Springtime on the Prairies
Clarence's article published in MacDonald College Magazine, 1915
Springtime on the Prairies
After the long, hard winter of extreme cold on the western prairie, spring is very welcome, and the prompt response of nature to its quickening power is very interesting.
My experience of a spring on the prairie came after a winter of extreme cold, lasting until the end of March, the thermometer registering twenty-five below zero [F] on Easter Sunday, March 25th; and this was moderate after January conditions.
The spring, however, came with a jump in true western style, and by the end of the first week in April the snow was about gone and the sun was following up his victory across a cloudless sky every day. The air had that indefinable spring feeling which makes every living thing respond to its joyous influence.
Right on the heels of winter came the migratory birds from the south. After a few warm days had thawed the sod a little, great patches of the prairie were spread over with a carpet of delicate, mauve-tinted, prairie crocuses. They are about the size of a half dollar and seem so anxious to be first to greet the spring, that they cannot take time to grow a decent stem but just pop out of the ground as soon as the frost has left it, and bloom immediately, growing a little stem afterward.
Of the birds, the first to come were the prairie horned larks, but they came before there was any real indication of spring. The ducks and geese came swarming in, in their well-ordered flocks, the geese cutting across the sky in their long V-shaped formations, flock after flock, all day long and often during the night, when their loud honking calls told of the steady progress of this great winged army, guided by the unerring instinct of their leaders to the great spruce-clad breeding grounds of the far north.
I have seen many flocks of geese pass over the city of Winnipeg by night and they were so low down that the light from the electric arcs was reflected by their grey bodies, making them appear like airy phantoms against the blackness of the night. In the daytime they fly high, and from the time they appear as specks on the southern sky until they disappear in the north they advance as steadily as a railway train, their whole appearance suggesting aim, determination and confidence. When they alight to rest or feed, they post sentinels, and keen-eyed, faithful ones they are, as anyone who has ever tried to steal up on them knows.
The northward flight of the great sandhill crane, most unwarrantably called wild turkey in the West, presents a strong contrast to that of the goose. The cranes fly so high that they are mere specks against the blue, and often their harsh croaking is heard for some time before one can locate them with the eye. They never seem in a hurry but go along leisurely, drifting northward on their broad outstretched wings, sailing along in great airy spirals, with only an occasional flap of the wings. They migrate in flocks of from fifty to seventy-five and are a large bird, having a spread of wing, from tip to tip, measuring between six and seven feet.
The gulls and terns came along a little later and they were my daily companions while at work in the fields, the small black terns being especially tame and saucy. Wherever a bit of ground was being stirred by plough, harrow or disk, they came hovering along a few feet behind, swooping down to pick up the insects and grubs exposed by the stirring of the soil. When ploughing, they would follow along within an arm's length, swooping down to seize a larva from the newly made furrow but never alighting on their delicate webbed feet, as if fearing they might be soiled.
Later in the season when these terns had built their floating nests on the sloughs near the house, they would boldly attack me when I approached them swooping down on me from above and delivering a sharp blow with their beak on the top of my head, scolding like furies all the time.
During the first days of spring one hears every morning, just at sunrise and for half an hour after, a very odd sound. It is a low, harmonious and weird booming noise, the syllable of which resemble ooka-oom boo-hoo oo-oo-oo. It is not loud or harsh and seems to come from all directions and great distances. The air almost vibrates with its soft harmony. It somewhat resembles the hooting of an owl but is deeper and more resonant. Springtime is a season of birdsong everywhere, and this peculiar song is the love call of the prairie chicken.
The males and females gather in flocks of from a dozen to fifty on some dry prairie knoll and then begins love making of a unique character. The male is provided with a pouch of loose skin on each side of the throat which he can inflate to the size of an orange, and puffing out these special ornaments he drops his wings to the ground like a turkey gobbler and struts up and down before the admiring damsels who stand shyly around in coy groups. Suddenly he makes a dash at his best speed right into their midst, producing strange booming notes before mentioned. This is repeated at intervals, often every male in the flock making the rush and booming at the same time, the volume of sound from such a display being wonderful. The females respond by running about quickly with a dead stop about every three feet. Such a spectacle is very interesting and funny, and when this same thing is going on all over the prairie at once the amount of sound produced is surprising, and though it is not loud it will carry for miles on the still morning air.
Toward the latter part of this week or more of love making, the birds are pretty well paired off, but there is usually much fighting in the last stages of the game, resulting from rivalry between the males for the affection of some shy lady, too modest to make a choice and allowing trial by combat to select the winner.
I was interested to note the western meadow lark, which cannot be distinguished in any way from our eastern species excepting by his song, which is entirely different, there being absolutely no resemblance. Not only are the series of notes different but they lack the sweet plaintiveness of the eastern bird's song.
The sloughs and creeks were alive with birds by the end of April, and then there was the added interest of the nesting habits and later the young birds in these nests.
C. M. Ewart, T., '15