CHAPTER XXII.

VISIT OF THE PASSENGER-PIGEON TO THE CANADAS. -- CANADIAN BLACKBIRDS. -- BREEDING-PLACES OF THE PASSENGER-PIGEONS. -- SQUIRRELS.

THE passenger-pigeon* visits the Canadas in the early spring-months, and during August, in immense flocks, bringing with them an agreeable change in the diet of the settler.

[* The passenger-pigeon is not so large as the wild pigeon of Europe. It is slender in form, having a very long-forked tail. Its plumage is a bluish-grey, and it has a lovely pink breast. It is, indeed, a very elegant bird.]

Persons unacquainted with the country and the gregarious habits of this lovely bird, are apt to doubt the accounts they have heard or read respecting their vast numbers: since my return to England I have repeatedly been questioned upon the subject. In answer to these queries, I can only say that, in some parts of the province, early in the spring and directly after wheat-harvest, their numbers are incredible. Some days they commence flying as soon as it is light in the morning, and continue, flock after flock, till sun-down. To calculate the sum-total of birds passing even on one day, appears to be impossible. I think, the greatest masses fly near the shores of the great Canadian lakes, and sometimes so low, that they may be easily killed with a horse-pistol, or even knocked down with a long pole.

During the first spring in which I resided at Goderich, the store-keeper was out of shot, and the pigeons happened to be uncommonly numerous. I had a large fowling-piece with a wide bore; so I tried a charge of fine shingle off the beach at the first flock that came within close range, and had the satisfaction of bagging seven birds at the first shot--indeed, it was almost impossible to miss them, they flew in such thick clouds. I have frequently killed on the stubbles, from twenty to thirty at one shot.

Directly after the wheat is carted, the pigeons alight on the stubble in vast flocks. As they are chiefly the young broods, they are very easily approached: the sportsman should creep up behind them; for they are so intent on feeding, that they will seldom notice his approach till he is within fair range of them.

The hindmost ranks are continually rising from the ground, and dropping in front of the others. This is the proper time to fire, just as the hind-rank are a couple or three feet from the ground; firing the second barrel as the whole flock takes fight.

In the vicinity of the towns, sometimes a regular battue takes place, when all kind of firearms are in requisition, from the old Tower musket to the celebrated Joe Manton.

In July, the pigeons feed a great deal on wild berries, such as raspberries, huckle-berries, blue-berries, and a variety of other kinds. Many people would naturally think that such vast flocks of birds would alight on the standing grain, and destroy the crop: such, however, is not the case. Sometimes, during the seed-time in the spring, they are a little troublesome; but I have never known them alight on the ripening grain. The Canadian blackbirds are far more destructive in that particular--especially that species with the orange-bar across the wings. These birds alight on the Indian corn crops and oats in such numbers, that they do a great deal of damage, particularly the oats, which they break down by their weight.

There is another kind of blackbird, smaller than the former, and speckled very much like a starling. Indeed, I believe it is a species of that bird; for it frequents marshes, and lodges amongst the reeds at night. This bird is also destructive in the corn-fields.

There is yet a third species of blackbird, larger than either of the above, whose colour is of a glossy blue-black, very like our rooks. These birds are just as troublesome as the rest; but it must be admitted that their destroy an immense quantity of caterpillars and grubs. They are easily frightened away by firing a few shots. There is, however, no doubt but that they are a greater plague to the farmers than the pigeons: besides, the latter are excellent eating.

I once accompanied the Doctor on an exploring expedition through the tract. We encamped close to a breeding-place of these birds, when we were kept awake all night by the noise they made. Sometimes, too, a limb of a tree would break with the weight of the birds which had alighted on it, when there would be such fluttering and flapping of wings, as made it impossible for us to sleep.

Towards morning, the sound of their departure to their feeding-grounds resembled thunder. For nearly two hours there was one incessant roar, as flock after flock took its departure eastward. The ground under the trees was whitened with their excrement, and strewn with broken branches of trees.

The Americans have a plan of capturing these birds, by means of a decoy, or stool-pigeon, and nets. Thousands are often taken in this way during seed-time in the spring. When I first resided in the township of Douro, the pigeons used to be very plentiful at that time, their chief breeding-place being in the township of Fenelon, in a direct line west from my residence, some forty or fifty miles. And yet, soon after day-light, they would be passing eastward over my clearing, so vast is their swiftness and strength on the wing.

It is a curious fact that, although thousands passed daily for many days in succession, yet not one of them returned by the same route they went. I have been informed that this breeding-place has been deserted for several years, owing to the settlements having approached too near to please the winged possessors.

This satisfactorily accounts for the decrease I have noticed amongst these feathered denizens of the forest, during the last seven or eight years. In consequence of their having been disturbed, they have sought a more remote breeding-place. I am not at all certain whether this decrease is general through the province; but I feel quite convinced that, as civilization increases, all kinds of birds and wild animals will become less numerous, with the exception of crows and mice, which are greatly on the increase. Rats also have been imported, and appear to thrive well in the towns; though, I am happy to say, they have not found their way into my township yet--and long may they be ignorant of my location.

There is also another animal, which I think is more numerous than formerly--I mean the black squirrel. These pretty little creatures are very destructive amongst the Indian-corn crops. I have seen them carrying off a whole cob of corn at once, which I will be bound to say was quite as heavy as themselves.

The form of this animal is very elegant; the colour jet black--with a large bushy tail: the fur, however, is too open to be of any value. The flesh is excellent eating, far superior to that of the rabbit. In a good nut-season, in the western part of the province, the quantity of these animals is almost incredible.

I have heard old hunters say that, if the squirrels are numerous in the summer, the bears will be plenty in the fall, and also that their numbers give a sure indication of a severe winter. This saying, I believe to be true; because neither the squirrels nor bears are plentiful, unless there is an abundant supply of beech-mast, butter-nuts, hickory-nuts, &c., which Providence has kindly provided in more superabundant quantity on the approach of a longer and severer winter than usual.

Besides the Niger, or black squirrel, there are three other species in Canada West; first, the Cinereus, or grey squirrel, which is larger than the black squirrel. Its fur is something better, but the animal is not near so numerous. Secondly, the Ruber, or red squirrel, smaller than the last, but equally destructive.

The chitmunck, or Siriatus, or ground squirrel, is much smaller and more mischievous than any of the former species. The ridge of the back is marked with a black stripe; the sides are of a reddish yellow, spotted with white; the feet and legs pale red; the eyes black and projecting. These pretty little creatures never run up trees, unless they are pursued. They burrow and form their habitations under ground with two entrances. During the maize-harvest, they fill their mouths so full of corn that their cheeks distend to the size of a hen's egg. The chitmunck sometimes inhabits hollow trees and logs.

I have frequently cut down trees in which they had deposited their winter-store, to the amount of half-a-bushel of beech-mast, Indian corn, and grain of different descriptions. It is a very curious circumstance that, before storing away for the winter, they carefully skin every beechnut.

Towards the spring, when the days begin to be a little warm, they leave their winter-holes and enter the barns--compelled, most probably, by the failure of their winter-store. Great numbers are then destroyed by the cats. Their fur is of little value, and their flesh uneatable.

Last revised 2005-03-04

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