Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

July 17, 1898. [Season's Outlook for the Prairie Chicken.] Omaha Sunday World-Herald 33(290): 24.

Forest, Field and Stream.

The present season has been a wondrously good one for the prairie chicken crop throughout the state of Nebraska, as it has been for almost everything else. The past winter, too, was just of the right sort of texture to presage good things for the year, and the early spring and summer could not have been more auspicious for the birds in their work of breeding nidification. And the favorable reign continues, for since the little chicks were hatched there has been no storms of a general character to retard their progress and kill them off. There was a large number of old birds left over from last year and I have been in receipt of numerous reports from various parts of the state indicating that there is going to be an unusual crop of birds this fall. When I say unusual, I mean unusual for the last half decade, and while I am reliably assured that chickens are going to be more than ordinarily plentiful this autumn, I do not think they are going to be restored to our broad prairies in anything like their abundance in former years. Neither do I think that the increase is going to be continued for I know that is impossible, for I think I am thoroughly acquainted with the condition of things, which is such as to absolutely prohibit any but temporary thrift on the part of these royal game birds. The "prairie chicken," or properly pinnated grouse, is a bird that increases with the first stage of civilization, pauses at the second and fades forever with the third.

In spite of the fact that the law does not permit the shooting of these birds until September 1, it is a lamentable fact that the killing commences all over the state as early as the middle of the present month, and it has usually been the case that by the time the open season has arrived there are but few birds left within easy reach of any of the little country cities and towns, and the sportsman who respects the statutes must either be content with the shabbiest kind of sport or go to great expense and hundreds of miles off to get any that is any better. It is gratifying to learn, however, that these pot-hunting miscreants will not enjoy the carte blanche in roaming over our stubbles, prairies and hillsides and indiscriminately exterminating the birds this fall, that has been their lot heretofore. The farmers-and there are many true sportsmen among them-are up in arms and intend to enforce the law this year to the limit, and the market hunting vandals herein have their warning. When the lawful season rolls round there will be ample opportunity for indulgence in the sport.

The prairie chicken!

Surely no bird ever lent a greater entrancement to its surroundings than does the grouse to our prairies, our sandhills, broad valleys and sunflower fields. He has been to these more than the quail to the corn field and frosty stubble, or the jack snipe to the oozy marshland. Without him the prairie loses half its charm—in fact, becomes a dreary and lifeless expanse. No sound ever stirred more thrilling sensations within the sportsman's bosom than that far-reaching, booming crow of an old cock, swelling from the distant cottonwood grove before the faint azure of the liverwort beams beside the fading snow bank in the timbered gullies, or the sweet clatonia lights the blackened trail of the burnt prairie. No bird has so startled the inexperienced sportsman as the full grown chicken bursts from the tall grass almost at his feet, or occasioned him so much infinite astonishment when in absolutely certainty he pulled the trigger. When the mallards and the widgeon have departed from the frozen slough, the quail gone to the matted creek beds, the meadow lark's golden shield no longer illuminates the plain and the honk, ahonk of the wild goose has died away in the south, then the chicken is about the only companion left the dweller on the prairie. Whether sweeping in immense swarms across the plain, now on sailing pinion, now with wavering stroke of wing, or on cold mornings sitting quietly on the fence, or in more frigid weather studding the bare branches of the timber, the chicken is ever the brightest light light of the great solitude. As I have often remarked in the few past years our grandchildren may yet hear the whir of the quail's wing as he whirls up from grass or brushwood, or over the bleak spring waste hear the sounding trumpet of the Canada, and in the boggy marsh see the russet and rosewood of the zigzagging snipe, but few shall see the prairie chicken, except in zoological garden or taxidermist's case.

Many have seen the chicken only where the immense corn fields or the long slough grass of the measureless prairie makes the shooting exceedingly laborious, where the weather is swelteringly hot, with no shade greater than that of the agglutinative rosin-weed. Many have hunted them only when the young were too small. But in September when the chicks can hardly be told from the parent birds a hunt within the breezy sandhills and open table lands of the upper Niobrara, where there are small parks of cottonwood and motes of plum and crab, but open enough for comfortable driving with a wagon, yet with plenty of shade within easy reach, is something widely different, and which I have so many times enjoyed in the genial companionship of the doctor, the lawyer, the railroad and the water works man.

