A doe antelope— correctly called pronghorn, or, if you want to get technical, Antilocapra Americana— has been strolling around the field and hillside south of our house for several days. She probably separated herself from the little band of 6 or 7 that has been roaming through this area all spring.
Yesterday morning, we saw her standing still, and realized that a fawn was nursing. After a few minutes, the little one zipped up the hill, running and pirouetting, bowing his head to kick his hind feet in the air, then spinning back to her side and making playful butting motions. For a half hour, he alternated nursing with exercising. Then the doe moved down into the field where the alfalfa and grasses are tall, and the fawn lay down, becoming instantly invisible. The doe grazed on up the hill, past the fence, and out of sight.
Last evening, as we sat on the deck, we spotted the fawn’s head raised above the grass like an exotic flower, no doubt breaking protocol to look for its mother. According to experts, females nurse their fawns two or three times a day during the three to four weeks the little ones spend in hiding under vegetation from predators. The females also bed fawns down in safe spots. After the babies are weaned, the does lead them to food and water, interacting with them only 20 to 25 minutes a day.
I do love looking things up, but of course one hazard of research is that the reader may wander off down byways that are not where one was heading, but are an interesting destination anyway. On one dusty side trail, I discovered this tidbit: that the pronghorn is as fast at mating as he is at sprinting over the prairie: conception is usually accomplished, said the source, with one short thrust.
Before you feel too sorry for the females, though, consider that they use several strategies to choose a mate. Since the males gather harems of females during the September breeding season, a female may visit several such groups until she decides which male she wants. When she goes into estrus, she returns to the chosen one.
And if she wants to escape, she often can: the pronghorn is the fastest land mammal of North America and the Western Hemisphere (the only animal faster is a cheetah, which antelope don’t have to escape in South Dakota).
I also have learned that, in order to escape detection, the young have almost no odor. We’ve also seen the doe wander seemingly at random around the area where she stashed the young one in the morning; maybe she’s trying to be sure she’s not followed by a coyote, but perhaps she is having trouble finding the kid.
Last night we spotted seven antelope silhouetted on top of our hill, and watched them scatter down the hillside toward the greener grass in the bottom. And among them, skittering and frolicking, was one that was clearly smaller than the rest.
Linda M. Hasselstrom Windbreak House Writing Retreats Hermosa, South Dakota
The Great Plains Native Plant Society newsletter for Spring 2018 contains a summary of the World Wildlife Fund’s 2017 Plowprint Report– a survey of what’s happening to grasslands in the world.
Temperate grassland ecosystems– like we have in western South Dakota– are among the world’s least protected biomes. Worldwide, this habitat is being lost at a terrifying rate because of the production of food and fuel for the growing human population. As grasslands decline we lose the services grasslands provide, from carbon sequestration to water infiltration.
Corn and soy have driven out the majority of the tallgrass prairie in the eastern Great Plains.
Since 2009, nearly 8% of the landscape in the Great Plains has been plowed for crops, leaving about 54% of the grassland intact.
In 2015-2016 alone, 2.5 MILLION acres of Great Plains grasslands were lost to crop production. Keeping these grasslands intact could have saved 1.7 TRILLION gallons of water, or about 4% of the total flow volume of the Missouri River Basin, or ¼ the volume of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
Instead, this water– enough for 11.6 million 4-person homes’ annual use– washed the equivalent of the weight of 127 Empire State buildings, or 46 MILLION TONS of sediment and fertilizer into rivers, lakes, streams, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.
As grasslands go, so go the birds. At least 6 songbird species that are ONLY found in the Great Plains are in serious danger of disappearing. Many bird populations in the plains have declined 65-94% since the 1960s.
Intact grasslands hold thousands of years’ worth of organic matter that gives the land its ability to store and filter water, stabilize soil, sequester carbon and support diverse life above and below ground. We cannot easily, if at all, recover the losses.
You can help support the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups (such as The Nature Conservancy, and Quivira Coalition, and many others) that are trying to reverse the grasslands destruction by
— Encouraging sustainable agricultural for producers, and encouraging responsible sourcing for companies that buy agricultural products.
— Lobbying for conservation programs to be included in the 2018 Farm Bill, such as:
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to help fund the retirement of marginal land to grassland for habitat and to build soils.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to encourage conservation partnerships that are coordinated, leveraged and well-funded.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to provide assistance to landowners seeking to improve conservation outcomes on working lands.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to permanently protect grassland from development, subdivision and conversion.
A strong Sodsaver provision that eliminates insurance subsidies when native grasslands are plowed under to produce crops.
Enhanced Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) Technical Assistance funding so that farmers and ranchers are afforded the technical expertise necessary to access farm programs and improve conservation outcomes.
Funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program to assist ranching families with transitions to the next generation and to assist with bringing new ranchers into opportunities for mentoring.
— And educating people about the importance of grassland conservation and encouraging them to share their commitment to this with family and friends, as well as with companies that sell food and other agricultural products.
Skunks are always around on the prairie, but with luck we hardly know it because they pursue their diet of insects, worms rodents, lizards, frogs, snakes, birds, eggs, berries, roots, leaves and grasses without disturbing us.
Our current resident skunk is properly polite, as befits a wild denizen of the plains. We’ve seen signs of occupancy in disused badger holes on the outskirts of our hill but the Striped Stinker has never forced a confrontation with the dogs. Most importantly, the Odiferous One has not come into the dog pen, nor established a burrow under the porch or garage, as the breed likes to do.
At the New Year, however, we discarded a few crab legs in the compost bin, a tall plastic affair backed into the railroad tie fence near the house. That night, the Deft Digger burrowed under the plastic framework of the bin, into the compost, and straight through to the top, gobbling crab legs all the way. Rummaging for more, the skunk shoved most of the compost into scattered piles around the compost bin.
A few nights later we set the game camera and captured the Skunk Minuet. Sharp-eyed viewers may also spot a mouse that was benefitting from our discarded scraps as well (in the last photo). Scroll through the pictures quickly and the Smelly one appears to be dancing.
Meanwhile, Jerry put the compost back, filled in the hole, and piled rocks in front of the bin.
That night, Sir– or Mistress– Skunk dug in through the back of the bin, and scattered compost. Now our compost bin is solidly ringed and braced with rocks on all sides.
Will this stop the Furry Fury? We hope so. But we’re setting the camera to keep track of the next round in the dance.
