Fifty-five Years with the Birds of Iowa


By E. Frank Brockway



            In the spring of 1842, while I was still a small boy, my parents moved to the new Territory of  Iowa, and settled a dozen miles west of Muscatine . . . then Bloomington.


            Iowa was then one great field of grass and flowers.  Everything was so different from the forest-covered lands of the East that constant surprises met the eyes of all new comers.  Bird lovers found that many of their favorites were missing and numbers of strange birds flew up before their feet, or fled from their pathway, while others with strange cries soared far above their heads.


            The robins came in flocks of hundreds, but they never sang.  We listened and longed for the old familiar musical notes in vain, but they only chirped merrily as they hopped around over the fire-blackened prairie. I think I never heard one sing before 1846.  I feel sure they did not in those early days remain through the summer.  Some years later a robin built her nest and reared her young near our door for several seasons.  Each spring we watched expectantly for her coming, and she never failed us.  We knew her from other robins because of a scalped place on the top of her head, the skull having been laid bare the size of a dime.  She became quite tame but whether she met her misfortune at the hands of the Indians, or the talons of a cantankerous mate, we never learned.


            It was some years before I remember seeing a thrush or oriole, but the meadowlark, blue jay, and the combative little wren were all located here when we came.  In those early spring days the wild pigeon would come flying from the Southeast in long lines, apparently miles in length.  Some days flocks were in sight almost all the time going northeast.  They would sometimes alight and feed in the fields.  They never summered here in large numbers, and became scarcer every year until about 1863.  After that we seldom saw a flock.


            In the year 1861 I captured a pair of young thrushes.  My wife caged and took great care of them.  We soon noticed that when the cage was hung out of doors, the parent birds came and fed them.  This they continued to do very regularly until autumn, but when a chill crept into the air, and the birds had gone south, we found both our pets dead in the cage one morning.  The old ones were never seen again, and we were told that the old birds had fed them poisonous berries or seeds, rather than leave them to starve, as they believed they would do if they left them imprisoned amongst enemies.


            Each spring wild geese, brant, ducks, and sand-hill cranes came by thousands.  There were two kinds of cranes, the lead-colored, and the white, with black-tipped wings. Standing nearly as tall as a man, sometimes lighting in a field till acres would be covered with them.  They always seemed to keep guards or sentinels out, and were not easily surprised.  It was a good hunter and a long shot that brought down one of those giant birds.  When wounded, the crane was a good fighter.  I well remember a boyish combat with one.  Though badly wounded he stood up like a brave Indian and used his long lance-like bill with skill and precision—and effect, also, as my hands and face testified.

            As late as 1850 the geese, ducks and cranes made their nests in Iowa marshes and farther northwest.  In September and later long “A” harrow-shaped flocks of geese were almost always in sight, headed southeast, or stopping to feed in the fields.  The cranes usually flew much higher.  Their clarion-like notes could be plainly heard a mile or more.  Occasionally, a flock would alight in a field and begin a wild dance, with plenty of high jumps and shrill whoops.  Other flocks were sometimes attracted until a space of ten acres perhaps, would be covered in the middle of some field.  These gatherings seemed to be of a social nature, a sort of convention lasting two or three hours, when flight would be resumed


            In those days the prairie chickens and ducks were innumerable.  With the old-fashioned shot gun, rifle, and muskets, half of them with flintlocks, the pioneer did not thin their ranks perceptibly.  Prairies chickens were seldom shot at unless on the fence or corn shock.  A few years later they were taken in great multitudes in traps.  The shooting of ducks was discouraging work; still more so than shooting prairies chickens, as one could seldom get them in like positions.


            Occasionally swans would pass over, but seldom halted.  Pelicans would sometimes stop at the ponds.  A large flock of pelicans alighted in and about a small pond near the top of an area bluff.  An Irish neighbor crept up the bluff and emptied both barrels of his shot into the flock, and got fourteen of these great birds.


            As the country became settled, the meeting places in the swamps were destroyed by stock and hunters.  The immense flocks going northwest in the springtime, and returning each autumn, began to decrease in numbers.  The honk of the wild goose or brant, and the clear wild note of the crane is seldom heard, but these sights and sounds are indelibly impressed on the minds of the old settler and fresh in his memory, but as a matter history a note should be made of these changes which have been wrought by civilization.  Improved firearms and the destruction of the breeding places were the means of extermination.  Wild turkeys were here in great numbers also, but have disappeared with their feathered friends.  The great bronze turkey only remains to remind us of his ancestors, the wild turkey of the western woods.


            All these large fowls have passed or are passing away.  Like the Indian, the buffalo and the light of the prairie fire, they have vanished, and even the old settlers will be as a forgotten shadow, or a legend of the past, unless we give him a niche in history.


                                                                                                E. F. Brockway             



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