24 August 2013

Reed Bird History for District of Columbia Area

A prominent, yet relatively unknown, history for Washington, D.C., and the District of Columbia is seasonal occurrence of reed birds and the resultant endeavors by shootists.

The birds were present in the regions many marsh environs for ages following their natural migration cycles. Indians undoubtedly hunt this numerous birds during their pursuits of game.

A first newspaper report was in September 1853, and details given in this summary represent the variety of reports through 1885.

That first report indicated that ortolan, snipe, reed birds and the "blue wing" duck (Wood Duck) were available at the Empire House.

The next month, there was subsequent article, more focused upon the ortloan (Sora), but which mentioned as well the reed bird since there were "high times" in the vicinity, as it had been a great season for both species.

Reporters for the local newspapers continued to effuse about hunting opportunities. The reportorial accounts often included references to the ortolan.

In September, 1855, on the third page of the Washington Evening Star, the story indicated that a "large number of persons" went afield and reed birds "suffered some."

The season was underway, with shootists in pursuit of reed birds and ortolans.

Carcasses of these wild birds could be purchased at the local market for personal consumption, or eaten by epicures at the cities many eateries, including hotels.

The Potomac River was a prominent feature associated with Washington, D.C. news. Among the words, there were reports of reed birds in October 1857. The article was titled "The River," and within the pages of the Washington Star.

News of bird shooting was sporadic, but intermittent as indicated upon the newspaper pages. There were reports of reed birds for sale in the market, as well as numerous accounts of hunting at Analostan Island, in the Potomac River.

A prominent feature for many reed bird reports was an indication that the birds were gathering at the local marshes. Habitats of the Anacostia and Potomac marshes along both of these waterways were especially noted as hunting grounds.

"The Marshes. — The sportsmen who are fond of shooting in the marshes, are now enjoying fine sport along the Anacostia and Potomac. The reed birds and blackbirds are very numerous, and ortolans are attracting the particular attention of 'good shots.' Little boys are making money by hawking reed birds in bunches about the streets. During the month of September there are many little fellows, and some adults, who made good money with their guns and skiffs, shooting reed bird and ortolan for the numerous restaurants of the city. The season for ortolan is but brief, and after the first frost but few gunners enter the marshes to hunt them, it is esteemed as labor lost." — September, 1860

Early the next month, another article provided a different and interesting perspective and insight into the sport.

"Sporting. — This season has not been as extensively enjoyed by the amateur sportsmen of the city as those past. The old sportsmen who for half a century scarcely missed a season, have let this go, and thereby have given opportunity for an increase of game in the season of 1861. Those who have been to the gunning localities report the game in excellent condition, though hot as plentiful as in years past. Indeed it cannot be expected that it should be, for as soon as the season arrives, the fields and marshes are peopled with gunners, professional and amateur, who seldom allow a bird to pass in range of their pieces. Though the reed bird and ortolan are plentiful in the marshes skirting the Potomac and Anacostia, it is with difficulty comparatively that they can be approached, and duck and plover are rareties where a few years ago they were abundant. The rapid growth of the city, the improvement of the fields by the erection of many squares of dwellings within a few years, of course had much to do with driving away the choice game. It has not been a quarter of a century since the entire area of what is now Swampoodle was a sporting range, and the mall from the Capitol grounds to the mouth of the Tiber was another, and plover, snipe, small ducks, & c., were abundant. The sporting grounds are now comparatively small, game scarce, and gunners so numerous and constantly on the hunt, that the game is shy and only practiced marksmen profit by the sport." — October 1860

Some of the articles indicate the numbers of bobolinks taken by shootists.

"Reed Birds Abundant. — The sportsmen in the marshes are quite successful in their expeditions after reed bird. We have heard of several gentlemen bagging over 25 birds each a shot, and last night a gentleman who had been shooting in the Eastern Branch marshes yesterday bagged near two hundred birds, and informed us that he bagged over thirty-five with a single barrel. There is certainly some sport in such gunning." ... — September 1866

This account was among the Alexandria news, as it had originally been issued by the Gazette, and then used by the National Republican.

"It is said that reed birds have been more abundant this season than usual. Great numbers of them have recently been killed by the gunners. They sell at from 37 to 50 cents per dozen, and are in fine order just now. Some are beginning to be brought to market, but they are not plentiful yet." — September, 1869

News from Alexandria regularly included brief news on reed bird and ortolan shooting.

