Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

May 1893. Ornithologist 18(5): 70-74.

My First Day of Egg Collecting.

Egg collecting was far from being a science at Omaha when Charles Meyers and I entered the High School. We found about eight fellows there with collections ranging from 20 to 120 varieties, and the man who had the 120 collection was the only one who had really read or made any study of his collecting; the others had heard that there were books about birds and eggs, but guessed that they didn't amount to much. Most of them looked with admiring awe at the 120-man, and talked knowingly among themselves of Kingbirds and Buntings, and boasted of two sets of Doves' eggs in one day.

Charley and I were both taken with the idea of collecting, and likewise gazed admiringly at the 120-man, who had gotten every kind of egg around Omaha, so rumor said, and for a while we also talked of getting numbers of common eggs that we ought to have been shot for taking. We went into the subject with a good deal of enthusiasm, and after a little we caught and passed all but two or three of the other boys, and along towards the close of the season we discovered a book in the public library that was devoted to birds and eggs and was not half so dry as one would think, and from that we gathered the idea that perhaps the 120-man had not gotten every kind of egg that flourished near Omaha. We read that book quietly, and after a while it began to dawn upon us that off in the woods near the river there was no good reason why there should not be Crow and perhaps Hawk nests, a possibility that nearly took our breaths away, for no collection in town boasted of a Hawk's egg, and the only Crow's was one in the collection of the 120-collector, and he had gotten it by exchange with a collector in another city, and he held it as the pride of his collection.

When we recovered from the shock of the idea, we held further communion with the book and became certain that those river woods, were five miles from town and never been explored so far as we could ascertain by careful questioning, contained a mine of wealth for collectors. We were greatly surprised to read that any birds nested in March, and we hardly believed it; eve knew that none of the fellows there ever started out until May, and May first considered too early to hope for much success.

We determined that next spring we would make those other fellows open their eyes if that book, which was written by a man named Coues, was at all reliable, and accordingly we took the first holiday and tramped off to the woods to verify our suspicions if possible. They were verified. We found that the woods comprised a big marshy area of ground, with numbers of big cottonwood trees scattered through; and fifteen minutes after entering the edge we spied a bulky object in a tree some distance off, and racing over found that it was really an old nest, and a big one. A Crow's nest without doubt, we assured each other, and shook hands gleefully. During the next hour we found three more wrecks, and then went home satisfied and full of wild enthusiasm and excitement, which we found hard to hide at school the next day.

It was a good while till spring, though,and we cooled off some, read our book carefully, ordered a bigger drill for the prospective eggs, made a couple of larger and deeper collecting boxes, and completed arrangements by getting a ball of heavy twine to lower the boxes and eggs from the nests. "It will be awkward lugging all that stuff along, but it would be too risky bringing those eggs down in our mouths." We were ready to tackle a colony then.

April 19th-a day I shall always remember, I believe-was the day we set for our hunt. The book said the last of March or the first of April, but that was ridiculous. It was too cold for a bird to sit all day on nest then. The man that wrote that book was a little imaginative, we said, and the 19th was probably too early, but we would go then to make sure.

As the day grew near we became nearly wild with the exciting prospect; though, as we afterwards confessed to each other, neither of us had but a faint hope. Those nests had looked so old.

The 18th was muggy, and we were blue,for we were forbidden to go if it was raining. We cheered each other up, though, and as we parted at school I told Charley I would be there all right in the morning. I was to call for him, as he was nearest the woods,and I was to be there at 4.30 so we could get there by good day-light and have plenty of time for a long hunt. I woke at three, three-quarters of an hour before I needed to; but I hurried into my clothes and went out doors. My heart sank, for though it was too dark to see it feltwet and I knew it was going to be a bad day. I went dismally in when suddenly it flashed over me that I was forbidden to go if it was raining. It wasn't raining, and I gobbled my breakfast cold,tied up my lunch, grabbed my box and rushed off before it could begin. One whistle brought Charley out, declaring that I was late and that he had been waiting an hour and a half; but on consulting the watch that I had borrowed from my brother we found that I was twenty minutes early, and that he had been waiting about sixteen. We aimed for the edge of town, and had hardly reached the outskirts when a steady drizzle began; but that was nothing now, and we sang and whistled and once in a while gave wild yells to let off the excitement we felt.

I looked at the watch as we reached the edge of the woods and found that it was 5.15, and then I tripped over a root and threw it accurately at a fog near by. The hands went on a strike immediately, although the watch was not a repeater, and we were minus the time. We were a little put out at that, for the rain was still with us and there could be no sun to tell time by. Charley remarked that I was a lunkhead at first, be we concluded that our inner boy would notify us when it was lunch time, and plunged into the woods.

For half an hour we tramped through the wet grass and saw never an old nest even then through the mist I spied a big mass of something in a tree a good ways off. I thought I did at least, and pointed it out to Charley, but it was so indistinct that we both became doubtful about its being a nest and hesitated about going after it, for it looked a good half a mile away. It was the only thing we had seen, though, and we started for it, and it apparently started for us at the same time, for we approached it with astonishing rapidity. We found that the fog and mist gave the distance effect, afterwards. It was a nest, and when we got within about 300 feet of it a huge bird suddenly reared itself on the edge, took a brief look at us, spread its wings, and with three flaps it had disappeared among the trees. But we had seen it. "A hawk!" Charley yelled, and in a moment we were at the foot of the tree, dancing with delight. It was an awful tree to climb when we came to look at it; a large cottonwood with the nest a good 60 feet from the ground, and not a limb below 50 feet. That didn't bother us much, for we were both good climbers, but what did bother us was the action of that Hawk. According to the books we had read she should have circled around with shrill cries, and occasionally darted fiercely at our heads; but instead of that, she had currently gotten disgusted with the climate and gone South. That was what Charley suggested as he wrung the water out of his hat so it would not drip down his neck. I suggested that she had gone after other Hawks to help fight us, and Charley said perhaps I had better take his hatchet up with me. (I forgot to say that as I had found the nest I had the privilege of climbing it. What idiots boys are! And yet, now I think of it, I saw grown men not long ago fighting for tickets that would entitle them to walk six miles in a procession, carrying a greasy and ill-smelling torch, to celebrate a victory that did not mean half so much personally as that nest did to us.) I thought that the box and ball of string were enough to carry, and dispensed with the hatchet and trusted to Charley to scare the Hawk off with sticks if she came back, and up the tree I went with a heart beating high with hope.

