Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. March 16, 1913. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 48(24): 2-S. Only portion of article on natural history included.

A Memory of the River Woods of Long Ago

Memory of the River Woods - The Crows at Their Springtime Banquet.
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Narrower and narrower, as Sam Richmond so cogently remarked as we were gathered around the camp fire at the Woodduck's Nest up on the raging Loup one night last fall, are becoming the confines of most all of our oldtime plentiful game birds. It will be remembered that Sam spoke of five species of game birds, once numerous here, which are now about as good as extinct, and these were the golden eye duck, the wild or passenger pigeon, the woodcock, the turkey and the ruffed grouse, and it is of the last named rare and beautiful bird, the real king of all game birds, that I wish to chat a bit. Before going further, however, I will remark that I am in doubts whether the wild pigeon was ever known in Nebraska or not, and I hope more old sportsman will inform me on this very thing.

A Bird That Has Gone.

True, as old Sam said, the ruffed grouse used to be quite abundant along the wooded shores of the Missouri river, both above and below this city. Out in these wild and gruesome timber lands were not the only places the ruffed grouse was to be frequently found, because they were quite common in the woods and copses all along the Elkhorn, on the Rawhide, the Loup and the Niobrara. But they are all gone now, and so have most of the woods, for that matter.

The timber, even along the turbid Missouri, today scarcely possesses a trait of the primeval forests of forty years ago. The oldest trees have a comparatively youthful appearance, and are pigmies in girth beside the decaying stumps of their giant ancestors. They are not as shagged with moss nor so scaled with lichens. The woods floor has lost its ancient carpet of ankle-deep moss and the intricate maze of fallen columns in every stage of decay, and in many places look clean swept and bare. The tangle of undergrowth almost everywhere along the singing Elkhorn is gone, many of the species which composed it having quite disappeared, as have many of the birds and animals that flourished in the perennial shade of the old wilderness. In the old days, Nebraska was not wholly a desert as we used to suppose from the sandy splotch which marked its area on the maps in our old geographies. There were plenty of woods along the Missouri and the Elkhorn as well as along the ghostly Niobrara and legendary White Clay, and there is yet quite a respectable forest along stretches of the Big Muddy.

In the Old Wilderness.

If in their season now, a roaming sportsman sees and hears more birds among the lower interlaced branches, he is not likely to catch sight or sound of many of the denizens of the old wilderness. No startled deer bounds away before him nor black bear shuffles awkwardly from his feast of mast, berries or beetles, at his approach, nor does one's flesh creep at the howl of the gathered wolves, or the panther's scream or the rustle of his stealthy footsteps.

But even yet, I am reliably informed, as you saunter on your devious ways, down in the tangled depths along the Missouri, a dozen miles or so below the city, you may hear a rustle of quick feet in the dry leaves before you, and a sharp, insistent cry, a succession of short, high-pitched clucks running into and again out of a querulous "kerr-rr-r-r," all expressing warning as well as alarm. Your ears guide your eyes to the exact point from which the sounds apparently come, but if they are not keen and well trained, they fail to detach any animal form from the inanimate dun and gray of dead leaves and scraggy underbrush.

A Rare Sight Indeed.

With startling suddenness out of the monotony of lifeless color in an eddying flurry of dead leaves, fanned to erratic flight by his wing-beats, the ruffed grouse bursts into view in full flight with the first strokes of his thundering pinions, and you have a brief vision of untamed nature as it was in the old days, and a rare sight it is. Mind you, I have never seen this thrilling spectacle out here myself, but have many, many times back in the fast vanishing wilds of Ohio; yet there are several of our sportsmen, among whom I might mention again Sam, who have. But my imagination pictures it, and on either side of the brown nebula the ancient moss and lichened trunks rear themselves again, above it their lofty ramage veils the sky, beneath it lie the deep, noiseless cushion of moss, shrubs and plants that the wily Sioux one knew and the deer browsed on and the tangled trunks of fallen trees. You can almost fancy, I should think, at such a moment, that you hear the long silenced voices of the woods, so vividly would this wild spirit for an instant conjure up before your visitation of the old wild world whereof he is a survival.

Two of the Wildest Birds.

Acquaintance with civilized man has not tamed the ruffed grouse, neither has it the prairie chicken, but on the contrary, made them all the wilder. The grouse, what there is left of him, deigns to feed on the tender buds of the bushes in the thickets and woodside sprouts and clover, not as a gift, but a begrudged compensation of what reckless squatter and unthinking agriculturist have taken from him, and gives you therefore not even the thanks of familiarity, and notwithstanding his acquaintance with generations of your race, he will not suffer you to come so near him as he did your Nebraska grandfathers.

Then, in the fall, when the leaves are falling, if one of our down-the-river farmers should find him in his little barnyard, in his orchard, or on his porch, he should not think he has any intention of association with him or his plebian poultry. He should only wonder where he found refuge from the painted shower when all his world was a wilderness, as it was a quarter of a century ago here in Nebraska.

The Swift Also Gone.

If now on the viney islands down near Parkin's sand pits he should invite your attendance at his drum solo, it is only to fool you with the sight of an empty stage, for you must be stealthy and as keen eyed as the little swift that also used to invest these wilds, if you would catch a glimpse of distended ruff and wide spread of barred tail and accelerated beat of wings that mimic thunder the old day sportsmen remember so well, or see even the leafy curtain of his stage flutter in the wind of his swift exit.

The definite recognition of the ruffed grouse's motionless form will always evade you, so perfectly do his colors marge into those of this environment, whether it be in the flush of summer's greenness, the flaring hues of autumn or its later faded dun and gray, or in the whiteness of winter. Among one or the other he is but a clot of dead leaves, a knot upon a branch, the gray stump of a sapling protruding from the snow, or covered deep in the unmarked whiteness, he bursts from it like a mine exploded at your feet, leaving you agape till he has vanished from your sight and your ears have caught the last flick of his wing against the dry branches.

It is a sight once seen and a sound once heard in these days, to remember long, though for the moment you remember not the gun in your hands, when the dusky form bursts away up in the wind, signaling its departure with volleys of intermittent and continuous thunder. Not many times in the future life of a Nebraska sportsman will this sight be seen, yet, if you get to behold it once more, you may thank your stars that you have not outlived all the day's charming wildness.