Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

November 11, 1917. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 53(6): 1-M. Includes two pictures of Marsh.

Billy Marsh Birdologist and his Notebook.

Forty Years' Study of Wild Life Around Omaha.

By Miles Greenleaf.

I consider Mr. Marsh the best posted man on small birds and wild bird life in this part of the country, although he may have competitors unknown to me. It is certain, however, that Mr. Marsh's deep interest in the welfare of our feathered friends has resulted in great good to the entire community, for his converts are many. For this we owe him a considerable debt of gratitude. - Dr. Solon R. Towne, President of the Nebraska Audubon Society.

Next Wednesday, November 14, "Billy" Marsh will celebrate his fiftieth anniversary. He will celebrate it by going out into the woods somewhere and mixing up with nature. Since he does that same thing every day of his life, his semicentennial trek will be nothing new.

Although a member of the Nebraska Audubon society, and in good standing, he has never attended a meeting and displays his remarkable interest in the birds by mingling with them, yet there has never been a time when funds were needed for bird conservation that Billy's check book was not unsheathed.

Ever since he was old enough to trudge alone through the woods or over the fields in an around Omaha, Billy has kept a complete record of the birds he saw on such expeditions, and these old records, now in precious possession of his wife, are convincing evidence of the sincerity of his love for the songsters.

Began at 10 Years.

The first bird record was taken by Billy Marsh when he was 10 years old, but the beginning of his complete data on such trips came in 1883, when at the age of 16. This and succeeding censuses taken for several years included - think it of Marsh! - not only the names of the birds seen, but also the number of eggs taken from nests! He blushes when shown those records now, but, as he explains:

"Every boy was collecting eggs in those days, and nobody ever tried to have us stop it. All I can say in my own defense is that I only took one from each nest, and did it with a spoon, so that the human odor might not cause the old birds to leave."

The youthful Marsh made his records in an old-fashioned "composition book," and they were kept up, day by day, until the end of the month, when the account was totalled to show the number of varieties and the number of specimens seen or taken.

In Billy's Note Book.

In these old composition books are notations to tickle the memories of other "old-timers" of Omaha, for some of the spots mentioned by Billy during his ornithological tramps have long since been forgotten by those titles.

For instance, there was "the Island" - known thus to every outdoor lad of thirty-five years ago, and which was a strip of land cut off by the Missouri river near where the east end of the Locust street viaduct now touches. Billy is still tramping that locality, although the "Island" has since lost its identity. He has a "shack" on Carter lake and prowls the underbrush in search of strange birds almost every weekday. Sundays, it must be explained, he investigates Elmwood park and the Pappio creek district.

Then there was "Redick's Grove" - where a youthful Marsh made many an iniquitous haul of eggs for his collection. This forest centered at the spot now occupied by the Clarinda apartments at Farnam street and Turner boulevard and extended all along the creek once once running through that territory, clear and beyond the present Leavenworth street.

Extending south from Leavenworth, as it now lies, and west from Twentieth street to the crest now occupied by Hanscom park, was another "jungle" beloved of the boys of Marsh's character, and they called it "Brewery Woods," according to Billy's bird book. There used to be an old brewery in the middle of these woods from which they got their now prohibited monicker.

"Whitney's Woods" was another paradise for the bird lovers of that day, and it covered that part of present Omaha centering in the tract recently given to the city by Dr. Harold Gifford for a public playground, lying between Davenport and Cass streets, Thirty-third to Thirty-fifth. Here, as in other now heavily populated "wildernesses," was nothing at all but nature, for but very few hardy pioneers had moved out "so far from town," when Billy Marsh was a boy.

Among other entries are those of explorations at "Griffin's Farm," which lay about half a mile southwest of the Field club of today, and at Lyon's inn. It would appear that Billy's spelling was at fault in the later item, for the Lion Inn was on Center street more than a quarter century ago, near the present entrance to West Lawn cemetery, and had the big figure of a lion hanging outside as a sign. It backed up into deep woods full of birds and nests.

Poor Farm Woods.

Then there was "The Graveyard" - Twenty-fifth and St. Mary's avenue; the Cottonwoods" - probably lying along the river down south; the "Poor Farm Woods" - where the north section of the Field club golf links now extend, but which was than a trackless forest; the "Deaf and Dumb Woods" - near the present site of that institution - and many other localities mentioned in Mr. Marsh's first bird hunt records.

While the youthful Billy was laying the foundation of his present startling knowledge of birds and their habits, he accumulated one of the best collections of eggs to be found in Nebraska, but he isn't bragging about it much. The collection still is in his home at Forty-second and Davenport streets, but seldom sees the light o' day.

But while these eggs were being gathered the knowledge thus acquired has made him an authority, and so he feels it might be forgiven. Among the nests seldom found in these parts, but discovered by young Marsh were those of the Swamp Sparrow and Golden Crowned Thrush. The latter, better known as the Oven Bird, is often heard in the woods in summer, but seldom seen, and so cleverly hides its nest that few are ever discovered.

Some of the old fashioned names for common birds noted in Marsh's first records are interesting to amateur ornithologists of today, having long since been discarded. There is the "Black Throated Bunting" - now the Dickcissel; the "Yellowbird" - now the Yellow Warbler; and the "Crow Blackbird" - now the Bronzed Grackle. Grass Finch, Lark Finch and Titmouse are names you seldom hear about Omaha nowadays - but Little Billy found 'em.

His Museum at Home.

The inside of Billy Marsh's room in his present home looks like that of some great bird museum. The walls are covered with photographs taken by himself of birds, nests and eggs, while there are scores of specimens of the birds and their nests - the latter only taken when the songsters have finished with them.

Himself an ardent hunter in season, Mr. Marsh is rampant on the subject of bird protection and conservation. Not only will he not shoot a single shell except in accordance with the governmental laws on the subject, but stands willing to "turn up" anybody who does, friend or foe. And yet he is one of the best wing shots in Nebraska.

The birds are Bill's best friends, and in the winter, when he is taking suet around the woods to place in the "station" provided by him for the feathered folk of that season - they seem to know him and follow him like pets through the glades.

Although he collected eggs in his youth, you can bet that his sons don't! They have been taught differently. The oldest Harry, is in the officers' training school at Fort Omaha and the youngest, Billy jr., is of just the age of his father when Billy, sr., started his first bird records. And Billy, jr., is doing likewise. Flora, the daughter, a young Brownell hall miss, spends most of her spare time outdoors - again like her daddy.

William Marsh is 50 years old next Wednesday - but he acts more like 15 - for which fact he thanks the outdoors and the fresh air. And as far as his enviable record as a natural historian is concerned, you would never have learned even as much as is included in this story except by the stealth and underhanded ways of the writer - for Billy never talks about himself.