Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. October 4, 1891. Omaha Sunday Bee 21(108): 13.

Sports of Indian Summer.

The Quack of the Mallard Making Music in the Marsh.

The sportsman's harvest has begun. Every owner of dog and gun is in a fever of impatience, and from morn till night the whole country will soon respond with their uproar. From stubble field to hazel patch, and from hazel patch to wood, and back again, will come the reverberation of burning powder, and visions of quail on toast will fill many a banquet hall; from end to end and border to border, the marshy expanse will vibrate with discharge and echo, and nowhere within its reedy confines can teal or mallard, canvasback, redhead or widgeon find place or rest for for his webbed feet. Even the poor bittern and herons, harmless and worthless, flap affrightedly to and fro from one unsafe retreat to another in unceasing jeopardy at the hands of veteran and tyro who can cover their slow and awkward flight.

Very few places have as many attractions for one fond of hunting as Nebraska. For those who love to tell of exploits of prowess with shotgun or rifle, whose ambition is to shine as crack shots and skillful hunters, this state offers advantages almost unsurpassed. Between Omaha and the sand-hills of Box Butte county and the Niobrara and Republican valleys, one may find every species of choice game, from the antelope to the fox squirrel, and the Canada goose to the tiny reed bird.

It is true there are no elephants in Nebraska, and neither rhinoceros, lion or tiger, but if one yearns for danger and can find no sport in hunting unless the risk is great, he can, at little expense or trouble, run over amidst the gloomy mountains of Colorado or Wyoming, and they will probably find the festive grizzly or cinnamon sufficiently entertaining. An ordinary wildcat, and they are plentiful in the timber lands along the river bottoms, is a pleasant little creature, and a big gray wolf has been known to furnish considerable divertissement if not killed at the first shot. The coyote is not as game as an eagle nor as ferocious as his Arctic cousin, but will make a pretty decent sort of a fight when once convinced that speed is a failure and retreat cut off. But it is not of the major game I wish to speak, for as every one knows our rapidly advancing and increasing population is fast pushing all species of this sort over the borders, but in the lesser varieties, particularly of the feathered family, it abounds in wild profusion. The big honking Canada, the wary sandhill, the white, snow and speckled goose, the toothsome canvasback, the whizzing teal, plump and quacking mallard, luscious redhead, bluebill, widgeon, butter ball, merganser, and the despised, but not wholly useless mud hen, are to be found upon every marsh. Prairie chicken and sharp tailed grouse are found in all the foot hills and great valleys; quail are plentiful from the city limits to the line of adjacent states; the Wilson snipe in every fenny or boggy bottom land, plover on the uplands and doves in every stubble, millet field and highway. Robins, meadow larks and flickers are among the humbler game, but a dainty dish of any of them will make a meal fit for a king.

Any one in Omaha who owns a gun or can beg, borrow or steal something that will shoot can have a day's sport at very slight expense. It is true the Judge Dundy's, the Henry Homans' and the John Pettys' have justly complained that they can no longer knock over their buffalo back of the post-office or pot black bear in Jefferson square, but if one wants to kill a deer or an antelope and owns a rifle and knows how to use it, he can do it within twenty-four hours travel, and any one loaded for bear, if they don't care to go to too much trouble and expense, can jump on the motor, run out to Benson and take a shot at a couple of young cinnamons caged out there. As for quail and ducks, they can be found within a short drive from the corner of Fifteenth and Farnam streets, though of course one must go farther afield for anything like real sport.

Though game is not as plentiful in some places as it was a few years ago that is more due to the increase of population and hunters driving it to quieter precincts than to any alarming depletion of the species. Birds and animals soon learn to stay away from a place where they are constantly disturbed.

Generally speaking the state of Nebraska, in the mellow autumn season, is one vast game preserve, and as the game laws are respected to a certain extent, a good day's sport is attainable by any one willing to take the trouble of getting there.

Wild fowl will shortly be the most plentiful game around here, and good shooting can be counted on at any one of the innumerable feeding grounds: Waubuncey, Whiting, Missouri Valley, Sweet Water, Honey creek, Horseshoe, Bancroft, Norfolk, along the Elkhorn or any of the rivers or lakes at farther distances.

