Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. April 13, 1902. [Canvasback Grounds and the Changing Sand Hills]. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 37(195): 18.

Forest, Field and Stream.

Optimistically as I am, I cannot help thinking that the same deplorable condition that prevails on the once famous canvasback grounds of the farther east, will in a few more years prevail here. But we will hope for the best and just now, anyway, there is no very serious call for lamentation. The birds are plentiful enough to suit most anyone and all we have to do is to be on the qui vive and enjoy ourselves.

Before continuing further with my talk on this grand water fowl, however, I do not wish it to be understood that it was just this spring that I first became convinced, that Nebraska is, of all the world, one of its most favorite haunts. Way back in March, 1894, together with the Barrister and a ranchman duck hunter named Ed Hamilton, I had an experience with the canvasback that equalled any that ever befell to wildfowler before, east or west. In fact, so far as Omaha is concerned, I think we brought in here the biggest and most magnificent bag of these birds ever brought in before or since. Six hundred and four-which does not include what we devoured at Mrs. Hamilton's excellent table-all canvasbacks and redheads, but largely canvasback. A redhead, however, is so nearly like a canvasback in both the appearance of its plumage and its merits for the table, that none but the educated can tell the difference. The truth is redheads are frequently palmed off for canvasback, and there are some authorities who claim they are a species of this high class bird. But this claim is not a tenable one, as the redhead is a distinct species by itself, mauger his canvasbackish raiment and capacity for tickling the epicurean palate. To the inexperienced sportsman the birds are one and the same, but to the old timer the difference is as noticeable as that between a wild goose and a loon. The bill of the canvasback is nearly three inches in length, elevated at the base and running like a snake's head clear to the tip, and is of a decided blackish hue; while the bill of a redhead is not over two-thirds as long, slightly concave and in color blue and some times a very light blue. The head of a redhead, too, is round and full like that of a black jack or blue bill, and only like a canvasback's in its color, a deep chestnut. So when you knock a specimen of either one down next fall you can tell at a glance at the head just what it is.

But to revert to that experience of mine back in 1894, suffice it at this stage to say that it was down in Deuel county on Goose lake, and that in one afternoon, Hamilton and I shot and retrieved 169 canvasback and redhead, and the next morning, the Barrister and I almost duplicated the kill-our bag running, up to 104, shot from a meager blind composed of two thin bunches of Russian thistles from the otherwise naked shore of a point running out into the lake. Later on I will tell the story of these two day's shoots.

Notwithstanding it may be considered anything but a part of the history of the canvasback duck on my hunting expedition this spring, I think a description of Nebraska's great sandhill wilderness will not come amiss here, but on the contrary give the reader a better idea of the looks and configuration of the territory to which the wild fowl are now evincing such a preference. If this desolate region is the chosen home of the most desirable and valuable game bird that flies, it is natural that sportsmen will want to learn something specific about it, and impelled by the obligation which rests upon every gunner to impart to his camaraderie of the guild the fruits of his own experience and knowledge, I cheerfully enter into this little cul de sac.

The great sandhills area of Nebraska, it would be well to remark as a starter, extends somewhere from the middle of the state, both north and south, quite 250 miles west, until the high plateau paving the way to the altitudinous state of Wyoming is reached, where there is a shifting of the scene, the character of the landscape changing materially. Just what I style the sandhill Sahara, however, begins with central Cherry county and stretches away like an arid waste southward beyond the Platte river and west into Cheyenne and Dawes counties, Deuel county being about as near as any point I can think of without consulting the map.

There is chain after chain of sandhills in this county, undoubtedly left there by the receding waters of some prehistoric ocean. They are queer conical shaped piles of sand, with their countless tufts of yucca and scant and sickly looking grasses. In this region the yucca is commonly called soapweed, a name it gets from its saponaceous properties. It is also called bear grass and Adam's needle, and is a close relative of the Spanish bayonet. The Nebraska sandhills yucca is a genus of the American liliaceous, sometimes arborescent, and is a really attractive plant in looks, with long sharp pointed leaves, which stand up perfectly rigid from the body of a more or less woody stem and in the summer bearing a large panicle of showy yellow blossoms. It is ever green and one of the toughest plants known to botanical science. Sometime when you are in the sandhills, try to imagine you want a specimen for transplanting and attempt to dig one up. You will soon be willing to abandon the task and tackle that other abomination of the sterile waste, the Russian thistle. There is so much homogeneousness in a sandhill picture that it not only becomes tiresome but exceedingly bewildering to the senses.

