Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

July 16, 1911. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 46(42): 3-M. With a picture of Towne and mounts of four species. Spelling corrections made.

Our Bird Neighbors - 400 Species in Nebraska

More Than Half of American Birds in This State - President of the Audubon Society Tells of Them, Their Habits, Songs, Plumage, and Where and How They May be Found Around Omaha.

Dr. S.R. Towne. President Nebraska Audubon Society.

The drift of modern civilization toward outdoor life is a normal, health giving movement. In choice of methods for enjoying God's out of doors none could be more delightful nor more adaptable to individual powers and tastes than the study of our bird neighbors. That remnant of savagery, the gun, here as elsewhere, is no longer desirable. An opera glass always a convenience, is at first a great time saver. A camera is a great delight, yet makes demands for skill and endless patience. To secure a snap-shot of one of the grouse, nesting, is an accomplishment of the first order.

Nothing so surely shows up character in man as the way he takes of getting his "fun." His companion may be man, woman, horse, gun or dog, automobile or book, expensive or trivial. The greatest enjoyment may come with little outlay or from sources both natural and right at hand, and yet be perennial. Results may come in a manner unimaginable until a way has been tried.

On a lot in Omaha once occupied by the family, the writer found thirty-six varieties of plant life, mostly uncultivated, nine being in the euphorbia family. There were seven varieties of ants. From the nest of one we saw the females swarm for their only flight.

Burroughs says: "One sees not what is before the eyes, but what is behind him." Attention creates interest.

Number of Birds.

An educator of prominence ten years since, having given no attention to birdlife, judged there were as many as thirty kinds of birds in Nebraska. The list prepared for authorities at our university gives 400 species out of the 768 given in the latest American list. Some fifty are found only near the west end of the state, while seventy-five are only occasionally seen. The 275 are common. Some of these do not nest, only being noted during migration. A half dozen have lately (November, 1910) been added by John T. Zimmer, namely Rocky mountain pine grosbeak, cassin purple finch, western tree sparrow, pink-sided junco, mountain tree sparrow, western evening grosbeak. The Greenland wheater was seen, but without a specimen cannot be added to our list.

Prof. Wolcott of the university places along the Missouri some 140 forms, not all to be seen at any one part of the season.

A few of these are winter residents, as the redpoll tree sparrow, crossbills. While in spring scores pass in migration, sparrows, ducks, geese, the waders and warblers, terns and gulls, all for nesting in the far north it may be.

In early May, at leaf-opening, the number is largest, when four quick observers going in different directions may note about 100 forms in a day, especially with the waders, as at Capitol Beach, Lincoln. Our state society on its annual trips varies from 80 to 115 when visiting both woodland and water. Migration is better seen along our streams.

To the novice May is a distracting month for study. He is hopelessly confused unless trained in methods of sight and classification. He will do better to begin in winter as varieties are then few, and let his list grow as migration advances.

In the Bird Lore magazine annually a Christmas bird census is published as observed over the country. Two hundred and fifteen observers reported last time.

Winter Birds.

At Omaha such a list would be about as follows:

Of the woodpecker, the hairy, one or two; downy, several; flicker, one; chickadee, forty or fifty; nuthatch, six or eight; brown creeper, two or three; cardinal, two; prairie horned lark, ten to twenty; gold finch, a few; pine siskin, five; red poll, a few; purple finch, a flock; tree sparrow, a small flock or two; junco, fifteen or twenty; a few quail, a robin if north of Florence among the hills. We would seldom see the snowflake, and far less often the evening grosbeak. Both have been rather plentiful this last season, more than for twenty-five years past, especially in eastern United States. All except the first six feed very largely upon seeds, and certainly, are very useful to man.

One's interest kindles upon seeing a flock of prairie horned larks or tree sparrows flit from tuft to tuft and lighting bring each down with its weight to ground or snow and scatter the seed as the weed tips, or snaps back to an erect position. It is a fine thing for the farmer. In 1910 we saw a flock of fifty larks feed thus upon snow. In 1909 a flock of 200 were about, for the horned lark is with us year in and year out. With the thermometer at fifteen degrees below zero one hears his twitter always near the hill top as I did for years near our school for the deaf. And today, with the thermometer at 100 degrees above, I have had his young, not yet able to fly, in my own hand.