Linda M. Hasselstrom Windbreak House Writing Retreats Hermosa, South Dakota
I step outside the basement door into 97 degrees, but the evening is cooling down though it’s nearly two hours until sunset. Carefully, I climb into my canvas “sky chair,” hung from the deck by a single rope. I’m sweltering but invigorated after a hot bath infused with peppermint oil, eucalyptus, wintergreen, juniper, palm and clove oils.
In one hand I hold a gin and tonic, moisture beaded on the sides of the glass. The other hand clutches a pen and the slightly damp yellow pad covered with the ideas I scrawled while marinating in hot water and herbal oils. Not long ago, we bought an antique claw foot bathtub nearly as long as I am. Jerry installed it in a beautifully paneled alcove, which I curtained and furnished with a table for bath oils, wash cloths, and writing materials.
This is my idea of pure bliss: to work hard all day, slip into a bath and have a writing idea that compels me to write while I soak. A good day’s work and hot bath would have been enough to make the day excellent. The writing is an unexpected dividend, the fruit of the day’s quiet reflection.
Jerry spent his day mowing the yard and tilling the garden; he leans back in a padded chair beside mine. Bubbles rise from his beer. The two Westies, Cosmo and Toby, lie panting on a rug beside my feet. I dampen them with a handful or two of water from their bowl and they relax, eyes closed. We tell ourselves we feel a breeze.
Summer. In years past, I would have been driving haying equipment, piling up the hay crop for winter cattle feed. After I sold my cattle, the man who rented the land took over responsibility for the harvest. He’s hired a neighbor’s swather, which rumbled around the field, cutting hay and sweeping it into lines that followed the field’s contours, then lumbered away. Dozens of round bales shining with green plastic wrap are lined up in even rows all over the field. The sinking sun makes some part of the baler twinkle.
A robin rushes past carrying something wiggly in its beak, then perches on the fence, looking around. We’ve watched the nest under the deck as three blue eggs hatched into the three chicks that cheep for supper. Sitting under the deck, we make the robin nervous, but it darts to the nest and then away.
In the deep grass of the field south of the house, meadowlarks are whistling. Red-winged blackbirds trill from the cattails along the pond. Tree swallows tweet as they zip past. The robin lands in the grass, leaps ahead to snatch up an insect, then looks toward the nest. Everything in our sight is preparing for winter. Two of the biggest stories on the Internet today were about flesh-eating bacteria and the new practice of snorting chocolate powder to get a thrill. The nature I’m watching is too busy to notice what humans fear or how they entertain themselves.
The tomato plants push against the wire of their cages. Compelled to grow, they divide and branch as they reach for water and sunshine. Every inch of branch that extends from the main stem makes nutrients travel farther before reaching a flower that will become a fruit. Green tomatoes the size of a hen’s egg are nearly hidden by leaves, and yellow blossoms reach for the sun.
I want tomatoes, not branches, so my thumb and nail are stained green from pruning secondary stems. Rabbits have been eating the bean and pepper leaves, so I’ve slipped a horizontal slice of a soft drink bottle over each plant to protect the stem and lower leaves until the plant is strong enough to resist the depredation. On a metal table Jerry made, too high for the rabbits to reach, herbs thrive in pots. Calendula blooms are vivid yellow-orange beside feathery parsley and the pale purple blooms of lavender. Inside, in our homemade dryer, parsley, basil and chives are withering, getting ready for me to store them in labeled jars for winter stews. I’ll stitch little bags of lavender to slip inside my pillows for easing into sleep.
Leaves shiver in a breeze as the black storm that rumbled past us heading east swings around to the south. White clouds boil over the ridge, shading to gray and black underneath. The storm may come back. We planted our little garden in raised beds and pots just south of the house and deck for maximum protection, but if this storm carries hail, it could devastate our plants. I’ve moved several potted tomatoes on rolling platforms under the deck, but even that might not save them.
The limber stems of flax bend and wave, turning blue flowers back and forth like the faces of a crowd. Regal Maltese cross plants sway gently, blossoms startling red against the clouds. A pair of jets roar overhead, charging out of the clouds, aimed toward the nearby Air Force base after maneuvers that may have taken them anywhere in the world. Their business is being prepared to protect all of us below their roaring progress.
Nighthawks fly, their narrow wings slicing the sky, calling peent with long pauses between as the birds wheel and dart after insects, an aerial ballet both beautiful and deadly. Down by the water, the killdeer, likewise hunting, rise up from the marsh plants, calling killdee, killdee! I hear a flutter overhead, and a twig falls: the robin has darted to its nest again. A tree swallow zings west to east, then loops and loops and loops as another pirouettes beside it. Every living creature I can see is busy eating and harvesting, growing and thriving, too busy to snort chocolate or anything else for entertainment.
I sat down here to write, but now, with Jerry, I’m watching what there is to see, sweating gently and enjoying a light breeze.
The clouds behind the ridge have blackened, so the grass glows vividly green and gold in the sunset. We look for antelope on the skyline; they’ve been missing from our neighborhood for weeks. On our hillside, the grass crunches when I walk. Our fire danger is high in this year of drought, but relatives who visit from northern South Dakota say our landscape is greener than theirs.
As the breeze rises, a tree swallow hangs almost stationary against it, flapping vigorously toward the bird house, but getting no nearer. The robin sits on the post with a worm in its mouth, turning its head to watch us, then leaps into the air and lands on the nest overhead. “Cluck.” The cheeping overhead pauses. In the distance a long-billed curlew wolf-whistles. We haven’t seen any of the big birds for months, but it’s good to know they are still living in the tall grass of our pastures. They don’t thrive in agricultural areas, so rangeland that is not overgrazed is perfect habitat for them.
We observed Litha, the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year, more than a month ago. On that day the earth was balanced between light and dark, between summer and winter. Every day since has been a little shorter and brought us a little closer to winter.
Traditionally, this is the time of the first harvest, forecasting the business of late summer days as the pace of gathering increases. Everything we see is preparing, in its own way, for the days to come. The animals are better at this preparation than the humans; while we fret over national and international affairs, they quietly pursue their own business. They have endured countless generations of human agitation, yet they survive.
Linda M. Hasselstrom Windbreak House Writing Retreats Hermosa, South Dakota
I touch the brakes as a squirrel races across the highway. He flings his tail forward like an oar, propelling himself to safety in the rabbit brush well ahead of my tires.
My Westie, Frodo, lunges over the back seat and stands with his paws on the dashboard, barking. He’s never caught a squirrel, but in the city they taunt him from treetops, so he’s sure they are legitimate prey and therefore can be yapped at.
