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The Cry of the Plover

Well, I will not inquire if you did your homework. Last week I asked you to go to a Cornell University website and listen to the call of the upland sandpiper recorded at Long Lake in 1988. As recorded there and as heard it in the wild, I find the bird’s tuneless trill to be wonderfully macabre. The call of the upland plover--which is what I call the bird, by historical usage, despite the preferences of ornithologists--the call of the plover, like that of the sora rail, makes me feel like I am in some tropical paradise.

In my previous essay, too, I concluded that unlike in more southerly places on the plains, here in North Dakota extensive market hunting of plover never took place. Rather, the human relationship with this peculiar and beautiful prairie bird developed along interesting sporting, culinary, and cultural lines.

In the 1880s plover were considered an easy mark for casual nimrods from town, who went out in buggies to shoot for their own tables. Reported the Bismarck Tribune in May 1883, “The country surrounding Bismarck is alive with plover and snipe, and our sportsmen are having grand times in the field.” A Tribune reporter was said to have shot 28 plover in a short time, and a boy from the city said he killed 68 in a day.

As if to emphasize the fact that plover were easy to get, the Pembina Pioneer Express a year later mocked three local dandies who had gone hunting and, “contrary to their usual practice,” returned with game--about forty plover. In 1885 the Devils Lake Inter-Ocean reported that Manitoba Railway superintendents Guthrie and Jenks had come to town “to shoot a mess of plover.”

Settlers and townspeople considered plover to be good seasonal table fare. The relationship was casual. People joked about how hunters would deceive game wardens by shooting juvenile prairie chickens out of season, skin them, and pass them off as plover.

In 1892, however, the Jamestown Alert signaled a more sensitive, even poetic attitude. “The twitter of the plover is now heard during the night,” the writer noted. “The birds are beginning their southern migratory journey.” He acknowledged the plover was “a toothsome morsel,” but he valued it more as a “sharp reminder of the fleeting season, and a melancholy rather than a promising note.” It was probably the same writer who the next year wrote of the “quaint, plaintive sound” of the “fearless and rather confiding bird” that he called a “prairie pigeon.”

The same cry had other associations for Priscilla Ackin, of Mott, who expressed them in 1906 in a poem, “The Prairie Pioneer.” This is a morose poem, punctuated by “a plover’s far-away, sorrowful cry, / Through the rush of the driving rain.” In Ackin’s stanza the plover’s cry awakens longing for a “happy eastern home” and prompts “a smothered sigh.”

Now comes. In the same year, 1906, the former editor from Grand Rapids, Joe Mitchell Chapple, coming home from back east via Pullman car, reminiscing about pioneer days. “What a contrast and a revelation it was,” Chapple muses, “compared with the first scenes of years ago--when I made my first trip to Dakota, filled with youth’s ambition and aglow with enthusiasm!”

“How I recall the sweet trill of the mating upland plovers, and the gusts of the wonderful, stirring wind, the Dakota Zephyr, which filled one with a sense of energy and conscious strength.”

The trill of the plover — listen for yourself — is indeed sweet, and also sorrowful; it stirs youth’s ambition and a smothered sigh. It is poetry.

~Tom Isern

Prairie Public Broadcasting provides quality radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.
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