The last day of March I stumbled upon a fledgling nearly ready to fly; at Fifty-first and Izard streets, in Dundee. He is all through our state, winter and summer; often flocks of fifty in winter feeding on the south side of a railroad fill. When one is driving across the prairie he often raises before the horse.

At Holdrege, one twilight night, he repeated his soft twitter for twenty minutes by watch, some 300 feet above me, hanging upon a slight breeze; finally, with closed wings, he shot to earth fifty feet away from me. No other bird is both so common and so attractive. I'm sure he is not appreciated.

But the first six winter birds, the chickadee works among the twigs, the downy and hairy woodpecker upon the limbs. The brown creeper begins near the base of the tree, steadying himself with his tail against it. He always works up or down, may be seen indifferently clinging fly-like to the trunk. All six taking off the tree some egg or cocoon. The flicker especially enjoys the ant.

A chick-a-dee, te grown one, often takes a hundred eggs for breakfast - caterpillar eggs. Think what a host of tree pests these fellows dispose of in a season, before nature awakes them to their domestic life.

A beautiful oak tree in the middle of Shirley street east of Hanscom park was cut down in 1898. Its rings showed it to be 125 years old, being born with our nation in 1776. Said Mr. Enos Mills at a lecture here, "The oak has 400 kinds of enemies" - not all insects of course, but at only one a day how many bird visits are necessary to protect that oak?

Value in Nebraska.

How valuable is birdlife to a comparatively tree less state, where our Mr. Morton took for a motto: "Plant Trees" and instituted Arbor day.

In the winter also another form of pest is controlled. Mice, moles and the various ground squirrels become the food of the hawks and owls. Two pairs of marsh hawks in 1910-11, through most of the cold season, covered miles of territory just west of Dundee. Every day toward night, they searched it over flying a few feet above the ground. A farmer near, little understood their value and could not resist a shot. No hawk of these parts is injurious, but quite the contrary. Smaller winter birds may be encouraged about the place, by the hanging of suet, bones or pork rind to some convenient tree. For seed eaters, chaff from the stable or millet seed may be placed upon a conspicuous bare spot or upon a shelf, protected during strong winds and having a rim about the edge. English sparrows avoid a swinging shelf. They may be driven somewhat permanently away by firing roman candles among them late in the evening for a few times. They are often a great nuisance upon lawn and plaza, but will leave if their rest is thus disturbed.

Quail are said to enjoy cowpeas. A farmer who knows their value can well afford a small patch of cowpeas as an attraction. At Elmwood park two years since, a flock of some thirty quail were about. But in the short open season hunters took them all. None have been heard since. They could not have applied the noted hunters rule, "Shoot only for necessary food, or when the professors need a specimen for the museum."

The gun is far to carelessly and commonly used by the uncivilized, who are still among us.

The coming of spring is announced in various ways.

  • "I sig the sogs of soft ad suddy sprig
  • (I sig them thru the nose) a welcob ware,
  • We tedder to her spilig verdal charo,
  • (She deeds the warpth) the robids od th' wig."
  • Soddet od sprig.
  • - Floyd in "Life."

Some shiny day in February the chickadee declares in two clear musical notes heard sometimes a mile away, that he's "Phoebe." But Phoebe never have such a clear whistle, as their's is a reedy pipe, seldom heard before the last of March, the note being repeated with downward inflection. Nor can it be heard afar.

By February 15 on a south wind a robin may fly into town, or come down from the deep valleys north of Florence, often his winter quarters. Numbers of males precede the females by ten days. The "pretty blue bird" is nearly as early, but does not announce her name as above until decidedly warm days.

Both were heard here at Hillaire on March 2, 1911. Soon the cardinal, too, begins his music so largely made up of slides up or down the scale, and the handsome fellow in black and white with broad sides of buff, scratching so vigorously among the old leaves, is the towhee or chewink calling his name. March 24, 1903, March 16, 1906, March 23, 1907, March 25, 1908 are some of my records.

Early Arrivals.

The same week for three successive years has come the fox sparrow, another leaf scratcher. he gets his name from his color. The flicker screams his joy to all within a mile. He saves his soft entreating "fli-icker, fli-icker" for the lady to whom he bows and bows at nesting time. And then off they go for a round about flight of ten minutes without a stop.