To distract him, I reach for his bag of treats but it’s empty. Without looking away from the highway, I find trail mix in my grocery sack and give him a peanut while I eat an almond. He eyes me suspiciously, surmising that what I’m eating is better than his snack. But if I gave him an almond, he might behave like a squirrel I once corrupted.
In my senior year of college, facing graduation, I knew I’d have to decide soon whether to go back to the ranch to marry a local boy or try to make a life for myself in the competitive world where most people live. I worked then as a reporter on the night staff of a daily newspaper, watching the news from Viet Nam and assessing my nerve to see if I had enough to be a war correspondent. I didn’t, but I entered a marriage that proved nearly as unpleasant in the long run.
Each morning I drove sixty miles from my upstairs apartment near the newspaper office to graduate classes. Each afternoon, I drove back to Sioux City, Iowa, the biggest city I’d ever seen, population one hundred thousand people. I lived in an old Victorian mansion that retained a few traces of its former elegance, like a beautiful old woman wearing a ragged velvet gown. From my apartment on the top floor, I looked out on a broad avenue where the city’s blue bloods first reigned. When the children of these aristocrats fled to the outskirts of town, a medley of humbler citizens moved in, including my Jewish landlady who rented the top floor after her husband died and her son moved out.
In my apartment’s one large room, faded wallpaper was embossed with red and gold roses. A couch and two worn chairs defined the living room by sitting with their backs to a bed tucked under a roof slope so steep the ceiling touched my head when I read in bed. When I lay down to sleep, the attic came alive with shuffles and squeaks. Though I knew from experience the sounds were squadrons of squirrels cavorting among the resident bats, I pictured a different scene. My landlady had said that during the Twenties, when a bootlegger owned the house, her beaus spoke softly of visiting these rooms to get illicit liquor. They whispered of lovely women who may have sold their favors on the side. As I drifted into sleep, the thumps and whispers in the attic became a dream of soft music and slim women in short fringed, the beads and the ice in their drinks clicking as they danced in the shadows. A secret back stair in the closet had been closed off years before, because it was too narrow for modern safety standards.
The tiny kitchen created by walling off one corner of the room was efficiently fitted with oddly-shaped cupboards. One door opened into a dining room with polished oak floors, a battered but aristocratic buffet, and double doors opening onto a porch big enough for one chair. The porch topped an ugly fire escape required for apartment buildings by federal regulations, attached like an abscess to the house’s facade. One evening as I sat on the tiny porch above the wooden stairs, eating peanuts and tossing shells over the railing, the squirrel entered my life. She clung to a tree branch overhead and screeched while I whispered sweetly, trying to lure her closer. When I went to work, I left a few peanuts on the railing.
Each evening after that, I left a few nuts on the porch. And every day, while I stared into the refrigerator hoping to find better food, she scampered back and forth on the railing, chattering.
Timing her arrival to mine was harder than it sounds. I drove to graduate classes at the college sixty miles away every day. I came home each afternoon to rest or study before bicycling to the newspaper where I worked from five p.m. until one in the morning. The squirrel soon identified both my vehicles. I’d often see her a block away, scampering along a high branch toward the porch to wait on the railing until I got inside.
On my days off, I put peanuts out each afternoon, shut the door and watched as the squirrel approached, advancing one hop and retreating three, until she could snatch a peanut and leap to a branch. Success or winter made her bolder. By the third month, she’d grab her peanut while I stood inside the open door. By spring, she’d sit on the railing beside my chair, eating from my opened palm.
When summer arrived, with memories of mowing hay on the ranch, I grew homesick and feverish. Walking sleepless along the river late at night, I could picture snow melting on high mountains in the north, knowing the winter’s heavy snowpack would soon come roaring down the river. The Corps of Engineers had squeezed the river between artificial concrete banks. Looking north along the walkways was like looking at a big woman who insists on forcing her ample shanks into a maiden’s corset. A flood could burst the concrete stays, flooding the low streets in the valley. Heat magnified the existence of one of Sioux City great attractions, “the world’s largest pile of manure.” Scooped from the busy stockyards, the pile loomed beside the river, bubbling with heat and broadcasting its odors for miles. I imagined a flood dismantling the mound and scattering it over the fields while the smashed remnants of the river walls washed up in downtown New Orleans.
In spite of having a job, I was still a penniless college student, barely paying expense from living off campus and driving back and forth with my night job. Unable to afford air conditioning, I ventilated my attic space with open doors and windows. One evening when I was scrambling eggs for a sandwich, I glanced up to see the squirrel in the dining room. Moving slowly, I placed a peanut on the polished floor. She gobbled it, then sat up and chirped at me. After that, she’d run along the porch railing to rattle the door knob until I let her in.
Keeping my old car running cost more than I’d reckoned. By January, I was eating oatmeal twice daily. With no peanuts in the budget, I rationed a can of mixed nuts from Christmas, doling out one peanut a day until they were gone. The next time the squirrel knocked, I picked out an almond. The squirrel put it down on the floor and looked up. She sniffed it, skittered to the door and back. Finally, she ate it. I fed her the rest of the nuts, mostly almonds because I’d eaten my favorite, the cashews, first.
The day my paycheck arrived, the squirrel pounded at door knob while I was climbing the stairs with my grocery bags. I grabbed the bag of peanuts off the top and knelt in the doorway holding one. She advanced, flipping her tail and looking over her shoulder to check the escape route. She sniffed the peanut on my hand and sat back on her haunches. Then she advanced jerkily to sniff again. I picked up three more peanuts. She marched forward and rummaged among the nuts with both paws.
Just as I realized that she was looking for almonds where none existed, she fastened her teeth in the most almond-like object she saw and ran. Her teeth were locked in my finger. Her running paws scrabbled and slipped on the waxed floor. She dangled from my hand, eyes rolling.
Calmly, I mentioned her error. As her teeth broke through my skin and she tasted blood, I spoke less calmly. She executed a midair somersault, and zipped into her tree. For an hour she sat on the railing beside a pile of peanuts, chattering.
I sat on the couch thinking, feeling every hot pulse in my finger and wondering if I needed a rabies shot. I’d tantalized the squirrel with treats beyond my budget and beyond her ability to fend for herself, taught the squirrel upward mobility. She grabbed an almond and ran on air, confused by the shower of blood. Just like a human.
In the years since, I have applied what the squirrel taught me to my own life. I refuse to covet or buy gadgets without considering the costs and the consequences. Will the item, I ask myself, fit not only my financial budget, but my environmental account?
When did I write this, asked my assistant Tam, as we discussed putting it on the WordPress site.
Hmm. Since I am, like many writers, something of a packrat and descended from several generations of people who hold onto things, I was able to find the metal file box in which I tracked my nonfiction submissions until about 2001– before computers.
