Birds of America

by Rex Burress

One of the first major purchases of my income-limited boyhood was the book Birds of America. That gallant volume, first published in 1917 with editor-in-chief T. Gilbert Pearson and consulting editor Naturalist John Burroughs (died 1921), is still a classic. The bird paintings of Louis Agassiz Fuertes graced that huge book that I probed in my Missouri home, and I was not only inspired by Fuertes, but awed by birds of other states that I had never seen. In later years, when I traveled west, I came in contact with some of those other species in other habitats, like the California Quail and Yellow-billed Magpie.

In September, 2002, I was to return over those American highways to my Trenton, Missouri, place of origin for my 50th high school reunion, and although that was a gratifying event, it was again the birds of America that were a major attraction. The spectacle of flying birds occupying every sector of the country is not only amazing, but that feathered presence provides a feeling of familiarity, giving the traveler comfort in strange lands and harsh habitats.

It would seem unlikely to find life in that desert vastness of stark rocks and scant plant growth stretched across the bleak Nevada and Wyoming basins, but always there were the birds to uplift the spirit and thrill the senses ... at least for a bird watcher. I wonder how many of those travelers actually noticed the roadside winged ones, although the starkly dark crows and ravens were hard to miss.

Crows were especially present in every state and along nearly every highway passageway. They are tough birds, able to scrounge a living from the most remote opportunities, although seemingly the wrong color for the glaring brightness of desert sands. Those hazardous highways, so deadly for animal life as roaring tires of giant trucks and speedy sedans whiz along at a legal 75 miles per hour, are actually a boon to the crows. The crafty Corvus clan is road-wise, able to glean the squashed flesh of countless badgers, coyotes, lizards, and snakes without getting hit. Sometimes you see an eagle or small bird struck down, but I never saw a crushed crow.

Those desert bird inhabitants also frequent the freeway rest-stop oases where small trees are usually planted. Most noticeable, at places like the Valmy, Nevada, rest stop are the House Sparrows. It is incredible how those opportunists have spread across the country, taking advantage of every shelter they can find. Valmy is near those colossal mining operations where entire mountains have been beheaded, and that region is also one of the most drought-stricken areas in a western montage of an alarming drought where even the sagebrush is dying. Much of the ground water in that industrial area is undoubtedly pumped out for the mine operations near Valmy and Battle Mountain, Nevada. But the sparrows flock to the rest stop greenery, picking up tourist crumbs and finding insects.

The western Wyoming/Little America complex of elaborate hotels and truck stop facilities is another oasis where a regular forest is pampered from the drab dirt. I watched a flock of sparrows taking shelter in an imported European birch tree outside our second-floor room as wind and storm clouds swept across the wide open spaces. Sage Grouse hunched at the lawn's edge, reluctant to take off into the spiny fields, and a pair of warblers whisked across the lawns, maybe on their way to some other destination, but stopping for rest even as we stopped for a hotel room.

In Wyoming at the edge of Nebraska, I hiked an extended nature trail at the Pine Bluffs rest stop, fascinated at seeing hollowed sandstone formations, and back in the junipers where plains Indians had gathered at one time for relief from the open prairie, a Spotted Towhee dashed through the thickets, just as it must have acted 200 or 2,000 or maybe 2 million years ago. This was also the home of prairie rattlesnakes, according to the sign, and although I wanted to see one, all was quiet on the western front. My eye goes to the earth automatically to check for geological clues, animal signs, and cultural antiquity.

What few waterholes remained in Nebraska always supported some water birds, such as a Snowy Egret, or the ever adventuresome coots. Vultures are also a recognizable summer resident, and every small town with its green park featured another all-American bird, the American Robin.

Finally, I was in my homeland of Missouri, where all my interest in birds developed 60 years ago, and along the Muddy Creek slough that I visited before sunrise every morning at the edge of Trenton, there were the familiar Green Herons and Canada Geese, while sparrow species dashed through the dense vegetation. I could hear the eastern Blue Jay shrieking in the woods, the Northern Bobwhite calling, and the Eastern Meadowlark singing its specialized song unlike that of the Western Meadowlark. And, of course, a few crows flew around the perimeter, certainly among the most consistently recognizable birds in America.

I could have confronted many of the old familiar ones if I had plowed through the brush, but it was chigger season, and although the insects are interesting and fair food for the feathered ones, I was not eager to add to a couple dozen bites I already had. Those chigger things are so small even birds can't see them, but the mite has a big bite and the itch is a fright!

Along the roadways were a few eagles, hawks, and Ospreys sharing the country with the human population - truly the varied America shared by a variety of living creatures.

2002 Rex Burress
September 12, 2002