Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Anonymous [?Sandy Griswold]. April 12, 1891. Omaha Sunday Bee 20(293): 10.

Omaha's Feathered Opera.

Chat About the Birds that Will Make Life Brighter Very Soon.

Members of the Woodland Choir.

Thrush and Lark, Blue Bird and Jay Bird, Robin and Brown Thrasher, Woodpecker and Humming Bird and Their Kind.

  • "The first bird of spring
  • "Attempted to sing,
  • "But ere he had sounded a note
  • "He fell from the limb-
  • "A dead bird was him;
  • "The music had froze in his throat."

In this laconic and ungrammatical manner did an irreverent writer once depict the fate of the songster ambitious to usher in the spring season without first obtaining permission from the weather clerk. If any such attempt has been made in Omaha during this year of grace, 1891, the rash warbler has paid for his temerity with his life. Nature has thus far held out but slight inducements to the dwellers in air to come forth from their cosy winter quarters and hunt out a summer abiding place and feeding ground.

Yet there is a promise in the swelling of the buds and the future is big with hope. Not far distant is the time when the avenues and byways of this city will be arched with green, and every lawn of the city's many will stand verdure crowned, an urgent invitation to the feathered virtuosi to hold forth daily in oratoric and concert. Then will the rising and going down of the sun be greeted with glad bursts of symphonious sweetness; peerless cantatas will make pleasant the morning hours, ushered in with musical matins, and the evening will close with delicious vesper songs. Omaha's people will bless these little birds, whose voluntary efforts make so pleasant the opening and closing of the day. Hopping from twig to twig, fluttering from tree to tree, twittering and chattering, noisy with their nest building, busily discussing family plans and prospects, these companions of the spring are welcome everywhere by everybody.

Nebraska, unfortunately, does not offer extra inducements to the songsters of the feathered tribes. And, by the way, "feathered" is used advisedly since it is by the feather alone that the bird is absolutely distinguished. This has been the mark of the bird since the earliest time, from the fossil archeopteryx to the present; and nature has not been able to improve upon this admirable combination of strength, durability and firmness since the Jurassic. In the ostrich the feather approaches the hair, and in the penguin it resembles the scale, but in each it is distinctly a feather. Thus to call the birds "feathered" is to mark them especially as birds. Lack of forest area, which will breed insects and worms, is in the main responsible for the absence of a great variety of singing birds from Nebraska, since the insects, worms, etc., form the chief food of the sweetest songsters, and it is in the solitude and shade of the leafy glades that the winged maestro loves to pour forth his melody. The commoner migratory songbirds are well represented here.

One of the first looked for in the spring is the robin. He is numerous, or rather the members of the great ornithological division to which he belongs are numerous around Omaha. Robin Redbreast is met on every hand where the trees afford him shelter and rest. His simple, sweet song is poured forth without stint, and his general good conduct has rendered him a prime favorite.

Not so with his cousin, the blackbird. His cheery whistle makes him many friends, but he is such an arrant knave in many respects that he is not so popular as one could wish. Another cousin of the robin in this section is the thrush. Occasionally his beautiful notes are heard, thrilling the ear with a flood of inimitable, indescribable melody, not infrequently answered from another part of the wood by a mate or a friend. The thrush is one of the sweetest voiced members of the woodland choir. During a rain its notes, low and sweet, are often heard coming from beneath the shelter of a crag or limb. A more familiar member of this family is the bright little blue bird, which, though not a brilliant vocalist, is still pleasant to look upon.

Everybody knows the whistle of the jay bird. A pugnacious, cruel bird he is. Omnivorous, he prefers eggs or the young of other birds, and is a confirmed, professional nest-robber. He is very familiar in habits, and loves the companionship of man. One lady tells of a jaybird which lived in a box-elder tree in her yard three years, hiding under the eaves of the house during the violent storms of winter. Every morning he would hop down to her window and whistle until he was fed. Then he would shrilly chirp his thanks. During the summer he proved a vigilant guardian of the cherry trees. While he would gormandize himself, he would not allow another bird on the premises. This family is widely distributed. It has other representatives in American but none in Nebraska.

No one looking at the handsome, timid meadow lark, would suspect him of having "halaspidean tarsi, technically making his scutelliplantur." Such is the case, however, and this very fact gives systematists much trouble in assigning the lark to a niche in the ornithological temple. It doesn't count against him in every day life, however, and his sharp, clear whistle is just as glad as though no one knew anything about his tarsus or his acutes. Just around Omaha the lark is indeed a rare avis, but out a little way, where the meadows lie, one can hear him in the morning. It is an inspiring sight to see this neatly dressed, thoroughly well behaved and dignified individual, the meadow lark, draw himself up, as if conscious of his action, and then almost without effort let sound his short, clear, sweet whistle, nearly a reproduction of Bob White's call, but more musical. Then he looks around timidly, gets the effect of his effort and repeats it. His friends join him and a wild but wholly harmonious fugue is the result. Rarely, yet once in a while, the wonderful melody of the skylark is heard this far west. When this all but peerless songster visits this region, or for that matter, America, it is only in the character of a tramp—a straggler from the great column moving from the Bermudas to Greenland. In Europe he is common, and is then looked on as the harbinger of spring. His matutinal song has been described in times beyond number by poets.

