Topography and General Character of Nebraska|
Climatology of Nebraska
Climatology of Nebraska (cont.)|
Waters of Nebraska|
Drainage of Nebraska and the Character of its Water
General Flora of Nebraska | Forest Trees and Shrubs|
Wild Fruits | Natural Fauna | Mammals | Birds | Reptiles
Fishes | Insect Life
The Locusts | Mollusks | Healthfulness of Nebraska|
The casual observer passing over the State little suspects the wealth of vegetable forms that once covered and still, in some places, clothes the land. To understand its botany, two facts need to be borne in mind, namely, that Nebraska is the meeting-place of two somewhat diverse floras. Here the plants indigenous to dry regions, and those common to humid sections, come together. The slope of the land eastward is so gentle that Rocky Mountain forms come more than half way to meet distant relatives from the moister regions of the Missouri and Mississippi. In fact, here Rocky Mountain plants, by slight and gradual change in environment, have adapted themselves to a climate very different from their native habitat. The same can be said of forms whose center of dispersion was the Mississippi basin. Hence it is that the best botanical flora of the schools--such as Gray's Manual and Wood's Class Book--do not describe near all our floral forms. Singularly enough, what they leave off can mostly be found in Porter's and Coulter's Colorado Flora. The former were only intended for the region east of the Mississippi, but this section, in addition to that, grows many of the plants of the Rocky Mountains. This is one reason why there is such a wealth of vegetable forms in the State. It has drawn for its supplies from two diverse regions, and, owing to the magnificence of its climate, and the richness and variety of its soils, it has successfully acclimated plants from high, dry and cold regions, and those from low, humid and hot sections. I have thus far collected over 2,300 species and varieties of plants from this State.* Comparing this number with the lists from other States, it will be seen that our wealth of native varieties and species is exceptionally great. And yet the harvest to be gathered, especially among the lowly cryptogamic forms, is hardly touched.
*See my catalogue of the flora of Nebraska, published by the University of Nebraska, 1875. The next edition will have at least 200 additional species.
The highest of all the orders, the crowfoot family is represented by forty-two species. Among these are many species of anemones, larkspurs and columbine. The violets are abundant in individuals of many species. The mallows are represented by some delicately beautiful forms. One is specially characteristic for its pure yellow and salmon color.
The pulse family is very rich in species and individuals. Here belongs the ground plum, so called by the early "voyageurs" over the plains, though it is more of a pea than a plum. There are nineteen additional species of this same genus (Astragalus) in the State.
Of the rose family there are fifty-nine species in the State. Of these, the wild plums are the most conspicuous. The wild strawberries, raspberries and June berries are all well represented.
The evening primrose family has given some forms that have been introduced into flower gardens. The species of this order increase toward the west. Of the cactus family, there are twenty species and varieties in the State, the greater part of them toward our western border.
The composite family is the most abundant in the number of species, of which there are 244 different forms. Some species, as the astors, liatris and golden rods are of surpassing beauty.
The figwort family finds here, and especially toward Western Nebraska, a most congenial home. Twenty species of penpstemmon alone occur in the State. Verbenas and the mint family have here also many representatives.
Of the polemoniums, the most common and universally diffused is the phlox. In many places in Wayne County, the prairies become scarlet from their presence. The milkweed family is particularly rich in the great number of species and individuals of asclepias. The spurge family is conspicuous from its great quantity of one species with silver bordered heaves. The orchis, iris and lily families are all well represented.
Of sedges, there are at least 154 species. The grasses are the conspicuous floral forms of the State . They are found everywhere and in amazing abundance. Formerly, the buffalo grass was found everywhere, but now it has retreated to Western Nebraska. Of the 150 species found growing wild, many of them, and the most abundant, classed with the grammæ or grasses, are the best possible to support and sustain herds of wild and domestic cattle.
Of the flowerless plants, called cryptogamia, there are numbers of ferns, mosses, lichens and fresh-water algæ.
