A stuffed passenger pigeon that turned up 50 years ago in La Salle is now missing and this discovery by the News Tribune two weeks has launched a hunt for its whereabouts.
Passenger pigeons once numbered in the billions in Illinois and across eastern North America. The last known wild bird was killed in 1900 in Ohio and the last captive bird died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.
This makes stuffed specimens valuable.
On Jan. 3, 1963, the Daily News-Tribune published a story about a stuffed passenger pigeon at the La Salle-Peru-Oglesby Junior College, which occupied the building now home to La Salle-Peru Township High School, La Salle.
“A mounted specimen of a passenger pigeon was being saved for posterity through the efforts of a zoology instructor at LPO Junior College,” the story said.
Zoology instructor Ed Keiser discovered the bird amid other deteriorating specimens in a display case. The school had no record of its collection or donation. Keiser had it identified by two Illinois ornithologists, Frank Bellrose and William French. They remarked it “was one of the finest specimens they had seen in existence,” Keiser said.
When Keiser found the bird it was incorrectly labeled as a “mourning dove,” he said today.
“I knew it wasn’t a mourning dove,” Keiser said. After he had it identified, he returned it to the display case and that was that.
“I really don’t have any idea,” he said. “I do know it was shown to several people.”
In 1966 La Salle-Peru-Oglesby Junior College changed its name to Illinois Valley Community College and in 1968 moved to its new location near Oglesby. Keiser left before the move.
“It was still there (at LP High School) when I left,” he said.
Keiser, who today is emeritus professor of biology at University of Mississippi, and other staff present at that time said the bird was not brought to the new college building.
“I’m sure no one would have thrown it away,” Keiser said. “It was a very beautiful specimen and everybody who saw it said it was really a fine specimen and I hope it’s not lost.”
There is a science room at the high school full of old stuffed birds but no passenger pigeon.
Present day LP High School biology teacher Angelique Depenbrock is searching.
“I did scour my rooms twice and the back rooms and all I found was a sparrow and a titmouse bird,” she said.
Keiser thought it might be in Room 321, but this room is no longer used for science and shows no hiding places. Lou Borio, biology teacher at the college until he retired in 1995, said he also remembers the bird in a glass case in Room 321, in a back or side office area, like a storage or supply room.
“That bird was in excellent condition,” Borio said.
Marv Getty, who began teaching biology at the high school in 1970 and left 13 years ago, said he does not recall the pigeon.
“I asked some of my colleagues about that and they said other teachers might have borrowed that,” he said. “They had seen various birds around the building, over in the wood shop and things like that.”
The News Tribune contacted Project Passenger Pigeon with the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Project participants, including Joel Greenberg, are spreading the word and searching known collections.
“I think this search is really cool,” Greenberg said. “There are numerous stories of missing passenger pigeons. And one museum traded two passenger pigeons for a polar bear cub.”
When the NewsTribune contacted Fran Brolley at Illinois Valley Community College, Brolley called up Keiser. Keiser, whose long career has kept him working beyond retirement, was going through keepsakes and came across the 50-year-old newspaper story about the pigeon just as Brolley called him.
“The day Fran called, after 50 years, I happened to pick up that box,” Keiser said. “I had just scanned that picture of me holding the bird. The phone rang and it was Fran. Fifty years, and to the second. I got goose-bumps on the coincidence.”