Blackbirds at Big Island

"Toxcic Crow," 1983, by Seneca artist G. Peter Jamison, on exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, next to the Denver Public Library.

“Toxcic Crow,” 1983, by Seneca artist G. Peter Jamison, on exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, next to the Denver Public Library. Photo by David Cecelski

Today I’m in Denver, Colorado, and while I’m here I’m visiting the Western History Collection at the Denver Public Library. I wouldn’t usually expect to find manuscripts about my special interest—the history of the North Carolina coast— in a collection that’s devoted to the Rocky Mountain West.

After all, the vaults here are full of old documents and maps about pioneer settlers, Ute Indian villages, cattle ranches, gold rushes and mining towns.

But this library also has Edwin R. Kalmbach’s field diaries. I was interested in Kalmbach because one of his diaries describes an 11-day trip that he made to an especially interesting part of the North Carolina coast—the old rice plantations along the Lower Cape Fear.

Shot guns, cyanide and whirligigs

Kalmbach made the trip in September 1926. At the time, he was a USDA biologist that specialized in studying blackbirds—crows, red wings, bobolinks and others—and North Carolina’s rice growers had sought his help in protecting their crops from the hungry birds.

Kalmbach was also a respected wildlife artist. He created this image for a migratory bird hunting stamp issued in 1941.

Kalmbach was also a respected wildlife artist. He created this image for a migratory bird hunting stamp issued in 1941.

 

Based in Washington, DC, Kalmbach had been studying blackbirds for at least a decade by 1926. He did research on their diet, anatomy, social behavior, roosting habits and migratory patterns so that he could use that knowledge to keep them out of farmers’ fields.

He published a landmark study of blackbirds and agriculture in 1918. In The Crow and Its Relation to Man, Kalmbach pointed out that crows sometimes roosted in flocks as large as a million birds.

When those flocks migrated south, they consumed as much as 25 to 40% of some crops.

Kalmbach also studied the many different ways that farmers tried to protect their crops from the birds.

Whirligigs can be a magical kind of folk art, but I've always wondered if they might have originated with farmers trying to scare away blackbirds. These whirligigs were made by Wilson County, N.C. farmer Vollis Simpson and are now the foundation of a wild, whimsical and very beautiful whirligig park in downtown Wilson, N.C.

Whirligigs are a magical kind of folk art, but I’ve always wondered if they might have originated with farmers trying to scare away blackbirds. These whirligigs were made by Wilson County, N.C. farmer Vollis Simpson and are now the foundation of the enchanting and beautiful Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park & Museum in downtown Wilson, N.C.

Those methods were a bird lover’s nightmare. The most popular included shotguns and long rifles, cyanide spraying and poisoning with seed corn coated in tar.

Of course some farmers also used milder strategies: scarecrows, whirligigs and dangling bright objects from posts so they moved in the wind and upset the birds.

Other farmers employed “bird minders” to stay in the fields and scare away the birds. Often they were young children. Before the Civil War, planters in the South frequently made enslaved children do the job.

Crop damage due to birds was an old problem. Some Native American tribes actually moved into huts in their fields during the weeks that their corn was ripening.

If nothing else, I found Kalmbach’s field diary at the Denver Public Library to be a good reminder of an extremely common side of farm life that I don’t often see mentioned in history books.

Brunswick County’s Rice Plantations

Kalmbach arrived in Wilmington, N.C. on the morning of September 6, 1926. He first met with a local naturalist and civic booster, T. P. Lovering, who had apparently arranged for his visit.

In a local business directory, Lovering was listed as an “aquarist” and “collector and breeder of tropical fish snakes and other reptiles.”

I got the impression that, if he had come along a few decades later, Lovering would have been one of those wildlife entrepreneurs that opened roadside attractions on U.S. 17 like snake farms and alligator zoos.

Lovering was also a civic booster and general dealmaker. In his field diary, Kalmbach commented that Lovering had dreams of spurring a renaissance among Brunswick County’s rice plantations.

Planting rice at James Sprunt's Orton Plantation, ca. 1890.