In March, also, the Harris sparrow, our largest, face and neck jet black, bill white, is our most tuneful bird. taking the key note he follows exactly his scale, "one-three-five-five-five," slowly and over and over again. he may take two or four below, six or eight above. One can readily believe there's a boy hidden in the thicket.

In the cold or wet one may her a very slow quavering note, a tremolo. it is a bunch of harris sparrows gathered near us early in May at dusk doing a fine slumber song, allowing us to go within thirty feet. By May 10 they have gone north. I was sorry not to show them to Mr. Oldys, the government ornithologist, who had not heard them. He would make good use of Harris in his lecture, "Bird-notes," as given here May 2.

Our twenty or more sparrows follow on through April and May, only five remaining to nest.

The tree sparrow, a winter resident, hurries north in March. At Ewing, Neb., ten years ago, I rose early to find a five-acre weed path filled with them. Such a chattering as those thousands made! With two white wing bars and a rufous cap they were natty, and a single song, quite sweet.

But the song sparrow, "everybody's darling," easily leads the sparrow choir. Not all are equally good, as I recall one heard ten years since ta the Illinois Central bridge that reached my ideal - like those of the fifty's in Vermont.

His song is described as "Doan! Doan! Doan! Put the Kittle on, put the Kittle on." The first three notes are loud and strong, on the same key, and the rest is indescribably intricate. He has a half dozen songs in his repertorie, so is never tiresome.

Two others belong in the choir. One is the "Peabody bird," since his song is interpreted "Old Man Peabody-Peabody-Peabody," often chanted in an April rain, but the notes only carrying a short distance. He has two clear white stripes over his head and a diamond under the chin.

The sparrows are favorites with me, but Peabody is one of the nicest. Our lark sparrow joins the choir.

Warbler Family.

Another choice family of about twenty-five, mostly migrant, showing great variety in color, some very handsome, is the warbler family. Chapman devoted a large fine volume to them, to be seen in our public library. All but one, winter beyond the Gulf of Mexico, and with leaf opening, move forth taking sixty days to cross the United States, their chief business being to take the caterpillars that hatch to eat the leaf.

Preserve the bird and you preserve the tree. Authorities estimate that 5,000 carloads - 19,000,000 bushels of insects are eaten annually in our own state.

These little warblers in greens and yellows and blues, some black and white, mostly named from their color, are doing their share in forest conservation.

A few remain about Omaha for nesting. One would rarely note more than two-thirds the migrants in one season. To recognize a rarer species for the first time is as exciting as taking the big trout.

The writer had a rich experience in 1900 with the magnolia warbler in the marshy thicket north of Happy Hollow pond. Their songs though not much in themselves aid much in identification. The red-start often lures one on for a rare warbler, which he is not. But he is brilliant in black and orange, Princeton colors are they not?

Our birds of most brilliant plumage are often best known, as the cardinal, now quite common along the Missouri river. Enforcing the game laws and the Audubon movement has given him a chance.

The scarlet tanager with black wings is much less known, but though slightly smaller, is just as brilliant. His song reminds one of the robin, but has a buzz with it that tells you he's coming, long before you see him. The male indigo bunting is just the deepest blue possible. The cherry of polite birds, who passes food to his neighbor, is most exquisitely finished in bronze, with a yellow band across the tail.

Very Polite Birds.

Our family once witnessed this polite act. Berries of mountain ash were the food and two passed them forward and back several times before final disposal. Dr. Forbush of Massachusetts would say their crops were overfull, leaving no room for the last berry.

Birds are gourmands. A young robin eats more than his weight daily. The golden robin (Baltimore oriole) also in orange and black, the colors of Lord Baltimore, is a beautiful fellow and has a rich voice and never hesitates to use it. The Bullock's oriole, as ween at Ives, Neb., ten years ago, is much handsomer. They both have another accomplishment. They are fine weavers, being of the same family as the famous eastern tailor bird. Their nest hangs like a bag from almost terminal twigs. They often use twine hung out for them. Wilson found a grass stem thirteen inches long put back and forth thirty-four times in weaving the nest.

Of fine singers we have plenty. I have told you of Harris sparrow. The mocking bird very rarely nests here. I studied one for a week five years ago and couldn't feel certain of him until one day he hopped to a shrub and just "showed" me in a fine song, as no other bird could do, but he did not stay.

At Alma in an hour I noted the songs of twenty-two other birds in his song.