While flipping through it looking for the squirrel story, I spotted the category labeled “Old Manuscripts: not quite dead but on life support.” Behind that divider I find a piece titled “A chocolate éclair with spiders in it,” a 5000-word essay written in 1969 and submitted once. I can’t recall what that was about, but wish I had a copy so I could find out. Another piece was “Overdue Inventions,” written in 1985 and rejected by the Saturday Evening Post and Christian Science Monitor but now lost. I dismantled “The Consequences of Fame,” and used part of it in another piece. I suspect that “Down But Not Out in the Fine Arts Capitol of the World,” written in 1974, might have been about my literary magazine and press. “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy: the best food in the West,” was rejected by both High Country News and Northern Lights, magazines which regularly accepted work from me.
But my writing wasn’t all failure; the “published fiction” section of the box includes notes on several pieces I called fiction but which were actually written from my experiences. I incorporated several of them into later nonfiction work.
See how easily a writer is distracted?
In the S section of the Nonfiction Submissions, I find that “The Squirrel on the Fire Escape,” at 1100 words, was rejected by High Country News in 1994, by South Dakota Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, and Reader’s Digest in 1995, then revised and submitted to High Country News again in 1999– and then I apparently stopped submitting it.
The history of this little piece probably demonstrates how I learned about publication success and failure. I suggest to the writers with whom I work that they not submit always to the most popular magazines– like Christian Science Monitor and Reader’s Digest; while the rate of pay is good, those magazines get thousands of submissions and their readers must always be overworked. Instead, look for good publications in your region, where you might build a relationship with an editor and gradually become a respected contributor to the pages.
Persistence did pay off with Christian Science Monitor, which accepted several of my essays. I worked with an editor there I liked, and doubtless the publications helped when I submitted to book publishers. But I developed a closer and longer (still going) relationship with High Country News. One of its editors, Betsy Marston, often wrote concise and useful comments on my work, helping me to revise pieces that she later accepted.
I’ve never been back to Sioux City to drive by the house where I lived, though now I realize that it must have been a four-square, like our house in Cheyenne. I remember my landlady very well; she was an elegant woman with a clear understanding of how hard it was to be young and poor; she was very intelligent and very considerate of me. So when I dropped the glass shelf from my refrigerator and slashed open my wrist, I wrapped towels around it until I realized that I couldn’t stop the gushing blood. I also knew I couldn’t drive, so I called an ambulance– but asked them not to use the siren so as not to alarm her. After I got home with my stitches, she came upstairs several times to be sure I was OK.
I’ve never tried to feed a wild animal again.
Writing: Where I’ve Been
The writing that appears in this category, “Writing: Where I’ve Been” is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.
Re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.
Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.
I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.
No matter what your response, I’ve posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
Slog, slog, slog. Step by step I plodded through the deep mud of the calving corral, pushing a stumbling newborn calf and his mother through the falling snow into the barn where the baby could get dry and nurse. I was wearing the same coveralls that I’d worn all week while wallowing in the manure-laden mud. My nose was not only dribbling but sticky where I’d swiped at it with a muddy glove. My hair itched, sticking to my skull under the two stocking caps. Snowflakes caked my glasses. That spring a few years ago, we were only a week into calving season. The forecast said snow would continue for several more days.
The wolf whistle was so loud I nearly sprained my neck looking around.
The whistle sounded again, raucous and confident. The law school boys sounded the same when I walked past them on my way to class fifteen years and a dozen pounds before. I turned my head and spotted the whistler, a black bird with red and gold epaulets.
My spine straightened and I smiled. Spring would come, and here was the proof: the first red-winged blackbird of the season.
Just as our patience with winter wears thin, we’ll see one of the birds for a day or two. Then it vanishes and a couple of days later the main flock arrives.
That early arrival and that wolf whistle are two reasons the red-winged blackbird is my favorite prairie bird. (I’m not counting the birds of prey like owls, hawks, and eagles. They are in a category of their own– but they don’t cheer me with whistles.)
For years, I’d be trudging through calving season on the ranch, and the first bird to herald spring would be the red-winged blackbird– with his raucous sound.
Within a day or two of that herald’s arrival, flocks of them gather in the tops of the cottonwood trees, singing gloriously. For several days, they seem to go everywhere together, like teenage girls, squawking, chirping, singing, and flapping. After a few minutes in one tree, the whole flock WHOOSHES up with incredible precision and lands in another tree in unison. At first, the flocks are mostly males, distinguishable from all other blackbirds by those red and gold shoulders, and by their tumbling, torrential song. They are always visible, perching as high as they can– on the chimney, on electric wires, on fence posts– singing a song that’s described as “conka-la-REEEE!” When they are hungry, they fly in a raucous flock to feast on grass seed, or the delicacies found among the cattails in the gully.
The bird’s scientific name is derived from the Greek Agelaius: “belonging to a flock” and phoeniceus, meaning “dark red,” for their habits. Bird experts say that winter congregations can be several million of these birds, including other blackbird species and starlings. Each morning the flocks fly away from their roosts, traveling as far as 50 miles to feed, then returning at night.
And all the while they chatter. Anthropomorphizing wildly, I assume they are catching up on the migration news, commenting on the qualities of the insects and seeds they’re foraging.
Each spring one would perch on the chimney at Windbreak House Retreats and the writer in residence would always conclude that we’d been adopted as his territory. If so, we female writers were not his only conquests. The red-winged blackbird is highly polygynous, meaning that each male may have several female mates nesting inside his territory; up to 15, according to experts.
The males defend their territory aggressively against intruders, including humans and other birds. I’ve seen these redwings rise to fly above a hawk, darting in to peck and claw at its head. As the hawk flew, more males would rise from their territories to attack the predator in succession, driving him from territory to territory.
Bird-watchers say the males may spend 90 percent of their time defending their space, but fierce as they are, one-quarter to one-half of their nestlings may have been sired by a bird other than the territorial male. I could pretty easily create a story here about what modest-looking females might be up to while the males are strutting, preening and bellowing, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.
This year, we saw the first redwing on March 13. Now, a month and a half later, we don’t hear their songs so often because they have chosen territories and spread out around the homestead.
Females of the species are brown with white stripes on their backs and over each eye. They skulk in the deep grass, tending to the business of catching lunch and building nests. We are careful to leave bushes and tall grass undisturbed along the edges of fields and gullies.
