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Column: Birds come, birds go; records of early-day regional birds are scarce

Editor's note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run "Isn't That Something" columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and...

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared July 22, 2006.

WORTHINGTON - Minnesota Historical Society’s magazine, Minnesota History, is published four times a year. The current issue has one account focused on the towns of Heron Lake, Lakefield and Jackson; on Heron Lake itself; and on the battles between market hunters and sportsmen.

Market hunters were bringing down birds by the thousands to sell in the east. Still, market hunters were mostly local guys. The story of how lawmen conspired to drive one market hunter, William Kerr of Lakefield, out of business is hard to believe.

You think your sympathy might be with sportsmen? Sportsmen were rich city guys coming to Jackson County, Nobles County, Murray County, sometimes in private railroad cars, staying in hunting lodges on private preserves.

Thomas Miller, a Heron Lake homesteader, wrote in 1883 that when waterfowl descended on the lake each spring and fall “some nights sleep was impossible owing to their continual clamor.” Hundreds of thousands of creatures cackled and quacked and whistled and honked. The author says there were Canada geese, canvasbacks, redheads, blue bills, mallards, pintails, wigeons. This is not a complete list. Wood ducks. Wild turkeys along the shores.

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It would be fascinating to know more of the birds that were in our lakes and fields a century ago. How many have disappeared? What birds have come to be with us today that were not here then? Bob Schulze, pastor at St. Matthew’s and a serious bird watcher, just this year counted 45 different birds species in our area by July 4.

The pastor saw one of the avocets which was on Lake Okabena this spring. (Brian Korthals got pictures of them).

You probably heard of the pair of wild swans on Okabena’s south bay which hatched out three cygnets this spring. (I almost never get a chance to write “cygnet”).

I did not see the avocets, but I was walking along the bike path around the south bay lately when I saw a blue heron. I loved that - the Sioux people called it, Okabena (Nesting Place of Herons). There we were - June 2006 - watching a heron another time.

I have the diary of a great uncle who lived north of Reading, east of Wilmont. My uncle still was hunting prairie chickens on his farm in 1923. Well - my dad hunted them, too. My dad was with him. Prairie chickens are gone now, of course.

There are many things I would like to ask my dad. Someone would drive off with a screech - someone would take off from my dad’s gas station laying down rubber. Dad would say, “He took off like a sand hill crane.” I don’t think my dad ever saw a sand hill crane. I think that was an expression he learned. But I don’t know. Once, there indeed were sand hill cranes in this place.

The ring neck pheasant is South Dakota’s state bird but the ring neck is an immigrant from China. Ringnecks were planted in South Dakota in 1898, and in Minnesota at about the same time. When the game wars were raging at Heron Lake, there were no ring neck pheasants found on this continent.

The pelican flocks on Lake Ocheda. Have you seen those this year?

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In the poking around I have done, I never found an early-day mention of a robin. Well - you know, there were almost no trees here. That would discourage robins. The grass was as high as Bill Clinton. It would be hard to hop through grass like that, looking for worms. I wonder when people here first saw robins in the spring.

I have seen accounts of birds from the time our region was first settling. There are no starlings mentioned. No English sparrows. Once we saw sparrows everywhere in all seasons. Now we don’t see them often.

Once there were passenger pigeons on our lands. Woodcocks. Whip-poorwills and magpies.

There are several early-day mentions of parroquets - bright red, yellow, green, blue. No one sees parroquets today.

Bird populations change. Are you watching for the Eurasian collared dove? Collared doves were unheard of in all of North America until fairly recently. Now it is said it is only a matter of time before we will see one in Chautauqua Park. Keep your eyes open for a kind of dove you never saw before.

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