Planting rice at Orton Plantation, ca. 1890. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

The Lower Cape Fear was the only part of North Carolina where rice cultivation had ever flourished. Growing rice was very intensive, wholly reliant on slave labor, notoriously oppressive and very profitable.

After the Civil War, the Lower Cape Fear’s rice economy collapsed, unable to make profits without slave labor and knowhow. Some rice cultivation continued, but on a far more limited scale. For most of the last rice planters, the final straw was a series of big hurricanes at the end of the 19th century: they laid waste to the old rice fields’ elaborate systems of canals, ditches, dams and levees.

In his field diary, Kalmbach wrote:

“Lovering… looks upon this venture as a possible means of redeveloping Brunswick Co. which has many old abandoned rice plantations. Though he has a twofold interest—a one direct in that success of the Ramseurs will mean certain monetary returns to him and in the background he wishes to see Brunswick Co. developed.”

The Ramseurs were 3 brothers from Lincolnton, N.C. They had bought Pleasant Oaks, a 20,000-acre plantation that has once been one of the Lower Cape Fear’s largest rice producers. The brothers had been attempting to make rice cultivation profitable there again.

The Rice Fields at Big Island

That afternoon Lovering and Kalmbach traveled to Pleasant Oaks, which was about 13 miles south of Wilmington. Kalmbach would be the Ramseur brothers’ guest during his stay.

That day Kalmbach also got his first look at Big Island (called Campbell Island on some maps and charts). The island was a 300-acre stretch of rice fields and marsh in the Cape Fear River.

The island is best known for having been the site where, in 1664, English explorer William Hilton negotiated for sale of the river with Wat Coosa, a chief of the local Indian peoples.

Farm laborers, rice fields and the main house at Orton plantation, ca. 1900.

Farm laborers, rice fields and the main house at Orton plantation, ca. 1900. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

At Lovering’s suggestion, a wealthy merchant named James Sprunt had either sold or leased Big Island to the Ramseur brothers for rice cultivation. A Scottish immigrant, Sprunt had grown wealthy in the cotton and naval stores export business and had bought a nearby plantation, Orton, perhaps the oldest rice plantation on the Lower Cape Fear.

When Orton’s first owner, Roger Moore, died in 1751, his property included 60,000 acres and more than 250 slaves whose chief job was the cultivation of rice.

Fat Rice Birds

Sprunt was also an amateur historian and in one of his books he reflected on the blackbirds in Big Island’s rice fields.

In his Tales and Traditions of the Lower Cape Fear, 1661-1896, he wrote:

“Millions of fat rice birds roost here at night after preying upon the milky rice of the neighboring plantations during the day.” (“Rice birds” is another name for bobolinks.)

Bobolinks are a New World blackbird. Also known as "rice birds" in some parts, they migrate every fall all the way from the northern U.S. and southern Canada to southern parts of South America. They were once notorious for building up their fat supply for the journey in the rice fields of the American South along their route.

Bobolinks are a New World blackbird. Also known as “rice birds,” they migrate every fall all the way from the northern U.S. and southern Canada to the far reaches of South America. They were once notorious for building up their fat supply for the journey by feasting on the rice fields of the American South. You can hear their meandering, bubbly song at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website here. Photo courtesy, National Audubon Society.

The toll on rice growers’ profits was enormous. “It is estimated” Sprunt said, “that these toothsome little pests devour 25 percent of all the rice made on the Cape Fear.”

Writing in 1896, Sprunt expressed little hope for relief from the birds. “They appear every Fall together on the same day and depart on a single night when the rice gets too hard for them. The planters have never been able to protect their crops from the yearly ravages of these birds.”

It wasn’t for lack of trying. To quote Sprunt again: “Although a gang of boys and men are kept firing guns at them all day, a very small proportion of the immense droves is killed.”

That night Kalmbach wrote about the redwing blackbirds on Big Island, but you can tell that his personal interest in birds went beyond those that damaged crops.

Flocks of redwings in size from a dozen or 15 up to 200-300 were seen over the island,” he wrote. “Saw a pair of black-bellied or golden plover. Marsh hawks were frequently seen and looked upon as beneficial by the farmers. Flushed one king or clapper rail and several soras…. in this section. Green heron also seen.

