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44 Ghostly Bird Dreams on Melancholy Mornings Early spring in the Flint and Osage Hills is a time of restless energy. Migrants whinny overhead. Frogs and toads bleat, chirp, and rattle. Wild turkey strut, greater prairie-chickens dance, and eastern collared lizards beguile the eye like abstract art in their blue and yellow breeding colors. As the hills renew spring growth, cattle arrive from the grass-deprived plains of West Texas. Cowboys on horseback sort steers and drive them by the hundreds to awaiting greener pastures. And on warm and balmy afternoons, snakes crawl out from underneath slabs of rock, bask in the sun, and watch the proceedings with unblinking eyes. So much is happening all at once that it’s a tsunami of renewal, a sensory overload accented by ungulate appetites. For my father, it was a time to be fishing. He’d walk the banks of ponds, noting the direction of the wind, the temperature, the water clarity,what birds were moving,and then he’d catch fish—lots of them. He loved fishing, but I think angling was also an excuse for simply being outdoors and watching wildlife. Back home he’d share tales of the animals and birds he’d seen, and little went undetected. He’d spent a lifetime in this tallgrass prairie country and grown to be a part of it, a man serenely at home in his surroundings. 45 Ghostly Bird Dreams on Melancholy Mornings Early one morning following a fishing trip, he returned at a loss to explain some birds he’d seen searching for food in an April pasture. I was home from college, and we drove back out to the brown and green plaid prairie, hoping to obtain a closer look. More than forty-five years have passed since that day when several shorebirds launched skyward and rowed into the wind on fluttering wings. They were smaller than long-billed curlews yet showed the modestly curved bill and simple brown plumage of the curlew tribe. I didn’t know much about shorebirds at the time, and I certainly didn’t know anything about Eskimo curlews. However, the birds we watched as they circled overhead resembled a painting in a book I borrowed from the library, enough so that I dared to dream the impossible, and I continue to do so until this day. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the Eskimo curlew , Numenius borealis, is or was a medium-size wading bird averaging around twelve inches long, with a slender, slightly curved bill. A dark crown, pale crown stripe, cinnamon highlights, brown barring, and bluish gray legs comprise the commonly accepted description given for this former prairie migrant. Unfortunately, most of what we know about the Eskimo curlew comes from museum specimens. Not many live birds have been seen, much less identified, in our lifetimes. Eskimo curlews were subjected to indiscriminate slaughter more than a hundred years ago, and today the birds most likely are extinct. That sad fact didn’t diminish my curiosity as research revealed the scope of the tragedy. According to Arthur Cleveland Bent in his Life Histories of North American Shore Birds, one observer reported Flint Hills prairies “fairly alive” with Eskimo curlews between March 25 and April 2, 1884. I read anecdotes about curlews in flocks numbering in the thousands migrating north and how hunters oftentimes wasted many of the birds they killed, figuring that the numbers were so great there could be no end to them. But the birds were exterminated just the same, suffering the same fate as the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, and other species once considered too numerous to destroy,yet in the end unable to cope with the wholesale market hunting and habitat alteration of the late 1800s. The great flocks of Eskimo curlews were birds of the past by the turn of the twentieth century. After that only a few were seen, and those sightings were sporadic in nature. I found a 1948 sighting for 46 Ghostly Bird Dreams on Melancholy Mornings Oklahoma, but I can’t confirm the validity. It was in mid-April, some seventeen miles west of Pawhuska, around the same place where I saw the small curlew-like birds I couldn’t identify in the early 1970s. Modern reports of Eskimo curlews have been rare, especially sightings by people with the birding experience that allows their sightings to be taken seriously. More often than not, modern Eskimo curlew reports turn out...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781609385309
Related ISBN
9781609385293
MARC Record
OCLC
1004673660
Pages
201
Launched on MUSE
2017-12-06
Language
English
Open Access
No
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