Quills and Feathers


In Willa Cather's My Ántonia (1918), the narrator Jim Burden experiences an ontological crisis of sorts upon his first view of the U.S. Great Plains, as if he were face-to-face with a geographical vacuum: "There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made" (New York: Everyman's Library, 1996: 6-7). But of course these plains were actually teeming with the "countries" of other species, as already recorded in the 19th-century journals of Lewis and Clark, and John James Audubon, and George A. Custer. If the dominant large mammal, the American Bison, had already had its numbers decimated by hunting and outright slaughter, the songs of the meadowlark and the flights of the crane still attested to a bioregion very much alive and vibrant. Cather also conveniently (and characteristically) ignores other human civilizations—those of the Native Americans—who had peopled these plains for millennia, and whose own myths, folklore, and songs revealed a longtime close co-evolution with not only the bison but the birds of this region.

This project is a documentation, then, of the literary relationship between Great Plains humans and birds, ranging from the writings of the famous explorer-visitors mentioned above to such contemporary Midwestern literary luminaries as U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. The nearly one hundred literary-text entries span almost two hundred years, include both poetry and prose, and evidence both Native American and mainstream Euro-American responses to the birds of this unique environment.

For the purposes of this project, the "northern Great Plains" is defined as ranging, north to south, from south-central Canada to Kansas and, west to east, from eastern Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado (that is, east of the Rockies) to western Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri. Fifty-seven bird species are treated here, from swans to sparrows, with a geographical range of eight states. Not surprisingly, such iconic Great Plains birds as the Sandhill Crane and the Western Meadowlark have received a great deal of literary ink through the years; but it is just as interesting that the Lesser Yellowlegs, the European Starling, and even the Turkey Vulture have also received their due. Thus this project is finally a tribute to what is seldom acknowledged, that there is indeed a great diversity of avifauna in the Great Plains—and that some pretty good writing has been happening here, too.