And yet there is exquisite beauty in all this monotony, and a wagon journey through this seemingly measureless desert is of much interest to those who love nature in all of her varied forms. Like Thor, some of us see beauty in the barren rock, the dead snag and the sandy plain. It does not require Himalayan skies, frowning forests, flashing lakes and dashing streams to enthrall this class of students. The sandhills of Cherry county present the rounded, domelike summits of all sandhills, and yet at places, despite the fact that there is no trace of the hypersthene in their formations, they are cloven and windblown into jagged, whitish chalklike peaks, which in altitude sometimes touch many hundred feet, veritable mountains of sand and scraggy vegetation. In the summer time, many of the inter-lying valleys and high table lands are clothed in matchless verdure, with myriads of other flowers than those of the topaz alcifolia, including the lobelia, with its fragrant azure blossoms, the speckled disced poppy and cacti in many forms. And then again, anomalous as it may seem, lying within the lonely basin of the hills from way up on the Big White river in South Dakota-threshold to the Bad lands-clear south down through Deuel county to the sprawling Platte is a most marvelous chain of lakes to be found anywhere upon the face of the broad land. Many of them are connected by insignificant streams, filled with pure cold water, save where they trickle through the intensified alkaline regions, which frequently bisect the country. These, primitively, were devoid of piscatorial life, but now, in many instances, show the good work of the state fish commission and enterprising individuals in the redundance of speckled and rainbow trout, black and rock bass.

In this world of sterile hills there is no stone, no timber or ore of any kind, but it is fast merging into a vast pasture land, as extensive, probably, as any in the universe. That climatic change or the crowding in of humanity or some inscrutable cause, the sandhills region of Nebraska is certainly undergoing a metamorphosis that will prove wondrous in ages to come, a change in form or function of living organism by natural progress of that growth or development that changed the polar regions from exuberant tropical fields and forests to seas of frozen waters and overawing mountains of ice, a change not unlike that of the chrysalis state, the pupa state and on to perfect form as in insects. In my opinion, our children's children, at least, will see the sandhills country shifted from its wilderness of sterile sands to a flourishing paradise. When I use the term desert in connection with this region I do not mean to apply the word in its literal sense, for already all of the great valleys east of the plateau are capable of supplying most all the agricultural products indigenous to the state, even corn, rye, barley and wheat, potatoes, turnips, peas, cabbage and beans being annually forthcoming in abundance. the soil, however, is now especially adapted to grazing and haying, and a cereal patch is a rare sight indeed, and in the greater part of the sandhills arable land is yet absolutely an unknown quantity.

If I should attempt to enlarge, after all, upon the quiet grandeur and picturesqueness of this alleged God forsaken region, I would probably be blamed with stretching matters a little too far, at least by those who fail to detect beauty in anything. Settlements throughout the hills of any considerable dimensions, there are none. Here and there, under the protection of the wind stormed bluffs, are occasional clusters of rough habitations and along the streams and lakes are the sod adobes of ranchers, stockmen, trappers and hunters. The autumn tent of the sportsman alone, in addition, dots the boundless sweep of grass, weed and sand.

All of the wild animals of the western territory were there in swarming plenitude up to within a brief span of years, the elk, black and white tailed deer, antelope, wolf, both the big gray and the prairie, badger, otter, mink, weasel, skunk and muskrat. The elk, like the buffalo, as well as the deer, have entirely disappeared and rarely, indeed, is an antelope descried by watchful eye upon the dreary plain, and never save in the fall, when an occasional venturesome band, unable to resist the tempting grasses of the sand hill draws, descends from the mountains, and lingers timorously for a day or two. Our party saw a bunch of five a long way off while enroute to the Lake creek marshes last fall, but no attempt was made to get a shot at them. Of the feathered family there is still an abundance of life from the huge golden eagle, hawks of all kinds, loons, swan, crane, geese and ducks, chicken and grouse, down to the ever tinkling swamp-sparrow, meadow lark and finches. There are but few robins-although I saw one at Stilwell's this last March,-bluejays or members of the woodpecker family.

A decade ago this whole vast region boasted of but isolated adobe houses of the cowboy and trapper, and was rarely invaded by visitors of any character. But of late years farmers and stockmen have been pouring in and sportsmen far and wide have become familiar with its redundance of game. The chicken and the grouse, while doomed eventually are now seemingly on the increase, thanks to the abolishment of shipping and market facilities, but the geese and ducks, with each recurring year showed a decreased flight, and will soon be driven away for all time. The coyote, however, remains in unlessened numbers, and the civet cat, the badger, skunk, gopher, jack rabbit, prairie dog and muskrat are as numerous, almost, as in the faraway days of the Old Oregon trail. Antelope, as I said before, are once in a while seen from a distance, but are never hunted. The long, drawnout, melancholy howl of the gray wolf and the shout of the great northern diver-those symbols of all that was ever wild and lonely in that desert of sand-are still to be heard breaking like spirit voices in the stillness of the night and echoing quaveringly through the arroyos and ghostly hills.

It is here then-this wild and weird heart of the wildest and weirdest region, not even barring the bad Lands-in the western world, my readers are invited to accompany me and linger a few days with the canvasback, the coyote, the red-tailed hawk and the scarlet-winged black bird.