One Smart Bird: The Homing Pigeon in NY History

Unlike eagles, hawks, and others, pigeons are an Adirondack bird surrounded by neither lore nor legend. Yet for more than a century, they were players in a remarkable system of interaction between strangers, birds, and their owners. Others were tied to noted historical events, and a few were undisputed participants in major criminal activity in northern New York.The bird referred to here is the homing pigeon. According to the Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State, the Rock Dove is “commonly known as the domestic or homing pigeon,” and is a non-native, having been introduced from Europe in the early 1600s.

They are often mistakenly called carrier pigeons, and the confusion is understandable. There are carrier pigeons, and there are pigeons that carry things, but they’re not the same bird. Homing pigeon are the ones used to carry messages and for pigeon racing.Racing them has proven very popular. Regionally, there is the Schenectady Homing Pigeon Club (more than 60 years old), which in the 1930s competed with the Albany Flying Club and the Amsterdam Pigeon Club.The existence of those clubs, the carrying of messages, and other related activities are all based on a long-studied phenomenon that is still debated: how the heck do homing pigeons do what they do? Basically, if taken to a faraway location and released, they usually return to their home, and in a fairly straight line.Flocks have been released and tracked by airplanes, and transmitters have been attached to the birds, confirming their direct routes. They use a variety of navigation methods, the most important and least understood of which involves the earth’s magnetic orientation.In recent decades, Cornell University’s famed ornithology unit summarized their findings after extreme testing: “Homing pigeons can return from distant, unfamiliar release points.” And what did these scientists do to challenge the birds’ abilities? Plenty.According to the study, “Older pigeons were transported to the release site inside sealed metal containers, supplied with bottled air, anesthetized, and placed on rotating turntables, all of which should make it hard for them to keep track of their outward journey.” The birds still homed effectively.This unusual ability has been enjoyed and exploited for centuries. In 1898, in order to keep up with European military powers, the US Navy established the Homing Pigeon Service. One use was ship-to-shore communication in any conditions—when pigeons sent aboard the ship were released with a message attached, they flew directly back to their home loft.Their use during World Wars I and II is legendary, and many were decorated with medals. In 1918, pigeon racing was temporarily banned in the United States to ensure that all birds were available for the use of the military.In peacetime, homing pigeons were treated with near-universal respect and were weekly visitors to the North Country. Whenever one with a metal band or a message tube attached to it was found, standard protocol was followed by all citizens. The birds were immediately given water and food. If they appeared injured, the information from the leg band was given to local police, who tried to contact the owner.Caring for the birds, whether ill or healthy, was automatic, and it continued until the journey was resumed. For more than 130 years, Adirondack weekly newspaper columns mentioned the landing of homing pigeons (but usually called them carrier pigeons). If a bird somehow appeared to be off course, the leg band information might appear in a short article or in an advertisement.That informal system was widely used and religiously followed. To further protect the birds (and the system itself) and to confirm their importance, New York State’s Forest, Fish, and Game Commission made it law: “… No person shall take or interfere with any … homing pigeon if it have the name of its owner stamped upon its wing or tail, or wear a ring or seamless leg band with its registered number stamped thereon, or have any other distinguishing mark …”Next week: Homing pigeons in North Country history, including multimillion dollar smuggling schemes.Photos: Top?A Pigeon Bus in Europe during WWI (1916). Middle?WW I US troops in trench, sending messages by pigeon. Bottom?Winged members of the military.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eleven books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 22 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.

Prescribed Fire Program at Saratoga Battlefield

With favorable weather conditions in place, certified wildland firefighters at Saratoga National Historical Park in Stillwater in conjunction with DEC Forest Rangers, will undertake prescribed burning of approximately 46 acres in the center of the park, near Stop 4 in late August and early September. The park will remain open to visitors during this time.

For over twenty years, prescribed fires have been a valuable and safe tool in managing Saratoga Battlefield’s 3200 acres. Planned burns allow the park to maintain its historic 1777 landscape, reduce the spread of exotic plant species, encourage regeneration of natural grasses and eliminate the need for personnel to work on hazardous slopes with mechanical equipment. Additionally, hazard fuel reduction around developed areas provides for fire fighter safety and structure protection in the event of a natural wildfire.

An official Fire Management Plan is required before such a prescribed fire can occur. Saratoga National Historical Park’s Fire Management Plan was approved by regional NPS Fire Management Officers. Neighboring fire departments are informed of daily plans and prior to igniting a fire, and park staff runs down a go/no go checklist prior to any firing.

If you have any questions about prescribed fires at Saratoga National Historical Park or park events, please contact the park’s visitor center at (518) 664.9821 ext. 224.

Council of Parks Releases Report, 2011 Priorities

The 2010 State Council of Parks Annual Report has been released. The Council issues a report annually pursuant to Article 5.09 of the Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Law. The report provides a summary of regional activities and outlines the Council’s 2011 priorities.

