July 24, 1904. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 39(298): 18. Includes a drawing.
Passing of Our Prairie's Greatest Charm, the Prairie Chicken
By S.G.V. Griswold
Indisputably, of all the game birds yet fairly plentiful within the borders of Nebraska slated for an early doom, the prairie chicken comes first. While the chicken have been on a gradual down-grade for the past seventeen years, their descent from this on will be rapid, and those who prize this royal bird above all others can count upon the fingers of one hand the seasons that yet remain for them to enjoy its pursuit. The reason for this is plain and undeniable. The tremendous influx of homeseekers in the wild districts still adaptable to its thrift will shortly prove its almost absolute extirpation.
The pinnated grouse—our prairie chicken—is necessarily and distinctively a wild bird and can only survive amidst its wild concomitants, the untrammeled oceans of wild prairie and uninhabited sandhills. In this he widely differs from the quail, which is a semi-domestic creature and thrives best within the domain of the agriculturalist and rancher. Bob White loves our wheat and cornfields, our artificial groves and fair pasture and meadow lands, and the sight of man and beast are unterrifying to him. But the chicken does not. He is only at home in the primitive haunts of our boundless plains and untenanted hills and lowlands where man seldom treads and where the cheery hurly-burly of the farmers' life disturbs not his beloved solitude. To be sure there are still some chicken left in the older states of Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, where he finds a haven on the broadest fields and in the leaven of wild woodland which still maintains in the most isolated sections. But he has been going, going these many years until today he is almost gone, a fable and a story, a rare avis even in the most likely spots and niches, and in a few more years will be known no more forever. And thus it will be in Nebraska, but his facilities are so much more numerous here, where, in the sterile and untillable districts which abound within the wild sandhill country and upon the limitless interlying grazing grounds, that he will be able to linger in at least sparse numbers for a good many years to come, not as a game bird inviting the quest, but as an untamed remnant of a once mighty race, like the sandhill and whooping crane, the goldeneye duck, the curlew, golden plover, antelope and coyote.
Our children's children may yet hear the melody of the turtle dove's wings as he whirls up from the dusty highway and darts off over stubble or pasture land for the nearby cottonwood grove; over the flowing wheat field or waving corn, catch the flute-like call of the Bob White, and on the moist and oozy swails see the russet and white of the jacksnipe zigzagging to better cover, but few shall see the mottled form of the prairie chicken, save as rarest specimens in the naturalist's case.
Sad, indeed, to the sportsman's heart, is the contemplation, for the prairie chicken has ever been a most highly prized and beloved member of our feather game. No bird ever lent a greater entrancement to Nebraska's boundless plains and straggling mottes of timber than he. He has been more to them than crane or curlew to the sunny vales and hillsides; more than the mallard and the widgeon to lake or marshy places; more than the jack of the soggy lowlands; more than the yellowleg to the sprawling river shores; more than the wild goose to the sandy bars; more than the plover to the interminable grass lands or the kill deer and willet to the moist and sedgy reaches; more than the woodcock to the tangled brake; more in truth than all the quacking hordes and piping myriads to all its woods and waters and endless fields. Without the chicken the prairies will lose its greatest charm. With the buffalo a memory, the antelope and coyote as good as gone; the crane's flapping flight marking the upper dome no longer; the "auh-unk" of the Canada goose a ghostly sound and the "kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk" of the chicken forever hushed the old tramping ground will seem dismal and forbidding, indeed.
No call ever awakened more tender emotions in the bosom of the sportsman than the "boom-moom, moom-moom," swelling from the distant upland where the soft blue and white of the three-lobe leafed anemone beams beside the melting and soggy snowbank in the cottonwood arbor, or the clatonia and inflorescent spirals of the wild clematis light the darkness of the fire swept prairie. No bird has so thrilled the young gunner as the full grown chicken roaring out of the tall yellowing grass at his very feet, of caused him such prodigious amazement, when in sublime confidence he pulled the trigger. And when the last of the canvasbacks, the redheads and the merganzers have departed from the ice-fettered slough, the shrill shriek of the sickle-bill and the plaintive tinkle of the plover but a vague echo, the black birds no longer specking the hardy willows with their red-splotched ebony coats, the incessant twitter of the chipping sparrows stilled, and the dotted harrow of the geese has faded in the southern sky, then the chicken, with that slinking little four-footed nomad, the frowsy coyote, is about the only companion left to the dweller on the prairie. Whether sweeping in tremendous "packs" across the wide desolated stretches, now on fully-extended sailing wings, now with choppy stroke and wavering course, or on frosty mornings sitting sociably upon the whitened hay stacks, or in more frigid weather studding the naked branches of the cottonwoods on the creek's shore, this bird is ever the one bit of exhilarating life of the great Nebraskan solitude.