It was a terrific climb, for the tree was wet and slimy, and I clawed down dirt into my eyes, and my feet refused to take hold, so that I was just about breathless when I reached the nest and peered over the edge; but all that I had left came out in a wild yell of joy, for there were three eggs in the nest that looked as big as moons. "Three beauties," I called to Charley, and he immediately fell to executing a startling war dance, while I sat on a limb and spit out the dirt and waved my hat.

I can feel yet the crawly feeling I had as I wrapped the eggs and lowered them in the box. I think that if they had fallen by any chance I would have hit the ground before they did. When I reached the bottom Charley had stopped standing on his head and was blowing one of them. Then we concluded that the book man was not a falsifier, for those birds were nearly grown. Charley said that the first one stuck his wing out of the hole and waved it, but I didn't believe that. We blew ourselves purple in the face, but got very poor results; then we bent pins and straws and did a little better (neither of us had ever seen an embryo hook then); but after nearly half an hour's work we gave it up and packed the eggs up with the bigger part of the innocents still in them. We looked at them lovingly as they lay in the box,-as large as duck eggs, but nearly round, two finely specked with brown and the other a dirty white. (Western Redtails, we found afterwards from that book.) Then we shook hands heartily and started out again.

In ten minutes we saw another nest, and Charley brought down a beautiful set of five Crow's eggs. They were fresh and blew easily, and very soon they were packed and we were off again, happy as larks. After some pretty wet tramping we found another nest and then another, but both were empty, and we were just beginning to realize how wet we were when we found a curiosity. We saw a queer looking thing in a low tree, and making our tray over to it found that it was a dead Crow, which was hanging head down, with one foot caught in a little crotch in a branch. The poor thing was very skinny, and had evidently died of starvation there.

After that we unanimously concluded that it was lunch time, and picking out the driest log we could find we sat down. It rained steadily, and we were chilled and wet, but I hardly ever ate a better lunch. And as we ate are talked of the success we had had, and of the morrow at school and the envy of the other boys, till we got warm over the talk and started off eagerly again. After about half an hour we found another Crow's nest and five more eggs. A set for each! We grinned idiotically at each other. Then we came to a thin part of the woods and separated so as to cover the ground thoroughly, walking in parallel lines. Fifteen minutes later I was startled by a resounding yell, "Add, come here!" I went with a rush and found Charley dancing around in front of a low tree covered with grape vine. His eyes were sticking out, and he was brandishing his hatchet wildly at a bunch of sticks in the vines. "Wh-wh-what is that thing," he cried, and as I looked I stared in amazement too, and gave it up. There on the nest was something brown and yellow and black, and over the side nearest us hung what was certainly a flat bird-tail, but staring at us directly over the tail was a queer striped face, with a big pair of hairy ears. The only thing I could think of was a monkey, but monkeys don't have flat tails and as we jabbered excitedly the beast itself solved the mystery by turning its head squarely the other way and scrambling awkwardly off the nest and flapping into an adjoining tree, where it sat and snapped its beak at us viciously. It was an Owl, an American Long-eared Owl, as we found from the book. The thing had simply been facing the other way when we came up and had turned its head to look at us, and then put up its ears. We had never seen one before-that was all.

Charley was up in the vines in a minute then, and in a minute more was on the ground with five beautiful glassy white eggs. I won't tell you what eve did then. It was justifiable anyway. We had cone out with fear and trembling after Crow's eggs, and had found not only Crow's but Hawk's and Owl's! It surpassed anything we had ever read of, and we rejoiced accordingly.

They were perfectly fresh and blew easily with tiny holes and were soon packed up and we were off again. That ended the day, though. We tramped till five o'clock as nearly as we could tell from the rain and gathering gloom, and then started for home, aiming to get there for a 6.30 supper. Five miles through the rain we went, with dripping clothes and tired limbs, creating some surprise as we walked through the city streets, but we didn't mind. I wouldn't stop at Charley's, because I wanted to get home and hurrah, and also because I began to think that it was later than we gave it credit for being, and I didn't want to be late for a hot supper. I wasn't.

I got into the house at exactly 2:20, to my intense surprise and disgust I've had been utterly fooled by the darkness of the day and perhaps by our own tired feeling, and I thought with indignation of the root I had fallen over. We could have had two hours more but for that measly watch! But when I got rubbed down and into dry clothes and settled comfortably at the table, with hot coffee and toast which my dear mother, stopped her work to prepare, and spread all my eggs in state on the table in front of me, I concluded that it was all right anyway, and I sat and grinned at mother and told the tale of the day and the noon lunch that we must have eaten before 10:30, and expatiated on the triumph at school on the morrow with a blissful content which only you who have had similar experiences can appreciate.

A.C. Townsend,

[I trust that Mr. Townsend will send some more of his delightfully written experiences. - J.P.N.]