The State Council of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation consists of the Commissioner of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Commissioner of Environmental Conservation, Chairs of the eleven Regional Parks Commissions (including a representative of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission), and Chair of the State Board of Historic Preservation. The Regional Commissions are charged with acting as a central advisory body on all matters affecting parks, recreation and historic preservation within their respective regions, with particular focus on the operations of the State Parks and Historic Sites.

The priorities for 2011 outlined in the report are:

1. Park Operations Funding – Keep Our Parks Open!
New York State must provide adequate funding to keep our 213 state parks open to the public and to provide safe, clean and affordable recreational and educational experiences to the 57 million people that visit our facilities each year.

2. State Parks Capital Budget – Reinstitute the $100 Million Commitment.
New York State must reinstitute the State Parks Capital Initiative to provide $100 million annually in capital funding to begin to address the $1.1 billion backlog of park rehabilitation and health & safety needs in our state parks and historic sites.

3. Dedicated Funding Mechanism.
New York State should establish a new dedicated funding source to provide sustainable funding for the state park system.

4. Public-Private Partnerships.
The State Council and Regional Commissions will continue to help establish new “Friends Groups” – 16 new organizations have been started since 2007 – and to help strengthen existing Friends Groups to increase private support for state parks and historic sites. The State Council of Parks also continues to encourage partnerships with for-profit, non-profit and governmental entities for a wide range
of support, from direct monetary contributions and formal concession agreements to operations and programming. A list of such active and recent partnerships appears as an appendix to the report.

5. Private Fundraising Campaign.
During 2011 the State Council will continue to pursue private funding from individuals, corporations, and foundations – building upon the $5.6 million in private support that has been raised since 2009 to support the State Park System.

The full report can be viewed and downloaded as a pdf here: 2010 Annual Report.

Earth Day: A Revolution 40 Years In The Making

On Earth Day 1970, people around the country, mostly college students, demonstrated on behalf of environmental causes. Forty years later, the environmental movement has come into the mainstream and secured state and federal agency leadership positions. More importantly, the movement has significantly improved the quality of our rivers, lakes and forests and in doing so has provided for the proliferation of local wildlife. While there are certainly challenges that remain &#8211 invasive species, inappropriate development, toxic exposures, nitrate and storm water management, climate change, the plight of amphibians, migratory birds, and bats &#8211 the environmental successes of the last 40 years should not be underestimated.

By and large, the first Earth Day was much like those that have followed: politicians, celebrities, concerts, environmental fairs, and the like. But Earth Day 1970 was a radical proposition in a time before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded, and before there were state sanctioned bodies like the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to protect the environment. At Boston’s Logan Airport, where a few hundred demonstrators had gathered in what a CBS reporter called a &#8220thoroughly peaceful and non-disruptive demonstration&#8221, police charged the crowd and arrested 13.

In the 40 years since that first Earth Day the Adirondack region has seen a revolution in the way we interact with our environment. Sure, we can point to the founding of DEC (1970), the establishment of the EPA (1971), the Clean Air Act (1970), and the Clean Water Act (1972), State Environmental Quality Review Act (1980), the Superfund Law (1980), and the Environmental Protection Fund (1993) but there has been a leadership revolution as well. Today, Pete Grannis, who was part of the first Earth Day demonstrations, is now the head of the DEC. Judith Enck, the state’s leading environmental activist in the 1980s, is now the Administrator of EPA’s Region 2.

Changes in the natural environment have been extraordinary. The Hudson River, once an open sewer where no one dared to boat, never-mind swim or fish, now bustles with recreation activities in summer. According to the DEC, the number of seriously polluted waters in the state has fallen by 85% and Sulfur Dioxide pollution is down by 90%, with a corresponding improvement in Acid Rain.

Successes we don’t typically consider include the closure of outdated and poorly located landfills (more than 100 in Adirondacks alone), the elimination of the tire dumps (including more than 27 million tires statewide), the cleaning up of Superfund and brownfield sites (1,800 statewide) and the thousands of water bodies large and small around the state that have been cleaned-up in the last 40 years through waste-water management.

We may not consider those victories as much as we should, but local wildlife certainly has. In 1970 there was just one occupied Bald Eagle nest in New York State, in 2010 there are 173. Eagles and other raptors we rarely saw in the 1970s and 1980s, birds like the peregrine falcon, are now fairly frequent sights- ravens and osprey have returned to the Adirondacks. Wild turkeys have exploded from about 25,000 in 2010 to 275,000 today, and so turkey hunting has returned to the Adirondacks. Native trout have been returned to more than 50 ponds according to the DEC, and the average number of fish species has increased by a third offering increased angling opportunities. Beaver, fisher, and otter have flourished in cleaner, more diverse waters and so trapping seasons have returned for those species. In 1970 there were no Moose in the Adirondacks, today there are 400 to 500 in the region.

