October 25, 1908. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 44(4): 3-M. With two pictures.
Nature's Pets Seen Through the Eyes of Nebraska Birds.
An Afternoon With Laurence Skow and a Study of His Work North of Florence.
By Elizabeth Sears.
Beneath the tangled growth of trees and bushes out Florence way there creeps a kindly-faced, blue-eyed man, stealthily following a cardinal bird. The scarlet wings and black-touched head flash and twinkle in the somber dawn. Now and then the bird pauses on the swinging tip of a young tree and sways gracefully in the fresh young breeze that heralds the coming of the autumn sun.
It seems almost a pity that the man carries a gun ready to draw a bead on the tilting, unconscious little scarlet bird, who makes such a bright bit of color in the fading trees. All summer long he has been studying this bird. He knows just where the first nest was built, cunningly concealed in the thick leaves. Many a morning he lovingly watched the little mother as she helped with the home-making, as a devoted wife should do. Then the first wee egg was laid and the second and the third. He knew the pride of this beautiful scarlet bird in his wife and his home.
Nevertheless one morning the man stole softly to the nest, when the mother bird had left for a strengthening worm or two before she began her task of sitting on the eggs. Tenderly, for he loved the little mother, he took the eggs. There was a storm of protest when the cardinal bird and his dainty wife returned. They circled about the nest, chattering to each other and voicing their opinion so often in the woods, but who had seemed so kind and gentle that they had never dreamed of his stealing their eggs.
Then the fuss was over. They scorned the nest now that it had been touched. Behind their bright little eyes they reasoned that now that he had found the nest he might return and steal another batch. And goodness knows, sighed the little wife, it is no fun to build nests and lay four cunning little eggs and get all ready to raise a family and then have it to do all over again.
A Quiet Watcher.
So they found another spot and built their nest anew. But the kindly-faced man found them again. This time he let them raise their family in peace. But every day he came and watched them. Sometimes before the sun rose he was creeping through the bushes to the nest. There he lay quietly for hours and noted her sitting on the eggs, the care of the father, his song and his blithe dashing to and fro, while the patient little mother hovered the eggs and ate the food her husband brought her.
He saw the hatching of the downy little birdlets and watched the hard work of father and mother to feed the insistent family who opened clamorous mouths and swallowed everything within reach. One day the watcher saw a black snake slowly rippling toward the tree. He watched it glide up the tree trunk and heard the frantic cries of the birds, who knew their danger. Before the snake reached the nest, its head had been neatly severed from its body with a well directed bullet. Its long, black body slithered helplessly down the tree trunk and fell in a huddled heap at the foot of the tree. So you see the man loved the little cardinal family after all.
Once he saw a chattering squirrel exploring the tree. He had noted the little mischief before as it ran chattering and scolding up and down the trees. He saw it leap and creep gently toward the nest. Father and mother were away and the ridiculous down-covered nestlings, all open bills, had no more sense than to stick their heads over the nest and regard the squirrel visitor with cordial air. There was no mother to warn them that the frisky little visitor was an enemy and loved newly hatched birds next to fresh eggs.
But the watcher saw it all. And in a jiffy a little heap of gray fur tumbled down the tree as the snake head had tumbled. It was a guilty little squirrel, for its tiny grinning mouth was smeared over with the yoke of eggs that told of the robbing of other nests. Surely the watcher loved the little family that he staid to watch and protect them when the parents were gone.
All summer long he watched them. He knew when the little birds were able to fly. He saw the mother teach them gently and patiently to go out into the world and look out for themselves. And he watched and watched until the fall came and the little mother and her husband flew from branch to branch, reveling in the warm autumn air the the abundance of seeds and other good things to eat.
A Necessary Killing.
So attached had he grown to the little couple that one day when the time had come and it became necessary for the devoted little couple to give up their lives for science, tears came into those kind blue eyes, when he picked up his gun and went into the woods early one morning, before the sun had fairly peeped above the horizon. When he came home that morning, be brought the little wife with him. Her smooth little body was stiffened and her joyous little life was over. In the house, the wife of the kindly faced man took the little body in her gentle hand and stroked it softly. She looked at her two little rollicking blue-eyed babies playing about and as though she knew that her husband had taken many valuable notes concerning the cardinal bird that summer and that his knowledge would be invaluable to science—yet she laid down the body of the tiny bird mother with a tightening of her throat.
