Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. March 4, 1900. [Early Hunting Days, Woodcock Habits and Days Afield]. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 35(154): 23. Most of this column repeated in 20 July 1919 article.

Forest, Field and Stream.

No man, among all our local sportsmen, talks more interestingly on the early shooting days around Omaha than the well known gunsmith, John Petty. In reviewing what I had to say in last Sunday's World-herald, on the pristine attractions of the Platte Valley, he branched off onto the question of the rapid diminuation of our game birds and animals. He related with thrilling graphicness the scenes of the old buffalo days on the broad plains just west of us, and told of the countless swarms of wild pigeons that use to fill the morning and evening sky, and the woodcock shooting that was once to be had up along the present line of the Omaha road to the north, and round about the ancient post of Bellevue to the south.

But these sights belong strictly to the phantasmagoria of the past. The wild buffalo and the wild pigeon have not only been literally extirpated in this locality, but are known no more in any region, however remote, on the face of the globe. And the woodcock, too, that incomparable morceau of all feather game, so far as Nebraska is concerned, is almost as extinct as the pigeon. It never has been plentiful since my residence in this part of the country, and I have never had the pleasure of bagging a single bird, and in fact, have only succeeded in getting one shot at one, and that was back in 1889, while quail hunting with George Tzcchuck and Billy Townsend up near Bancroft. There are a few birds, however, still existing in this immediate vicinity, or were at least a few years ago. Gus Icken, Carl Kauffman and Con Young have all killed their woodcock within an easy drive of Omaha during the past four or five years. So far as I am concerned, individually, the last time I saw one of these royal birds on wing, was one evening while crouched with Charlie Metz in a ducking blind up on the Lake creek marshes in South Dakota, when a pair of these birds came whizzing down the channel, and were off and over into the yellowing rice and rushes before we could realize what they were.

Although the woodcock, like the wild pigeon, is known to the younger generation of local sportsmen only from what they hear and read, I am confident any one of these would walk farther and work harder to bag one of these mysterious birds, than they would to kill a dozen quail or a brace of mallards. To hear John Petty tell of the early experiences with the woodcock round Omaha is enough to send the blood tingling through the veins of even the oldest veterans. I have had prime cock shooting on the tangled lowlands west of Lancaster, Ohio, and also about Hall's on the legendary Kankakee, in the fabled days of old, and yet old John can hold me enchanted for hours at a time in the warp and woof of his wondrous stories.

Before the pure white of the blood root illumed the sodden leaves, almost before the purling note of that dearest of all the sweet harbingers of the sweet spring time, the blue bird, or the crow of the prairie chicken sounded again from the distant knoll, he used to roam with his dog along the southern slopes, near the spring runs and open bogs, down below Bellevue, not to meet the woodcock, with his roaring muzzle-loader on his return from his winter sojourn in the south, but to make sure that he had arrived and would be ready for the gun when the hot days of July came around. Where the racemes of the squirrel bush lit up the leafless thickets, what a thrill those little holes made by the woodcock's long bill sent through the hunter's soul. How often he hunted by day to find the bird that made them and would again visit the scene in the evening to see him tower twittering in the evening sky, and hear him sing his only song, a song of love and springtime, and when the snowy involucre of the wild crab tree lit up the darkening hills of the Sarpy woods, and the liquid tones of the brown thrush would make the falling of the night so sweet, long would he linger about the spot of the woodcocks' tryst. Such was the ardor of youthful sportsmanship.

And then, after the showery days of April had passed, and May with her smiles and Junes with her roses had each in turn shown their fair faces and receded again before July's flaming sword, the old gun is taken down and a sortie of another kind made upon the woods and bogs of Bellevue.

The air is fragrant with the breath of the Cunila Mariana and mint and the melancholy monotone of the rain-crow and the jerky plaint of the nut-hatch, as he hitches himself up and down the trunks of the elms in his search for larvae and slugs, is about all the music of the sleeping valley, but then it is that the haze of rosewood colors circling upward through the deep shade on whirling wing, and winding out of an opening so swiftly that eye and hand were only rarely quick enough to catch it, starts the blood to leaping wildly to the hunter's face.

