Monitoring the Birds of “The Oregon Trail” (One)

Frances Parkman

A copy of The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman arrived at our house recently. Parkman wrote it during and after a trip he took over part of the trail in 1846, a time when the Great Plains of the tall grasses reminded viewers of a great land ocean.

[W]e pursued our way for some time along the narrow track, in the checkered sunshine and shadow of the woods. Till at length, issuing forth into the broad light, we left behind us the farthest outskirts of that great forest, that once spread unbroken from the western plains to the shore of the Atlantic. Looking over an intervening belt of shrubbery, we saw the green, ocean-like expanse of prairie, stretching swell over swell to the horizon.

Tall grass prairie once covered 140 million acres of North America. Only about 4% remains, the two largest preserves being the 39,000 acre Tall Grass Prairie Reserve in Oklahoma and the 11,000 acres of the Flint Hills of Kansas where the National Park Service operates the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve. The rest was plowed under. But even today, in this age of splintered, tiny habitats, more than 150 species of birds can be found on the tiny remnants of a once great prairie. Imagine how many there must have been in 1846!

Parkman traveled the Trail from April to September of that year and we thought we would ride along with him, this summer of 2010, one hundred sixty-four years later, to see what he noticed about the bird life of those tall grass prairies which are now long gone.

Early in the journey, after failing to convince a Delaware Indian woman to part with one of the turkeys she was feeding at the front door of her little log house, Parkman takes his rifle and looks for something fresh for dinner.

A multitude of quails were plaintively whistling in the woods and meadows, but nothing appropriate to the rifle was to be seen, except three buzzards, seated on the spectral limbs of an old dead sycamore, that thrust itself out over the river from the dense sunny wall of fresh foliage. Their ugly heads were drawn down between their shoulders, and they seemed to luxuriate in the soft sunshine that was pouring from the west. . .As it grew dark, and the voices of the whippoorwills succeeded the whistle of the quails, we removed our saddles to the  tent to serve as pillows, spread our blankets upon the ground, and prepared to bivouac for the first time that season.

We’ll travel along with him and report to you his comments about the birds and other wildlife he meets. So far, along with the quail, the buzzards, and the whippoorwills, all he has described are “varmints” into which category he has already dumped wolves, frogs, snakes, and “musquitoes.”

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The photo of the Oklahoma tallgrass refuge, operated by the Nature Conservancy was generously put in the public domain by “Dbinfo.”



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