27 July 2012

Prairie-Chickens Struck Dead by Telegraph Wires

A few words on the page of a newspaper published many decades ago, convey an event significant to learning more about the early years of continental bird history.

A paragraph in an Iowa paper — recently discovered during a more comprehensive search associated with newspaper ornithology — indicates the first known occurrence of the danger of telegraph to prairie-chickens. The note of particular interest was included in the "State Items" column — relating newsly items for Illinois — as published in the Weekly Quincy Whig and Republican, issued January 6, 1866. It said:

"The 'section boss' on the T.H. & St. Louis Road, near Stockton, picked up thirteen prairie chickens, a few days since, all killed in a few moments whilst a flock were crossing the road, they having struck the four wires of the telegraph line."

Based upon the date of publication, and a lapse of time from when the event occurred until it was reported or reissued, the event likely happened in December, 1865. Stockton is in Jo Daviess county, Illinois.

Telegraph wires were an emerging feature on the prairie landscape at the time. The indication of the demise of these Greater Prairie-chickens indicates how the new construct created hazards deadly to birds. There may have been other instances, not reported, because it was something less than dramatic and not significant enough that an editor would, letter-by-letter, place the type to express the words upon a page of the newspaper.

The notation also conveys the occurrence of this iconic species in 1866, within Illinois.

A few short years later, in 1868, the next known instance of prairie-chickens being struck dead by telegraph wires, was indicated in a December 1868 note issued in an Iowa newspaper.

The indications are, thankfully, included in the newspaper chronicles. There are more than likely other instances of similar occurrences which went unreported and will never be known.