January 8, 1922. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 57(14=15): 17-E.
Forest, Field and Stream
Will the Time Come When the Birds Are Gone?
By Sandy Griswold.
Owing to the very general interest that has been engendered among almost all classes of people throughout the country in our native song and plumage birds during the past twenty years, coupled with the very beneficial and the very necessary provisions of our national migratory game bird law and the laudable and effective work of numerous ornithological societies and generous individuals, the dangers that were beginning to gravely menace the prolonged existence of our little feathered friends have been largely diminished.
And yet, despite all of these ameliorating influences, there doesn't seem to be anything that can prevent, in time, the total disappearance of such game birds as the prairie chicken, in fact all the grouse family, the upland plover, jacksnipe, yellowlegs and in fact all of their kindreds of the wading character.
Many of our game birds have already been absolutely, or close onto it, blotted out, and notably among these I will mention the golden plover, the woodcock and woodduck, the curlew and many species of the lesser waders.
The wild pigeon and the Labrador duck have long been known only in song and fable, and there are many others following rapidly, notwithstanding the improvement in general conditions, in their wake.
If this be true, and numbers of our game birds must go, not by reason of any laxity of laws or sentiment, or by the depredations of their natural enemies, men included, there are many erudite students, nature scientists and close observers that such, in a slow but sure measure, must be the woeful fate of a large majority of our birds, including some of the most enduring and commonest of our song and plumage birds, a fate that must be encompassed by reason of the changing and disappearing natural conditions.
While we are in no immediate peril of such a distressing catastrophe, there is undoubtedly much more truth than poetry in the doleful prognostications, for there is now a palpably growing belief among the most gifted of the world savants in feathered biology that this is no idle apprehension, and in support of the grave fear advance the soundest argument.
However, as I asserted above, the time, fortunately, is remote, indeed, when there will be no birds, and with the present generations there is little occasion for excitement or alarm, and preservative thought. Thousands and thousands of years hence will certainly see innumerable conditions undreamed of today. So I, for one, am satisfied to permit those who intend to live that long to suffer all the unendurable consequences and to keep on enjoying my birds as I find them today.
In regard to the prairie chicken, the woodcock, the plover and the jacksnipe, the ever optimistic, willfully blind and overzealous sportsmen, may say, if we only look around us, we will find that these precious game birds are just about as plentiful now as they were years and years ago. But this class of people are simply and willfully ignorant of the truth, and wrought up by the hope that what they so blatantly assert may prove to be the case.
Any sensible, observant and interested person knows that sentimental or selfish reflections cut little ice along side the volumes and columns of statistical figures in the way of aiding the understanding. It is better to be right than oratorical or poetical when we have to deal with facts, no matter how pathetic may be the significance of these facts. Even the unwelcome evidence that forces itself upon us year by year, tending to prove a rapid and constant decrease in the number of our familiar and beloved American birds, should be studied without prejudice. We adore the birds of orchard, field, flood and wood, but that is no good reason for neglecting any fact in considering the causes of their thinning out and their vanishing from the areas once teeming with them.
My reader can look around for himself. In he does so, will he see any of the wild pigeons, which used to obscure the very skies in their unnumbered billions? I hardly think so. And so it is. The birds disappear and when they do not come back, in our generous disappointment, we hastily look about for some one to lay the blame upon and consequently scold with commensurate vigor. And I am forced to say, as reluctant as I am, that it is high time for many so-called sportsmen to dodge and wince. The man with the gun must be prepared to bear almost unlimited abuse, or he must betake himself beyond the reach of it. He is, nevertheless, guilty of sundry depredations, sins against the law of universal bird protection, that he cannot deny; but he may well object to vicarious receptivity when the day of primitive gift offerings comes and somebody proposes making him the but of every transgressor's share as well as his own.
The reports, once in a while made out by zoological societies and other organizations, in the study, are valuable in a way, but, as Dr. H. Gifford remarked to me the other evening while a caller at my home, "you cannot read them without smelling dust where the pure air of the out of doors ought to be and feeling that they are based upon scattered and somewhat insignificant details, rather than upon the larger and generally more influential facts of nature and life."
(And, by the way, Dr. Gifford is now upon the billowy Atlantic, bound for British Guinea and the south seas in search of more first-based knowledge of the noted children of the tropics, and is one of the country's foremost investigators into the secrets of the bird, insect and reptile life of the blazing south seas and bordering jungles, and in whose station I have only an exalted appreciation.)
But as I was saying of these labors within the studio, it is especially true in regard to what has been done in the matter of accounting for the remarkable disappearance of birds from large districts of their natural domain. But the sportsman, the collector, and, in the past, the small boy, were potential agents of bird destruction. But they were insignificant compared to the draining of bogs and lowlands, upon which the woodcock and the jacksnipe depended for perpetuation. Reclaim all the wet lands and ditch away the water of ponds and small lakes, and then after it is done, go look in vain for the dowitcher, the yellowleg, killdeer, willet, turnstone or plover, mallard, teal, spoonbill, butterball or widgeon. Destroy the thickets and briery spots and both may be considered unsightly upon a well groomed farm, no matter how necessary they are to the quail, the thrush, the redbird and the chewink, and then look until your eyes ache for the bevy or the tuneful beauties in the neatly shorn fields. Your bluebirds, that once had the old stake and rider fences - not so greatly here in the prairie state of Nebraska, to be sure - with hollows in the rails to build in, cannot accept barbed wire substitutes, and wit the groves cut down, where shall their nests be hidden, and what are the ever-industrious and gaudy woodpeckers, yellowhammers and sapsuckers to do when you cut and carve away and burn every dead tree, stump, snag and bough that flourishes or languishes on your farm or premises. And right here let me sound a warning as to the fate of our almost revered bluebird - he is evidently headed for the "long traverse."
Every summer I am more and more curious to know how the meadow lark survives, how it succeeds in rearing a brood, when year by year the meadows in which it builds are cut closer and closer with new fangled and changing mowing machines, and when the seeds it so loves are not permitted to ripen. Where does Bob White find shelter on our highly cultivated and smoothly manicured farms? The food for the wild pigeons went when our woods went, and so did the pigeons themselves.
When I was a boy, running wild in the big oak and hickory woods of Ohio, the beautiful and magnificent log cock, the black woodpecker, was everywhere to be seen within those unbroken depths. He, too, has gone absolutely, save in rare instances in remote wilderness.
Because the rotten woods in which its food was found has long ago been made into heaps and burned by sturdy men who have caused farms and ranches and plantations to supercede the forests and waste lands.
In the old days of bramble thickets and hazel tangles there were few frozen berries encountered even here, in sparsely wooded Nebraska. But let a hard winter now intervene, and reports will follow of widespread devastation and destruction. Then the insatiable skunks, minks, weasels and coyotes have their fill of birds where there is not thick cover for them to hide in.
Give the wild things the least bit of wilderness and they will survive in spite of nature and man. But you cannot save the birds and at the same time starve them and refuse them both nesting places and havens for shelter from the storms and cold. Enlightened farming, the making of productive and neatly shorn estates, the march of the plow, the tractor, the ditching machines, the underground tile, the patent reaper and binder, the thresher, winter without shelter, summer without food, and all the time without the natural requisites to wild life, is what is, and what will, drive the birds from human ken; and in closing, I will say that the wild fowl - the ducks and the geese, the cranes and their kindreds - in a few more fleeting years will be rare, indeed, while the prairie chickens will be known no more forever, and this, too, despite all law, federal or otherwise. When the songsters and the gaily bedecked citizens of woods and copse and field are all gone - thousands of years hence, we hope, if ever - then all life, too, will likewise be gone.