Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. October 2, 1892. Omaha Sunday Bee 22(105): 20.

Time of the Hunter's Idyl.

Prospects Good for Capital Sport Among the Wild Fowl This Fall.

Early as it seems, on account of the summery weather, the jacksnipe shooting has already begun, and the ducks will soon follow. The prospects are fine for an extraordinarily good season. There was plenty of rain in the early spring and at regular intervals throughout the summer, and this has brought forth an abundant crop of feed, grain, seeds and grasses as well. It is a well known fact to all old and observant wild fowl shooters that a bountifulness of provision in this line always insures an uncommon flight of the birds in the fall. The well-timed rainfall, too, has largely augmented the chances for good autumn shooting, as all the lakes, swails and sloughs are filled with water, and the rivers and streams are running at their normal volume.

  • The drowseful dream of the sweet, autumn time.
  • With its mildew, mold and mellow,
  • Comes glimmering on with its show sublime,
  • In robes of russet and yellow,
  • The glareful glume of the golden-rod glows
  • From fence-corner, field and fallow.
  • And clingingly close the wild aster grows
  • With the Marguerite and mallow.

And this is the time of the hunter's idyl. The maples are robed in their gilded gowns, the distant hills are clad in hazy splendor, the sumac glows and burns in the fence-corner, and all the frosty and decaying pursuivants of the approach of hoary winter warn the sportsmen that he must procrastinate no longer. There is the boat to been seen to and overhauled, rubber boots to patch, shooting wammus to mend, decoys, shellcase, calls, and a hundred and one other trifles to attend to, in order that when he receives the proper tip he can bundle up his duffle and be off sans ceremonie.

For some inexplicable reason more ducks nested and hatched their young this season in and about what might be properly termed local waters, than was ever known in Nebraska before. Mallards have been especially plentiful ever since early in July, showing that many of them preferred to remain here and bring up their young to the long pilgrimage to the fastnesses north of Baffin's bay and the extreme northwest. The teal too, especially the blue-wing, nested here in uncommon numbers, while the crop of spoonbills was something remarkable. Large bags of the young of these species were made as early as the second week of August, and they were to be found almost any morning or evening at most of the well known feeding grounds within 100 miles of this city. The green-wing teal, redhead, widgeon, whistler, bluebill, baldpate or canvasback, have rarely been known to breed as far south as this, yet readers of The Bee will recollect the mention of the killing of an old canvasback down near Louisville as late as July 5, by an Omaha gunner. This, however, was evidently a stray, or a bird that had been wounded badly in the spring and was forced to remain here until she met her untimely fate.

Naturally, this is the proper latitude for the nesting and nidification of the wood duck, but owing to the scarcity of timber about any of our lakes or streams of any considerable development it has never been very plentiful here. Of course, there has been more or less of them killed off and on, and in certain seasons they have been known to be quite numerous along the Logan and the Elkhorn, but nothing like their plentifulness along the Kankakee, the Illinois and other rivers and lakes of the eastern, middle and the first tier of western states. I have bagged as high as thirty-four wood duck in a single day's shooting about the region of Hall's on the beautiful Kankakee. Here a gunner seldom secures more than a half dozen specimens in a whole season. As a consequence the wood duck cuts but an insignificant figure in the calculations of our local shooters, and although one of the most beautiful of all the wild fowl tribe, and unexcelled in edible qualities, he is not greatly missed.

Of the birds that come down from the lower polar regions in the fall, the green and blue wing teal are about the first, then follows speedily an issue of mallards and widgeon, bluebill, redhead, canvasback and pintail in order, the stately Canada and his cackling congeners bringing up the rear. There are many other species of wild fowl that visit our waters, but not in sufficient numbers to justify any lengthy notice. In one thing alone they are nearly all alike, and that is that they make a magnificent dish for the table. For myself, I have always rated the teal as the most delicious and succulent of all, but many consider the canvasback, redhead and even mallard superior in gastronomic qualities to these little fellows, owing, probably to the fact that they are larger and afford easier picking. Any of them, however, are good enough for the gods, as they are the best fed of all the ducks that visit our local waters. And, strange to say, these choicest varieties are the commonest, with probably the single exception of the canvasback. They are to be found in every region of the United States, from the rocky-shored, tamarack-embosomed lakes of far away Maine to the limestone pools and broad, woody streams of the middle states, to the crystal sloughs and limpid basins of Indiana and Illinois, as well as the glistening and sheeny waters that lie enshadowed by tree or shrub under the sun's warm beams of our own boundless plains. Everywhere from Atlantic to Pacific, and great lake to the gulf these superb table birds are to be met with in greater or less numbers.

