11 August 2009

Newspaper Bird History of Miles Greenleaf, an Omaha Newsman

Research into the history of Nebraska ornithology provides many an opportunity to look at past issues of newspapers on microfilm reels. The variety issued from Omaha provides a distinct and unique view of local avifauna at many havens about the city on the Missouri river valley and its diverse array of habitat. Bird flocks of varying species and sizes - their calls heard in the nights' sky - flew over constantly changing business and residence buildings, roads and transportation, and other developments located on a major bird migration route.

A former landscape of the on-growing place did have untamed spots appealing for a weekly jaunt and bird hike. Settings have changed but open land, parks and now built-upon green spaces were certainly much more interesting decades ago.

Miles Greenleaf pictured in the Dundee News upon his death in 1951.

Particular information on birdlore was presented in the Sunday newspapers as feature stories, columns, editorials and occasionally pictures in latter times. A distinctive record was written by Miles Greenleaf, a resident of the hills of Dundee, west of city central about 3-4 miles. To the west was the Wood creek and Elmwood park natural setting especially inviting to birds and their watchers. Happy Hollow and the Patrick Farm tract of pasture was another open space further north in the same valley.

Because of his contributions, The Sunday World-Herald is an especially valuable source of information so the issues from circa 1900 through the latter-1920s were reviewed at least three times to extract pertinent details on bird stories and other items of historical interest. Also looked at was the entire issue of fifty years of the Omaha Bee and subsequent Bee-News issues available at the University of Nebraska at Omaha library. And then for this Dundeeite, a complete review was done of the bound volumes of the Dundee News, from January 1937 into the early 1950s. These are kept at the offices of the Douglas County Historical Society at Fort Crook near Florence in Omaha.

When a story on bird life, notes, sightings, lore or whatever related to the topic of interest was found, each of the older historic and feature stories were always copied. Publication details are kept in Bibliography datatable with details of author, article date, title and source details, along with a citation for any bird occurrence records entered into the BirdRecords table. For the large number of bird editorials and columns, only a small portion of them were photo-copied for further reading and future reference. Vital bibliographic details were noted for eventual entry in the database. When an item did not have a headline, key words or species notes are used as publication title. When a given title may not be very descriptive for the actual topic, key words or the name of the species discussed is included.

Newsman Greenleaf

Miles Greenleaf joined The World-Herald in 1904. A first known story appeared after ten years of experience.

A staff co-worker was Sandy Griswold, the renowned sporting editor for Sunday columns and stories since 1896, with almost another decade prior to that at The Bee. The sporting editor wrote about outdoor sports: hunting, bird migration, bird life in the woods lengthy fowl hunt stories and otherwise recorded Nebraska ornithology in his distinct and convivial manner. Griswold was among the pioneers in voicing support for conservation of birds and their habitats, promoting conservation measures such as closed hunting seasons and creating refuges. The public's realization of changes in wildlife brought increased attention to the birds. This interest took flight in the years after 1910 when Greenleaf was notably developing his outside interests.

Greenleaf had the writing skills to initiate a new bird perspective in the paper's features: what is the lore for common birds in the parks, green places and neighborhoods of constantly growing metropolis. What about bird feeding and nest boxes, active measures being promoted as conservation measures? These are his first known feature stories:

  • Hunting Wild Birds in Parks and Green Woods that Abound Near Omaha. The Boom of the Gun is No Longer Heard in the Woods Near Omaha, But in its Place Bird Hunters Search Diligently with Lead Pencil, Notebook and Camera, While About Flit the Feathered Tribe Happy in Their Freedom. (7 Jun 1914)
  • Feats of Feathered Genius in the Wilds of Elmwood. Odd Habits of the Shiftless Cowbird, the Defense of a Bird Home Against the Squirrel, and the Ubiquity of the Horned Lark about Omaha. Did You Ever Find a Wood Pewee's Nest? (8 Aug 1915)
  • Birds Found in Woods Near Omaha are Interesting. The Hunting of Warblers With Notebook and Field Glass Becoming a Fad and Leads to Delightful Revelations-Partial List of Beauties that Visit this Section Given by One Who Knows - Sign of Songsters Point to Early Winter. (29 Aug 1915)
  • Making Winter Homes for Birds in Omaha Parks and Yards. School Children to be Enlisted in the Audubon Society in the Work of Bringing Happiness and Comfort to the Feathered Dwellers in the Parks. (24 Oct 1915)

Greenleaf's obvious interest in birds and the outdoors provided many opportunities to write paper stories. From the house on Douglas street, a block south of Dodge, there was a nearby cemetery with the favorite Elmwood park and Wood Creek a short jaunt less than a mile to the west. Another mile further to the southwest was the twisting little Papillion Creek and its lowland environs. Forest Lawn Cemetery was also a destination.

