Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

October 31, 1920 Omaha Sunday World-Herald 56(5): 15-N. Also: 11/21, 56(8): 19-N.

Glories of the Old Days Come No More Forever.

When the Sandhill and Whooping Crane Were Common Out About Rogers.

By Sandy Griswold.

Although the fast waning fall has been fairly ideal for the wild fowl shooters, the sport has not been marked with any too abundant success. Even the locally bred birds were scarcer this season than ever before and more speedily shot out and driven to more salubrious climes, yet there were some good bags made in the most favorable localities. As for the issue of the winged hosts from the far off rocky tarns and reedy fields of Labrador and Ungava, the continued pleasant weather, with scarcely and stormy interruptions, was delayed until something like a week ago and even then they began to show only sparingly along the rivers and upon the sandhill lakes and marshes. But they have been increasing daily, until at the present time the influx may be said to be at its height, and yet, their numbers are millions short of those that semi-annually swarmed down upon us in the good old times forever ended, all of which but corroborates my frequent assertions that protective laws or no laws, the wild fowl family can never be reinforced by a single feather with the conditions necessary to multiplication disappearing at the gait they are today.

This is not to say, however, that good laws conscientiously observed, with proper conservation and propagation, will not keep the birds in something like fair quantities for us many years to come-yet no measures, however strict and farreaching, will ever increase their numbers in a wild state.

Thus far this fall but few geese have been seen along those wondrous old haunts, the Platte and Missouri rivers, and there is little chance of there being any , to any material extent, later on. Of course, there will be more of them when the clouds lower, the cold grows and the storms rage, but you will never again see them in anything like the plenitude that marked their invasion here in those good old days so often and so tenderly recalled.

And the sandhill cranes, and the big white whoopers, why, any considerable flock of either of these grand birds today, passing over, high in the steely heavens, would be regarded as an especially thrilling treat, and the lucky sportsman favored with the spectacle would talk of it all winter. While the chance to see even a single representative of the big white fellows is absolutely unlooked for, the sandhill cranes will probably still come down in small numbers, and where this day finds me, I may be lucky enough to get a shot or two, but it is only a Chinaman's chance at that.

By the way, I met Art Keeline on the street a few days ago, and he inquired of me what had become of the sandhill crane and whether they were ever seen any more in this state and whether they ever did come this way in any considerable numbers? He said when down in Florida last winter back on the broad savannas and in the oozy lagoons, he saw them in fairly good numbers on several occasions, and once or twice a small group of whoopers, but here in Nebraska he had never seen a specimen of either species, and he wondered if any did ever come here. Of course, I told him that they did in the days gone by-sandhill cranes almost as plentiful as Canada geese and white cranes often in great numbers, but they had been disappearing rapidly within the past two decades, and that today the sandhill cranes came only in thin and straggling bands, and the white cranes only in the most isolated instances.

But I have seen the day, thirty years ago, when I first made my trips out on the old Platte with Barrister Bill Simeral, Billy Townsend, Hal Penrose, John Petty, Jack Knowles-all these now marching with the pallid hosts, with the exception of the good old Barrister-and other kindred souls, when the sandhill cranes were to be seen on the plains and sloping hillsides out near Rogers, almost as plentiful and almost as noisy as the Canada, white and speckled geese. And whoopers, too, I have seen them out there, hundreds in a flock, but not in the last quarter of a century. The fact is, the last of the white cranes that have greeted my vision in the shallows of the Platte, a hundred miles or so west of Omaha, four years ago this month just closed. But sandhill cranes; I have seen a good many of these birds at various points in the state, every spring and fall, even within the past few years, and, by the way, killed a brace of them up the Lake Creek marshes in South Dakota a few years ago.

How about the cranes, anyhow? Perhaps this will prove a subject interesting to the younger generation of sportsmen, who have never had the opportunity to learn anything about them from personal observation, and, alas now, will never have. How rejoiced and thankful we old sportsmen ought to be for the privilege of having been able to enjoy all the wild game of the country in its pristine plentifulness, and what a pleasant task it is to tell of it.

In this day there is a tendency by the younger sportsmen to confuse the sandhill and whooping cranes with our blue herons and bitterns, and, yet, there is nothing in common between them but their resemblance. All the family grows fat on tender grasses and the various cereals, and the sandhill makes a capital marceau for the table, but he is the only member of his family that does, although the whooper is edible, but, like the mudhen, as compared with the ducks, needs the fixings.

As game birds, the sandhill and his big white cousin are highly regarded, or, in fact, used to be. In the keenness of their visual capacity and the sharpness of their hearing, they have no equals in the whole gamut of wild fowl. In neither sense is the mallard, wariest of all the ducks, in it with these two granddaddy longlegs, nor neither is the Canada goose or speckledfront. Even in their most prolific thrift they were always a sore trial to the hunter, however expert he may have been. And, while a sandhill is still largely within the confines of the possible, I know of no game bird that the chances are so slender of producing a single specimen especially in these, their old day haunts, than the magnificent big white whooper.

