Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. February 18, 1894. Omaha Sunday Bee p. 16.

Spring Days in the Marsh.

Prospects Bright for the Most Enchanting of All Outdoor Sport.

The widespread and heavy snowfall of the past week has filled the duck shooter's heart with enthusiasm. Prior to this even the prospects for the spring sport were meager, indeed, on account ot a lack of water. Such another dry spell at this section of the country is but fairly emerging from has not been experienced in a decade. It set in early in May last, reigned uninterruptedly throughout the summer and fall, and but light and inconsequential rains broke the arid monotony during the present winter. The result was an absolute drying up of all the small lakes and streams before autumn had properly begun, and by the time the duck season was on even the larger bodies of water and rivers were so low that inducement for the birds to remain long on any of their former favorite feeding grounds was so slender that the poorest kind of sport was the rule. For good wild fowl shooting there must be plenty of water. With the lakes at their lowest water mark and the marshes dried up and baked as hard as a cement floor there is little opportunity for the palmiped beauties to eke out a subsistence, and no matter how delightful the weather or favorable the other general conditions, they will tarry but a short time ere they wing their way on to more advantageous haunts.

But the late fall of the flocculent crystals has dissipated the sportsman's fear of a continuation of this unfavorable condition. There has been an immense descent of the beautiful all over the west, on the plains and in the mountains, and when the thaw comes it means such a freshet as will send the rivers and streams gushing on to the sea, fill up the lakes and inundate all the marshes and lowlands. This means capital sport with the lordly canvasback, the royal mallard, the ashen redhead, the pintail, teal and bluebill, to say nothing of the excitement an influx of the Canadas and the Hutchins geese will create.

Notwithstanding the prolonged period of dryness there was a most beautiful crop of native food last fall, but the birds being unable to get at it means that the bulk of it remains to be fattened upon in the sweet spring time. The wild rice stalks in all the north and western marshes bent low with the weight of their tiny kernels, all of the nutritious seeds were more than luxuriant, and the nut grass and smart weed were abundant everywhere. Of course wild celery (spiralis vallisneria) and all of the much sought for aquatic plants suffered greatly, and while the birds may wax fat upon farinaceous deposits this spring, they must deny themselves these subaqueous delicacies until the golden days of October roll round once again. Such a rare climate as this in which we live that vegetation flourishes with but the nourishing influences of the dews, which descend like rain during the short nights of the hottest summer. These lie like a moist blanket over the emerald world until the growing life absorbs or the sun rays suck heavenward again.

But once again let me speak on a favorite theme—the ducks. I am a lover of nature in all its aspects, and ascribe to indulgence in its delights the quickness of sight, the steadiness of nerve and the soundness of mind and body I enjoy today. I have lived to learn of outdoor life, but would fain believe the lesson has just begun. Of the birds that come up from the tropical Mexicos in the spring the pintail (anas acuta) called sprigtail in the east, are about the first, then follow speedily in order the canvasback, the redhead, bluebill, widgeon, mallard and teal. The Canada goose and his congeners even precede the pintail, many of them, as remarkable as it may seem, lingering here all through the winter. Just two weeks ago Billy Hoagland killed four big Canadas just twelve miles west of the city in a field bordering the Elkhorn.

But as the pintail is the first of the duck family to tempt the sportsman hence in the spring, he is entitled to the sendoff. The period of his arrival depends largely on the state of the weather, and he generally comes in with a storm of rain and snow and sleet, and later, when his cousins arrive, is found much in the company of the mallard, widgeon and teal. Their plumage is soft and blended beautifully with greenish browns, grays and dull yellowish browns. They fly high, migrate in tremendous flocks and frequent the open prairies and broad expanses of water. They are also fond of heavily wooded, swift flowing rivers, from which they will wade far into the timber for favorite food. They are usually a dull bird, decoy readily, and are easiest killed of any of the wild fowl family. They are generally in poor form, owing to their penchant for long journeys without rest, and consequently not overly desirable for the table.

The canvasback is universally acknowledged to be the king of his kind. He is the largest of all the ducks and is supposed to possess edible qualities eminently superior to any of his relatives, although I have had mallards served that in every way came up to, it not surpassed, his high standard. They are magnificent lookers, the drakes especially, with their shapely cinnamon heads, ashen wings and snowy white bodies. In flight they are the swiftest of all the wild fowl, being capable of over 100 miles an hour. They are extremely shy, remarkably hardy and the most difficult bird to kill that flies. Years ago these princely birds halted here in countless millions on their semi-annual migrations, but latterly they are rare, and, lackaday, growing rarer with each recurring season.

The redhead is known as the canvasback's first cousin, which bird they closely resemble, but are distinctly different. Properly placed upon the table, it would take the most expert gastronomic connoisseur to separate him from the canvasback. They are rapid, strong flyers, but decoy beautifully and furnish the most exhilarating sport from a blind. They are good feeders, with an insatiable appetite for wild celery, tender twigs and grasses, aquatic bulbs and smart weed. They do not visit this region in any considerable numbers in the fall, but seldom fail to come in plenteously in the spring time.

The mallard is the most familiar bird, and I might say the choice of a large majority of local sportsmen. They are not so quick of wing as the canvasback or redhead, but quick enough to suit the taste of the greatest adept with the hammerless. They are a great bird to "jump" in the marshes, but supply all the delights of such pursuits over decoys. They are exceedingly wary, but lure well to a large stool of decoys, anchored in front of a fast natural blind. They haunt the shallows, and although they can dive like a blue bill, seldom look for food in more than a foot and a half of water. Like the geese, they are fond of field feeding, and in stubble and corn make many a sumptuous banquet on the scattered kernels of the farmer's harvest.

Like the mallard, the teal, both green and blue wing, are partial to the shallows, yet the green wing often frequents the deep, open waters. They fly like bullets, decoy but indifferently, and alight with an abruptness that discomfits many an experienced gunner. They are certainly a marceau second to none in the game line, and I have yet to meet man or woman who can refrain from ecstatic exclamation when sitting down to a platter of well-browned teal.

The widgeon, or American bald pate, displays many of the characteristics of the mallard also, yet he favors the open water and is seldom tempted to penetrate the wooded districts. They hardly ever fly in flocks, but in twos and threes, and once in a while bunches of a half a dozen. Like the pintail, they love to haunt the open prairie, and next to the mallard are the most plentiful of all the species here. They fly swiftly, but are among the easiest of the tribe to shoot, and decoy much after the fashion of the pintail. For the table the widgeon must be in prime condition, and he is seldom else, consequently ranks well in epicurean qualifications with the redhead and mallard. They are less favored in the way of glorious plumage than other ducks, a fact that detracts much from their marketable value.

Of course there are many other ducks which visit these waters, but those mentioned above are the principal ones, and, while I might proceed on entertainingly to the sportsman, the labor might be lost on the general reader.