Many of our gunners have only seen the prairie chicken under unfavorable circumstances, especially the younger crop of knights of the hammerless, where our now almost measureless cornfields and luxuriant slough grass make their pursuit more difficult and laborious, when the weather is at the dog-day climateric and no shade in sight save that of the prickly sunflower and sticky rag and rosin weed. Many of them have only hunted them when the chicks were but half grown, and were poor flyers, weak and flabby and caricatures on the fully matured and gallant old bird. But in late September or early October when only the expert can distinguish the young from the old birds, a hunt upon the breezy prairie up along the high grounds where the Niobrara tears its way with rollicking song through the rock and soil; or east of Bancroft, on the agency, or out on the billowy seas of grass and flowers and weeds below Bassett, where comfortable driving with a wagon stretched about you in all directions for miles and leagues and little suffering was to be endured from the burning sun, is a vastly different proposition, and one that I have enjoyed many, many times in the sweet years that have gone in the hallowed companionship of the doctor, the lawyer, the railroad and the waterworks man. Do you not recall those days. Doc, now, once in a while, in the idle moments in your far-away Honolulu home? and you, Scrib, too, out in the Sierra Nevadas? and Stocky, and Bill, and George and Tom?
Ah's me, those golden days. I wonder will their like e'er dawn again?
Here we are at the head of those long draws, at the ridge's top, looking down over the gentle undulations of soaring grass in where the wild torrent roars on its way.
"Ah! Old Spot smells them!" is the cry, as the blue belton rises in the wagon and begins to snuff the breeze with up-turned muzzle, while his feathery tails sways with cautious motion.
The driver, in obedience to a low command, pulls up and Spot leaps out.
He pauses a second, peers searchingly around, then points his nose ahead and goes off on a slow gallop and into the draw and on down to where it melts into the flat prairie. Suddenly wheeling half about, the old setter halts a moment, and then again starts through the grass. We all jump hurriedly from the wagon, and Don, the pointer—really too lazy to get up a quick interest in the situation—looks up at us inquiringly and "hied on," canters off in Old Spot's wake, looking as wise as anybody.
Where the lobed corolla, in white and yellow and red, of the flower of the lily-clan king—the gentian—nods over the yellowing grass blades, the dogs crouch low and belly their way, coming to a halt where the agglutinative rosin weed and bunch grass intermingle in straggling tufts, and the golden moccasin carpets the surroundings. Both setter and pointer glance furtively around to see if we are coming, and then on they crawl down the quiet slope into the long grass of the prairie, where the fringed corona of the silene and the pale lips of the snap-dragon kiss amidst the shadowing stalks of swaying sunflower and dust-laden ragweed, then serpentine their way almost out of sight. But we are there, with swelling hearts, close behind. Over another gradual acclivity the dogs crawl with slower motion, on down and into the tender blue of the wild flax which stretches away to a small clump of box alders, where the dogs stop as if at fault.
We see neither sign nor heard sound of the chicken. The strident squawk of a jay, as his azure finery flashes athwart the emerald of the whispering trees, and the distant cawing of a querulous crow, where the only noises that struck the hearing.
Old Spot, with another solicitous glance back into his master's eager face, licks his chops as if satisfied, and moves slowly on around the timber's edge, with his nose up in the odorous breeze, and the chalk of his eyes showing beneath the strain.
He has stopped as rigid as death, with set tail and lifted paw. Behind him a pace or two stands Don, showing by wild eye and dilated nostril, that he, too, smells that precious taint.
By tacit consent we step up to the dogs, and "woo-woo-woo-woo-o-oo-o!" explodes a storm and whirl of mottled gray and white from the matted tangle of tall grass and twining clematis almost from under our hobnailed shoes.
Bang! goes a gun, and bang goes another, and then another. A single bird jumps into the hazy air, and then another, a trifle smaller than the score that preceded it, but with beat of wing fully as strong, breaks cover from beneath Spot's nose, and the doctor knocks down the first and I the second, but before they have fairly hit the ground another pair with that thrilling "kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk!" are under way, and we give them our second barrels, and amidst a cloud of feathers they whirl to the grass, when off to the right, well under the shade of the cottonwoods, still another pair bursts rocket-like into the air; one sank at the crack of somebody's gun, but the other, which was recognized as the old mother of the brood, went sailing away, over the slope unshot at.
And there stood old Spot and Don as motionless as ever. Tried and true, all this racket had not phased them. That mysterious power of scent told them that even yet all the birds had not left the spangled coverts in front of them.
One of the men began to thrash around in the grass with his foot, when out catapulted another chicken, mounting the sunlight in a curve of whizzing gray, swerving into an opening in the grove, and on out at the other side, off up the draw, settling again in the grass near the spot where the dogs had first caught the fatal fragrance in the air that betrayed the presence of the birds.
That is a story of the days that are gone.
We are in the wagon again and off, but shortly the driver pulls up as if for a long stay, and glancing up into the cloudless sky, we see by the sun that dinner time has long passed. We are under the shade of an old gnarled cottonwood—trust the driver to find such a spot—on the shores of the river where the pinkish whiff of the lynx-ear smiles beside the mellow purple of the sabbatic and the autumned air is redolent of basil and thyme. Here we all get out and spread our luncheon. Ham sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, canned tongue and salmon, pickles, olives and salad, and are soon at work to the wash of the waters far down the rift where the savage Niobrara rends it way and the soothing soughing of the October winds through the ragged branches above and the music of our own hilarious voices.