Shooting Stands, Flash Guns & Lanterns

Over the next week, when he wasn’t birdwatching, Kalmbach set up defenses to discourage blackbirds from eating the rice crops.

Winnabow plantation, ca. 1900-1915.

Main house, Winnabow plantation, ca. 1900-1915. Courtesy, N.C. Museum of History.

He worked mainly at Pleasant Oaks and Big Island, but he also visited Winnabow, the Russell family’s old plantation and once a place of enslavement for more than 200 African American laborers.

At Big Island, Kalmbach set up long guns on the rice field’s perimeter and erected a 20-ft-high shooting stand.

He also put in place a newly-invented system of  “automatic flash guns.” Every 5 to 25 seconds, these devices exploded a pocket of carbide gas, causing a loud boom to cascade across the fields and, theoretically at least, frighten the birds.

A lantern played a critical part in every flash gun. They provided the spark that ignited the carbide gas. In addition, every time the gas ignited, the gun barrel—more of a kind of pipe—twisted and turned, so that the lantern seemed to be projecting a flash of light, which was thought to deter the birds further.

Not surprisingly, given how many were killed, quite a few people developed a taste for bobolinks and other blackbirds. "For a dainty supper," James Sprunt wrote in 1897, "a fat rice bird is perhaps the most delicious morsel that ever tickled the palate of an epicure." For a more recent recipe for blackbird pie, see the website for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service's Martin County Center in Williamston, N.C.

Not surprisingly, given how many bobolinks and other blackbirds were killed, quite a few people developed a taste for them. “For a dainty supper,” James Sprunt wrote in 1896, “a fat rice bird is perhaps the most delicious morsel that ever tickled the palate of an epicure.” For a recent recipe for blackbird pie, see the website for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service’s Martin County Center in Williamston, N.C.

The flash guns must have made a racket. At one point, on Sept. 11, Kalmbach wrote: “I let one run well into the night and then as it became a nuisance I shut it off.”

Aside from trying to frighten blackbirds, Kalmbach also studied them. He documented their numbers and species. He studied their feeding behavior. He shot and preserved specimens. He collected seeds. He photographed flocks.

He also collected insects. One of the central themes in Kalmbach’s research had long been the tension between blackbirds as crop pests and blackbirds as beneficial agents to crops because they ate such large quantities of crickets, grasshoppers and other insects that feast on crop fields.

The Marsh Hawks’ Lesson

Kalmbach packed up and left Pleasant Oaks on September 18. He continued his research on blackbirds and other animals that harmed crops and livestock for the rest of his career.

Eventually he became the founding director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Denver Wildlife Research Center (later re-named the National Wildlife Research Center), which is how his papers ended up here in the Denver Public Library.

The day before he left North Carolina, Kalmbach made another, somewhat ironic point given all the steps that he had taken to discourage blackbirds at Big Island and Pleasant Oaks.

In his notebook he observed:

Marsh hawks again were plentiful and… at the same time doing valiant bird minding. I believe that the six marsh hawks that may be considered an average for the island do as much blackbird minding as 6 men under the old system of shotguns and about as much as two rifles would under the new system, although of course they frequently fail to drive out flocks until they have fed for a considerable period of time.

Kalmbach had a job to do and he did it, but in all his notes and publications his respect and affection for blackbirds is apparent. In them all, he marveled at the birds’ intelligence and resilience.

In his research, he also revisited frequently that tension I discussed earlier, between the good that blackbirds did to crops by eating insects versus the toll they took on the crops.

And he clearly believed that Nature—in Big Island’s case, represented by the marsh hawks—had its own ways of handling over-predation.

Read enough of Kalmbach’s writings and you might even start to think that, in his heart, what he really believed was that the blackbirds might best be left not in humans’ hands, but in nature’s.

 

Frank Mechau, "Horses at Night," 1934. Denver Public Library Collection.

Frank Mechau, “Horses at Night,” 1934. Denver Public Library Collection.

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