The mellow summer call of Bob White has changed into that of the approaching winter time, and is no longer heard floating over the harvest field, and the tinkling silvery "tur-wheetle! tur-wheetle!" of the upland plover has long since died away in the south, before the sandhill cranes think of coming down from their northern breeding grounds. He comes when the frosts of October have stripped the cottonwood and the maple of their Tyrian-dyed foliage; when the blue haze gathers thickest along the bluffs; when the geese begin to fly and the ducks are about all here, and the prairie chicken has packed, and in flocks of countless hundreds, sweep for long distances without stopping over the rolling umber of the bleached prairie. Then the sandhill comes, or used to in the days which I am essaying to reflect; came in lengthened lines and phalanxes, that vied even with those of the geese. The best way we had of frustrating these wary creatures was lying flat, face down, in some natural trench along the lover levels below the highlands, which had been eroded in the prairie by the rains of centuries washing down from the bluffs and over which the sandhills always flew from the distant fields to their favorite roosting resorts in sight of the gleaming Platte in the evening.

Out north of Rogers, a few miles, used to be a great place for these great birds. I have seen flocks of countless scores dotting those barren slopes and hillsides, in the late fall. Here and there, as far as the eye could reach, and where the diffident sunshine played upon a hundred shades of buff and gold and emerald, they stood, upright like vigilant sentries, upon every prominence, and every knoll, and they, although there for rest, were ever on the lookout for danger from either goshawk, horned owl, coyote or man.

In our snug tent, among the protective willows, down by the gurgling river, at night, we always heard their peculiar, penetrating and rolling notes, as they fell from beneath the stars, from the countless flocks flying over for other favorite resting places farther south. And in the mornings, too, it was always a delight to see those who had roosted near our bivouac, rise on that amplitude of wings of theirs, and with long, raucous necks stretched out to the uttermost, float up into and across the blue dome, with a rhythm of motion and a gracefulness of flight matched by no other bird.

The best shooting I ever had on sandhill crane, was one October evening thirty-three years ago, in the little open vale along the rolling slopes just north and east of Rogers, which in those days, too, was a wonderfully attractive place for the geese and the ducks, and along the oozy lacustrals of the river, for the jacksnipe, the yellow leg, golden plover, willet, sandpiper and curlew.

Over this particularly favored stretched of bottom land, from off over the gentle hills, and heralded by their thrilling tremolo, huge flocks of sandhills used to fly on the way to their favorite roosting shelters on to the south of us. The barrister and I, keen as hounds upon the scent, were not long in getting the lay of the land, and the first evening we were there, hardly waiting to get our old rag palace decently guyed among the willows, and surely not for a snack to eat, but on a big snifter of good old Yellowstone, and perchance, several of them, we were in a shallow ditch at the foot of the high plateau, prostrate, and waiting for those gray ranks we knew would soon be marching awing, through the trenchant air above us for their night's encampment below this point.

When they first came in sight, the long low valley was already resonant with their sonorous calls, which had drifted down before their advancing columns. And when each bird took distinctive shape, and their wild tones rang clearer and more searching, and with a chill unearthliness hard to describe, we grasped our guns more tightly, and twisted our necks in painful effort to obtain a better view, although those great birds were yet a half mile away.

The situation was more blood stirring and more nerve racking than waiting in a hole, in field or on a bar, for those royal birds, the Canada geese, and any old timer will corroborate what I say. The sandhill crane, while in many ways a feathered buffoon, is the smartest and most sensational of any game bird in the world. No other can rival him in the ostentation, in the pomp and glory and circumstance of his movements, either on the ground or in the air.

Some Thirty Years Ago Out on Rogers Flats

An October Evening With the Sandhill Crane a Thrilling Picture Alone the Glory of the Old Timer.

Inadvertently our little trip up to the Charlie Metz ranch some three weeks ago, precluded the finish of our little paper on the sandhill and whooping crane, but which we are pleased to be able to complete even at this late date.

Let's see, I was telling how plentiful these two great birds used to be here in Nebraska, and what glorious sights I had seen, and what glorious hunts I had had out on the Platte near Rogers, and I left off just where Barrister Bill Simeral and myself, one October evening, fairly before we had our rag palace properly pitched among the willows on the river's shore, found ourselves, properly hidden in a natural blind, awaiting the oncoming of the crane.