Another day the watcher went forth. He trailed the disconsolate cardinal bird through the thickets. He watched the red wings flash in the dull morning air and he trailed patiently. When he came home that morning, he had the father bird and his summer's work was complete. Carefully protected, labeled and noted was the set of eggs, the nest and the parent birds. And through the death of these bright little creatures more knowledge was gained by science and the lives of hundreds of other cardinal birds might be saved to riot gayly through the summer and build their nests and rear their families in safety.
The man was Laurence Skow, who has a pleasant little cottage near Preis lake and whose advice is sought eagerly by professors in not only the Nebraska university, but in other colleges. Laurence Skow knows more about the Nebraska birds than perhaps any other man in the state. His collection of bird eggs is the most complete outside the Smithsonian Institution and his bird data is gained by just such patient, persevering work as I have described.
At the first peep of light, Mr. Skow is astir. Gun in hand he steals out into the woods. He counts no effort wasted if it gives him a bit of new bird lore. He knows the call of each bird and its haunt. He knows where to find the delicately tinted purple thrush, whose breast is softly shaded with faint violets and warm purples, and his modestly gowned little brown wife, who, like all other female birds, dons the quiet colors and leaves the flaunting hues to her husband, unlike he human sister, who appropriates the gay clothes to herself and counts her male well cared for in sober black, brown or modest gray garments.
Enemy of the Bird.
"Cruel to kill the little gray squirrel?" repeated Mr. Skow when I pittied the furry little animal its quick death. "Didn't you know that the squirrel is the greatest enemy of the bird? I have a special permit to take bird eggs in the interest of science and I have not spent nearly all of my life in the woods without knowing the enemies of the birds. I have to take the eggs and sometimes the birds to complete my data. But I pot a snake or a squirrel everytime I see one. The squirrel eats more eggs and young birds than any other bird enemy. It is such a curious little creature and is always nosing about in the trees and bushes and knows just where the nests are and in the spring it fairly lives on bird eggs.
"Out in Hanscom park, the birds gather by thousands and build their nests. But I'll wager that not a third of them ever raise a family. The squirrels find out every nest, in spite of the caution of the birds, and either eat the eggs or the young birds. In a park like that the snake, the next greatest enemy, does not hang around. But out here in the woods, between the squirrels and the snakes, the poor birds have a hard time raising a family."
Mr. Skow's collection of bird's eggs numbers over 1,000. With each set is a slip of identification, giving the location, the date found and positive identification.
"This little slip guarantees the set," explained the bird lover. "If you wanted to sell or exchange eggs, they would be no good unless you had the slip to go with them. I remember a good many years ago when Isadore Trostler of Omaha had a good collection of eggs. I do not know whether he has them now or not, but at that time he had a fine collection of eggs."
In the trays of cotton the eggs lay like beautiful jewels. There was the curious egg of the murre, a sea bird, who lays an egg but once a year. The egg is nearly one-third the size of the bird itself, being a large, pointed, dull blue egg with queer bronze splotches all over it. They were all blown from the sides, a dental instrument being used to make a neat round puncture on each side. On each eggs is written its number, which to the practiced eye tells the number of eggs in the set and the date of finding.
Climbing for Eggs.
"See this egg," said Mr. Skow, picking up a big blue egg with a delicate sheen, "I will never forget the finding of these eggs because for the first time in my life I experienced fear in climbing a tree. I went out into the woods early one morning just after a severe attack of lung fever. I discovered the nest of a blue heron up in a huge cottonwood tree. The nest was fully 200 feet high and the wind was blowing a gale; but I determined to get them. George Sabine was with me and after I had reached the nest I found myself trembling so that I begged him not to speak or shout or shoot at anything. I knew that if he fired off the gun the sound of the shot would unnerve me so that I would fall. But I had started after those eggs and I got them. When I reached the ground again I was trembling from head to toe. I never catch a sight of these eggs without experiencing again that fear that came over me that morning.
There was the big white eggs of the white pelican side by side with the pearly little eggs that belong to the golden-wing woodpecker. These glistened like mother of pearl and were daintily pointed. They looked pretty enough to be strung for a necklace and as they lay in their soft bed of cotton they resembled unset pearls in a jeweler's showcase.
There was the big brown egg with ugly purple spots that belonged to the laughing gull, a migratory bird that passes over some parts of Nebraska in spring and fall, and the little brown eggs of the marsh bird that looked like delicious little chocolate bon bons. The eggs of the cat bird, the robin and the wood thrush were all of a beautiful polished blue and much the same size. But the keen eyes of the bird lover could tell them apart at once.
