Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

November 20, 1898. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 34(51): 21.

Adios of the Birds in Golden Autumn Time.

Secrets of the Autumn Lore—When Our Summer Residents Leave-Silent September and Painted October-Bird-Life Cycles.

By Sandy Griswold.

The departure of the birds, an annual event as mysterious as it is interesting. But few people know anything about the coming and going of our feathered summer visitors, and fewer still seem willing to spend any time in an endeavor to learn. Almost everyone, however, by they anchorite or enthusiast, notes the first appearance of the birds in the budding vernal time, as well as their disappearance with the balmy autumn season. To the ornithologist, the student of bird life, the naturalist and lover of outdoor life, the coming back of the warblers in the spring time is an event fraught with as much pleasure and as much interest as any other event of the whole twelvemonth.

While the departure of the birds after the lapse of summer's golden warmth is not as pleasing an occurrence, it is one of but precious little less interest. In these western states, say Iowa, Nebraska, Dakota and Minnesota, the first of the little songsters to bid us adieu take up their long aerial pilgrimage as early as the middle of September, and often many of them as early as the first week in this lovely month. By the second week in the present month all are gone, save, perhaps, an occasional belated straggler. For instance, last Sunday morning, out at Fred Schroeder's beautiful home, four miles west of Millard, I encountered a robin. I arose early, just as rosy-fingered aurora was toying with the eastern horizon, in order to get a good start for the Elkhorn bottoms, where I was going for quail. On going out into the yard I heard the querulous chirp of a robin emanating from the cottonwood grove west of the house. This unusual sound attracted my attention immediately, and to make no mistake I began to investigate. Going into the grove, I quickly found him, perched on the topmost branch of a denuded cottonwood, a big, fat, black-red-breasted male robin. He was restless and uneasy, and kept flirting his spreadtail vigorously between the pepulant chirps he was almost constantly emitting. He was a splendid fellow, and while I stood, curiously watching him, he suddenly took wing with a good-bye plaint, went straight up into the air until well clear of the tree-tops, when he went off to the south, probably on a journey that knows no frost, and where he would revel in sunshine and leafage until the warming winds of April once more start the grasses, the buds and blossoms in this vicinity.

The robin—a favored bird the world over—I think deserves and extra word or two. He is a dear little fellow and one of the first harbingers of spring. He follows the blue bird and makes a long summer of it, and on very rare occasions may be met with in midwinter in the denser thickets and woody shelters of our river bottoms. He is a different sort of fellow, though, in the bleak, dreary days of cold and snow. He is then alert, wild and querulous, like the straggler I saw out at Schroeder's last Sunday, only more so. In the sweet summer time he is the pet of the door yard and orchard, rythmic, melodious and docile. Like the turtle-doves, they flock late in the fall, and often linger in great numbers long after the time they should be swinging in the foliage or hopping over the sward of the softer south. When thus found, though pity it be, he is a legitimate prey of the gunner, so far as his qualifications for the table are concerned, but being insectivorous and a song bird, here in Nebraska he is always properly protected by the statutes. In some states, especially in the south, the robin is included in the list of game birds, and is compelled to take his chances with Bob White, the plover and yellowleg. While the robin is strictly migratoria, he frequently does his courting and his family raising as far north as Hudson bay, while myriads of his kind are performing and enjoying the same functions within the sultry marshes of the isthmus.

While the first coloring days of September sees the going of a good many of our loveliest summer residents such as the oriole, sandpiper, peewee, bobolink, martin and swallow, it is painted October that witnesses the departure of the bulk of the oological hosts from the latitude. The robin, the yellow-hammer, the wren, bluebird, jay, meadow lark, fox sparrow and other less familiar varieties of warblers remain here until well into October, many of them in particularly favorable years remaining until the chilly blasts of November per-emptorily command them hence.

