Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923


by Thomas C. Gannon

Birds are thoughts and the flights of thought.
—C. G. Jung     

For the last several thousand years, at least, of humankind's existence, birds have been vital partners in our co-evolution, providing us with crucial models of sociality—in their courtship rituals and domesticity of the "nest"; of art—in their various wonderful vocal effusions; and of spirituality—through their grand flights of "spirit." In human literature, specifically, writers have thus employed the image of the bird to symbolize our deepest psychic strivings: whether it be via the soaring, ebullient skylark or the dark, brooding owl, the poet has voiced both our highest "winged" hopes and aspirations—and our darkest fears and deepest melancholy. As one poet (Mary Oliver) says, "A poem should always have birds in it," and it's a rare masterpiece of human discourse that doesn't. The contents of this site may be "mere" newspaper articles, but every one of them, I promise, has at least one bird in it.

The birds of Nebraska, moreover, have their own special charm. Most renowned are the Sandhill Cranes, of course, those glorious dancers to the sky, those archetypal worshippers of the sun, a spirituality of the ecosphere, at last, to which humans today can only aspire. But there are also the more "humble" birds, of prairie and wetlands: the Killdeer, all too ready to lead you away from her nest, feigning a broken wing; and the Western Meadowlark, whose ubiquitous whistled tune tells the traveler through Nebraska, "Yes, you are here—and I've been here for aeons, and that's why the Natives call me, 'the bird who speaks Lakota'!" And yes, there are the Red-Tailed Hawks, and Bald Eagles, but you knew that; it's the vast ornithological variety of the northern Great Plains bioregion that most needs reminding.

This collection of literature on the birds is certainly dated—and therein lies its glory. The efforts of James Ducey in collecting such an enormous span of newspaper articles cannot be lauded enough. Within these pages lies the heart of a divided vision, of humankind's view of other species, at a time when the frontier was just beginning to fade, and the modern world was just beginning to—well—begin. Here we can read both the last gasp (one hopes) of a worldview of birds as but gun-fodder and Romantic illusion, and the initial glimpses of a modern attitude towards the avian as worthy of thorough appreciation, and protection.

One primary interest of these articles, then, involves their archaicisms, of both the charming and the shocking variety. Above all, one is—or at least I am—interminably shocked by the "casual" attitudes towards gun-hunting. A crying shame it is—to give but one gross example—when a "sportsman" can earn 25 points in a hunting game for killing a Golden Eagle. The era's culinary appetites are no less brain-numbing: the meadowlark, "while a beautiful bird, with a beautiful bit of song, is also a delicate morsel for the table"; and even the robin is "a legitimate prey of the gunner" (though in Nebraska by this time, the latter, thankfully, is "properly protected by the statutes"). On the more charming side are the many quaint anthropomorphisms by which the birds are rendered quite human. The song of the meadowlark, for instance, is translated thus: "Whoop la! Potato bug!"—apparently volunteering, via its very "words," to aid the Nebraska farmers in their fight against all insect nuisances to their crops. Finally, I would suggest a search for the editorial satire of the Audubon Society's activism against women's use of egret feathers. The ideology may be reprehensible—but it is pretty damned funny!

No, there are is no John James Audubon or Henry David Thoreau here; but there is one writer in particular whom I would call attention to—a certain Sandy Griswold, the author of a good proportion of these articles. In sum, he might be dubbed the "John Burroughs of Nebraska," not only for his great love for the birds, but for his Burroughs-esque "literary" expressions of said love. Just as Burroughs often echoed Wordsworth and Whitman in his proclamations regarding the natural world, so Griswold says, "Nature is the one sublime source of all literature." Not only is "[e]very tree and bush . . . a friend, every flower and bud a line of poetry," but, most crucially, "[a]ll lovers of nature are lovers of the birds." Indeed, many of Griswold's editorials are "lessons" in ornithology, including his several paeans to spring and fall migration (and his particulars on which Nebraskan birds partake thereof). Fascinating, too, are his various descriptions of Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River in the 1890's. But he remains, like Burroughs, forever the "poetic" naturalist, describing the titmouse's "melancholy call," for instance, as "sweet as an aeolian harp." One required reading among Griswold's efforts is his tale of several House Sparrows dragging a dead comrade to a pile of bread crumbs, in hopes of a resurrection. And few have better defined the mania (and respite) that is birdwatching:

Once you contract the bird fever, you need not think to get rid of it, for it is one malady of the quickened pulse for which there is no febrifuge. . . . And in it all there is so much that is symbolic of human ideas, that it is only the saturnine and anchorite who fails to find solacing wisdom in the study of the elfin tenants of wood and field.

Most curious, perhaps—and alarming—in these articles are the occasional references to the Passenger Pigeon, extinct in the wild by around 1900. Fascinating, then, are such notes as the 1887 official State of Nebraska Report: "Summer resident; irregular." Then, in 1895, one was killed "with a 22 Winchester. The killing of the [passenger] pigeon is a rare event, indeed, and with one exception is the only bird of this kind that has been bagged[!] in this section of the country for ten years or more. . . . The bird was a handsome old cock, with beautiful long tail feathers and royal purple bronze breast." (Ouch.) There is renewed hope in 1897, when a "flock of from seventy-five to one hundred" of these birds are witnessed; however, a more expert commentator adds, laconically, "One can not but believe that these were mourning doves." The amazingly sudden end to this species receives its final tribute from Miles Greenleaf—perhaps the second most common author in these pages—whose 1922 editorial calls for a greater appreciation and support for the Mourning Dove—in part via the reminder of the "murdered Passenger Pigeon."

One should never forget, at last, that all birds are the proverbial "canary in a coal mine," as it were, in a strictly ecological sense. And so the human spiritualist urge to deem them "winged messengers" is rendered all the more true through sheer environmental fact: what is happening to the birds, as they try to adapt to an increasingly industrialized ecosphere, is happening, will happen, to us. The recent rediscovery of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker—long thought extinct—should offer us little solace; we should always be more reminded of the Carolina Parakeet and the Passenger Pigeon—and make sure that what we did to them we never do to ourselves.

I hope to have indicated how important this collection can be, not only to the ornithologist interested in the ranges and populations of the avian species of this period, but to the "Cultural Studies" scholar interested in humankind's perception of "Nature," and other species. The many words are here: they just need the culling.

Thomas C. Gannon is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln specializing in Native American literatures, British Romanticism, ecology and animal rights vis--vis literature, critical theory, and literature on the Web. His online projects include Native American Literature: Authors & Readings; TCG's Eco-Animal & Ecocriticism Page ; and Cool Bird Poems: An E-Anthology. Gannon is the author of a number of scholarly works including, "A Most Absorbing Game: The New World Bird as Colonized Other" and "Bird Poem."

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