As I mentioned, the best shooting was in the autumn-although they came down like gray and snowy avalanches from the far north in the blustery days of March-from pits on the grassy plain, of from amongst the stubbles of a cornfield, as it was next to impossible to stalk these wary creatures. It was always extremely difficult to get anywhere near the resting birds, and in the open pasture or hay lands, absolutely impossible to crawl within shotgun range. If you got within fairly good rifle range you could congratulate yourself. Neither the sandhill nor the whooper takes much stalk in cold and snowy weather, and as soon as our prairies became dotted with leafless rose bushes and dessicated sunflower disks they were off in long lines and high up, for more smiling scenes on the plateaus of New Mexico and Texas.

And by the way of a little extra intelligence, Charlie Metz informed us that there were a good many sandhills to be seen in his charming demennse up there among the sandhills of Cherry county this fall, but he heard of none being killed and their stay was an abbreviated one. And yet the mere presence of the birds added an additional charm to the multitudinous scenes about old Three Springs and Raccoon, and the tortuous valley of Hay Creek.

On the occasion in hand, Bill and I were out for sandhills and whoopers, that day, so many years ago, and we got them, too, quite a bag of the gray fellows and three of the big white ones. We knew we would bag all the geese and ducks and jacksnipe we wanted, and determined to devote exclusively a few days to the granddaddy long legs of the family, and the experience was both a profitable and exhilarating one.

That evening we lost little time in ensconcing ourselves in a likely hide, a little natural trench, which had been cut by the copious rainfall of the past summer along the rolling slope to the north, where it merged with the open plain.

All ready, we lay down upon our bellies, and with guns conveniently alongside-waited.

It was not a long wait, either, before a huge flock of sandhills lifted itself into view over the horizon to the north, and heralding their appearance with far-reaching signals, they came our way. One final glance at the approaching line of advancing hazy blue against the dun and green background, and with a voluminous outburst of mutual precautions, we hugged the curling tendrils of the buffalo grass until we all but became a part of it, and waited for the great birds to drift down upon us.

As those wild voices rang clearer and more searching, with bated breath we clutched our Parkers all the tighter, and aside from the approaching clamor of raucous throats, the hammering of our hearts was about the only sound we heard, save, when the birds held their tongues for a brief second or two, the dimpling seas of wild prairie beneath the soft glow of a golden October evening, came the rising breeze from the sandy river's shore with soft susurrus plashings.

We were old and tried in the hunters' wiles, Bill and I, and we resisted all allurement to lift hand or head, for a cursory peep, or a betterment of position, and like frozen images we lay until we heard the soft whiff! whiff! whiff! winnowing the air above us, and then we leaped up onto a more stable footing. To the loud successive reports of our guns, which brought three birds ganglingly to the grass, with long necks crumpled and long wings beating impotently, while the balance of that great feathered cavalcade, with wilder and more distraught cries than we had ever heard before, broke pell mell away, to every aerial quarter, and in what looked like inextricable confusion, plunged upward, sheering to all points of space, and away from our kin in reunited ranks, their wild cries still sounding clearly until their dimmed lines mingled with the falling mists over the distant river.

And the three whoopers we bagged. It was an unexpected achievement, I can assure you, and took place one morning several days after our kill of the sandhills.

We were lying in the same blind and again waiting for the gray birds, as we had little hope, so extremely wary and crafty were they, of even getting a shot at one of the big white fellows. But we did and a most successful one it was.

As we lay there in the early pink and pearl of the morning, waiting for the sandhills, suddenly there came a trumpet call, so wildly sweet and indescribably thrilling, that Bill and I hardly dared breath. We knew instantly whence it came and what it was, and intuitively that the chance of a life-time was upon us.

The far-reaching resonant hoo-roo-oooo-oooo of the whooping crane is a sound as hard to imitate as it is to describe, and one that few of our present generation of sportsmen will ever hear, for the great bird is rapidly on the route of the wild pigeon and the Labrador duck, and in a few years will be known no more forever, save in museum case or upon taxidermist's shelf.

If possible, imagine he sensations which obsessed Bill and me as we lay there listening to the weird clamor of those approaching birds. But we had not long to wait, so rapid is their flight, until they were upon us. As it proved, there were twenty odd in the flock, and at the first audible winnowing of their powerful wings in the air above us, without the sign of an order from either or us, we were simultaneously upon our feet.

It looked like a great rolling cloud of snow passing swiftly over us, and at the crack of our guns, as on the evening of our first sandhill kill, three of the great birds, in revolving whirls of white and black and green and carmine came tumbling to the tan carpet spreading out before us.

Two were stone dead, but the third, a magnificent old cock, who had no doubt piloted many of his fellows down from the arctic in the past, was only wing-tipped.

Bill and I were fairly paralyzed at our wondrous luck, and it was many seconds after the dismayed birds had sheered off to all points of the heavens in wildest and noisiest confusion, and until they were again welded together in that customary long, methodical line, and passing back over the sun-glinted undulations of the distant plain, before we turned to our matchless trophies.