Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. September 30, 1894. Omaha Sunday Bee p. 18.

Mystic Bird of the Marsh

He Came in Swarms and Made Great Sport for the Gunners.

Local gunners this fall which have enjoyed a species of sport while not wholly new to them, has been a decided innovation, and that was the rail both clapper and sora, and while all sportsmen will hope against any such contingency, it may never recur here again. It is over now, that is, there may never again be the abundance of birds upon local grounds as has marked their flight this fall. They are a mystic little sprite of the marsh and reedy river beds, delicate in texture and very susceptible to cold, the first nipping effects of frost always being sufficient to set them swing for softer climes.

As remarkable as it was, all of our adjacent lakes on both sides of the river, all the low-lying flag and reed-covered marsh lands in this section of the country have literally swarmed with these birds, and in the waters within easy reach of this city. It is no exaggeration to say that they have been slaughtered by the thousands. As an instance of their plentifulness it might not be amiss to state that Stockton Heth and myself, at Big lake a week ago Thursday afternoon, bagged fifty-three in a trifle over two hours' shooting. Had it not been for the difficulty we experienced in working the retriever in the reeds and mucky shallows this bag could have easily been doubled.

I am not prepared to advance any theory just now as to the cause of this wonderful influx of the little corncrake in this region other than the fact that a probable drying up of many of their usual haunts induced them to come hither in search of new pastures. Certain it is, anyway, they have never been known here in such vast numbers as during the past month, but my ardent wish is that their visit has been brought around by a chance in their line of migration and that they have found the conditions for thrift so favorable that with each recurring season they may return to us in something like the numbers that has marked their sojourn this fall.

But, as I said before, they are gone now, as completely as if they had never been here, and from this time on the gunner on our nearby waters must confine himself to an occasional crack at teal, mallard, yellowleg or snipe, or a tramp through brush and stubble for quail. Our nights and mornings are growing keener and keener, the weeds and grasses are drooping and fast donning their coats of brown, the foliage of the woods is flecking with thin scarlets and golds, and like the rail, all migratory birds are enroute for their southern homes.

But to return to the little sora. According to a recent article in the Forest and Stream in the eastern and middle states the coming of no class of feathered game is looked forward to in the early autumn more eagerly than this self same puzzling little marsh hen, about which cluster many a story and many a myth. It was hard for our sportsmen forefathers, so says this authority, to believe that his feeble flight could carry him over long journeys, and it was easier to imagine that he changed his shape and was today a bird of the upper air and tomorrow a frog living in the mud of the stream's bed. Although the rail is reared in all our fresh water marshes his range extends far to the north as well, and when the nights grow cooler he moves southward, flying by night and dropping into the wild rice meadows that he knows so well at the approach of day, and there rests and feeds until moonrise next night, when he sets off again.

He is a simple little bird of deliberate flight, and easily killed. Now and then if you are shooting on the edge of the marsh there is an opportunity for a quick shot as a rail shows itself above the grass for a couple of feet only, as it reaches the shelter of cattails or weeds where the boat cannot go, or if a gale is blowing, the rising bird is swept away, and a good allowance must be made for him. But ordinarily, in fair weather and on wide marshes, he is a poor marksman or woefully out of practice who fails to knock down nine or ten of the rail which rise before him. To knock down, however, is not always to boat, for the crippled rail is skillful in hiding himself in the grass or weeds. Of course misses are made by all of us, because we are human, but for most of those made at rail there is no legitimate excuse.

No sport is more pleasant and easy than rail shooting. In fact, it is luxurious, and we are disposed to think too much so for adult and skilled sportsmen.

No bird serves better as a practice mark for the beginner, and we incline to the belief that some day when we are more advanced and more generous, this one will be reserved solely for those who are learning to shoot. There is something rather unsatisfactory in the destruction by a good shot of these slow, awkward little birds, and they should be reserved to be shot only by women and children and other beginners. A provision might be inserted in the game law of each state like this: "No male person above the age of 14 years shall at any time pursue, capture, shoot, shoot at or kill any rail, rail bird, sora or ortolan, or any wading bird of the family Rallidae.

Such a law would seem rather hard to many men who each year look forward to the rail shooting as a sort of practice to get them in shape for the fall shooting, and it would be a distinct hardship to the gourmands who longingly anticipate the season when this most toothsome bird shall appear on the table. Yet there are many who will hold that the man who can turn over the buzzing quail in the brush or stop the hurtling grouse as he darts through the forest has no business to shoot rail.