The wood thrush is superior not only in the flute-like quality of his tones, but because of a certain demeanor, a pause between his measures that denotes dignity and quality. Bryant has celebrated the "wood thrush piping one mellow discant more."

The brown thrasher, that so frequently flits from the country road at your approach, when seated at the highest tree top entertains well with a strong, varied, yet agreeable repertoire and is somewhat of a mocker also. The cat bird has a similar song, but more rapid, even ecstatic. His best is given early in the morning.

Superior in quality and power to any other song known even the world over is that of our western meadow lark - sturnella neglecta. East of the Mississippi river his place is taken by the magna, whose song is not in the same class. Audubon, Sprague, Harris and Bell in coming up the Missouri river in 1843 expressed surprise at his ability. Coues in his great work quotes and agrees with them. His superiority consists largely in the rich flute like quality but partly in its vigor and expression.

Within four walls his notes would be piercing; outside they are often heard a mile, but are rich and musical. he has a half dozen or more sentences. One may be sung for awhile with long pauses and another taken up. This season one at Fifty-second and Hamilton streets shows great skill when singing sotto voce - rehearsing likely - as a clarinet player might do.

Mr. Oldys wrote out some of these as he heard them for the first time. mr. matthews in his book on bird-songs gives some of them.

With pitchpipe to get the key and his watch for rapidity he had them almost exactly. This was proven in his lecture.

"We in the east have the hermit thrush, but with your western meadow lark you do not need him" he said. His is an early arrival. March 11 is the date for 1911. Thus we get months of his world famed song.

How He Started.

When in my youth a lady mentioned the ability of her husband to know by the call most of the common birds, it seemed a wonderful accomplishment. We recognize human friends even when the voice is minimized over the phone. After twenty-five years with these friends the voice becomes the usual means of recognition.

How to Know Them.

Make a list of those you know and add to it. In 1886, after noting flowers, trees and shrubs in a country doctor's drive (of the latter two, a hundred varieties), I simply said: "I will study birds." With the constant varying of road and stream and foliage in Massachusetts bird life is prominent. hearing a song next day on a familiar drive, I labeled it a robin. But, no, "It's too rapid and like a whistle." Approaching cautiously, "Head and above, black, some white, underneath white, but on breast large rose path; bill, long and white." A stranger. Williams' little pamphlet named him from these marks the rose-breasted grosbeak, sure enough.

A day or two later a bird note seemed "different." It focuses upon a small, greenish-yellow fellow with a strange, large black patch covering either cheek and the face between. His song had the rhythm of the spoken word, "Maryland," and Maryland yellow throat was his name, a warbler that remains to nest with us. Just this way my list slowly grew. The list of helps, bird lovers' book, has grown much with the movement for bird protection. Our public library has a good number.

A plain opera glass brings the bird half way toward you and saves much time. If one merely chooses a quiet spot and waits he is often surprised at his successes. One cannot hasten in making birds or children your friends.

How to Look at Them.

The Audubon magazine was published as the organ of the movement by the Forest and Stream company. In April, 1888, Florence A. Merriam, (now noted) wrote "Fifty Common Birds and How to Know Them." Her books, with like title, was in our library. She told of orchard, field, meadow and woods and which birds inhabited each. Size, compared with robin, came next. Colors, giving six or eight classes, as blue back, yellow breast or throat, red head, etc. Songs, flight, marked habits, whether walkers when on ground, shape of bill, place of nest, as ground, tree, in holes, about homes, in bushes, low trees; lastly birds that flock when not nesting.

When to Study.

Morning is the active part of the birdday. Their song is more frequent than and they allow a much nearer approach. The climax may be at sunrise, but in warm weather the king bird, robin and dickcissel begin by 4 a.m., others following directly. In May activity keeps up well into the day, especially if cool or cloudy. To note fifty varieties by 9 or 10 in the morning would be good work. To have fixed upon one new bird makes a morning a success.

When studying a bird as unknown note his size, general color and any special marks. Get color of head, look for wing bars of white. Note the bill and method of flight. Fix in mind by tone or rhythm his song. It is often well to write these points down till you get to your book.

Where to Tramp.

Go along our boulevards or in any city park.

Even from Farnam street to Leavenworth was once fine along the boulevard to Hanscom park.

Riverview is excellent and may be extended indefinitely south to Child's Point, which in itself is most excellent and worthy of careful preservation as the best single point in out state for nature study.