In the early reports on Nebraska, it was represented that some half dozen species of forest trees were native here. Such reports were evidently made at random. It has too often happened that men with a respectable acquaintance with natural history felt competent to describe the physical aspects and flora of a region after going through it on horseback at a gallop.
I have shown elsewhere that in times quite recent, geologically, Nebraska was heavily timbered with a varied forest vegetation. When the causes commenced to operate that finally reduced its area to present limits, some of the species retired gradually to such protected localities as favored their perpetuation. One of these causes was probably forest and prairie fires, inaugurated by primitive races, for the chase and for war. Some species are now confined to spots where fires cannot reach them. Another cause was probably the encroachment of the prairie on the timber area, caused by the ground being so compacted by the tread of countless numbers of buffaloes, that tramped out growing shoots, and unfitting the soil for the burial, germination and growth of seeds. Since the buffalo has retired and prairie fires have been repressed and rainfall is increasing, the area of timber lands is spontaneously extending again in many directions.
Thus far I have identified seventy-one species of trees growing wild in Nebraska. Among these are linwood, maples, locusts, wild cherry, ash of four species, four species of elms, walnuts, hickories, twelve species and varieties of oak, many species of willows, four species of cottonwood, pines and cedars.
In addition to the above trees, ninety-one species of shrubs exist native to the State.
Wild fruits are a prominent feature of Nebraska. They luxuriate in its rich soil and almost semi-tropical summers. Among the wild fruits of this State, the plum family is a remarkable example of how nature herself sometimes ameliorates and improves her original productions. There are three type species of plums in the State, namely, Prunus Americana, P. chicasa, and pumila. Of these there is almost an endless number of varieties. In a plum thicket in Dakota County, covering only a few acres, I counted, while in fruit, nineteen varieties of Prunus Americana and P. chicasa, varying in size from a fourth to an inch and a quarter in diameter, and in color from almost white and salmon, to many shades of yellow, tinged with green and red, and from a light, dark and scarlet red to purple, tinged with different shades of yellow. Such instances are frequent over most portions of the State, the plums being common in almost every county, especially along the water-courses and bordering the belts of timber. These plum groves in spring time present a vast sea of flowers, whose fragrance is wafted for miles and whose beauty attracts every eye.
The color of the plums is of all shades--various hues of yellow, red and crimson. Some varieties are large, thin-skinned and delicious. They ripen from July to the last of September. Delicious as some of these plums are, they are much improved by cultivation.
Wild cherries abound in various parts of the State. Two species of strawberry of fine flavor are in places amazingly abundant. Raspberries, blackberries, hawthorns, June berries, wild currants, and especially the gooseberries, find here a most congenial home. Of the latter, there are many varieties.
Two species of grape and an endless number of varieties grow most luxuriantly within our borders. It is not an unusual experience to find timber almost impenetrable in places from the excessive growth of wild grape vines.
There is as much difference in flavor and quality as there is in form. Future investigation and culture will, no doubt, produce from these wild grapes varieties that will be eminently worthy of cultivation. Their superior hardiness, the ease with which they can be grown, their early bearing, and the comparatively fine flavor of many of them, entitle them to more attention than they have yet received.
A great deal of wine has been manufactured from these grapes in some portions of the State. The wine has a fine body, is rather dark and, in a year or two, is much like the Oporto in flavor and color. It is sometimes shipped to other States to mix with wines manufactured from cultivated grapes, to give them body and color. Mulberries, buffalo berries, and elderberries are abundant in places, and all can be produced with great ease by cultivation. In South Nebraska the papaw is also found. Walnuts, hickory and hazel nuts are common.
Before the advent of the white man, Nebraska was a paradise for wild animals. Game of many kinds was amazingly abundant. Even the Indian could not keep it within due limits; it took immense numbers of the carnivorous animals to do this.