To build each nest, the female selects long, stringy plants and winds them around several close, upright stems. Then she weaves plant material between the uprights to create a platform usually composed of coarse vegetation, leaves and sometimes decayed wood. She makes zillions of trips to the muddy pond to collect mud for plastering the inside of the nest. She lines this cup with slender, dry grasses. According to allaboutbirds.org, one nest picked apart by a naturalist in the 1930s had been made by weaving together 34 strips of willow bark and 142 cattail leaves, some 2 feet long. When finished the nest is 4 to 7 inches across and 3 to 7 inches deep, and may be tucked under leaves or branches in such a way as to be protected from rain. Each female lays two to four blue-green to gray eggs with black and brown markings which hatch in about two weeks.
We knew as we moved our mowers to the alfalfa fields in June that some of the birds were nesting among the tall plants. We found it almost impossible to see their nests in time to avoid them, and sometimes vultures stalked our mowers, presumably gobbling the dead baby birds.
Still, since the redwings usually raise two broods during a season, the nests may have been empty. The birds build a new nest for each brood, possibly to keep them from being infested by parasites. However when we hayed in a field where tall willow bushes allowed me to gain privacy to relieve myself, I would just be preparing to do so when a male blackbird would dart at my face, sometimes dragging his talons through my hair.
The redwinged blackbird appears to be thriving on the grasslands, along with meadowlarks, but I worry about some of the lesser-known birds. Listening to the changes in the morning chorus today, as the meadowlarks and blackbirds sing less and spend more time building nests, I suddenly remembered the long-billed curlew.
They never appeared close to the buildings, but when I would ride into more distant pasture on a spring morning years ago, I’d see their distinctive landings. As soon as the bird’s feet touch ground, it raises long wings high, then slowly folds them down close to the body. These beautiful birds are aggressive about their nests as well. I seldom saw a nest before the bird zoomed up out of the grass flapping at my face. As I slowly backed the horses away, I’d see a hollow in the limestone on some rocky ridge with a little grass, twigs or rocks surrounding the eggs.
Where have they gone? Online information suggests that their habitat has been declining as the prairie becomes busier with subdivisions, four-wheelers and other human activities. Still, I was able to discover two sightings in my extended neighborhood– one on the grasslands along Highway 40 and another near Folsom School. So I hope that this incredible bird is finding a way to adapt and survive on the prairie that remains.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
In honor of National Cowboy Poetry Week, April 19 to 25, I’m looking at how I created one of my few rhyming poems, “Priests of the Prairie” (2004).
My first intention was to write a poem about vultures— or as we call them here, buzzards— in the style of Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers wrote free verse similar to that written by Walt Whitman, and narrative poems in traditional blank verse. Here, for example, is a segment of Jeffers’s poem “Vulture”
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing,
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, ‘My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.’ But how beautiful
he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light
over the precipice.
Since Jeffers died in 1962, I should make clear that I was not imitating his poem; I had not read it until I went looking for examples of his verse to include in this essay. I like the central idea of Jeffers’ poem, however: the poet tells the buzzard he’s not available yet.
Often, as soon as I start writing about a subject, I realize I don’t know nearly enough. So I started this poem with research into vultures to supplement what I had learned in 60 years of observing them on this prairie.
Here are a few of my notes:
— nest in cliff overhangs, rocky cavities, badger holes!!
— Bank hollows, caves, tree cavities, abandoned buildings, among rocks; nest sites always dark and well concealed; no actual nest is constructed– eggs laid on substrate
— 2 eggs, rarely 1 or 3; dull to creamy white with various-sized spots and blotches of pale and lighter brown; incubation 38-41 days
— young birds will disgorge their food or bite when approached
— long wings allow them to soar
— groups often seen in high spots with wings spread wide in the sun
I love the idea that they may nest in badger holes, and will have to pursue that thought sometime.
Then I wrote “are vultures in the Bible?” showing that my mind had already decided on a religious connection with the poem.
The answer is yes; I found several references in my Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments, and looked them up in the Holy Bible Helen Painter gave me in 1953 when I joined the church. In Chapter 11 of Leviticus, for example, the Lord lays down The Law to Moses, telling him what the children of Israel may not do if they want to stay in His good graces. Among those rules is that they should not eat vultures— or ravens, owls, nighthawks, swans, pelicans, storks, herons or bats.
Since I had no intention of writing poetically about eating vultures, I went on to Job 28:7, a lovely and mysterious passage: “There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s eye hath not seen.” This is a terrific metaphor for the search for knowledge, clearly written by someone who understands vultures. If a vulture can’t see the path from his vantage point, it’s hard to find. Ornithologists had wondered if, since a vulture’s sense of smell is so acute that it can track the odor of rotting flesh in only a few parts per billion of air, there might not be a corresponding decline in its eyesight; if you can smell your food, maybe you don’t need to see it. In a fascinating study in 2013, however, it was determined that the vulture’s eyesight is “very good.” The folks who created Job already knew that. I abandoned the Bible as a source of insight into vulture habits.
On my drive to Windbreak House from my home in Cheyenne, WY, on September 21, 2000, I thought for hours, following connections without any regard to their relevance. I jotted a few words on a yellow tablet in the passenger seat of my vehicle.
— enfold you in his black and feathered cloak
— sharp beak severs connections to the world, slices sinew
— words for priesthood he calls: father, clergy, ministry, cloth, eminence, reverence, confessor, pilgrim, holy orders, consecration, ordain,
— black cloaks spreading, blotting out the sun
— to settle in a circle, a choir
— warm flesh to cold, chill, snow, icy eyes?
— truth, soul
— rending of garments and gnashing of teeth
— CHECK REVELATIONS
I was narrowing my focus, strengthening the religious connotations for the poem.
— his symbol: curve of beak and talon, curve of earth and eyeball, belly, cheek, nostril
— bald as a Pope
— whisper of rough cloth or smooth wings
— hands hidden in sleeve: claws in feathers?
— click of rosary: beak on bone
— play on HABITS
Once I reached the retreat house that day, I wrote more notes, this time focusing on what I know of buzzards from watching them clean up dead cattle in our pastures for years.
– Head turns to focus eye
– beak vivid yellow, know they’re dipped first in the eye of a dead calf
– soaring in spirals down the field, up over trees, past buildings, always with that steady regard of the ground, never flapping
– Wingtips splayed like fingers
– never flap in breeze too light to stir the fine hair on a baby’s head.
– They soar, bare, wrinkled necks hidden
– shoulders hunched.
Three days later, I began to carve some rough lines from my notes.
Brother Buzzard circles overhead, feathered cloak
shining in the sun, the air so sweet and clean
beneath his wings he rises over fluffy clouds and mountain peaks.
