I travelled on, and still met more flocks the farther I went. The air was literally filled with pigeons. The light of noonday became dim as during an eclipse. The continued buzz of wings over me had a tendency to incline my senses to repose.
Whilst waiting for my dinner at Young's Inn, at the confluence of Salt River with the Ohio, I saw, at my leisure, immense legions still going by, with a front reaching far beyond the Ohio on the west, and the beech wood forest directly on the east of me. Yet not a single bird would alight, for not a nut or acorn was that year to be seen in the neighborhood.
The pigeons flew so high that different trials to reach them with a capital rifle proved ineffectual, and not even the report disturbed them in the least. A black hawk now appeared in their rear. At once like a torrent, and with a thunder-like noise, they formed themselves into almost a solid, compact mass, all pressing towards the centre.
In such a solid body, they zigzagged to escape the murderous falcon, now down close over the earth sweeping with inconceivable velocity, then ascending perpendicularly like a vast monument, and, when high up, wheeling and twisting within their continuous lines, resembling the coils of a gigantic serpent.
Before sunset, I reached Louisville, fifty-five miles distant from Hardensburgh. The pigeons were still passing, and continued for three days. The banks of the river were crowded with men and children, for here the pigeons flew rather low passing the Ohio.
The whole atmosphere, during the time, was full of the smell belonging to the pigeon species. It is extremely curious to see flocks after flocks follow exactly the same evolutions when they arrive at the same place. If a hawk, for instance, has chanced to charge a portion of the army at a certain spot, no matter what the zigzags, curved lines, or undulations might have been during the affray, all the following birds keep the same track; so that if a traveller happens to see one of these attacks, and feels a wish to have it repeated, he may do so by waiting a short time.
It may not perhaps be out of place to attempt an estimate of the number of pigeons contained in one flock, and of the quantity of food they daily consume.
We shall take, for example, a column, one mile in breadth, which is far below the average size, and suppose the birds to pass over us, without interruption, for three hours, at the rate we have mentioned, of one mile in a minute. This will give us a line one hundred and eighty miles long by one broad, and covering one hundred and eighty square miles. Now, allowing two pigeons to the square yard, we have one billion, one hundred and fifteen million, one hundred and thirty-six thousand pigeons in one flock. As every pigeon consumes fully half a pint of food a day, the quantity required to feed such a flock for one day must be eight million, seven hundred and twelve thousand bushels.
As soon as these birds discover a sufficiency of food to entice them to alight, they fly round in circles, reviewing the country below, and, at this time, exhibit all the beauty of their plumage. Now they display a large glistening sheet of bright azure, by exposing their back to view. Suddenly turning, they exhibit a mass of rich, deep purple.
Now they pass lower over the forest and are lost among the foliage, for a moment, but reappear as suddenly above. Now they alight, and then, as if affrighted, the whole again take to wing with a roar equal to loud thunder, and wander swiftly through the forest as if to see if danger is near.
Hunger, however, soon brings them all to the ground, and then they are seen industriously throwing up the fallen leaves to seek for every beech nut or acorn. The last ranks continually pass over and alight in front, in such quick succession that the whole still has the appearance of being on the wing. The quantity of ground thus harvested (moissonee) is astonishing, and so clean is the work that no gleaners think it worth while to follow where the pigeons have been.
During the middle of the day, after the repast is finished, the whole settle on the trees to enjoy rest, and digest the food ; but, as the sun sinks, the army departs in a body for the roosting place, not unfrequently hundreds of miles off. This has been ascertained by persons keeping account of the arrival at, and departure from the curious roosting places, to which I must now conduct the reader.
To one of these general nightly rendezvous, not far from the banks of the Green River, in Kentucky, I paid repeated visits. The place chosen was in a portion of the forest where the trees were of great height with little underwood. I rode over the ground lengthwise upwards of forty miles, and crossed it in different parts, ascertaining its average width to be a little more than three miles.
My first view of this spot was about a fortnight after the birds had chosen it. I arrived there nearly two hours before sunset. Few pigeons were then to be seen, but a great number of persons with horses and wagons, guns and ammunition, had already established different camps on the borders.
Many trees two feet in diameter I observed were broken at no great distance from the ground, and the branches of many of the largest and tallest so much so that the desolation already exhibited equalled that of a furious tornado. The sun was lost to our view, yet not' a pigeon had arrived. All on a sudden, I heard a general cry of, " Here they come ! "
The noise which they made, though distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. The stream of birds still kept increasing. Fires were lighted, and many people had torches, and a most magnificent, as well as wonderful and terrifying sight was before me.
The pigeons, coming in by millions, alighted every where, one on the top of another, until masses of them, resembling hanging swarms of bees as large as hogsheads were formed on every tree. These heavy clusters were seen to give way as the supporting branches, breaking down with a crash, came to the ground, killing hundreds of birds beneath, forcing down other equally large and heavy groups, and rendering the whole a scene of uproar and distressing confusion.
I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons nearest me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I knew only of their going off by seeing their owners reload them. It was past midnight before I perceived a decrease in the numbers arriving.
The uproar continued, however, the whole night; and, as I was anxious to know to what distance the sound reached, I sent off a man, who told me afterwards, that at three miles he heard the sound distinctly. Towards the approach of day, the noise rather subsided; but long ere objects were at all distinguishable, the pigeons began to move off in a direction quite different from that from which they had arrived the day before".
The place they choose for building their nests, is very unlike the scene of confusion the roosting place presents. There you see the tenderest affection. The birds find some forest where the trees are very high and large, and at a convenient distance from the water. To this place myriads of pigeons fly. There, in harmony and love, they build their nests with parental care. Fifty or a hundred nests, made of a few dried sticks, crossed in different ways, and supported by suitable forks in the branches, may be seen on the same tree. The two birds take turns to sit on the eggs; but the mother sits the longest. The male feeds her from his bill with the greatest tenderness, takes care of her, and does every thing he can to please her".
Now it is bed-time, so good night!"