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.
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.
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.