He drifts above the stink of diesel trucks, the SUVs,
the sporty jobs and family vans, above the asphalt deaths,
the stink of twisted ropes of flesh along the interstates.
His eyes see to eternity, and beyond.Until he spirals downward past the clouds,
calling others of the priesthood to worship at the feast.
This version had some interesting details, and I liked some of the rhythm, but it focused on what the buzzard saw, rather than the bird’s actions.
The poem soared around my head for days, while I considered the possibilities of making its rhythm iambic pentameter. This is the most familiar of the cowboy poetry rhythms, some say because it echoes the sounds of a horse walking.
One iambic foot is “ta DUM”, consisting of one unaccented and one accented syllable. As I aimed for a smooth tempo, another version of the poem landed on paper on July 4. By this time I’d decided that I wanted to use iambic, but not iambic pentameter—5 iambic feet to each line—because it is the very most common cowboy poetry format. In my draft, each line had seven iambic feet—until I reached the last line.
BROther BUZZzard LEADS a CLOIStered LIFE when HE’S at HOME. (7 feet)
He pairs for life and builds a nest secluded in some hollow (7 feet)
deep within a rocky cliff. Mrs. Buzzard lays (7 feet)
two eggs, creamy white with blotches. Brother Buzzard shares (7 feet)
the incubation chores, but every afternoon he sits (7 feet)
in sunshine with the others of his kind to preen and spread (7 feet)
his mighty wings, his feathered cloak of black (5 feet)
I liked the rhythm, but noted on the draft that the poem was “less interesting.”
I printed the poem out, and kept it near my computer, sometimes moving it to the dining room table while I ate, or putting it beside my bed so I could read it first thing in the morning. Keeping the poem close to me meant my subconscious mind would work on the poem even as I conducted a retreat and ate and slept and conversed like a normal person.
Doing more research, I had discovered that “to meet in choir” meant “to settle in a circle.” It’s unlikely that many of my listeners or readers will know this fact, but the term “choir” adds to the religious mood, and is correct, which pleases me greatly.
More lines began to emerge. These, however were not in iambic pentameter but in dactyl: DUM da da DUM da da, a meter that resembles a horse cantering instead of walking.
WHISpering PRACtical PRAYERS for the DEAD,
the BROtherhood MEETs in CHOIR
That’s a long line, with seven dactylic feet, so I read the line aloud to be sure that in a performance I could complete it in one breath.
Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
they gather at high noon to pray.
This line, too, has seven dactylic feet. But could I find a word that made sense and rhymed with “choir”?
In order to decide how to revise the line, I had to remind myself why the buzzards are gathering. I vividly recall when I found my favorite heifer dead, with a half-dozen vultures standing on her corpse feeding. Of course— the buzzard-priests are not just devouring the dead animal, but celebrating a funeral! So I changed the line.
Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
circling the funeral pyre.
To be strictly accurate, funeral pyre means combustible material burned to celebrate a death, but the rhyme makes sense in context.
Their dusty black tunics hang flat on their bones
as shoulder to shoulder they stand
Whoops— rhythm and rhyme both fell apart in the next line:
from tonsured heads erect on scraggly necks
to bony ankles backs to the sun they
By now, I had begun to realize that I might be able to construct the poem with some respectable rhymes, and began thinking of it as an homage or thanks to The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where I’d been invited to perform several times. So I concentrated on making the rhythm perfect and the rhymes logical. If a poet intends to rhyme, the standard is very high. To remind myself of the best, I read the poetry of Wallace McRae. Writing poems is not a competition, but if you plan to write and recite the poem in exalted company, I think it’s smart to read the very best.
My work on the poem after this consisted of changes that would seem minute if I reproduced all the drafts. Over and over I read and recited the poem, beating out the rhythm on the steering wheel as I drove, or on my desk as I typed. I looked at my rhyming dictionary and wrote lists of words that might fit the meaning of the poem. As I worked, I also discovered some humor that seemed to fit the occasion.
I think the finished poem carries considerable poetic weight, portraying accurately how a group of buzzards looks gathered on the 80 pound body of a dead newborn calf, and the philosophical humor of a rancher who knows the sight represents loss of nine months of a cow’s life as well as the year’s profit from her at the sale ring.
Priests of the Prairie
Whispering practical prayers for the dead,
the brotherhood meets in choir.
Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
circling the funeral pyre.
Their dusty black tunics hang flat on their bones,
shoulder to shoulder they stand.
Tonsured heads wobble on scraggly necks
as they pray in the pastureland.
From out of the West, the priesthood has come,
cloaks shining black in the sun,
to gather around this altar of flesh
until their communion is done.
Their eyes see forever– and somewhat beyond;
eternity, and a square meal.
The Brothers of Buzzard are worshipping lunch,
devouring the finest of veal.
(c) 2004, Linda M. Hasselstrom
The poem was first published in Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion, Gibbs-Smith, in 2004, and I have read it several times since then in Elko, home of The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. I enjoy beginning to read the poem in a deep voice with great solemnity. Almost immediately, I catch audience attention because the dactylic rhythm suggests humor rather than seriousness, and thus contrasts with my tone of voice and attitude. On the final stanza, I gesture to the sun from which the priesthood descends– and intone the final two lines with a smile.
But there’s more. Re-reading these drafts and writing these comments, I’ve noticed some lines and ideas that didn’t make it into the final poem. I gave up on writing about the bird’s actual life, but those details are significant, since the bird forms an important role in prairie ecology, cleaning up carrion. I’m fascinated again by the phrases:
– warm flesh to cold
– bald as a Pope
– click of rosary: beak on bone
Since I look forward to the arrival of vultures every spring, I don’t doubt that I may write more about them. And now I’ve reminded myself that I have these unused notes, my subconscious mind has already begun working on what else I might say about vultures. This is surely another good reason to keep early drafts of poems. On a computer, it’s too easy to rewrite without saving those drafts, but it’s equally easy to date and save them. I’d forgotten those images, and have rediscovered them only because I looked up the poem’s early drafts to write this commentary.
That’s how poetry develops. I can’t show you every step I took, or create a set of rules that will lead you to your own rhyming poem, but remember it’s important to read the kind of poetry you want to write, and then set your standards high. Revise again and again and again. Save each draft, and carry the newest with you to read as you wait at stoplights or for meetings, so the lines will begin to reverberate in your subconscious mind where so much of the work of poetry occurs. I think of those depths as a deep mine where I occasionally hear the clink of a miner’s pick as my brain finds the gold of a new piece of writing.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
“Priests of the Prairie” appears in the book Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet with Twyla M. Hansen (The Backwaters Press, 2011).