Clean water, clean air, and open spaces were the demands at the first Earth Day in 1970. Those demands were met by legions of combative corporations, industry alliances, business groups, chambers of commerce and their attorneys. A look at a local paper on any given day shows that those battles continue, but 40 years has shown that the environmental movement has been an enormous success. Despite the attacks and &#8220enviro-nazi&#8221 insults, the former hippies, political greens, organization environmentalists, and wildlife conservationists who have made up the environmental movement have much to be proud of.

Illustration: Earth Day 1970 Poster

County Must Clean-Up Soil Dumped at Jay Heritage Site

The Jay Heritage Center (JHC) in Rye, N.Y., is expressing its gratitude to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for the speed with which it followed up on the problems of contaminated fill on the historically and environmentally important Jay Heritage Site property.

In January, the Westchester Parks Department added fill to the grounds of the Jay Heritage Center that contained obvious trash and debris. JHC commissioned a independent study of the soils and found that it was also contaminated with SVOCs, pesticides (like DDT and chlordane) arsenic and heavy metals such as lead and chromium. The Jay Property is the boyhood home of Founding Father John Jay who is also buried in a private cemetery at the Rye estate.

Joe Stout, Westchester County Parks and Conservation Commissioner, had declared the fill safe in an email to JHC President, Suzanne Clary and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) on January 25, 2010 which said in part &#8220We are confident that the fill is safe.&#8221

Westchester County has now confirmed however, that it will abide by a DEC request to clean-up the site within 30 days. According to a press release issued by Jay Heritage, in talks with the County Executive’s office, the County assured JHC that this clean-up will be done with full protection of archaeologically sensitive artifacts and in consultation with JHC. Archaeological review will be conducted in historic garden areas and behind an Indoor Tennis House that is thought to be the 3rd oldest in the United States.

JHC president Suzanne Clary said, &#8220We look forward to working with the new County administration and NY State to safeguard and preserve John Jay’s boyhood home in Rye with renewed dedication, and historic and archeological sensitivity.&#8221

Disclosure: Jay Heritage Center is an advertising supporter of New York History.

Photo: Visible Debris in fill at the Jay Heritage Center.

Court of Appeals Hosts The Hudson: Yesterday and Today

The New York Court of Appeals has announced &#8220The Hudson: Yesterday and Today&#8221 featuring Frances F. Dunwell, Hudson River Estuary Coordinator at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and William T. (Chip) Reynolds, Captain, Replica Ship Half Moon, along with an exhibit of Hudson River photographs by the Half Moon crew on Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 6:00 p.m. A reception sponsored by The Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York will follow.

&#8220The Hudson: Yesterday and Today&#8221 will take place at Court of Appeals Hall, 20 Eagle Street, in Albany. Court of Appeals Hall is the former State Hall, completed in 1842. It was renamed Court of Appeals Hall on January 14, 1917. The lecture will be held in the courtroom designed by H.H. Richardson and originally built as part of the Capitol. In 1916, the courtroom was moved, piece by piece, to a specially designed extension to State Hall. The entire building was beautifully restored in 2004.

This event is open to the public and is free of charge. As space is limited, RSVP is requested by Monday, May 3 at [email protected] or 518-455-7817.

DEC to Investigate Historic Friedrichsohn Cooperage

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has begun a detailed investigation of the former Friedrichsohn Cooperage in Waterford, in Saratoga County. Conducted in conjunction with the state Department of Health, the investigation will delineate the extent of contamination in soil, soil vapor and groundwater by a variety of pesticides, metals and semi-volatile organic compounds from the historic half-acre parcel at 153-155 Saratoga Avenue in Waterford that operated from 1817 to 1991.

In its early years, the cooperage made and refurbished wooden kegs and barrels. At the time it closed, its primary business was cleaning and refurbishing metal drums. Inspections of the facility after it closed found the buildings in poor condition and thousands of abandoned drums, some of them leaking. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, between 1994 and 1996, removed 322 tons of contaminated sludge/soil, 9,000 gallons of liquid waste and 3,767 drums from the property. The buildings were demolished and the site was added to the Superfund program.

DEC’s investigation field work started this week with a land survey. Beginning next week and continuing through at least October, work will include the collection of surface soil samples and investigation data gathering. Future activities will include collection of subsurface soil and vapor samples, collection of sediment samples from the nearby Old Champlain Canal, sampling of groundwater and the installation of monitoring wells. Through the investigation, DEC will be able to define the nature and extent of the contamination, assess the impact on public health and the environment and develop a proposed cleanup remedy.