Bird editorials started on the opinion page of the Sunday World-Herald in January 1916. The Tree Sparrow was the subject. The following week's editorial was about the upside-down bird, or nuthatch. Greenleaf wrote a feature story on the nuthatch for this weeks' Sunday edition. Youngsters and bird study was the topic the fourth week. And the comments of 250-300 words continued nearly each Sunday paper thereafter. The editorials discussed the pleasures of being afield to see the tree sparrow, shrikes, the blue jay, thrasher and kingfisher. The author told about the ovenbird. Writings often discussed problems or threats to the wild habitats in the parks, especially due to the destruction of trees and underbrush by city parks workers at Elmwood park.

In May, a letter to the Omaha paper from the York Democrat praised the bird editorials, and wrote about the writer: "He can get more genuine satisfaction out of watching the birds and listening to their songs than any sportsman ever got out of shooting them" (21 May 1916, Sunday World-Herald). The comments also urged bird protection: "We have failed to realize what staunch friends they are to man. We need to study them more, and to throw greater protection about them." The York paper comments also urged teachers to read the editorials and then read them again to their students.

Although no specific attribution was given for the editorials (1916-1924), nor was supporting evidence found in an ancillary item, this content is designated to Miles Greenleaf as author, and for several reasons: Greenleaf was a staff writer, the topics dealt with the subject and places Greenleaf was known for, and some of the columns were published again on a later date with Greenleaf's byline.

In April 1916, an anonymous byline story, most likely Greenleaf, detailed an outing of 25 teachers led by Audubon Society representatives on an outing to Elmwood park. A bird list of 36 species was included. An editorial gave the details for a green-tailed towhee found as a carcass at Billy Marsh's cabin on Carter lake in January 1919, the sighting said to be first in Nebraska. In April 1920 a nest of the Red Crossbill was found in Elmwood Park, and according to Myron Swenk quoted in the editorial, was the first nest to be found in Nebraska. One column refers to the kingfishers that nested in 1914-1916 at a former Elmwood Park lake along Wood creek.

A bird editorial "Why Study Birds?" gave one apparent reason for Greenleaf to get outdoors: "Bird study for the amateur, we think, has its chief value in the fact that it takes the office-ridden and business-plagued persons of both sexes out of doors" (19 Dec 1920, Sunday World-Herald). The editorial continued: "If you go into the woods or fields, you will become a pal of the birds. If you become a pal of the birds, you must walk."

Walking about was a big part of this man's living. Columns mention the weekly Sunday outings. Pictures show the bird feeders at the sanctuary, men outdoors at a prominent spot of the 1910-20s of central Omaha, whether it is a park or a cemetery. But the informative and interesting details are the treasure for this bird history.

It is intriguing to consider the observations kept in notes of the day. Greenleaf kept a bird log. The procedure for keeping records of birds seen was explained to his readers. One of his first stories included a schedule of birds, listing species and the date of their arrival. Greenleaf wrote about keeping his birdlog and vividly recalled a 1918 visit to Elmwood park with the facsimile birdlog numbered 128. I suspect he learned the methods from another avid birder of old-days Omaha. Billy Marsh had notebooks filled with bird sightings at landmark places of woods, fields, forests, wetlands and prairie starting in the mid-1880s. It is interesting to note that the Sandy Griswold also extolled keeping a notebook of observations and thoughts and scenes during the same decades. Consider the finely documented records and notes provided by the birding notelogs or notebooks once enjoyed by these gentlemen.

As the following quotations underscore, Greenleaf had a skilled teacher to develop a long term and keen interest in bird behavior and natural history of the local outdoors.

"Through more than a score of years ... Billy Marsh was my mentor on our Sunday bird hikes, all the year around, fair weather or foul, he taught me one thing in particular, and one thing in general.

"In the first place, the long stroll of about ten miles at least, even when plowing through snow up to our hips, was mighty good for me physically and would put some years on my life - which it certainly did.

"Watching for birds, which may surprise you at any moment of any day in the year, adds to the pleasure of the hike, continued Billy Marsh, and makes you forget how far you have actually gone.

"Bird study is the finest medicine in the world! declared Billy, who really ought to know, since he is hitting eighty and fetched me along to a prime sixty-one" (Birds and the Outdoors column titled "Billy Marsh Had Outdoor Medicine" in 21 Mar 1947 Dundee News).

Most of the bird lore known by Greenleaf came from outings to Elmwood park. This renowned park established in 1890 had trees and brush and fields and untamed places. Artesian springs in the woods also attracted birds. The variety of bird life provided many ideas for writings about the birds. Readers sent in questions and observations from their own little piece of birddom.