Here was the empire of the buffalo (Bos Americanus).* The early settlers and the old freighters across the plains tell wonderful stories of the immense herds of buffalo which they so often encountered. Had I not myself, years ago, found large herds in places where there are now flourishing villages, these stories would appear like exaggerations. It is to be feared that the days of the buffalo are numbered. What the Indian alone could not accomplish, has been done by the remorseless war made on the buffalo by the white man. Now he is rarely found within the State. If he is perpetuated it will be done by domesticating him.
*See Allen's treatise on the Buffalo, in the Hayden Reports.
No animal deserves to be perpetuated more than the buffalo. Buffalo robes are among the most important of commercial articles. Who has not been made comfortable by one? The buffalo is as readily tamed as the ox, and can be reared with as little difficulty. He is exceedingly hardy. He might be profitably reared for the pecuniary value of his hide. His flesh, which is considered coarse, would no doubt be refined by civilized environment. Even the buffalo's milk is a fair substitute for that of the domestic cow.
Next to the buffalo, the elk (Cervus Canadensis) was the largest and finest native animal. It was formerly exceedingly abundant, and is still often found in the northern and western portions of the State. Four species of deer were formerly found here, and two of them very abundantly. These were the common deer (Cervus Virginianus), the white trailed deer (C. leucrus), the mule deer (C. macrotis), and the black-tailed deer (C. columbianus). The first and last of this list were the most abundant, at least those are the species that I have most frequently seen myself roaming the prairies, and whose skins most frequently found their way to the traders. The special habitat of the black tailed deer was North Nebraska, and especially the Niobrara region.
Next to the buffalo in numbers comes the pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra Americana). It was formerly common to meet these on the prairie in herds of from 20 to 500. Only a few years ago it was yet common to meet herds of hundreds of these beautiful and graceful animals in Central and Western Nebraska. They are now mostly confined to the northern and western portions of the State. The antelope remains abundant after the buffalo and elk are gone, and when but few deer remain, and yet the last of these disappear before the deer is entirely exterminated from a district.
Bears have probably always been rare in the State. I have met but one in all my explorations in the unsettled portions. That one was on the Niobrara, and a black one (Ursus Americanus). I have also been reliably informed by old settlers that one was killed in the early history of Otoe County, on the Missouri bottom. I have been told by Indians that the cinnamon bear was formerly occasionally found on the Niobrara, but I regard this as doubtful.
Two species of raccoons are common to Nebraska. Panthers formerly were present in the State, and may be yet in its northwestern portions. The wild cat and lynx are still here. Several varieties of the timber wolf were once common. The prairie wolf, or coyote, is still here in considerable numbers. Foxes have disappeared more completely than wolves. The swift was once common but is now rare. The gray fox was never abundant. A few sables existed in Northwest Nebraska. Many weasels are still here, as also a few wolverines. The otter is more or less abundant. Two species of skunks are common.
A vast number of rodents of many genera and species are still abundant.
The insectivora are represented by a few shrews and moles. One species of opossum is still found in our woods. At least eighty-two species of mammals are native to Nebraska.
The bird fauna of Nebraska is remarkably developed. It is particularly rich in genera, of which there are at least one hundred and fifty-six in the State. The species amount to at least two hundred and forty-nine.* At least, that it is the number whose eating habits I have studied and described in a former publication. Since the publication of that work, nearly a dozen additional species have come to light within our territory. The fullest order is that of the perchers (Passeres), of which there are eighty genera and one hundred and forty-seven species. Among these, the singing birds (Oscines) are represented by sixty-nine genera and one hundred and thirty three species. The next division of this order, the clamatores, are not so abundant, there being only eleven genera and fourteen species.
