What Prairie Settlers Feared Most

It happened on the 25th of May. A farmer burning weeds in a road ditch lost control of the fire as swift west winds swept it into dry prairie grasses. Quickly, the fire gained momentum consuming waist-high stands of picturesque big blue stem and Indian grasses. Nesting birds seeing the racing flames, smoke and sensing the intense heat lifted off their nests and skedaddled. 

I was standing perhaps one hundred yards away from the inferno and still could feel the heat. Flames leaped skyward and the explosive mix of fire and dry grasses caused an unforgettable grinding, roaring noise. It was easy to understand why settlers feared the possibility of the racing destruction of a prairie fire.

The next day I was greeted by a blackened world. Searching the charred landscape for whatever I could find revealed burned over bird nests. The first nesting attempts by grouse (sharptails), pheasants, ducks and others would be a total bust. Many would re-nest but suitable nesting places would be harder to find.

Skeletal remains of wild creatures were exposed. A badger's skull with well worn teeth indicated a life of longevity. Skulls of other birds and animals included many skunks, muskrat, marsh hawk and canvasback duck.

A real life drama was about to unfold. About a half block away a hen pintail duck circled the blackened grounds apparently looking for something. She swung lower, cupped her wings and touched down. Field glasses in hand, I could make out the charred remains of her nest.

She edged closer to her well roasted eggs. Probed them with her bill. Then very softly, gingerly sat on those lifeless objects. After about five minutes she rose, shook herself a bit and circled the nest. After a brief break she went back to her motherly chores. Her repeated attempts to incubate her cooked eggs went on for about a half hour. Then sensing perhaps that further efforts on this strange nest were futile, she went airborne and winged away. Chances are she found a partner, mated, selected another place to nest in grassy cover, laid eggs and began incubation again. Hopefully, she avoided becoming a meal for a fox and brought off a nest full of ducklings, second time around. 

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STORY TIME WITH KENT OLSON A Collection of Wildlife Short Stories

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