Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. January 9, 1910. The last of the whoopers and a recall of early days. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 45(15): 10-N. Includes a picture portrait of Griswold.

Forest Field and Stream

Inadvertently, a little coterie of old-day sportsmen, up at Townsend's gun store the other evening, the theme shifted from Omaha's prospective big spring trap tournament to the disappearances from Nebraska's favorite haunts, of those two former royal American game birds, the sandhill and whooping crane. While the sandhills occasionally yet, in the early spring time and late fall, visit some of the sandhill marshes in sparse numbers, the great, white or whooping crane, seems to have about literally given us the go-by.

The last of these birds of which I have any personal knowledge was in march, 1903, while duck shooting in the Cherry county sandhills, when the sight of eleven of these magnificent creatures awakened most pleasant memories of my early days in this state, 'way back in 1886-87 and '8, when this now almost extinct fowl flourished plentifully here both spring and autumn. That once in a great while bird still comes back to us is attested to by the fact that Orange Helfinger, one of the thoroughbred sportsmen and nature lovers up at Herman, killed a fine specimen on the lowlands, near the river west of that thriving little city, last March. Mr. Helfinger is a shooting friend of Mr. Stockton Heth's and while at the former's home last fall, Stocky had the pleasure of seeing the bird, which Mr. Helfinger has as the chief attraction of his collection of mounted birds.

Mr. Helfinger is his own taxidermist and Stocky says his museum embraces a most interesting collection of the game birds and animals he has shot and trapped and mounted.

But the birds I saw seven years ago. It was a Sunday morning, march 29, and my boy, Gerard, and I were on our way from the ranch house, where we were stopping, to Pelican lake, when our attention was attracted to them by the trumpet call of the leader when they were high up in the air. The expectation of seeing a whooping crane being remote; indeed, I remarked to the kid that they were swan, whose hoarse, but sonorous and musical "hoo-roo-ooo-ooo-oo!" is much like that of this big white, crimson-crested crane, but as they wound down and settled on a sandy point of "the island," and that far-reaching clarion call again came quavering over the barrens, their identity flashed through my mind at once.

Lolling down in the warm sand Gerard and I watched them for fully an hour. It was a fine opportunity to study the great bird, though at a long distance, and we improved it fully, with the aid of my field glasses; in fact, watched them assiduously until they finally rose with a chorus of hoarse cries and circled up into the upper sunlight and then off and out of sight over the distant Red Deer lake.

For the benefit of our modern hunters, whose chances for becoming familiar with this grandest of all the game birds that ever chose Nebraska's lonely wilds for a feed and resting place, lies in the pages of history, I will say that the sandhill crane, with all his beauty and wariness, alongside the whooper, is an inconspicuous fowl. Larger than the biggest of the sandhills by fully ten or twelve inches in extent of wing, and from a foot and a half in length, the whiteness that vies with the purest snow, save the dab of velvet black on the tip of the pinions, and a carmine streak over the crown of his head, he is the most impressive feathered biped known in this section since the fabled wonders of the prehistoric days. When cleaving the golden sunlight of early spring over the blue lakes, reedy marshes, sandy barrens, pasture lands and choppy hills of Cherry county, he is a sight to tingle the blood of the most stoical, and incredible as it may seem to the young sportsman of today there is no mistake about it. Twenty years ago Nebraska was one of the favored feeding and resting grounds for the whooping crane there were in the whole country.

Just a short way northeast of Rogers, out on the Platte, lies a quite extensive half open valley and half billowy prairie, which was formerly thickly covered with the delicate and curly buffalo grass with the clumps of hybrid acacia, and splashes of moccasin flowers mingling with cat-o'-nine-tails, flags and tules, as you approach the river. This stretch of country was a great camping and picking grounds of not only sandhill cranes, but the big whoopers, who never like to associate with the former or any of the lesser breeds, but in this instance their fondness for the place overcame their prejudice, and they were often found there together. They were always to be seen here through the dreamy month of October and well into the gloom of November, but as soon as the air became bitey it would start them all off for their winter homes in the balmy south. The whooping cranes are, without an exception, the wariest, most cunning and resourceful of all our big game birds and about the hardest to get a shot at. And yet, by our superior intelligence, we used to outwit them frequently in the old days out about Rogers, and in another article later, I will tell you of the last shot I got at one, way out in the sterile fastnesses of Deuel county, in March, 1891. What goose shooting is now, was to the few gunners who went out from this city in the days of which I write. My! how it used to make my blood bound to lie there in a blind in the low hopples or tall, yellowy grass and listen to that penetrating and weird hoo-roo-ooo-oo-oo, long drawn out and rolling, seemingly, from every point in the autumnal skies, as a flock of these great birds approached me. If you find it hard to lie still now and await the incoming of a line "auh-unking" Canadas, you would have found it an insurmountable task to have done the same twenty years ago for the onrush of a ragged bunch of whoopers. To bat an eye meant the dashing of your hopes. Rigid and still as a statue you had to lie or crouch, until the low whiff-whiff-whiff of their tan-like wings fractured the atmosphere above you, until you could see the carmine of the eye and the long raucous throats stretched out over you. Then to your feet, and what a sound and what a sight-what a climax of frenzy, as you view the tangle of monstrous white birds, with broad wings hammering the air desperately, every bird climbing distractedly toward the sky, sheering, tumbling and lurching in all directions at the same time, the sunlight glancing from their dark green, dagger-like beaks and crimson domes, and the very earth and air vibrating as with the peals of thunder. That was whooping crane shooting, and it makes my blood leap, my nerves tremble and my brain whirl to recall the many times I experienced this most splendid excitement.