Local History Goes to the Birds

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Today, to help you through the isolation, we invite you to keep an eye on the bird-brains in your neighbourhood – literally. There are many bird species that live in town, and if you’re in a rural neighbourhood there are even more. So spend some time out on your front porch, or looking through the window, and see how much variety and activity there is! And, when you’re done, enjoy this little story about some historic bird stuff:

I was flipping through my copy of Linda van Damme’s local-bird checklist, and I noticed that she lists over 300 species of birds in the Creston Valley.  When I first moved here, there were something like 265 bird species in the area.  That’s quite an increase.  And while forty new species in a little more than a decade is certainly a far more rapid growth than we’ve seen in the past, there are a few snippets in newspapers that suggest that the arrival of new species is not just a recent phenomenon.  So here’s the history part of local bird watching:

Today, ring-necked pheasants are plentiful in the Creston Valley, and while you might not always see them, their distinctive calls can certainly be heard frequently.  But they are an introduced species, brought into the valley by George B. Henderson who, in addition to being Creston’s first doctor, was also an avid hunter.  In May, 1913, the Creston Review announced, “During the past week, eight Chinese or English ring-necked pheasants were allowed to run wild.  This is the first of this species of pheasants that have ever inhabited this part of the country and every precaution should be taken to protect them.  The birds are protected by law and a heavy penalty is imposed upon any person found guilty of killing them.  They are at present around the ranches owned by D. Learmouth and Andy Anderson and may be seen quite frequently around these places.  It is thought, that by using a little judgement and extreme care in their welfare at this time, that in a few years they will be as plentiful as the grouse are at the present time.”

The wicker crate used to import the first Ring-Necked Pheasants to the Creston Valley, 1913

Hunters didn’t actively bring in Redhead ducks, but they were the ones to notice when this species arrived in the Creston Valley in October, 1942, apparently for the first time: “Hunters during the past week have reported a new duck in this district. Even the oldest of hunters agree that they have not seen the species before.  The duck is known from bird books as the Redhead, and is the parent of the well-known Canvasback.  The duck has a bright red head, followed by black on the neck and a silvery-white body and is larger than a Mallard drake.  Bird books state that this duck thrives on seeds from the land, and is the finest of eating birds known in the duck family.”

But not all of the new arrivals have been greeted so enthusiastically.  In May of 1956, the Creston Review declared, “Feathered marauders not welcome” in response to reports that starlings had made their appearance in the Creston Valley.  Their arrival was reported by W. Armstrong, B. Rauch and E.J. Garland, and the identification could not be doubted because Mr. Garland had shot one.  The Review described the bird, and went on to state that “these birds are a menace to wildlife and are of dirty habits and their extermination is essential.  The birds multiply fast and live in communities where shooting is prohibited.  If seen, word should be passed to the Rod and Gun Club members or the game warden.”

Thus began the war against starlings, but, judging from the numbers of them around the valley today, the hunters have been losing this one.

New species aside, birds have played a greater role in local history than you might imagine.  For one thing, they’ve been a major food source (some species, anyway), and early newspapers carry regular accounts of turkey and grouse shoots, especially around the holidays. One such account appeared in December 1925: “There was a very large turnout for the goose and rooster shoot at the G. Cartwright ranch on the 22nd, almost 50 seekers after a Christmas dinner taking a hand in the affair.  All told twenty birds were disposed of with Alf Palmer taking home four, and Frank Staples three, for the high scores.”

Birds have been prognosticators of the weather as well.  In March 1924, Alice Siding residents were able to declare that spring had definitely arrived because “bluebirds, blue jays, and meadowlarks are all to be seen in this section since the first of the month, and one resident who was doing land clearing reports seeing the first snake.”  In November 1945, James Holder predicted a mild winter because he had seen an Eastern bluebird near his Erickson home, and “the staying in the valley of the Eastern bluebird during the snowy weather was quite uncommon.”

A Creston Review article about bird-related challenges

Birds have also been, more often than not, challenges for the farmers.  Fred Little was the first to plant strawberries in the Creston Valley, and promptly regretted being such an innovator, because all the robins in the region descended on his fields.  And Cyril Colonel once told me that he’d planted ninety acres of sunflowers one year, but gave that up because the blackbirds ate them all.

Birds, or at least ducks, were at the root of a huge conflict between farmers and hunters over the reclamation of the Creston flats.  The farmers wanted to reclaim all of the flat land for agricultural use, and the hunters wanted large parts of it kept wild to attract ducks for them to hunt.  The conflict got quite heated, with a lot of name-calling from both sides, and even extensive reports detailing how much space a single duck needed to survive (not much, according to the farmers!).  The end result was the preservation of Duck Lake as a lake, though much of the marshy areas south of it were reclaimed, and, in 1968, the establishment of the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area.

And, on at least one occasion, birds affected local history in ways that had nothing to do with hunting or agriculture.  In 1964, plans for an airport at Creston were nixed because the large numbers of birds in the valley posed too much of a threat to jet planes.

Originally published July 2010