Passenger pigeons once flocked to Lititz

By on June 4, 2015

Almost 170 years ago, two young boys from Lititz had the honor of witnessing, and having an accurate account of, one of the final great flights of a now extinct bird — the passenger pigeon.

Also called the wild pigeon, at one time the bird traveled through Lititz in great numbers.

Abraham Reinke Beck

Abraham Reinke Beck

A March 26, 1780 entry in the Lititz Moravian Church archives reads:

“At the Sunrise Service of Easter, the brightness of the lovely morning was suddenly eclipsed by the passing overhead of countless multitudes of wild pigeons flying with their swiftness from south to north.”

In the 1800s, numbers were reported to be in the billions, and therefore many tens of thousands were shot and harvested at a time.

In 1846, as a young boy, Lititz resident Abraham Reinke Beck (1833-1928), along with a friend, were eye-witnesses to another great flight. In 1907, Beck wrote:

“In the Spring of 1846, in the last week of March or the first week in April, a vast migration of wild pigeons, reminding one of those described by Audubon as common in his day, and the only instance of that magnitude I have ever known, passed over Lititz flying from South to North. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I had taken up my box of watercolors for pastime, when one of my companions, Dick Tshudy, chum of my heart, rushed into the room breathlessly announcing the wonderful flight; and then we ran as fast as legs could carry to the road fronting my father’s school playground, now the southwest corner of East Orange and South Cedar street, which was the best locality affording open observations (Author’s note: Abraham’s father was beloved boys school teacher John Beck).

“The dense mass of pigeons extended from overhead seemingly, beheld in the perspective, to the eastern horizon, and as far north and south as the eye could reach; and was continuous from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. That day, as I remember it, was blustery and clouded, had it not been for the latter condition, the birds must have cast a distinct shadow on the landscape, so closely were they massed. One detachment of the main flock settled down at an orchard of Johnson Miller (north of Lititz), breaking down thick limbs of the apple trees. And another great division whirled down upon Pine Hill where, roosting in the woods that night, many of the birds were captured. The main flock flew to roost in the Furnace Hills, occupying most of the woodland between that locality and Pine Hill.”

Educated at his father’s school, Beck later taught at Nazareth Hall between 1855 and 1857. He then came back to Lititz to teach at his father’s school. After John’s retirement, Abraham established the Beck Family School for Boys in 1865, which was located at Audubon Villa on Broad Street in Lititz.

This image of passenger pigeons was published in Lititz’s 1956 bicentennial book along with Beck’s eye-witness account.

This image of passenger pigeons was published in Lititz’s 1956 bicentennial book along with Beck’s eye-witness account.

The flight described above by Beck also matches exactly what noted ornithologist Alexander Wilson witnessed in Kentucky in 1804. Wilson, by calculating, estimated that the number of passenger pigeons stretched a mile wide and soared at a speed of 60 miles per hour for four hours, which equaled 240 square miles of pigeons. At three birds per square yard, the total number of passenger pigeons would be more than two billion.

These pigeons were once one of the most abundant birds in the United States; however, by the early 1900s, destruction of their habitats and hunting led to its ultimate extinction. Also, due to the invention of the telegraph, large flocks could be located and announced, with hunters then traveling to these areas to harvest them by the millions for their meat.

“Martha,” the very last passenger pigeon in existence, sadly died at the Cincinnati Zoo in September 1914. Immediately after her death, Martha’s body was packed in a 300-pound block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institution.

In June 1974, Martha was flown back to the Cincinnati Zoo for the dedication of a new building created in her honor. She was flown first class, with an airline flight attendant escorting her precious body the entire trip. Currently, she resides back at the Smithsonian, where visitors from all walks of life can learn not just about her life, but her entire species, and its unfortunate extinction more than 100 years ago.

Cory Van Brookhoven is president of the Lititz Historical Foundation and has authored several books on topics involving Lancaster County history, including Lititz. He welcomes your comments at coryvb@hotmail.com.

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