"Large numbers of reed birds continue to be killed in this neighborhood. They sell at from 35 to 40 cts. per dozen." ... — September, 1870
"Reed Birds. — The swamps and marshes near this city now resound during the whole day with the reports of guns of all sorts that are shot at reed birds. The birds are in good condition and sell at fifty cents a dozen." — August, 1872

Court news included the costs of illegal shooting, especially before during the latter days of August.

"A Pot Hunter Fined. — R.H. Lee was charged with killing twenty reed birds, one ortolan, and three black birds in the marshes in the county, yesterday. He plead ignorance of the law, and said he had often killed birds at this season. The birds were produced in the court, and were in a fine condition. He was fined $5 each for the ortolan and black birds, but as the reed birds were not named in the law he was not fined for killing them." August, 1874

The arrests for illegal shooting caused discontent in the city.

"A Game Law Grumble. Editor Star: — A petition is being circulated and signed by a large number of our citizens protesting against arrests of parties for shooting rail or ortolan and reed birds in the District of Columbia before September 5th. It seems that some explorer into the musty and obsolete laws of the county has discovered a clause in some law which prohibits the shooting of these birds of passage during their migration south, while in the limits of the District, although the sportsmen of Virginia and Maryland can shoot them at any time. These birds make the game law for themselves; the time to shoot them is when they are here, and they are then in season; the flight is over from two to three weeks, and the people of the District are deprived of the privilege of shooting these birds until the flight is nearly over. They are here now in full force, and our sportsmen have to stand idly by and see the birds go over into Virginia for the game bags of our more fortunate neighbors. A Lover of Sport." — August, 1877

This is one tragedy of the gunning sport at the marshes.

"Accidental Shooting of a Boy. — While a number of boys were engaged this afternoon in shooting reed birds in the marshes foot of 17th Street, Otto Genzerott, a lad about fourteen years old, residing with his parents on D, between 8th and 9th streets, was accidentally shot in the back part of his head by another boy named Dick Norris. Some men, engaged at work at the 17th-street wharf, brought him in to the shore, and he was placed in a furniture wagon, owned by Lewis Wilson, colored, who with the aid of Officers Clawson and Nicholson brought him to the Central guard-house and a physician had been summoned as The Star went to press. It is believed that his wounds will prove fatal, as the whole load of birdshot entered the back part of his head and neck. His parents were sent for at once, but the sufferer was unconscious from the moment of receiving the wounds." — September, 1877

Illegal taking continued its prominence in the newspapers, despite a law being passed in 1878 which prohibits the killing of ortolan and reed bird prior to September 1st.

"A Police Raid on the So-called Sportsmen Who Kill Game Out of Season. — Yesterday morning Major Morgan instructed the lieutenant of the eighth precinct to put his men in citizens clothes and organize a party to put a stop to the bird shooting on the Eastern branch. This bird shooting has been going on for the last two weeks by a number of strolling gunners. The reed and black birds at this season are rearing their young and are very poor, being nothing but skin and bone after the feathers are stripped from them, yet these loafing gunners commence the slaughter as soon as the birds appear in our river marshes. Lieut. Boteler in obedience to orders, secured a number of boats and divided his men; a part took the boats while the others stationed themselves on either side of the branch for several miles above and below Dennings bridge. The result was that they had a lively chase, completely routing the gunners, capturing two of them and securing a large number of birds. They have got the names of about twenty men engaged in this unlawful business with sufficient proof to convict them in our courts. The penalty is severe, and it is to be hoped Judge Bundy will execute the law with vigor from the start, as it is the only way to stop this business." August, 1879

The following years, some sportsmen also got actively involved in trying to stop violations of the game laws.

"The Alexandria Game Protective Association offers a reward of five dollars for the arrest and conviction of the first person violating the game law, in killing reed birds or sora prior to the 1st of September in the counties of Alexandria and Fairfax. A committee consisting of W.F. Creighton, Joseph Beach and M.B. Harlow has been appointed to have circulars printed for circulation containing the game law of the state." August, 1880

One lad didn't get the news, and went to the D.C. Courts:

Frank Neal, a small colored boy, charged with killing three reed birds and an ortolan out of season. Frank denied the killing, and said he found the birds already killed. The court imposed a fine of $2 per bird, making $8." — September, 1880

Physical degradation of the marsh habitat was found appalling by one gunner.