William F. Fox, Father of NY Forest Rangers

Last week the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) held a ceremony to honor William F. Fox, the &#8220father&#8221 of the state’s modern-day forest rangers, on the 100th anniversary of his death. Fox was born in 1840 in Ballston Spa, Saratoga County, and graduated from Union College in Schenectady in 1860. He served in the Civil War as Captain, Major and then Lieutenant Colonel in the 107th New York Volunteers and later wrote a number of books on both the Civil War and forestry. Fox’s 1902 History of the Lumber Industry in the State of New York, written under the auspicious of Gifford Pinchot, is considered the first authoritative work on the logging industry in New York.

Fox became New York’s &#8220Superintendent of Forests&#8221 in 1891. He quickly came to the conclusion that the then-current fire patrol system &#8212- which used &#8220fire wardens&#8221 (firefighters who only worked when there were fire emergencies) and local ad hoc firefighters &#8212- couldn’t handle the job of forest protection. He wanted a paid staff &#8211 a new &#8220forest guard&#8221 service &#8212- to cover the Adirondacks and Catskills.

Fox wrote a report to state leaders outlining how he’d organize the patrols: each ranger assigned to a township seven-miles square, residing in a log cabin built near the center of the township &#8212- but in the woods, not a village. This forest guard &#8220would keep a sharp watch on any skulker who might be a possible incendiary.&#8221 In sum, Fox said he wanted to shift the emphasis from reacting after fires started to patrolling the woods before.

Despite Fox’s advocacy, the state Legislature did not act immediately. Meanwhile, towns became reluctant to enlist local firefighters because of costs. Then came massive fires in 1903 (500,000 acres burned in the Adirondacks) and 1908 (605 fires over 368,000 acres across the state), finally prompting elected officials to take action. In 1909, Gov. Charles E. Hughes signed legislation that brought sweeping changes to the Forest, Fish and Game law that included the creation of a fire patrol service in Adirondacks and Catskills. Fox died shortly thereafter at age 69.

Further legislation followed, replacing the &#8220Forest, Fish and Game Commission&#8221 with a &#8220Conservation Commission&#8221 and creating the title &#8220forest ranger&#8221 in 1912. Though he didn’t live to see his vision fully carried out, Fox is still credited with being the father of the forest rangers. One hundred years later, the DEC, which evolved from the Conservation Commission, today employs a statewide force of 134 uniformed Forest Rangers. Their mission of protecting the state’s natural resources remains consistent with Colonel Fox’s vision.

The ceremony was held at Fox’s graveside at the Village Cemetery in Ballston Spa, Saratoga County.

This story was cross posted at Adirondack Almanack, the leading online journal of Adirondack culture, history, politics, and the environment.

Adirondack Museum To Process Petty Collection

The Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake has announced the appointment of Melissa Tacke as Project Archivist to describe and arrange the collections of personal papers belonging to two of the founding fathers of the Adirondack Park Agency: Clarence Petty and Richard Lawrence.

The Clarence Petty Papers consist of correspondence, subject files, memoranda, aviation and weather records, newspaper clippings, government documents, books and other publications, audio recordings, memorabilia, awards, photographs, and 62 maps. These records document Clarence Petty’s long career with the Conservation Department and the Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as his influential role in the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency and the Adirondack Park Land Use Master Plan.

The papers also reflect Petty’s relationship with contemporary environmentalists, environmental organizations and government agencies, and his position as an authority and spokesman on environmental issues throughout the country. The collection dates from circa 1939 through 2006. Clarence Petty donated the papers to the Adirondack Museum in November 2006.

The Richard Lawrence Papers consist of correspondence, subject files, memoranda, notes, publications, books, government documents, memorabilia, awards, and photographs. They document Richard Lawrence’s work as a member of the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks and as the founding Chairman of the Adirondack Park Agency. The records date from the mid 1960s to the 1990s and were donated to the museum by the Lawrence family in 2006.

Tacke’s position has been funded by a grant in the amount of $9,669 from the New York State Archive’s Documentary Heritage Program. The Documentary Heritage Program (DHP) is a statewide program established by law in 1988 to ensure the identification, sound administration, and accessibility of New York’s historical records. The DHP provides grants to not-for-profit organizations in New York State that collect, hold, and make available historical records. Tacke will work in the Adirondack Museum’s research library from April 6 through June 30, 2009 under the terms of the grant.

Melissa Tacke holds three degrees from SUNY Albany. Her Bachelor’s degree was awarded for a double major in Women’s Studies and Africana. She holds one Master’s degree in Women’s Studies and a second in Information Studies. She is a native of Lawrence, Kansas. Tacke comes to the Adirondack Museum following nearly a year of work at Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont as a Project Archivist, funded by a Getty Campus Heritage Grant. She also served as a Digital Images Archivist.

Photo Caption: Project Archivist Melissa Tacke at left with Adirondack Museum Librarian Jerry Pepper. Adirondack Museum Photo.