Saucy pertness personified on the little wrens who wrangle and scold and storm about the crumbs from the kitchen, or the shreds from the dooryard. Their song is not much to speak of, but their naivete is charming and their many antics delightful. The wren is "an amoosin' little cuss," indeed. Once in a house a pair of trousers hung unused near a window with a broken pane. Through this window came Mr. and Mrs. Wren. In a pocket of the unused trousers they established their household and reared their family, not only undisturbed, but apparently entertained by the doings of the featherless bipeds who occupied space under the same roof. A cousin of the wren, a tame little rascal, is the brown thrasher. His nest is built on a low bush, is well known to every schoolboy, and his single little song is quite sufficient apology for his modest demands upon society.

Humming birds are often seen but seldom heard in Omaha. The reason is the species—there are 400 species contained in 120 genera found solely in the new world—peculiar to Nebraska has no song save a shrill twit. Sometimes the ruby throated humming bird from the east journeys westward to visit his relatives of the plains. On such occasions he pays for his entertainment in songs as delicious as his dress is gorgeous. But those that do not sing delight the eyes and daze the mind with wonderful circles and darts in flight, feats no other bird can accomplish. This mite of life has a power of controlling flight almost beyond explanation or comprehension. He belongs to the swift family. In another land—Borneo—the nests of his uncles, the swifts, are torn from the darkness of caverns and sold to Chinese to go into soup. In this country the chimney-swift (often erroneously called swallows) is well known. He may be seen any evening in literal swarms, circling about the unused chimney in which he makes his house.

An ancient but scarcely honorable member of the bird family well known in these parts, is the woodpecker, he of the bright red head, black back and white breast. In the timber soon his hard beak will be busy rapping out his love song—his whirring, monotonous drumming on the dry branch of a dead tree being his method of telling the world he's hunting for a mate. His hard-tipped tongue deals death to many a hapless bug and worm. One thing is strongly in his favor. He shares the responsibilities of house with his wife—whose head is not red—and takes his turn at keeping the eggs warm and rustling bugs for the little peckers. His first cousin, the flicker, and his second cousin, the sap sucker, are well known. The latter is a graceless scamp, in whose favor nothing is known. In all 350 species of woodpecker are known, their wide distribution proving their antiquity.

Remarkable for its fish eating habits and its solitude is the kingfisher. It loves a quiet, secluded haunt along a still brook, lake or pond or a sluggish stream with high, precipitous banks. He may be seen sometimes along the Nebraska tributaries of the Missouri. He is a pretty bird to look at, but very shy, and an ill bird indeed, for he fouls his nest and handsome eggs. Yet we hear of "halcyon days," from the old superstition that used the kingfisher as a barometer and weather vane, a superstition now deader than the kingfisher before being put to that use.

About the only night bird who attempts music in Nebraska is the whippoorwill, and his weirdly plaintive, almost unearthly, notes are not heard frequently enough to render them familiar. Where he is known will he is feared as a bird of ill omen. Never a negro would fire a gun nor an Indian loose an arrow at a whippoorwill. He is a cousin of the much maligned goat-sucker, and like the latter is found among herds at night, where he destroys myriads of insects that would torment the cattle he is accused of preying upon. After him comes the owl, very well known in Nebraska.

Of the cucoo the least said the better. The odium attached to his name is deserved. The most enthusiastic naturalist contents himself with merely dispelling the pure fiction that surrounds this member of the tribe, and leaves him damned beneath a ponderous burden of actual sins of omission and commission.

Bob White is well known, and so is the prairie chicken, the sage hen and the ruffed and pinnated grouse. Their chief use to man is to grace his table and tickle his palate.

Robin, thrush, blue bird, brown thrasher, wren, jay bird, black bird, woodpecker, each pays well for the cherries he steals in the destruction of swarms of insects and worms. Many a sermon has been preached on this, yet there are people who grumble about the fruit and the grain the birds destroy. If the birds should go on a strike for a season these grumbler would gladly call them back.

Like the fly, the English sparrow has a place in nature's economy, but it takes a deeply scientific mind to discover it. These quarrelsome, noisy, wholly disagreeable immigrants could well be spared. Their ceaseless bickerings on crowded streets often become almost unbearable, and their impertinent presence everywhere is offensive. In Omaha they serve no good purpose whatever, unless it be to clear away the millions of bugs nightly destroyed by the electric lights on the streets. Any summer morning a flock of these rusty-coated scalawags may be found underneath a street lamp gormandizing and chattering, as much as to say it was but just the council should provide means for their easy sustenance. It takes much charity to tolerate the English sparrow.

To the boys: When you climb a tree this summer and look into a nest containing four blue eggs, black speckled, or five brown ones, or in fact any sort of a nest, don't touch it. You might destroy a useful member of next summer's bird choir.