Petoskey – Day 9

Driving around, and I’ve already done a fair bit of it, you need things to keep you entertained. Music is one thing, listening to US radio is another, reciting all 50 states of the USA is another.

My car has Texas license plates so I’ve already had a few ‘You’re a long way from home’ remarks which lead into conversations about quite how far away from home I actually am.

I’m quite surprised how faithful the car license plates are to their states. Here in Michigan, almost every car I see has Michigan plates, and in Wisconsin they were almost all Wisconsin plates. It’s as though nobody leaves their state, except a few do and that means one can play ‘spot the license plate’ as one travels around. And try to get the set!

So far I have been in 11 states so their license plates were easy but I have added another 18: California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, N Carolina, Minnesota, Mississippi, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvnia, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. I was pleased to ‘get’ Wyo today!

I’ll be in another four states, I think, where their plates will be easy but (even assuming Alaska and Hawaii might be very difficult) that leaves 15 that may be tricky. Even though you may not be the least bit interested – I’ll keep you posted on progress.

Today I drove along with Lake Michigan on my right for most of the way.  It’s like being by the seaside – they’re not called the Great Lakes for nothing.  It was a nice sunny day.

I almost gave up glancing at the lake to see if there were any birds because there didn’t seem to be any, and then I saw two great northern divers (common loons, if you will).  At a brief stop I confirmed that the gulls were ring-billed and saw a blackpoll warbler. A raven or two passed overhead.

I got to Petoskey around noon and, by chance, by happy happenchance, I spotted a museum.  The museums I’ve visited so far have been good – and so was this one.

The Little Traverse Historical Society Museum  had information about passenger pigeons and a very attractive large painting, at the end of the room, of folk collecting pigeon squabs in the woods as they did in prodigious numbers here in 1878.

Being on the lakeside, and the railway having arrived in 1874, this area could send out passenger pigeons to the hungry mouths of Chicago and points east.

In 1878, a minimum of 1.1 million passenger pigeons were despatched from Petoskey and nearby Boyne Falls and Cheboygan by rail and boat.  The local paper described the 7-week period of the ‘big slaughter’ as having put into circulation locally between $30,000 and $40,000.

The number of birds killed in this colony must have been higher than those sent off for food.  There will have been young that died because their parents were killed, birds killed but not recovered, birds scared away by the proceedings whose squabs starved, birds eaten or preserved locally and any manner of other losses along the way.  Some say that as many as 5 million passenger pigeons lost their lives in this nesting.

But it was a huge colony – 40 miles long and a few miles wide.  Who knows how many pigeons were there to start with.

Pigeon catchers, pigeon pluckers, barrel makers, ice-suppliers all had a bonanza.  All looked forward to the pigeons coming back nest year or soon after but they never came back in remotely similar numbers to Petoskey. And they were soon gone completely.  To what extent was the slaughter at Petoskey an important event in hastening their demise?

The telegraph and the railroad made it all possible, and the fact that Petoskey has and had boat links was important too.  Other places, and this place at earlier times, could not have turned pigeon-killing into such a protitable industry for thousands of people – many of them arriving at the news of a pigeon nesting here rather than being locals.

I had a long chat with Michael Federspiel at the Museum and I am grateful to him for his kindness and his help (Michael – thank you!).  He pointed me in the direction of another passenger pigeon memorial back up the road I had travelled a few miles.

The historical marker is at Oden (by the fish hatchery but the railway carriages by the side of the road are the best landmark).  The front of the memorial has an image of a passenger pigeon and some general information.  The back has:

At one time Michigan was a favorite nesting ground for the passenger pigeons. Vast quantities of beechnuts and other food attracted them. each spring immense flocks arrived, literally darkening the skies hours at a time as they flew over. Here at Crooked Lake a nesting in 1878 covered 90 square miles. Millions of birds were killed, packed in barrels and shipped from Petoskey.  Such wanton slaughter helped to make the passenger pigeon extinct by 1914.  The conservationist’s voice was heard too late.

I’m tempted to say, in that gloomy way that conservationists do, ‘ ’twas ever thus’ but tomorrow I hope to see a conservation success story.

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7 Replies to “Petoskey – Day 9”

  1. One example in George Monibiot's 'feral' is when Arctic Foxes were introduced onto an island in the Bearing Sea they destroyed the sea bird population causing the land to turn from alkaline grassland [bird poo] to acid heath. Is there any suggestion removing the pigeons has done the same? Also what about all that lead in one area!

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  2. License plate spotting keeps you awake on those long drives, just how many miles have you covered up to now?
    Check out my tweet about the "Lego Birds of America" see how many you recognise ? They'll give you smile ! Not quite Audubon but 21st century artworks non the less !

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  3. Can't help wondering why you flew to Houston then drove all the way North? Really enjoying reading about your trip, giving me ideas for a holiday.

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    1. Darren - it will become more obvious as time goes on. Glad you are enjoying it - me too!

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  4. Thanks, Mark, for the remarks about our museum here in Petoskey. It was pleasure meeting you and we wish you great success in your research, writing, and travels!

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