PRAIRIE CHICKENS FORTY YEARS AGO
By EDWARD T. MARTIN
IT seems but yesterday that we had the prairie chickens in countless coveys scattered all through the prairie states of the Northwest, West and South, and as with the passenger pigeons and the waterfowl, I am able to write of them at first hand and not to depend on others for my information. I have seen them at high-water mark and also probably at low, in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota, but not in the Dakotas. They hadn't worked that far North when I was hunting in those parts, at least not in any large numbers, they being birds that follow the farmer rather than precede him; that come after the country has commenced to settle up rather than before. Or so the old timers told me back in 1878 and 1880, nor do I know at first hand of their invasion of the East where books say they were once rather plentiful, but getting too much civilization fled before it, or at least those who escaped did.
The pinnated grouse or prairie chicken has many habits in common with the ordinary barnyard fowl, with which it has been known to mate. I myself having seen one, perhaps two, hybrids, offspring of a prairie hen paired with a white bantam cock. Their plumage showed the markings of both and resembled more than anything else a bleached barred rock hen or perhaps an albino, the creamy white of the bantam shaded by the dark bars and blotches of the grouse. One of those I saw was well mounted and hung behind the bar of a stylish saloon in Omaha. The other I do not remember so clearly about but think it was in the reception room of a club in the same city.
Prairie chickens in the early seventies were so tame it was a shame to shoot them. Later they became educated. When flushed went on and on to the safety of a great field of growing corn, or turned in behind a hill instead of keeping a straight course as formerly. Then it was "Get me if you can." Later in the season when the winds blew cold and the snow fell, then those same birds that I have seen lie so close that a dog would catch them, became the wildest of the wild, perched on trees, on fences, on spots of high ground. There was no getting within a hundred yards of them except by circling them in sled or buggy and drawing the circle smaller each time until within range and many good hunters, Bogardus included, knew nothing of the method.' My way of working it was, in snow time, to stand on the back runner of a cutter, masking the body as much as possible with the seat, a careful driver keeping the horses on the trot and never heading directly toward the birds nor slacking his pace; then when within easy range, step off and let the cutter keep on going. The chickens would be so surprised that they kept their eyes fixed on the rig and could they have talked I am sure they would have called to the driver, "Say Mister, you have lost part of your outfit." At all events they showed no uneasiness until I had recovered my equilibrium and was ready to shoot, never trying for a pot shot, always satisfied with a well killed pair, or perhaps three, for it was often possible to "cross" them in their flight.
Geese, cranes, almost every variety of feathered game can be killed in much the same manner, even plover and pigeons, using a buggy instead of a cutter and alighting for the shot, also I got many a passenger pigeon in the Pedee swamp, using a horse to circle with, while other hunters drew nothing but blanks and wondered how I did it.
This circling scheme I also have tried on those very shy birds, sand hill cranes, with fair success but never more than once on the same flock in the same day. With their long tenure of life, said to be a hundred years, and their extreme wisdom and shyness, how these "Sandies" have become so nearly extinct is a mystery to me. It certainly has been something other than the gun that did it. They were not much fancied for table use, the toughness of the old birds supporting the truth of the statement that "some live to be a hundred years old", but the breast of a young sand hill, sliced and broiled or fried, is rather palatable than otherwise, tasting something like wild turkey.
Prairie chickens were more abundant in Southern Minnesota, Northern Iowa and Central Arkansas than anywhere else I ever hunted. Bogardus gave the preference to Central Illinois but from the kills he made as published by himself, I am very sure a hard working hunter who shot as well as did the Captain, could have doubled the number of birds killed in any one of the places I have named and not half tried, although I must admit I had some very good shooting in Illinois, but the birds were not there so that, at least in my time, a prolonged hunt could be conducted without their becoming very scarce. There was too much timber in Wisconsin to suit their convenience and they gave way there to the ruff grouse or partridge. A fine game bird but able to put a tree or a clump of bushes between himself and danger quicker than I can say "scat!"
Now that Illinois country is almost as bare of any kind of grouse as is the top of a bald man's head of hair and well do I know how bare that is. A few are left; some have followed the settlers to the outskirts of civilization — and the rest? Go look for them among the snows of yesteryear. Hunt for their bones in the graveyard where Mother Nature buries her dead.
In those outlying sections shooting was always in season, although around the larger towns attempts were sometimes made to enforce the law. Nothing but the most primitive of guns and method of loading prevented a much greater slaughter than there was. There was enough of it however, so the farm laborers and harvest hands were fed on the chickens instead of other meat until in one locality they threatened the farmer, "If yer don't shet off on them blamed prairie hens we'll quit yer cold."
The farmers grumbled but in the end gave in. They argued: "Those birds are destroying our crops. Why shouldn't we get back at them?" but in those days the gospel of conservation had never been preached in those parts and the tillers of the soil had no idea of the benefit these same birds that they were so anxious to feed to their hired hands, were to them as eaters of seeds and destroyers of insects, but they learned when too late.
I do not know any bird or animal in which the love for their offspring is more developed than in these same pinnated grouse, really in the entire grouse family. They will sacrifice their own lives in effort to save their broods and this I have seen not once but many times. They will sham some injury and go flopping along the ground while the little birds are scurrying in an opposite direction for tall weeds and good cover. An old bird will rise, almost brushing a shooter's face with her wings as if to draw his fire and save her brood. Yet there have been hunters mean enough to take advantage of this love and try to kill the parent bird that is so willing to give all that the little chicks may live. When the brood of young were in thick cover, if the day was hot, no dog unless it be a bloodhound could follow them. A pointer was nearly useless. A setter entirely so, but after danger had passed they would readily assemble to the cluck of the parent birds.