The greatest clown of all birdlife - the yellow breasted chat - abounds here, but then about all the smaller birds are here also. The East Omaha region was formerly better than now. Much timber has been removed. For waders in the average state of moisture Florence lake is about our best point in the vicinity of Omaha.

Forest Lawn is good ground. ALong the bluffs north of Florence to Pries lake in early May affords forest for the study of warblers.

Books for beginners are plentiful for occasional use in our public library.

Reed's Bird Guides can readily be carried upon a tramp. His "Land-Birds" is well illustrated in colors. Water birds are in another similar volume. In close study more description is needed. Apgar's work is good, not so well illustrated, but a more extended description.

Everybody will enjoy the study and many enjoy it immensely. It calls out one's faculties. Attention, discrimination and judgment must be at command at once; order and classification or arrangement follow, and there grows up within one an appreciation of life, of character and beauty.

Bird Houses.

Anywhere except "close in" some care may be given to birdlife. An empty starch box with a one inch hole in it may attract the wren family.

Farther out a box of bark pealed from a tree in June with board top and bottom, or six inches square of gray weathered boards and twelve to eighteen inches long with hole inch and a quarter, may attract the blue bird. With hole one and one-half inches wide and box one-third filled with grape-cork or planing shavings, you may get a flicker or red head woodpecker. A shallow pan of water having a broad brim around the pan or shelf, all standing upon a post three or four feet high, is a delight to birds in hot weather.

A bird house of even a plain brown box, cut into rooms, 8x8 inches, with a broad plaza about, and on a pole fifteen feet high, for years attracted that prettiest of the swallow family - the purple martin - to the rear of Twenty-sixth and Farnam streets, and they were a delight. At the rear of our city hill are some of them yearly, and at our school for the deaf. While they come rarely to our boxes at Hillaire they have not yet nested.

The barn swallow with the real swallow tail prefers the inside of barn or shed; the eve or cliff swallow the outside or eves. On cliffs south of Oshkosh, Neb., on the North Platte river, the writer saw hundreds of clay bottle-like nests, homes of real cliff-dwellers, plastered upon the nearly perpendicular cliff up a hundred feet or so. Reddish brown is a prominent color about the neck. (The bank swallow is he that skims our rivers and ponds for insects.) Each bottle is made of lumps of clay built over and out from the nest, which is entered through the projecting neck of the bottle.

On many a long drive in our state a "bird list" has been my entertainment, penciled upon a card. With date and location it forms a memento.

My first sight of a cardinal was while awaiting a train at Humboldt; of the Arkansas king bird, at McCook; of bobolink, along the railway from Norfolk to Verdigree; the beautiful bullock oriole, at Ives; the butcher bird hanging his meat, at Benkleman; the night heronry (I missed) at Wayne; the thousands of tree sparrows, at Ewing; the repeated rising of the lark bunting along the "high line" west from Beatrice as our freight train rumbled slowly along.

The strange dance of three bluejays for twenty minutes was seen by the whole family. They did not leave the limb for a moment, but such screaming and jerking! They surely seemed "out on a lark" and hardly sober.

And the robin story, all were witnesses to it. Molly came down one morning saying that Mrs. Robin might rent one of our maples for the season. She had been inspecting all three. Sure enough, in a few days the mud and grass began to accumulate and in due time the nest was done. All went well until one morning Mrs. Towne noticed that Mrs. Robin could only hop up a foot or so from the ground, while a little earlier she had been flying. Down in the timber were two boys, one with a slingshot. This seemed to explain the cause of the drooping of one wing of Mrs. Robin. Placing a small ladder against the tree one nestling, clothed in fuzz only, was found. A touch upon the side of the nest, up came a head, above a long neck, and displaying a large white-rimmed cavity. We tried worms till be tired and still the head bobbed up. In another nest upon the ground the mother bird passed him unnoticed. We put him back in the tree nest. The father sang so sweetly but hunted no worms. He seemed able to do the one thing. But a storm with hail aroused his paternal nature and he spread himself over the nest, taking the ice and water with never a move. He met such an emergency. By night Mrs. Robin took the worm by hops up the ladder and fed the nestling. This she continued for a week, when she could fly to a plaza roof and then to the nest. The nestling matured, but no robin built in our trees next year, nor the next.