you knew it was coming, you must have been -and doubtless still are – feeling terrible about it. I lost my dad in ’99 just two weeks after we had a diagnosis and I still remember how difficult it was to bear and I’m sure you were closer to your dad than I was to mine. Hugs.
    The painting was obviously meant to go where your father asked you to take it. Kind of like the poor birds have been given back their wings.
    I’m glad you’re back to your blog as it’s one of the very few that I badly missed. I need to catch up with your last few posts. I returned to blogging recently, too.

    • Kathy says:

      Hi, Val, how nice to hear from you! I wasn’t aware for a bit that you were the same Val from long-ago blogging days. Thank you so very much about your kind words about my dad’s death. It all still feels kind of surreal. You are right, too, about the picture needing to go where it was meant to go. Will scurry over to your blog and see what you’ve been up to, as well.

      • Val says:

        Difficult to comment and be low-key at the same time, but I had to come and say hello.
        It takes time for a loss to become a settled part of you. Take your time. Hugs.

  18. Debbie M. says:

    What a lovely story to remember your dad and to share his concern for a creation that needs to be nurtured, enjoyed, and protected! I am sorry for the loss of your father. May the memories (I see in the pictures and hear in your post) be a comfort that fills the void.

    • Kathy says:

      Debbie, thank you so much for your kind words. This was a hard blog to write and I so appreciate those who paused to comment. There are so many sweet memories. Yesterday I was dancing in the kitchen to 50’s music and heard “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” One of my dad’s favorite songs.

  19. christinelaennec says:

    Another very touching and thought-provoking post. Your Dad looks like a very special person. You must miss him a lot.

    • Kathy says:

      Christine, how very nice to see you again. I do miss my dad a lot. He seemed bigger-than-life at times. Maybe a lot of dads seem like that to their kids.

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