"There are nearly 400 birds of different species in Nebraska," said Mr. Skow. "I have been here for twenty years and studying then all of that time. I remember one pleasant trip I had to the northwest counties one fall with Professor Bruner to find some birds from the Dakotas that only come into those counties in the fall. I got a beautiful pair of grouse at that time. About the only eggs I have not got in my collection is the humming bird. This bird only lays two eggs in the nesting season and it is very difficult to obtain them.
Are Good Layers.
"The average bird will keep right on laying eggs as fast as they are taken. I generally wait until the set is laid and then take them. The old birds will leave the nest and build a new one immediately and then we can get the nest, too. They would leave just as quickly if I took one and as we take only the eggs of one species you can see that our destruction of the bird's eggs is not great, as some claim.
"I have seen fully ten tiny birds in a chickadee's nest, all crowded in until their beaks made a bristling row in the air. It takes some work to feed such a family; but considering the enemies of the bird such a nest full is unusual."
Mr. Skow learned the work of a taxidermist in Denmark when a boy. When, after coming to America, he discovered that the old ways were absolute and that instead of stuffing the birds with cotton, a regular framework was built and the skin stretched over that, he promptly learned the new way.
"Good taxidermists are not frequent," he said. "A man must take up the work for mere love of it, because there is no great money in it. It means that his life must be devoted to his art. To properly mount a bird or animal, he must study that bird or animal in the wilds, just as a sculptor must. He must know anatomy, habits and customs. He must mount the birds in a characteristic attitude and a life-like manner. Before he handles the commonest bird of the forest, he should know its habits, where it builds its nests, how it lives and how it rears it young.
"Few young men have the patience for this nowadays. They want work that will bring them a large income and the taxidermist must sometimes work for the sheer love of it. If work is lax, he must wait for orders. The saloon men are always good customers. I never knew why; but few saloons are without stuffed birds or animals. People like to look at them. They seldom buy them, but they will stand and look at them for hours.
"A bird lover must study birds all the year round. He must know their habits spring, summer, fall and winter. When I go out to the woods every morning, I wait for the call of the birds. I know from certain calls that the nest is near. Then I must find the nest without frightening the birds. To study birds one must go alone and with stealthy feet. I think nothing of spending days in studying one species."
Life at "Rosedale."
The morning in the woods, the day at his work bench and the night in his study lost in his beloved books. This is the life of Laurence Skow. His little cottage near the lake he built himself and named "Rosedale." Out in the yard there are 600 rose bushes and in the early summer the place is aglow with bloom and radiant with perfume. Inside the furniture bears evidence that this well learned bird lover has a knack with hammer and saw. A beautiful black walnut table, whose top is made of one beautifully grained board, with a polish that comes with age, was made by Mr. Skow in a style that would make Elbert Hubbard and his Royscroft furniture turn green with envy. There is a sideboard, too, that looks like an heirloom. The grain of the oak is brought out by the waxed finish and the simple artistic lines of the piece of furniture would make an artist rave. In fact this sideboard is the admiration of all who have seen it and if some of the antique lovers in Omaha who have a real love for a bit of good furniture knew of it, relic hunters would be plenty at Rosedale cottage. Every bit of it is the work of Mr. Skow.
Bird study classes are popular just now. Last summer a very enthusiastic one was formed. It was small, but exclusive. They went out by Florence, where almost every variety of bird is seen some time during the year. They had field glasses and note books with them. And lunch. They took copious notes. So copious that one over-enthusiastic damsel brought back descriptions of almost 700 birds, the like of which had never been heard of.
Such classes do no harm. They get the fresh air and the walk and it is good for them to eat lunch in the open air and get a new interest in their lives. And by another summer there will be another fad.
But the real bird lovers go by twos or alone. They talk little and watch much. The man or woman who can lie prone on the ground under a bush where is a bird's nest, and silently watch them for hours, comes home with some definite information concerning birds. There is a fascination about the study that grows upon one.
"Oh, the call of the bird." The joy of stepping into the fresh invigorating morning air, of feeling the crunch of the crisp leaves and twigs under one's feet; of hearing the songs poured forth as the feathered people of the woods sing their mating song. The cares and petty trials we have left behind assume their proper proportions and the real life spreads itself alluringly before us. Love, broad, deep, boundless as the sky, with a horizon that widens as we reach out—the real life—the life that counts—the life we carry with us when all else must be left behind—that is what you find in the woods and with the birds and the bird lovers.