My previous writings about vultures include an essay simply titled “Vultures” appeared in Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, Inc., 1991) pp. 193-201, and was reprinted in that winter’s edition of a wonderful magazine I still miss, Northern Lights.
April 19-25 is the fourteenth annual National Cowboy Poetry Week. The best history of the art form I know is “A Brief Introduction to Cowboy Poetry, or Who’s the Guy in the Big Hat and What is He Talking About?” by Rod Miller on http://www.cowboypoetry.com.
He exposes the myths and traces the truths of this mostly oral, lyrical, often-rhyming form, mentioning its earliest and best practitioners. He notes its rediscovery in 1985 by folklorists and its subsequent leap to prominence in modern-day America. On the same website, he asks, “What, exactly, is this cowboy poetry?” and answers:
“The simplest answer is probably to say it’s poetry that springs from the workaday world of the cowboy. (More on that later.) But that’s too simplistic an answer to encompass what cowboy poetry was, let alone what it is, never mind where it’s going.”
If you are a would-be cowboy poet, this should be just the beginning of your study of Rod Miller’s comments on the form.
If you are already a cowboy poet, you could probably still learn from reading Rod’s series of articles on the website.
If you are a scoffer who sneers at the galloping rhythms and sometimes hobbled rhymes, you should read the articles to understand that not everything you hear recited as cowboy poetry is the best the form has to offer. Look for the work of South Dakota’s first Poet Laureate, Badger Clark; read Wallace McRae. Look for others that measure up to the standards those writers set. And don’t miss the work of Paul Zarzyski; not all good cowboy poets use rhyme.
For a more complete discussion of rhythm as it relates to cowboy poetry, see Rod Miller’s essays “The Rhythm Method” and “Are You All Talk and No Trochaic Tetrameter?” at the cowboypoetry.com website. That will give you a start, but in order to write poems with smooth rhyme and rhythm, you need to practice. (Find all of Rod Miller’s essays mentioned here at www.cowboypoetry.com/rmwhatis.htm.)
If you’re interested in keeping track of where cowboy poetry is going, attend The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, always scheduled for the last week in January. In 2016, poets, artists, and musicians from the Northern Plains will be featured. You can learn more about the Gathering, hear recordings, and buy tickets at www.westernfolklife.org.
The life work of Elise, a magnificent red-tailed hawk, is to soar over the grasslands searching for mice, voles, garter snakes and other food so her species can live.
Maggie Engler’s job is to help you and me understand how much Elise’s life means to ours.
Maggie and her co-founder John Halverson have created the Black Hills Raptor Center to help birds of prey like Elise survive and recover from human-caused damage. The center is allowed to house only birds that can never be released into the wild.
Because these birds can no longer hunt to live, they help BHRC educate us about the birds of prey — raptors — whose life work of rodent control coincidentally protects our food supply.
If you eat grain in any form, you have dined on mouse waste.
Mice eat wheat, corn, oats, rye, barley and other grains humans use in cereals, bread, pasta, grits, tortillas– and beer. Because they don’t see well, mice mark every step of their journeys with urine and excrement, so they are able to sniff their way home. In one year, a pair of mice can produce 908,544 offspring. Each pair of mice that lives one year will eat 8 pounds of grain between them, and spread their filth in another 22 pounds.
“So,” says Maggie, “we should love anything that eats mice.”
Birds of prey– eagles, hawks, falcons and owls– contribute enormously to mankind’s welfare, besides being charismatic megafauna with majesty, power, and grace. Eighty percent of these birds, so vital to human interests, die before they are a year old.
Maggie and other volunteers introduce the BHRC birds to the public in 160-170 programs a year for preschool through college classes, community groups, visitors to national and state parks, conservation camps, outdoor expos, and sports shows in and around South and North Dakota.
“I can teach any topic through birds,” says Maggie, because “raptors capture the human heart like no other birds.”
Trained as a naturalist, interpreter, and environmental educator, Maggie holds a B.S. in Natural Resource Management from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and has done this work for thirty years in various capacities. Like the abused birds she has rescued, she has known enough troubled times to identify with the hardships humans have caused the birds. Maggie also teaches preschool, and tutors people with dyslexia. In her “spare” time she takes care of the other raptors, handles correspondence for BHRC, communicates with volunteers, and writes grants.
Maggie, John and the volunteers do all this public education without a building that the public can visit to see the birds and contribute to their welfare.
Her vision of the nonprofit Black Hills Raptor Center is three-fold, with the birds of prey serving the first goal of educating people about the natural world.
In the future, Maggie hopes that the center will rehabilitate injured raptors, returning them to live out their lives as wild animals and take their necessary place in the food chain.
“We can’t do rehab because we don’t have the space to construct the necessary enclosures,” explains Maggie. Science has not proven that rehabilitating common species, such as great horned owls or red-tailed hawks, does anything to impact the local population for the good, but rehab connects with the minds and hearts of people who learn to care about these wild birds.
“When we can return an injured bird to the wild, we can bring people a step closer to nature and a world they are too far removed from,” Maggie notes. “The educator in me rejoices.”
The center also hopes to participate in research expanding scientific understanding of the role of raptors in the environment. South Dakota is home to seventeen species of daytime (diurnal) raptors including two species of eagles, bald and golden; one of vultures, the turkey vulture; the osprey, and five kinds of hawks, red-tailed, ferruginous, Swainson’s, broad-winged and rough-legged, as well as five of the North American falcons, the American kestrel, merlin, prairie falcon, peregrine falcon and gyrfalcon.
South Dakota’s raptor riches continue; the state is home to all three of the North American accipiters (hawks with short, broad wings and long legs particularly suited to fast flight in wooded areas): the northern goshawk, Cooper’s hawk and sharp-shinned hawk, as well as nine species of nighttime (nocturnal) raptors: great horned, eastern screech, burrowing, long-eared, short-eared, northern saw-whet, flammulated, barn and snowy owls.
Maggie says, “I want people to be able to visit, to see the raptors, take part in a program, to watch a release, to walk trails while learning how to enhance wildlife habitat, to enjoy water features for songbirds and learn how to set up bird-feeding stations.”
Currently, Maggie and her co-founder John Halverson house the birds at their homes. “John is awakened at sunrise every morning from March until June by a male kestrel shrieking for a mate,” says Maggie. “He needs to get some sleep.” At John’s house, Hendrix can have the supplemental heat he needs to survive in winter.