Later in the season one can always find ducks early in the morning and late at evening at the Cut-Off marshes, but it is generally hard work. But these, and down the Missouri a few miles, are the nearest places where one can get a few good chances at teal or mallard. Sometimes a good bag can be made in the low lands east of Calhoun. It is an easy trip and worth trying when there is a good flight on. And then, too, good bags are often made at Cut-Off lake. About a half hour before dusk the ducks come in flying both north and south. They fly rather low, but they come so fast that you must hold well ahead, or your chance is gone. There is not much feed here, and, unlike birds in quest of this, they have no object in life except to cover distance and they always seem in a match race, so of course are hard to kill. A blue wing coming down the wind at dusk at the rate of ninety miles an hour requires the eye and nerve of a Parmalee or Kennedy to stop, and yet I have often heard alleged sportsmen declare that wild fowl shooting requires less skill than the slaughter of the straight flying quail. However, there is a popular prejudice, and it is founded on good grounds, against the birds killed in the malodorous region, and in fact most of the ducks killed about Cut-Off do have a fishy flavor.

There is no trace of the finny tribe, however, in the ducks killed on the Whiting or Bartlett marshes. There they get the smart weed, nut grass and best of all, the white roots of the vallisneria spiralis, known to the gunner as wild celery. There is nothing like our common celery about this plant, however, for it is a thin, narrow, grasslike blade always found entwined with its nearest neighbor. It does give, though, to the flesh of birds a delightfully pungent flavor closely akin to table celery. The canvasback and blue are great divers and prefer the roots of the spiralis to any other food, and are always followed about by the redhead, widgeon and mallard, who either capture part of the fruit at the diver's labor or wait and feed on the refuse left, which is found about their "using" places. The commoner ducks that feed on the tops of grass and other vegetation never approach the fine flavor of the ducks mentioned.

Prairie chicken shooting, despite the heavy inroads made upon them by market and pot hunters months before the season opened, is still reported good in most distant sections of the state, and the quail shooting this fall promises better sport than at any time within a period of fifteen years. The birds can be found almost anywhere within a radius of twenty miles, or all over the state, even, in localities suited to their peculiar tastes. There are but few woodcock in Nebraska, and in fact they are a rare bird anywhere; but snipe, their first cousins, and I even deem a choicer bird, that is the Wilson, are to be found in countless numbers in both fall and spring on any of the neighboring low lands. The fall season for the jacks will open up in all its glory before another half month, but as yet few have come into the market.

The Flight of the Wild Duck.

A number of gentlemen interested in shooting were congregated at Cross' gun store last evening discussing the fall season when the conversation turned on the speed of wild ducks, a subject in which the gunners of this city will shortly be intensely interested, and one on which there is some diversity of opinion. John Petty, probably one of the best shots on wild fowl in the west said:

"I have a good deal of experience with wild fowl, but what I am going to tell you I have gathered in the main from others, and it can be relied upon. I can tell you within a fraction about how much space any one of them can get over in an hour. There is not a railroad train that can hold a candle to the slowest duck that flies.

"But the canvasback is the racer of them all, if he lays himself out to his work. When this duck is taking things easy, enjoying a little trip around the block, as it were, he goes through the air at a rate of about eighty miles an hour. If he has business somewhere and has to get there he puts at least two miles behind him every minute and does it easily. If you don't believe this just fire square at the leader in a string of canvasbacks who are out on a business cruise some time. Shot travels pretty fast, and if you happen to hit one of the birds see if it is not the sixth or seventh one back of the drake or leader. A drake does not always lead, but generally does if there is one in the flock; if there are more they seldom take the lead, but a wise old hen will be found there. If you wish to bring her down, you must aim at least eight feet ahead of her, and if she falls, you will find her a long distance off, say several hundred yards.

"The mallard is slower; it is all he can do to make a mile a minute, but he can do it if he wants to. His regular flight is about forty-five miles an hour.

"The black duck is a close relative of the mallard, is also slow compared with the canvasback, and the pintail, widgeon and wood-duck are but little faster. The redhead can go easy and make ninety miles an hour as long as he likes, all day if necessary. The blue wing teal, and his beautiful cousin, the green wing, can fly side by side and make 100 miles an hour without turning a feather.

"And maybe you think a wild goose can't fly. But he can. If you see a flock of big Canadas moving along so high up that they seem to be scraping the sky with their backs, you would hardly think that they were making a hundred miles an hour, but they are. The wild goose is not much of a pedestrian, but on the wing he is a hummer."