* See the writer's faunal list and Natural Food of Birds, published in report United States Entomological Commissions for 1878
At the head of the singing birds stands, of course, the glorious robin, which is becoming more abundant each year. Four additional species of thrush are here. The mocking bird is sparingly represented in South Nebraska, and the catbird generally along the timber belts of water-courses all over the State. In places, the sandy mocking-bird is abundant.. The common bluebird is in every community. The western bluebird, formerly rare, is increasing in many places. Eight species of wren, led off by the house wren, abound. The blue-eyed warbler is common in all sections, but the cærulean warbler only along the wooded bottoms. This genus (Dendraeca) of warblers is represented by fourteen species, some of which are only here during their migrations. One of them (D. discolor) is very abundant and breeds here. Of the thrushes, the golden-crowned is the most abundant, and breeds within the State. One of the commonest birds is the Maryland yellow-throat, and is on the increase in all parts of the State. Over the greater part of the State the yellow-breasted chat is found. Six species of swallow make their summer residence here. The most abundant. is the cliff swallow. Its special home is in Northeastern Nebraska. On one chalk cliff, east of the town of Niobrara, I counted 2,100 nests which were made by this bird. There were other points near by where there were almost as many. The purple martin is also common, and breeds here.
The vireos are represented by seven species, the most abundant of which is the red-eyed vireo, which can always be found in summer in the timber belts along the Missouri and other rivers. The butcher bird (Collurio borealis), which was formerly rare, is now becoming abundant. Its old habit of impaling insects and small reptiles on thorns is perpetuated here. The American gold-finch, or yellow-bird (C. cristatus), is a regular summer visitant. The buntings make things lively in winter. Five species come to Nebraska during this season. Among these, the snow bunting (Plectrophanes nivalis) is the most common. Thechestnut-collared bunting is scarcely less common, and breeds here.
Ten species, at least, of sparrows come to Nebraska, some of which are only present during their migrations. One of the most abundant is the yellow-winged sparrow. Great numbers of Lincoln's sparrows pass through Nebraska on their migrations. The long sparrow is becoming more abundant each year, but the tree sparrow is only present in winter. The chipping, clay-colored and white-throated sparrows are all rather common.
The cardinal grosbeak (Cardinalis Virginianus) is common in Southern Nebraska. This beautiful bird, so much admired as a caged pet, is rapidly on the increase. One owned by Mrs. Chapman, in Plattsmouth, often wants to share half its worm or insect with its mistress.
The American starlings are represented by many species. Among the most common are the bobolink, cow blackbird, red-winged blackbird and yellow-headed blackbird. All these are very abundant.
One of the most abundant as well as the most popular of Nebraska birds is the meadow lark Its magnificent song in spring can be heard in all parts of the State, and cheers every heart.
The orioles are becoming more abundant each year. The Baltimore and orchard oriole are especially becoming common. The grackles are also here in large numbers, particularly brewers and the crow blackbird. The crow family is most largely represented, as elsewhere, by the common crow, though the magpie is found in Northern and Western Nebraska. The blue jay is unfortunately found in places in large numbers. It is well known that it is destructive to the eggs and young of other birds, and should therefore be kept reduced in numbers by being made a target for sportsmen.
The fly-catchers are well represented by eleven species. The king bird is one of the most common. The Arkansas fly-catcher is common only along wooded streams. The least fly-catcher is the most abundant, being found in almost every part of the State.
The piccarian birds are represented by eleven genera and fifteen species.
Birds of prey are here in large numbers, though only a few that live exclusively on other birds. Among these is the barn owl, which lives on insects. The snowy owl is here in winter. The burrowing owl, so abundant in Western and Central Nebraska, is a very large destroyer of insects, mice and small reptiles. The swallow-tailed hawk, the most beautiful air-sailer in America, feeds almost exclusively on insects. It is sparingly represented all over the State. The pigeon-hawk and Cooper's hawk are, unfortunately, abundant all over the State. The American merlin and sparrow hawk and hen hawk are common. Swainson's buzzard is only abundant along timbered streams of water. The golden and bald eagle are both occasionally seen in Nebraska, especially the latter, which has been known to breed here.