After four years of gutting rats and mice for raptor food on her kitchen counter, Maggie is looking forward to 2015. The National Guard and Job Corps are cooperating on plans to build a center to house the birds. A local construction company will manage the project, and has completed drawings for the building, to be placed on land leased to BHRC for 99 years with an automatic 99-year renewal. Designed to U.S. Fish and Wildlife requirements, the center and its grounds will be open to the public.
The expertise to create the center is in place, but BHRC needs to raise enough money before spring to buy building materials. A professional fundraiser has offered to teach the Center’s board how to conduct a capital campaign during the coming months.
The new building will generously expand the services BHRC is able to offer, including adding one or both species of eagles as avian ambassadors. “Everyone wants to see an eagle,” Maggie explains, but the birds cannot be kept, even for educational purposes, at any site not open to the public. Moreover, the building will allow volunteers to begin rehabilitating raptors for release into the wild.
With a location where the public can actually see and participate in raptor care, BHRC will draw more community support, volunteers and donations. Current BHRC sponsors include Reptile Gardens; the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; Black Hills Corporation, a diversified electric and gas utility company in Wyoming and South Dakota; and McPherson Auction and Realty.
And Icarus works for her keep even when she’s not appearing in classrooms; her sterilized pellets provide a hands-on guide to what a great horned owl eats, and are available for $1 each.
Money isn’t the only way to help the Raptor Center. The website (www.BlackHillsRaptorCenter.org) provides an ever-changing wish list of items needed, currently including hand tools, garden hose, postage stamps, bleach, detergent, a weed whacker and boxes of sandwich baggies used to store meat processed for bird food.
In addition to voluntary contributions, the Center has recently received money collected as fines from individuals who broke federal law by killing raptors.
Maggie, herself a hunter, says that while raptors do eat pheasants, grouse, ducks and geese, the hunting is not enough to damage a healthy population. A golden eagle may take a lamb, but most of its diet is ground squirrels, rabbits, and prairie dogs.
“Besides,” she says, “good ranch managers know how to protect flocks and herds from predators, including raptors, non-lethally. A person who poaches raptors has not studied the full ecosystem; that person is only looking for a quick fix for a much larger problem. Sometimes they are simply filled with hate at any living creature that does not provide a profit for them.”
When raptors are intentionally killed, the human population loses the best mouse traps in the world, and a predator that has evolved to keep populations of prey animals within the carrying capacity of the local environment.
Now, thanks to the current USFWS agent for the western Dakotas, the fines imposed on raptor-killers will help the populations of the birds they slaughtered. For several years, restitution paid by poachers of raptors has gone into the Dakota Eagle Restitution Fund. Rehabbers could apply for these funds for help in raptor rehab efforts; BHRC recently applied and was granted some of these funds. In addition, two recent cases were adjudicated so that the restitution was paid directly to the BHRC to assist in construction costs.
More than a hundred people a year ask BHRC for help with an injured bird, but all Maggie can do now is assess each bird’s condition before taking it to a facility with the necessary permits to provide medical care. The closest permitted facilities are in Sioux Falls or Watertown in South Dakota, and Cody, Wyoming. Many injured birds don’t live long enough to reach help.
While the new facility will focus on raptors, it will also be able to provide educational programs such as a bird banding lab, birding classes, kids’ summer camps, and bird feeder and bird-house building events. Exam rooms, labs, radiology, an Intensive Care Unit and surgical suites will allow BHRC to treat injured birds. The center will finally be able to house birds that require heat to survive the winter. Cold storage will allow Maggie to get the rat refrigerator out of her kitchen. A large oval space, covered with netting as protection against aerial predators, will allow birds to practice flying before being released. The building be built to passive solar specifications; Maggie hopes to live on the land as well.
“Mouse school” will enable the birds to learn to hunt so they can survive in the wild. In these mews—bird enclosures–the lower walls will be encased in sheet metal so that live mice released into the rooms cannot escape. In this way, the birds will learn to kill their own food, never seeing the humans who deliver it, and thus be kept from associating food with people—the imprinting that ruined Elise for life in the wild.
How much does it cost to feed a raptor for a day? Little Red Riding Hoot, who weighs about five ounces, can eat up to three mice a day in the coldest winter months at one ounce each, or 60 percent of her body weight. Unfortunately, wild caught mice are not an option since they might carry disease or poison that would kill the educational birds. One domestic mouse costs 95 cents. If Hoot eats 3 mice daily for a cost of $2.85 during 60 days of winter, that winter diet costs $171. If she eats two mice a day for the rest of the year (305 days) her total year’s food bill is $750.50 for 790 mice.
As a comparison, John explains that he weighs 160 pounds and loves homemade macaroni and cheese. But in order to eat in proportion to Hoot’s dietary requirements, he’d have to eat 96 pounds of macaroni every day.
Food for all six raptors at BHRC totals about $282 a month, or around $3,384 per year.
Maggie and John are not alone in their attempts to rescue raptors; a dozen or more volunteers from this area regularly offer help of various kinds. Rabbit breeders at the Central States Fair, for example, often donate unsold rabbits to BHRC for raptor food. One woman was so horrified at the idea that she bought several rabbits to save their lives– until Maggie explained the raptors’ need. Now that the woman understands the importance of feeding the birds and the convenience of using unwanted rabbits, she contributes to the BHRC in several ways.
No central clearinghouse for information on wildlife rescuers exists, but the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (http://www.nwrawildlife.org/) estimates that 75% of the hundreds of thousands of animals cared for are affected, almost always negatively, by human activities.
The Black Hills Raptor Center will finally offer South Dakota citizens an opportunity to apologize for that human damage by helping individual birds of prey.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
I wrote this story in September, 2014, to help publicize the BHRC annual “Art on the Wing” fundraiser, held at the Dahl Arts Center in Rapid City. Artists have to “wing it” during the event, going from blank canvas to finished artwork in 90 minutes while an interested public watches over their shoulders. At day’s end, the new art was sold at auction to benefit BHRC’s capital campaign to build a permanent facility.
Besides Elise, the artists observed Phoenix the ferruginous hawk, Icarus the great horned owl, Hendrix the American kestrel, and two Eastern screech owls, Little Red Riding Hoot and Big Bad Wolf.
Artists who attended the 2014 event included: Jim Green, sculptor; Petty Detmers, sculptor; Bob York, western artist; Rae Schneider, colored pencil sketches; Terry McTighe, painter; Tommie Leenknecht, painter; DeDe Farrar, painter; Shaila Peterson, painter; Jackie Kreibel, painter; Mary Jo Marcy, mixed media; Jim Hatzell, sketches and Laine Golliher, sculptor.