As the teal are the first of the wild fowl to return to us in autumn, they are entitled to the first mention. They are usually to be found along the shallows of our streams and lakes as early as the middle of last month, and as they feed closely crowded together the hunter often succeeds in potting them, killing at times incredible numbers. Two years ago George Tzschuck, in a little slough at Honey creek, mowed down thirty-five blue-wings with two barrels, a shot that has never been beaten in this neck of the woods as I have ever heard. The teal fly as if shot out of a gun, decoy only indifferently and when they alight they do so abruptly, something after the fashion of the jacksnipe and woodcock. They generally feed on the tender shoots, roots and tendrils of subaqueous plants, aquatic seeds, nutgrass and wild rice. The blue-wing is a tender little fellow and the increasing frosts of October drive him south bodily. The green-wing is hardier and lingers fully three weeks after the retirement of his more susceptible cousin.

The mallard is our commonest duck. He, too, is fond of the shallows, and, although a capital diver, seldom feeds in more than three feet of water. The nutgrass, bulbs, smartweed, wild rice, acorns and grain are his principal diet, the latter being his favorite when obtainable. Like the geese they will leave the water and spend the meal times in the open corn or stubble field, where they enjoy a banquet on the scattered kernels of the farmer's harvest. Every gunner knows what a cornfed mallard is and what a picnic is theirs if they are lucky enough to get a good blind in some favorite field feeding ground. As for myself, I have had my greatest mallard shooting on the inundated oak flats along the Illinois, above the fishing hamlet of Havanna, one hundred and five in a single day being the banner bag, and if any conditioned mallard beats an acornfed one, I have yet to find it out. Here we get no acornfed mallards. This bird is not a swift flyer, unless coming down the wind, or he has been shot at by a Chubbock, Hath, Fogg or Dickey, then gets a hundred miles an hour move on him. They decoy readily, and afford the finest sport of the whole duck family.

The widgeon or baldpate is similar in many respects to the mallard, only that he is fonder of open water, rarely enters the watered timber lands, and never comes in flocks of any considerable size. Like the pintail they frequent the open prairies, are swift of wing, very shy, but easily killed when hit. For the table, this bird must be in prime condition, when he ranks will in epicurean qualifications with the favored ones enumerated. They are met with in goodly numbers here, but generally in isolated pairs.

The pintail, or sprigtail, as they are more commonly known, is one of the hardiest of ducks. They partake of many of the characteristics of the baldpate and mallard, migrate in tremendous flocks, and frequent the open prairies and broad expanses of water, but rarely the swift-flowing rivers or streams, unless heavily wooded. Often, in their search for food, they will waddle out of the water and penetrate into the timber in search of favorite morsels. They are rapid, noiseless flyers, but as they are not over particular about what they eat are not up to the notch for the table.

The redhead is a great duck, many gastronomes considering them just as much of a delicacy as the famous canvasback, which bird they greatly resemble, but are distinctly different. They have a wolfish appetite, and yet are as gingerly feeders as any of the whole duck family. Their feed must be of the choicest, unless pushed by desperate hunger. Wild celery, tender twigs, grasses, plants, smartweeds and nutgrass bulbs constitute their favorite food. They are strong flyers, but decoy well, and are hard birds to shoot away from favorite feeding grounds. In the fall the redheads do not visit this locality to any very measurable extent, but generally afford capital sport in the spring. I have had some good redhead shooting on the lakes northwest of Alliance, this state. They used to be very plentiful in the Missouri river bottom above Missouri Valley.

The canvasback is the king of the wild fowl tribe, as to size, edible qualities and desirability. They are becoming alarmingly scarce and their day of total extermination is not far distant. They are still occasionally met with in this region, more frequently in the spring. But at one time, say twenty years ago, notwithstanding the vaunted authority of many eastern writers, this great bird existed nowhere on God's green earth more plentiful than along the picturesque Niobrara, the Elkhorn, Loup and Platte. Of the countless millions of wild fowl that made transitory halts here in the spring and autumn on their semi-annual migrations none were more numerous than the glorious canvasback. The late General Crook, George A. Hoagland, Hen Homan, Jack Knowles, John Petty and others of the old school tell wondrous tales of their gunning expeditions in the day of the canvasback. But those were the good old times, that can never return, and the modern gunner must rest content with what remains. And he would be the veriest churl too, to grumble or complain, for there is much good shooting left for the man who sees proper to go to the expense and trouble to get it. The canvasback, I will say, in conclusion, is the swiftest bird on the wing of all the duck family. He is shy, hardy and difficult to kill, although on favorite grounds will lure well to a large stool of decoys.