Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. December 1, 1918. [Whooping Crane Habits on the Platte River]. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 54(8): 16-N.

Forest Field and Stream

Have received so many pleasing expressions from my readers from different parts of the state on the story in this column of a week or so ago, of my most regretted shot at the big whooping crane out in Deuel county, some twenty years or more ago, when after a long and laborious crawl over the sandburred plain, I succeeded in knocking a snowy bit of down out of the tail of the hindmost bird of the three that jumped from the small alkali pond, where we had discovered them standing while driving back to Hamilton's ranch that memorable March evening. I feel like adding that there are few shooters left today, who can boast of such an experience.Even in those fabled old days that are gone, when these royal birds were fairly plentiful on our sandhills marshes and along our rivers, the sportsman of these times can illy imagine how hard it was to lie in a blind among the drooping rice and tules and listen to the thrilling hoo-roo-ooo-rroo-oo, as a flock of these great whoopers approached it. To bat an eye meant disaster to your hopes. Rigid and as still as death you had to lie there until you heard the light strokes of their fanning wings, and beheld, through the interstices of the reeds, the long raucous windpipes stretched to their utmost tension, and from which issued those wild sounds, almost like the crackling of the thunder's peal. It was a sound different from any other we were accustomed to hear, even in those far off and lonely places, and as I said before, there are few of us left who have ever known that keen excitement.

And then, what a moment it was in the life of even the old roamer of the fields and streams, when a bunch of these great birds were once within range of his old double-barrel, say, anywhere from 40 to 60 yards above his head.

It was the moment to leap to your feet and let them have it.

What sound, what confusion, what a sight! What would you give to experience such a climax of excitement? With the air a tangle of great white birds, bigger than swans, with long necks and broad wings tipped with jet, climbing distractedly toward the sky sheering and tumbling and lurching for all points of the wind at the same time, while the sun glanced from their crimson domes, and black feet, and a startling discord of sound pouring from their dull green beaks, can you doubt that your blood leaped, your brain whirled and your nerves trembled.

And it was just past midnight, that night just three weeks ago, when we huddled about the glowing stove out in Scott Smith's shack, in the middle of the broad Platte, before we grew weary with our remiscent glories of the days of old.

"The sandhill crane," I recall, Scott said, "is no slouch of a bird either, and while they were far more plentiful than the big white fellows were, they never thrilled the hearts of us old timers like the whoopers did. The sandhills yet come this way, some falls, in fairly good numbers, and I have seen several flocks flying over Shelton this fall, but the last white crane I have seen, was the three we saw feeding down the river east of us that October morning, two years ago, when we were preparing to break camp.

"This reminds me, too," added our ever interesting host, "that the sandhill is a veritable shitepoke along side of a whooper, and the big blue crane, such as we saw up on the bar yesterday, a measly gosling. I remember, also, that in the old days the big white fellow was frequently found in company with the sandhills, but he was generally so satisfied with his own royal companionship that he generally kept free from all compromising alliances. he avoided, most always, all the lesser and more insignificant breeds of his kind, as if he considered them beneath his lordly notice."

"Were they much larger than the sandhills," enquired Artist Pat, as he trummed his fingers on the case of his camera, which was leaning against the wall beside him, thus clearly betraying the ambitions thoughts that were crowding his mind.

"Yes, much larger than the biggest of the sandhills," replied Mr. Smith, "I should say, they were fully ten inches in the extent of their wings and from ten to twelve inches higher in stature. They were of a whiteness that vied with the purest of snow, except the velvet black tip of the wings and the crimson crest, and altogether the whooping crane was the grandest of all the feathered game that ever chose the lonely stretches of this grand old river for a feeding and resting place, and when you beheld them cleaving the bright sunlit spaces far above this broad valley, they were surely as magnificent birds as the world has ever known.

"Then finally," and I saw Scott half close his eyes as if in a pleasant dream, as he proceeded in a tone, I thought, softened by memory, "when the whoopers found a suitable place for lighting, they would spend a long time in circling so far above in the zenith that they resembled bits of cottonwood down, but that wild, weird and ringing note of theirs, vibrating through miles of trenchant space, and coming like the blast from a heavenly cornet, removed all doubts as to their importance in the realm of ornithology. They were the wariest, most cunning and resourceful of all our big game birds and exceedingly hard to get a shot at. And yet they were often outwitted by the superior intelligence of man. Like the crafty Canada goose they, too, had that infirmity that frequently led to their destruction, for when they made up their minds to leave the aerial highways, they came winding down out of the sky in leagues of spiral, until close to the earth, when they drifted lazily along to the spot selected for recuperation and refreshment. Then it was, when the well-hidden gunner got in his work."