Ducks, mostly pintails and teals would lie well to a dog on those stubbles of the Northwest, as also would skunks, but the peculiar action of the dogs would usually warn us when they were following up a "flock" of these last and on one occasion the mother love of the old "bird" failed to save her, or any of her twelve "kittens." Don't know how she came to have so many. Perhaps it was the matron taking the inmates of a foundlings' home out for an airing, which they certainly needed.
The abundance of chickens in that country may be told when it is known that the farmers, with all their crude methods, would sometimes kill as many as twenty or twenty-five in a morning and evening, trying for no bird that rose over twenty yards away and he who was able to kill half he shot at was considered a cracker-jack. The few farmers who had breechloaders used metal shells as a matter of economy. These they wadded both over powder and shot with pieces of torn newspaper. As a result when one barrel was fired, the shot would come rolling out of the other.
The shot used was twos or larger, the quantity at least an ounce and a half and the powder not much over a pinch, for room had to be left for the wadding and paper was inexpensive, while powder cost money.
It was a revelation for these farmers to see what a good gun, properly loaded would do and they soon improved on their method.
They, however, if deficient in some things were tireless on their feet and depended more on their legs than on the noses of their dogs. If one of them killed a chicken it was usually a foot race between man and dog as to which would reach the bird first and the betting even money and take your pick.
We hauled in ice by the ton, buried it in a straw pile and kept it to be used, as needed, so but few birds spoiled on us. As the season advanced the chickens continued as plentiful as ever. They were larger, stronger of wing, harder to kill and more wary but just as numerous as ever until after a great prairie fire swept over the country. This came at night with flames, heat and thick smoke shooting a hundred feet skyward and must have destroyed thousands of grouse besides other birds including many owls. This fire covered a tract forty miles wide and I do not know how long, perhaps a hundred. It was inconceivably grand. With the country now broken up and pastured never will its like be seen again until "That day of wrath, that dreadful day When Heaven and Earth shall pass away."
I saw the burning of Chicago in 1871, the destruction of San Francisco after the great earthquake of 1906. Combine them both and the result will not equal in grandeur this prairie fire along the boundary line of Iowa and Minnesota. The grass was high and thick; there were no stone walls to check the blaze, no houses to obstruct the view, just one fiery mass as far as one could see extending nearly from earth to sky. No doubt there have been other fires covering a greater area, but prairies grazed over and trampled under by herds of feeding buffalo, will not burn as this did.
Next morning we visited the burning but did not venture far out on it. Too much dust and ashes, but as I now remember there were the remains of a coyote that tried to outrun the flames and couldn't, also the singed bodies of many birds, both grouse and owls. Not as many though as one would think but enough, some rabbits, a skunk and how many others had sought the shelter of their holes only to perish, we could but guess.
Beyond the fire where plowings had checked the flames, every clump of grass left unburned was full of refugees from the fire; hundreds of grouse, also varmints of different kinds, some badly singed, others strong, active and able to make a quick getaway as we approached. The chickens would not lie for the dogs and that day's shooting was one of the lightest I ever had in Minnesota.
A day or two after the fire the weather turned cold with a high wind from the northwest, which didn't improve the shooting because the chickens all migrated. Flock after flock passed over, all high in the air. All headed south or southwest.
When shooting in Central Arkansas, a guest of Colonel Bob Crockett, I was told the same thing happened there every fall when cold weather came. The local birds migrated. A smaller arid more hardy bird came in and took their place.
The new comers into the Minnesota country were not "sharp-tails" with which type I am familiar but a distinct variety much as, along the Mississippi bottoms, a smaller mallard with red legs, came in to take the place of those that had been there since early in the season, but those Minnesota grouse, if not the bleached grouse with feathers on their legs, took to the snow much as if genuine sharptails, and many a one I have kicked out of the drifts and killed. It is not likely there are enough chickens in existence at the present time to have their comings and their goings noticed, but there is no doubt that fifty years ago they did migrate, not going as far north or south as the waterfowl, but far enough so their journeying were migrations. It is wonderful how those birds found out, but I never knew of a burning of any size, that before the ground was fully cooled, was not visited by great flocks of these birds, and it did not take them long to become very fat on the half-baked grass seeds and wholly baked snails and other insects with which the ground was covered.
These plover were hard to approach even by circling but decoyed readily. I saw one flock of probably thousands, decoy to half a dozen wing broken birds and as a result of a double shot the gunner picked out twenty-nine of them.
One drawback to this prairie shooting was that in a dry season, water was very scarce and the farmers charged as much as twenty-five cents a bucket for it, but milk, skimmed milk, could be had for the carrying of it away.
Our hunt was a long continued one. There was an uncertainty about the game law. Even the local officers did not know. One Justice of the Peace telling me he "guessed the cold weather was all the law the chickens wanted, that after a black frost they were wild enough to take care of themselves." At that it was not so cold on those prairies of the Northwest as I have seen it in the South. I have hunted day in and day out in an open sled with the thermometer indicating from zero to twenty below in Minnesota, and not suffered nearly as much as on one occasion I did in Texas and on another in North Carolina. It's all the way a person feels. If it's sport, it is not cold at all; if business or duty — well that is something else.
Neither on this hunt nor any other did I ever make as large a run of straight kills on chickens as I have on geese, ducks or pigeons, about thirty being as far as I ever got with the grouse. They were too easy.
Those days are all right to look back on, but I would not wish to live through them again myself for fear of being tempted to do things in the killing line that I now know to be wrong. It is hard to stop when a person once gets started, hard to draw the line between "enough" and "too many" even in these days of scarcity but my belief is that all of our "limits" permit the killing of "too many", and if we would save the game we must devote more of our energies to inanimate targets and less to the birds.
Hunter-Trader-Trapper. October: 1921,
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