Here we are at the head of one of those long draws, in the ridge's top, looking on down over the waves of grass and flowers to where the wild Niobrara tears its way through rock and soil.

"He's got their wind," exclaimed Stocky as Old Spot—now in dog heaven—rose in the wagon and began to snuff the breeze with upheld nose, while his feathery tail swayed with gentle motion.

The driver pulled up and Old Spot leaped out. He paused a second, peers searchingly ahead, then goes off on a slow gallop into the draw and on down to where it melts with the flat prairie. Suddenly wheeling half about, the old Belton stops a moment, and then again starts through the grass. We jump quickly from the wagon, and Don, Scrib's pointer, canters off in Old Spot's wake and looks just as wise.

Where the lobed corolla, in white and yellow and red, of the flower of the Illyrian king—the gentian—nods over the yellowing grass blades, the dogs crouched low and bellied their way, coming to a halt where the rosin-weed and bunch grass intermingled in straggling tufts, and the golden moccasin flower carpeted the surroundings. Both dogs furtively glanced round to see if we were coming, then on they crawled down the quiet slope into the long grass of the prairie where the fringed corona of the silene and the whitish lips of the snap-dragon kiss amidst the shadowing stalks of swaying sunflowers, they serpented their way almost out of sight. But we were close behind. Over another swelling rise the dogs crawled with slower motion, on down and in the tender blue of the wild flax which stretched away to a small clump of cottonwoods, where the dogs stopped as if at fault. But we saw neither sign or heard the sound of chicken. The strident squawk of a jay, as his blue finery flashed athwart the green of the whispering trees, and the distant cawing of some querulous crow, was all we heard. Old Spot, with another glance back into Stocky's face, licked his chops as if satisfied and moved slowly on around the timber's corner, with his nose up in the wind, and the whites of his eyes showing beneath the strain.

There! He has stopped as rigid as death, with set tail and upraised foreleg. Behind him a few paces stands Don, showing by wild eyes and dilated nostril, that he, too, smells the game.

We are in front of the dogs, when woo-woo-woo-woo! springs a whirl of mottled gray from a matted tangle of long grass almost at our feet. Bang! Goes Stocky's gun and bang! Goes Scrib's. Then another bird and then another, a trifle smaller than the first, but with beat of wing fully as strong, broke cover from beneath Spot's nose, and the doctor and I knock them down. This had hardly been done when with that cluck-cluck-kuk-kuk another pair that were under way, and both Stocky and Scrib let them have it and amid a cloud of feathers they let go, when off to our right, well under the shadow of the cotton woods, still another pair burst upon the air; one sank at the crack of the doctor's gun, but the other, which was recognized as the old mother of the covey, went sailing away over the slope unshot at.

And there stood Spot and Don as motionless as ever. The racket had not phased them. That mysterious power of scent told them that even yet all the birds had not left the spangled covert in front of them.

Stocky began to thresh with one foot around in the grass, when out shot another chicken, mounting the sunlight in a curve of whizzing gray, it swerved into the opening in the grove, on out at the other side, and off up the draw, settling again in the grass near the spot where the dogs had first caught the tainted air that told them game was near.

But you, many of you, have been there before.

Here the driver pulls up again. It is after 1 o'clock. We are in the shade of an old gnarled cottonwood-Ajax of the prairie—on the shores of the river, where the white of the lynx-ear smiles beside the soft purple of the sabbatia and the summer air is redolent of basil and thyme. Here we spread our luncheon. Krug's cabinet ham sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, canned tongue and salmon, pickles and pepper sauce, and fall too, to the wash of the waters for down the Niobrara's startling rift, the soughing of the summer winds through the ragged branches above, and the hilarity of our own musical voices.

Sandy Griswold.