Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Birds of a Feather

Nebraska State Historical Society nbhips 10186
A footnote from history by Stephanie Grace Whitson

No one argues with the idea that life was hard for pioneer women. Life in a soddy on the Nebraska prairie involved more hard labor in a day than most of us encounter in a week--hauling water, planting gardens, preserving wild fruit, tending livestock, kneading bread--not to mention caring for children in a world rife with dangers like rattlesnakes. In light of all that, why would a woman make time to care for bird? What's up with the bird cages in the photo above? This is only one example of many photos taken by Solomon Butcher featuring sod houses, families, and bird cages. One folklorist has suggested that for a woman on the prairie, canary song was a sweet note in a windy world without trees and consequently without the songbirds that were common fare back home in Illinois, Wisconsin, Virginia, etc.

I didn't know that pioneer women wouldn't have seen these birds that are common in the state today:

Photo in the public domain
Pheasants didn't come to the United States until 1881 (imported from China). They thrived and were common in Nebraska by 1925. Today, thousands of hunters participate in pheasant hunting when the season opens in late October. 

Photo courtesy of Adamo (Wikipedia)
Sparrows were imported from England to New York in 1851, but they weren't present in Nebraska until 1875, where a Grand Island farmer hoped they'd help control grasshoppers. By 1904, sparrows had spread across the state.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia and in the public domain

Starlings are present in the United States thanks to Shakespeare. Yes, really. In the 1890s, a group of Americans released 100 starlings in Central Park, motivated by their goal to establish every bird mentioned by William Shakespeare. Today, those original 100 birds have 200 million descendants. I'd call that success!

Do you enjoy birdwatching? 
Have you ever come to Nebraska to see the cranes? Every year, half a million of these magnificent birds (some over 4 feet tall) pause in western Nebraska, creating one of the premier birdwatching events in the world. To learn more: https://visitkearney.org/sandhill-cranes/

For a current list of Stephanie Whitson's novels, e-mail stephanie@stephaniewhitson.com with the subject line "Book List."

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  1. I do love birdwatching! Nothing livens up a cold winter day than watching them set our bird feeder spinning by their repeated landings and launches! Thanks for the post.

    1. My parents were faithful bird watchers. I learned a lot from them, although I don't have a bird feeder at my house ... too many squirrels to battle!

  2. We love feeding and watching the birds in our backyard! We are in the city, but have many trees in our backyard, and see quite a variety of birds.

    1. My parents taught me a lot about bird-watching, but thus far I've refused to battle the squirrels in order to follow in their footsteps. Last season, though, I saw my first hummingbird in my yard. So I may have to put up a hummingbird feeder this spring in hopes of seeing more.

  3. I love bird watching. When we lived in Virginia, we enjoyed watching woodpeckers, wrens, hummingbirds and more. Now, we live in South Carolina and there are more varieties to learn about. :-)

  4. I adore the song a wren sings. Enjoy the adventure learning about "southern birds"!