The pigeons are very sparsely represented here, there being but two genera and two species. The wild pigeons are abundant during some years. The common dove is very abundant all over the State.
Gallinaceous birds are represented by only six genera and as many species. The wild turkey was formerly exceedingly abundant in all the woodlands of the State, but is now much reduced in numbers. The sharp-tailed grouse has been reduced to a small number. The prairie chicken was once very abundant in Nebraska. Hunting them with dogs now keeps their numbers very much reduced. Quails are very abundant during some years. They are common over the greater part of the State.
The wading birds are represented here by twenty-six genera and thirty-seven species. Among these, the king plover is abundant during its spring and fall migrations. The piping and mountain plover are also common. Wilson's phalerope is only common in Eastern Nebraska.
The most abundant of the tattlers in the bartramian or upland plover. It is very abundant during its migrations, and many remain to breed. The long-billed curlew was formerly very abundant, and still is in the new sections of the State. Gunners easily frighten it away, and the following season it rarely returns.
The great blue heron comes occasionally to our rivers. The white heron, snowy heron and American bittern are rare in the State.
The whooping and sand-hill crane are both in Nebraska, and the latter quite abundantly. The three species of rail in the State occur at long intervals. The American coot, or mud hen, is often met in the State, and is remarkable for feeding on insects and mollusks.
The anserine birds, to which the swans, geese and ducks belong, are fully represented in the State. Ten genera and at least twelve species have been noted in my previous publications, and since then several more species have come to light.
The mallard was formerly exceedingly common in the State during its migrations, but is now much less so, owing, no doubt, to the manner in which it is hunted down.
Pelicans, long-winged swimmers, such as gulls and terns, are also common. Only one species of diving bird is known in the State.
This brief statement will give some idea of the affluence of bird life in Nebraska. Bird life is the poetry of animal life. Every sentiment of admiration for exquisite beauty, for the charm of song, for utility, and abhorrence for the infliction of needless suffering, calls on cultivated and refined natures to protest against the needless destruction of birds.
Of reptiles, fifty-two species have been identified, including, under this term, saurians, snakes and amphibia.
Of fishes, only thirty-four species have been recognized. Neither our reptilian nor fish fauna has yet been specially studied. Fish, however, were formerly very abundant in most of the tributaries of the Platte and Missouri. An attempt is now made by the State Fish Commission to restock our rivers, and for the introduction of new varieties. The bass is already abundant in some of the streams, and, by the efforts of this commission, are annually becoming more so. Pickerel have always been abundant. Buffalo fish and many species of cat were scarcely less so. An occasional mountain trout has been caught in the tributaries of the Missouri in Northeastern Nebraska. The streams, like the Bows, Bazile, etc., well adapted to this fish, will now be stocked with trout by the Commission.
In articulate animal life, the most important class is that of insects. As in temperate latitudes generally, they are more numerously developed in genera, species and individuals than any other section of the animal kingdom. In fact, they dispute with man the empire of the world. During spring and summer, they are omnipresent; when the naked eye does not recognize them, the microscope brings them to light. In Nebraska, the number of species is very great, approximating to eight or nine thousand. About one-fourth of these are predatory and non-injurious species, leaving not less than six thousand, or two and a half injurious species to every species of plant in the State. This calculation is based on the original constitution of the State, and not on the condition into which it has been brought by civilization. The great body of injurious species are so few in number that they rarely do any damage that is noticeable.
Here, as elsewhere, only exceptional conditions, as a rule, develop injurious species to a temporary and damaging multitude. Judging from observation for fifteen years, the insects which we have most to dread are the chinch bug, army worm, Hessian fly, potato beetle, the insects which prey on our orchards and groves, and the locusts.
None of these insects, however, in their life history, their destructive work and tendencies, vary much, if any, from their general character elsewhere in the West. The locust, however, is an exception, and both because the dangers from its ravages have been greatly feared, exaggerated and little understood, a fuller discussion is required.