"A River Nuisance. To the Editor of the Evening Star: Desiring a little pleasure gunning, I repaired to the Potomac marsh to hunt ortolan. Imagine my surprise when I found the shore covered with watermelon rinds and other garbage, which I was informed had been dumped in the Potomac opposite the Arsenal and midway between Washington and Alexandria cities. That Dr. Hamilton should become nauseated at the terrible effluvia arising from the flats is not to be wondered at, as the returning tide brings back to Washington the filth dumped in the river and lands it on the flats to breed all kinds of low fevers and poison the atmosphere of the whole city. You may talk of your tar nuisances, Mr. Editor. Why sir, it is pure and healthful to this stench malaria-breeding river front under this kind of management. Would it not be a good idea to confine the officials responsible for the above-named offenses in a cage on the river front for a few nights, so that they may get a full benefit and know how it is themselves. Give us a remedy! Warwick." — September, 1881

A spectrum of items from 1884 represent the different topics associated with reed birds following their seasonal arrival.

"Violating the Game Law. — Thomas Shelton is a hunter. Last Wednesday Officer Howe saw him coming off the marsh near the Navy yard with a game-bag in his hand, and when he reached the shore the officer walked towards him. Shelton dropped the bag and ran. The officer picked it up and found it contained 129 reed birds, which he carried to the station house. Shelton was arrested yesterday, and charged in the Police Court this morning with having 25 birds in his possession. He pleaded guilty and was fined $50." — September, 1884

He would have been caught on August 27th.

There were two reports about the opening of the legal hunting season.

From Alexandria:

"Notes. — On the neighborhood creek side and marsh the opening of the gunning season was celebrated yesterday by a constant fusilade. Scores of gunners were out after the reed birds. One killed 223 and several killed over 100." — September, 1884

From Washington, D.C.

"Reed Birds and Ortolan. — The season for reed bird and ortolan shooting began yesterday, and in the marshes around the city were many sportsmen intent on the capture of the feathered flyers. Most of the hunters could be found near the Cooley patch, just below Benning's bridge, though good gunning is to be found out as far as Bladensburg. Many of the sportsmen yesterday returned with well filled bags, and the general opinion seems to be that the birds are very plentiful this season, and that much good sport is yet to be enjoyed." — September, 1884

Two final articles will convey some other interesting tidbits about this bird and its expressed history.

"A White Reed Bird. — Mr. Armistead Scott shot and wounded a snow white reed bird in the Analostan marsh yesterday afternoon. It differs only in color from other reed birds. Mr. Scott, who is a well known gunner, and who lives on O street, between 33d and 34th streets, has preserved this unique specimen." — September, 1885
"One Dollar for Shooting a Boy. — A young man named Julian Della was on trial at the mayor's office in Alexandria yesterday charged with shooting a colored boy named James Coleman in that city on Saturday evening last. Several of the boys were examined as witnesses, and their testimony went to show that they were all near the place after reed birds, and that some of them were throwing stones at some birds which had been killed and hung on a fence. Della told them to stop, and seized the gun from a companion and shot Coleman, injuring his, however, but slightly. The shooting, it is claimed, was an accident, and was done only to scare the boys. The case was continued till evening on account of the absence of two witnesses. The culprit was then fined $1 and costs for firing a gun in the streets." — September, 1885

Other articles pertinent to reed bird history in this vicinity occur in subsequent years. It should also be noted that additional items for the period included in this article, could undoubtedly be found if the newspaper issues were browsed and visually searched in detail.

Summary of Known Records

After searching the different newspapers issued at Washington, D.C., numerous records for the reed birds were found. The following is a summary of those records, and an indication of the locality where the birds were taken.