I have been a student of bird life from boyhood and while a long way from being au fait in their scientific lore, there is but little in the habits and characteristics of our regular summer visitors that is not perfectly familiar to me. To once become interested in ornithology is like getting interested in astronomy or botany, you will remain a lover and a student of their changeful and mysterious ways as long as life lasts. Their wonderful journeys over land and water, their love-making and mating, their home building, their parental devotion, their ingenuity and sagacity and their perennial charm never fail to appeal to the most refined elements of human nature has been aroused to their wondrous resources of entrancement and beauty. All lovers of nature are lovers of the birds. He who adores the blue skies, the life-giving sunshine, odorous flowers, soft grasses and towering trees, adores the flashes of orange and black as the oriole weaves in and out of the green foliage, loves the reflection of heaven's own hue on the bluebird's back and the crimson splotch on the blackbird's wing, the spotted gold of the meadow lark's breast, the red and bronze of the robin and the silvery crest of the bobolink. They all furnish a never-ending melody for heart and brain. The fields, the woodland glades, sombre forests and teeming valleys all conjoin with the life of the birds, in one dream of everlasting ecstasy. Every tree and bush is a friend, every flower and bud a line of poetry.

All of our summer birds, in the main, are migratoria. There are but two directions of flight, north and south, to and from pole to equator. The Canada goose, the brant, speckled and white, while they cannot be classed as our summer birds, will serve to furnish much information. In the summer time these choice game birds, particularly the two latter species, perform journeys to the hyperborean regions, before which our most intrepid explorers would falter; while in the winter the golden oriole and catbird, common in our dooryards for a brief sojourn from June until the middle of August, are piping and flirting away amidst the perennial foliage of the equator. At either extreme of this extensive scope of the feathered families pilgrimage there are wide stretches of country, which, either by reason of their climatic conditions, the character of their topography or the shelter and food they supply, attract the bird tourists, thus curtailing many journeys that originally had been more extensively mapped out. Every season there may be found in this latitude—perhaps in some sheltered neck of timber, along some spring-fed stream, like the Elkhorn, the Loup or the Niobrara, or within the intricate tangle of some low-lying swamp land, in the severer months, birds whose kind, as a whole, are carolling in the warm climes of the gulf, in the West Indies of sunny Central America. Migration, after all, with some species of the winged tribe, is largely a matter of disposition or inclination, and either of these qualities may make the summer songster a winter resident.

Most of our Nebraska birds gather in flocks preparatory to taking up their long flight southward; some species in vast hordes, others in modest companies. Some, like the dove, flock immediately after the young leave the nest but do not start on their migrations until six weeks later. Redwing and the sunflower-hooded blackbirds gather in clouds as early as the last of July and then celebrate the remainder of the sunny weather with a zest known to but few of their kind.

September is really the inaugural month for the departure of Nebraska birds south, although a limited number of certain delicate species, including the swift and the oriole, leave during the last days of August, but September is the more interesting cycle. In these hazy days the melody of the birds is almost absolutely hushed, but still they afford a study more interesting than before, as they have changed wonderfully since the days of rosy June and in lieu of the vivacity and cheery mirthfulness which marked their conduct then, they are now shy, wild, silent and complaining. They are feasting and training for their long trip to the south, and are naught for anything but getting in condition for they approaching month, October, with its distinctive warmth, its dreary haze and mystifying color, is the month for the grand onrush southward. Then the robin, flicker, finch, chewink, phoebe, chippy, blackbird, bluebird and scores of others who make our groves and thickets resonant with their ecstatic serenades in the sweet summer time, twitter last good byes and are off.

Some halt in Florida, among the orange blossoms and along the north gulf shore, but the majority pass on to Guatemala, and the lands of the equator. All of the species that subsist in the air, like the fly-catcher and the whippoorwill, the ash-throated and kingbird, but seldom, if ever tarry this side of Cuba or South America. The phoebe bird may rest content a little farther north, but generally goes on to the land of permanent summer. They come back only when spring is well on and the buzz and hum of insect life has awakened field and wood, and the violet is in the air.