After a lull of about two years in a regular bird feature, in 1926 "Intimate Affairs of our Bird Citizens" was started by The World-Herald. Greenleaf included his bird lore along with notes on natural history (note, nest and range) and a sketch of the species. The feature lasted about six months and is known to have reused previous editorials on the dickcissel, kingfisher and sweet song of the meadowlark, described in an earlier editorial as "Whoop la! Potato Bug!" These were the final writings done for this paper.

Greenleaf restarted his prolific writing about birds in the summer of 1930 while employed at the Omaha Bee. He wrote at least two feature stories and then initiated a column called Bird Lore, using the style of the previous bird editorials to convey natural history, bird lore and avian events while out looking about the hill and vale of the Dundee and Elmwood park vicinity, and Omaha's western edge. In autumn of 1931, Greenleaf wrote about keeping track of bird sightings and in his column, now called Feathered Folk Lore, again wrote about keeping a bird log and used once more the example from an outing with Billy Marsh to Elmwood park. The writings with this paper continued until mid-1932.

A column with the longest duration started when Mr. and Mrs. Greenleaf started the Dundee News, a weekly paper with a focus on the neighborhood, which at the time was western Omaha. He started Bird Lore with the first issue.

Some of the more interesting details include records of species occurrence for places such as Dundee Place, Elmwood park, Forest Lawn Cemetery, and the historic man-made George Lake on the upper watershed of Wood creek at Underwood Avenue. Most of the bird information from the Sunday newspaper is not available elsewhere. For George lake, a man-made lake historically present at Wood creek and Underwood Avenue, a complete list of birds from a local resident observations was presented in one column.

Greenleaf was familiar with the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union. Some columns or feature stories mentioned dates and events for group meetings. Sometimes the paper would include the list of species seen during the field day, perhaps at Fontenelle Forest. In May 1945 it was noted that the world war postponed the NOU meeting.

The Orme bird sanctuary, bird films at Joslyn Art Museum sponsored by the local Audubon Society and a nice variety of species ranging from the mourning dove, kinglets, Townsend solitaire, crossbills, waxwings, swallows and bluebirds; or consider notes on migration, nest box construction, feeding stations and reader correspondence were all part of the grand mix. News of magpies in the Dundee neighborhood was mentioned in several columns. He did a story on the fire that destroyed the bird study blind at an Elmwood park sanctuary. On one occasion, the occurrence of a brown thrasher in the winter was big news, and notable enough for Greenleaf to also write a short note for the Nebraska Bird Review (January-June 1940. Nebraska Bird Review 8(1): 27-28). In 1940, a quail was seen at 52nd and Burt streets and noted in a column of less than 250 words. For George lake, a list of birds compiled from the observations of a local resident was presented in 1942.

Topic after topic. Column after column. Issue after issue. Week after week. The bird lore name may have changed but the topics remained the same. This continued until Greenleaf's demise on a Sunday, with an obituary in the subsequent Friday, February 23, 1951 issue of the Dundee News. The death ended a wonderful personal legacy for bird history in the Omaha area. Not long before his death, the Omaha Hiking Club presented him with a collection of his bird columns they were using as a textbook.

The longest enduring column feature done by Greenleaf was as editor of the Dundee News, a weekly newspaper for the neighborhood in what at the time was western Omaha. The first columns in January 1937 were also called Bird Lore but latter ones were titled Birds and the Outdoors.

Greenleaf authored more than 1,100 columns or stories about birds, conservation, natural history, the outdoors, and species sightings. Some of the columns may be repeats, a topic of special interest from The World-Herald or The Bee and perhaps even a encore presentation from an earlier issue of the Dundee News. There are more than 800 entries for the items published in the Greenleaf paper. The bird columns continued after Miles Greenleaf died for another 25 installments, perhaps using previously written stories placed in the paper by his wife, also an editor of the Dundee News. Others may have been written by Greenleaf's wife after her husband's death

Greenleaf's many stories, editorial, columns and features - with occasional pictures for feature stories - are known from decades in the prominent newspapers of Omaha. His focused writings on birdlife were shared with so many people as he promoted birds and their habitats and helped forward bird conservation in the era of the origin of the Audubon Society. The bird lore and history described by Greenleaf is a great resource. It is not possible to provide an overall summary or simply describe this interesting record. They are best appreciated by reading a sample of the writings.

In the history of Nebraska ornithology, Greenleaf is an ardent student of the birds that has heretofore not been given suitable and proper recognition. His efforts to promote bird conservation and habitat protection endured in Omaha for the lengthy tenure of about 1914 until 1951. This record of writings is a distinct and unique part of the bird history for Nebraska.

Greenleaf wrote during the exquisite period when Sandy Griswold, the best sporting editor in Nebraska, was also sharing his prolific prose with the newspaper readers. The fine writings by either of these two men have not been suitably recognized for their value as a bird resource. Given this significant legacy, any avifauna history for Nebraska that does not refer to the efforts of Griswold and Greenleaf is simply not complete.

No comments:

Post a Comment