An unsettling glimpse of the past
An online search can lead to some interesting detours in the internet realm.
While looking for information on whether a certain species had ever been found in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin — it had, but I’ll save that for a future column — I came across a free ebook, “The Birds of Illinois and Wisconsin, Volume 9,” by Charles Barney Cory and signed by him Aug. 12, 1909.
It proved to be a fascinating and, at times, unsettling glimpse into the birds that could be seen in the region roughly a century ago, before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made it illegal “to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird” without a federal permit.
While that seems like a lot of protective language, the guide gives plenty of evidence why such restraints were needed.
Several species now extinct are described, such as the Carolina “paraquet,” or parakeet, North America’s only native parrot, which in the early 1800s “were not uncommon in Illinois and southern Wisconsin”; the eskimo curlew, “formerly abundant and as late as 1895 it was not uncommon in some localities”; and, most notably for Wisconsin, the passenger pigeon.
“As late as the year 1882,” Cory wrote, “Wild Pigeons were very abundant in Illinois and Wisconsin; but about that time their numbers began to decrease very rapidly … At present time the species is practically extinct.” By 1914, it would be, when a 29-year-old captive pigeon named Martha died at the Cincinnati Zoo. That same zoo also had the last known Carolina parakeet, a male that died in 1918 in the same cage where Martha had perished.
Other species we now take for granted were struggling as well. On sandhill cranes, Cory wrote, “the last authentic record for nesting in southeastern Wisconsin was of two pair which bred near Jefferson in 1900.” Canada geese “once bred in numbers along the upper Mississippi Valley, but at the present time a few pairs make their nest occasionally in Michigan and Wisconsin, and possibly a very few in Illinois.”
Wild turkeys “were formerly abundant in Wisconsin and Illinois but for many years none have been observed in the former state. (Thure) Kumlien and Hollister (Birds of Wisconsin, p. 58) say: ‘Residents of the extreme southwestern counties claim that a few were found among the bluffs near the river as late as 1894.'” Kumlien and Hollister both were noted ornithologists of their time.
Some of these declines were due to hunting pressure — the pigeons and curlews, also called “doughbirds,” were killed and shipped out as table fare. Cory notes of whistling swans, now called tundra swans, that “the flesh of the immature birds is excellent.”
But shrinking habitat, as land was cleared or drained to allow agriculture or other development, seemed to factor as well into a number of these losses. Domestic poultry are thought to have brought in diseases for which native birds had little immunity.
The guide also indicates a trend that, thankfully, has faded enough to seem jarring now.
A century ago, the practice still was to document species by collecting skins or carcasses — eyewitness accounts weren’t enough. Some official lists didn’t count a record of a bird unless the corpse was produced.
This led to passages in the guide such as confirming the arctic tern — normally much farther north — did try to breed in Wisconsin because “We have taken it nesting in Green Bay, 1879; and in June, 1891, procured a set of eggs (the parent shot on the nest) at Lake Koshkonong.”
Or this on the “Louisiana tanager” — now known as the western tanager, a rare visitor in Wisconsin, though one a couple years ago showed up at a feeder in Niagara — “During the latter part of May, 1877, Thure Kumlien found this species nesting within a few rods of the Kumlien homestead in Jefferson County. Nest, eggs and parents were secured and are now preserved in the Museum of the State University at Madison.”
“Isn’t it a big irony?” said Laura Erickson of Duluth, Minn., an author who was science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and now is known for her podcast, blog and long-running public radio program, “For the Birds.”
But scientists didn’t just document but learned from those specimens, Erickson explained. Photography at the time was not fast enough to capture a moving bird and color photography didn’t exist, she said. Even artists had to shoot birds to be able to produce colored paintings and prints for guides.
Yet it remains a little disturbing now to read accounts back then that mentioned shooting birds on the brink of extinction, sometimes because museums thought they would be the last of their kind. Collectors would pay good money to add a rare species, said James Harding, an adjunct wildlife specialist at the Michigan State University Museum.
Collecting specimens remained a fairly common practice until only a few decades ago, Harding said. He described coming across bottles of “literally hundreds of red-backed salamanders” in storage areas. Though not a species of concern, he questioned the scientific value of such mass collection.
“We’ve certainly made progress as far as attitudes go,” Harding said
But he also noted that today offers the luxury of trail cameras and cell phones easily at hand that can take excellent photos. It has helped foster a new wave of “citizen scientists,” now a significant means for assessing where species might be and how they are faring, Harding said.
The internet, too, has provided an easy forum for posting these photos to help identify and record what’s being seen and where, said Ryan Brady, Natural Heritage Conservation biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources office in Ashland.
He just finished a five-year breeding bird survey across Wisconsin, though it will take some time to compile all the data for the report. A survey of this level of detail last was done 20 years ago, so they’ll be able to compare numbers from then and now to assess what’s changed.
The modern level of technology and communications made this survey “so much easier to coordinate and pull this off,” Brady said.
Which is why Brady, too, is reluctant to throw much shade at the methods used by his counterparts from a century ago. They worked with what they could, he said.
“I think we’re just in a different place,” Brady said.
We can’t completely consider ourselves that advanced, either, Erickson said. She cited the alarming reports this past fall that the United States and Canada have almost 3 billion fewer birds than 50 years ago — a drop of 29 percent, according to an analysis published in the journal Science in September.
While sandhill cranes, bald eagles, trumpeter swans and Kirtland’s warbler all have made remarkable recoveries in the region, a whole host of other birds seem to take their place in struggling — red-headed woodpeckers, northern bobwhite, golden-winged warblers, rusty blackbirds.
She suspects a corresponding loss of insects might be a main factor, along with such modern hazards as high-rise windows and favoring architectural designs that feature lots of glass, such as the new U.S. Bank Stadium where the Minnesota Vikings play.
“There’s so many things in our lives that hurt birds,” Erickson said. “But there are ways we can make a difference.”
In an upcoming column, I’ll provide some of her suggestions from her book, “101 Ways to Help Birds.”
Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or email@example.com.