Year Seen Observation Date Record Notes Recorded Site
1853 9/15/1853 observed a splendid lot of reed birds at the Empire House Washington, D.C. Vicinity
1855 9/2/1855 reed birds suffered some Potomac River Marshes
1856 10/2/1856 reed birds are leaving Potomac River Marshes
1860 5/12/1860 reed bird specimen at USNM, collected by Coues District of Columbia

9/8/1860 sportsmen enjoying fine sport; reed birds are very numerous Potomac River Marshes
1860 9/8/1860 sportsmen enjoying fine sport; reed birds are very numerous Anacostia River Marshes
1861 - - 140. Dolichonyx oryzivorous, (Linn.) Sw. Bob-o'-link. Reed Bird. Spring and autumn visitant. In spring from May 1 to 15; in autumn from August 20 to October. District of Columbia
1865 9/12/1865 men peppered by errant shot pellets upon approaching island to see a reed bird shaking in the wind Analostan Island, Potomac River
1866 9/9/1866 Wm. Diggs and Jas. M. Dansey fined for reed bird hunting; each fined $5.44 Analostan Island, Potomac River
1866 9/11/1866 gentleman bagged near two hundred birds; other sportsmen are quite successful Eastern Branch Marshes
1868 - - bobolink; passes in migratory journey Washington City
1868 9/12/1868 marshes and low grounds reported as full of reed birds Alexandria Marshes
1868 9/21/1868 cold weather driving off the reed birds Georgetown, Washington D.C.
1869 9/6/1869 swamps in and around the city are fairly alive with reed birds Potomac River Marshes
1869 9/22/1869 reed birds; great numbers have recently been killed by the gunners; sell at from 37 to 50 cents per dozen Alexandria Marshes
1870 9/14/1870 large numbers of reed birds continue to be killed in this neighborhood; sell at from 35 to 40 cents per dozen Alexandria Marshes
1871 8/22/1871 reed birds have made their appearance in the market Alexandria Marshes


swamps and marshes resound with reports of guns; the reed birds are in good condition and sell at fifty cents per dozen Alexandria Marshes
1873 - - no count of the reed birds taken Potomac River Marshes
1873 9/13/1873 reed birds are now in excellent condition Alexandria Marshes
1874 8/26/1874 R.H. Lee charged with killing twenty reed birds; not fined since they were not named in the law Potomac River Marshes
1875 5/24/1875 field and meadows abound with bobolinks Potomac River Marshes
1877 - - Dolichonyx oryzivorus District of Columbia Area
1877 8/23/1877 reed birds here now in full force Potomac River Marshes
1877 9/4/1877 number of boys engaged in shooting reed birds in marshes at foot of 17th street; Otto Genzerott accidentally shot in the head Potomac River Marshes
1879 8/25/1879 police raid captured gunners in illegal pursuit of reed birds Potomac River Marshes
1881 8/20/1881 sportsmen shooting reed birds out of season Alexandria Marshes
1881 9/1/1881 Charley Hutton downed 630 reed birds Potomac River Marshes
1881 9/11/1881 Dr. Ball went gunning for reed birds Potomac River Marshes
1882 9/14/1882 O.M. Ball killed a fine lot of reed birds East Washington Marshes
1883 9/1/1883 marshes along the river lively with hunters in search of reed birds Potomac River Marshes
1883 9/6/1883 reed birds at their full; birds in active demand at the market; John P. Sousa took numerous reed birds Potomac River Marshes
1883 9/13/1883 Jones took 71 reed birds East Washington Marshes
1883 9/14/1883 George Egloff bagged 41 reed birds on the eastern marshes East Washington Marshes
1883 9/17/1883 game confined to small marsh game such as reed birds Potomac River Marshes
1883 9/20/1883 William Wagner bagged 37 reed birds East Washington Marshes
1884 8/27/1884 Thomas Shelton dropped game bag near Navy Yard; it contained 129 reed birds; Shelton was arrested, pleaded guilty and was fined $50 Potomac River Marshes
1884 9/1/1884 many sportsmen intent on the capture of reed birds; most hunters found near Colley patch, just below Benning's bridge Potomac River Marshes
1884 9/22/1884 nearly all of the reed birds have left the upper oatfields East Washington Marshes
1885 9/1/1885 marshes filled with sportsmen gunning for reed birds Potomac River Marshes
1885 9/1/1885 marshes filled with sportsmen gunning for reed birds East Washington Marshes
1885 9/9/1885 Armistead Scott shot a snow white reed bird Analostan Island, Potomac River
1885 9/12/1885 Julian Della shot a colored boy; buys throwing stones at reed birds Alexandria Marshes