It is the enchanted open season, and what mattered mosquitoes, and gnats, and steaming heat, or silken cobwebs glistening across every opening, from branch to twig and twig to weed, as long as the bogs are wet and the ground moist and odorous in the woods and thickets. Eager and cheerful the youthful hunter would push on through the tangle and out among the calamus and cattails, heroically following the dog. There! He stiffens, with his back just showing among the flags, and his tail straight out behind, and the gunner threshes impetuously forward, but before he gets into good position Mr. Long Bill is up, and, clearing the cylindrical spikes of the augustifolio, is off for the bank of willows, into which he fades like a golden ghost.

Then later on when the fields were aflame with the moccasin flowers and the iron-weed tinged the tall grass with azure, when the robin had ceased his summer song and the black birds began to mass in vas flocks, the hunting season was at its height. How patiently the gunners then beat up the wet ground in the marshes and explored every muddy place the dry weather had left in the woods, or the moist stretches along some low-lying cornfield, where the green leaves hung yet uncurled by the blazing sun of the dog days.

It was then the woodpecker's rat-tat-tat sounded louder in the timber along the turgid river; and then that the crimson of the sumac and the brown of the hazel pods warmed the rich hues in the maple's foliage, and from the branches of the yellowing elms the crow's eye grapes hung purple and fragrant among their leaves of russet and gold. The red sun would struggle down through the hazy air, filling with dreamy softness, the spangled hillsides and thickets where the woodcock was most certain to be found, and the sportsman was never idle.

Along the little stream that comes purling in from the southwest and trickles down the rugged gulches into the rushing Missouri, along this thread of crystal in whose deeper pools the watercress was still crisp and green and the moose-tongue struggled yet for existence, was a favorite ground of of John's. Many is the afternoon he has spent there, and when the pattering of the old pointer's feet ceased and he found him standing rigid where the sunlight filtered through the thinning branches, he felt repaid for whatever exertion he had been put to, for he knew that the birds had been found. And then what sport he had. One more step, and up from the little crypt where the petaled discs of the rose-mallow reflected in the clear water, the cock would whirl and in a twinkling vanish among the yellow willows. From the deep shades of the thicket he flashed up into the canopy of green; from the serried spears of the cattails he would spring, and from the open edges of the little sluggish sloughs where the receding waters had stranded the light blue spikes of the pickerel weed, he would flash and circle and stir the youthful sportsman's soul as nothing else in those days could stir it.

Woodcock were plentiful here in those days and many is the famous bag that was made there. They were to be found almost everywhere in the neighborhood, one place being seemingly as good as another. Where the deep blue of the lobelia nodded over the damp shore, a bird was as apt to jump as from the solemn shade of the water maples and plums, where the light could hardly struggle through the gloom. One might be in the tall wire grass around some fallen cottonwood, over which the wild cucumber wove its meshes of yellow and green. And out of the tussocky bog one was likely to skim and flying low, disappear into the willows before you could scarcely catch the whistle of his wings. Again the old pointer would be found with nose projecting from the reeds along the muddy shore where the red flowers of the Indian plume blushed over the white lips of the water lily left standing high and dry by the receding waters, and like a flash the rosewood hues of an old cock would blend with the smoke in the atmosphere, and as he sped away a shower of twigs and leaves was more apt to follow the report of the gun than the rich russet feathers of the bird. But John never regretted missing such royal game. Without the misses, with such as he, the pleasure of the gun would be gone. He was always sure to quit at twilight with canvas pockets bulging with a game the sportsman of today knows nothing of. And then what a happiness was the homeward trip in the evening.

The sable crows flapped their noisy way to roost across the vault above and the weird and melancholy howl of the coyote resounded along the darkening valley from the hillside beyond. The ragged surface of the Missouri glimmered long after sunset with pink and topaz reflected from the lace work of clouds above. Far down the Nebraska side the bluffs lay darkly blue, while on the Iowa side the rolling shores long held a lingering tinge of red as if unwilling to give up the sweet day.

How magic is the old gunner's memory, and how sweetly thrilling the story of another's field experiences, and how strangely potent to renew the recollections of one's own days with the dog and gun. It is the one never failing charm of advancing years, that in such reminiscences, one may, in fond fancy, see again, as in the mirror of the Arabian tale, the fields and the woods and the streams and the skies and comrades of the good old long ago.