It had been a cold, wet and windswept Wednesday on the prairies of Portage County, so cold and wet that by 3 in the afternoon dairy cows stood inline at barn doors waiting to be let in out of the rain.
The following morning, however, the sky cleared, and succeeding days, the first greening days of the Wisconsin spring, fairly implored us to be up and about before dawn. Tramping across the Buena Vista marshland and sand plain, orchestrated by lark and killdeer and winnowing snipe, would have been justification enough. Watching hundreds of chattering geese northbound in a wobbly V would have, too. But Drs. Fred and Fran Hamerstrom and members of an extraordinary organization known as the Society of Tympanuchus Cupido Pinnatus, Ltd. had an even better reason: the prairie chickens (pinnated grouse) were beginning to boom.
Prairie chickens (Tympanuchus etc. translated into English), which everyone has heard of but few have seen, stage a courtship ritual distinguished by some of the most colorful pageantry in all of nature. This booming, as it is called, is a haunting sound more characteristic of the ritual than the other whoops, hoots, crows, cackles and supercoos the bird emits and is a strong evocation of the nearly vanished prairie. To see these singular creatures trot over a swale at false dawn, picket off' territories on blue grass and native blue stem, dance a curious Charleston, fight scores of real and mock battles after puffing up bright orange eyebrows and air sacs is to see the prairie as it must have been when Francis Parkman rode the Oregon Trail in 1846.
And no one has a better right to enjoy this spectacle than the remarkable Hamerstroms, among the world's foremost authorities on grouse and certainly the most colorful. They, with the irreplaceable aid of the society and the Prairie Chicken Foundation, are responsible for survival of the prairie chicken east of the Mississippi—and probably elsewhere.
May 28, 1967
Despite the magnitude of that job, perhaps the Hamerstroms' most important achievement has been inspiring the formation of the Tympanuchus Society. Some $500,000 and more than 8,500 acres have been given for cover lands, and in six short years the society has contributed over half of that. Its means of doing so have enormous significance for all conservation work, for three reasons. First, the society—although national in scope—represents a remarkable percentage of the power structure of Milwaukee and the rest of Wisconsin. Three hundred thirty-three members are presidents or board chairmen of corporations ranging from Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company to the Wrought Washer Mfg. Co. Second, it minimizes local opposition by not taking land off tax rolls. It simply leases acreage to the state for chicken management. Third, and best, the society has firmly attached an aura of fun and social status to conservation. That image is attracting cash with an alacrity never attained by long-faced doom-crying. Just a year after the society's 1961 founding, for notable example, foreign competition forced out of business a huge adjacent grass-seed farm on whose existence the entire project had depended. Instead of conceding disaster, the society quickly and cheerfully committed itself to spending $110,000 for all 3,005 acres. It looked almost easy.
But what really draws the Beautiful People of Milwaukee (besides the merits of the prairie chicken itself) is, one suspects, fascination with the Hamerstroms, the project biologists, and their way of life.
The Hamerstroms, to begin with, have lived for 18 years in a big, old, magnificently weathered house—part Charles Addams and part baronial manor—whose construction was interrupted by the Civil War and never wholly completed. (The bare-lathed ballroom on which the boys were working just before leaving for battle now serves as shelter for dozens and scores of volunteer bird watchers in sleeping bags.) "The first time our children—then 6 and 8—saw the house was when we moved in," Fran Hamerstrom relates, "and it was night. You can imagine how it looked to them. We gave each a candle and, dressed in long white nightdresses, they explored all the odd staircases and empty rooms."
No lesser setting would suffice for the Hamerstroms, who are stamped from no common die. Fred Hamerstrom is a gray-bearded but young-looking patriarch whose appearance and manner at all times suggest both Commander Whitehead and Santa Claus. Fran (pronounced Frahn) crosses the stronger qualities of a younger Margaret Rutherford and a sculptor's representation of indomitable Britannia. Daughter Elva has worked summers at the lion exhibit in a children's zoo, and son John delighted in informing Harvard classmates that his mother customarily drove a telephone repairman's truck and his father was a professional bird watcher.
Lack of central heating and plumbing ("the only thing that flushes anywhere near the Hamerstrom house is grouse") suits this family fine. It is with genuine relish that they boil water to bathe in tin tubs ("Achtung!" a sign warns. "Bath in progress") and stoke huge ornate nickel-and-cast-iron stoves wrought with rampant sea serpents.
Quite routinely, a visitor will break off his admiration of these stoves to inspect one of several enormous horned owls realistically mounted on random transoms and bookcases. Just as the guest is about to compliment the taxidermy, an owl blinks, swivels its head and flies off to another perch. The current owls-in-residence are Ambrose and Zuleika (named for Max Beerbohm's heroine).
Those not startled upon first meeting Ambrose and Zuleika have probably been immunized to surprise by a stock greeting to first-time arrivals: "Please don't disturb the eagle. It's incubating." Last year Chrys, an exceptionally large golden eagle, was indeed incubating, but the eggs were not eagle eggs. Although Chrys's instinct for timing could not be faulted (she laid her first egg on Easter), her maternal instincts left something to be desired. Since she tended to crush shells, she had been demoted to chicken eggs for practice. The chicks, if hatched, presumably would have eaten raw meat and fancied themselves rulers of the skies.
These predators are a kind of professional avocation of Fran's. She does studies on hawks and has recently finished a book on eagles (Chrys is her eighth); moreover, people are forever sending her sick birds to nurse back to health. As a sideline, she observes the homing instincts of bats, hopefully casting forth banded bats from the arklike barnloft, like a Noah seeking dry land.
The birds sometimes serve, too, as props for the brand of drolleries favored by the Hamerstroms. On one occasion a large group of European ornithologists—among the many visitors who have come—was a target. "They were fascinated by a chance to observe an American species of owl so close at hand," Fran fondly recalls, "and I couldn't resist the opportunity. 'I've always wondered,' I said, 'why our American owls smell so much better than yours.' That provoked their curiosity. At least half a dozen distinguished scientists solemnly bent down and sniffed Ambrose. They had good reason to look perplexed: I had sprayed that owl with Chanel No. 5. Finally one Frenchman leaned down, sniffed and stood up with the most disgusted look on his face. 'Parfum!' he said. He was so furious."
One feels also that Fran's interest in birds of prey is not altogether unrelated to her being an archfeminist. "Isn't it fascinating?" she has been known to say. "With predatory birds of unknown sex it's much politer to say 'she.' The female of the species is so much bigger and stronger." That was the very same day she reminisced, "When I was 17 I said, 'I shall never cook for any man.' " Turning back to scrambling eggs for 14 at 3 a.m., she added, "But then I also said, 'I shall never have children unless I can have a governess.' "
The Hamerstroms' free-spirited life in this unconventional environment—a life of boiling bird skeletons in a pot while cooking dinner, of collecting a library featuring The Auk in 84 volumes, of screening doorways with fishnet to keep itinerant birds out of the open-faced files—began with a characteristic moment whose recounting still evokes a wry laugh from Fred Hamerstrom and merriment from his wife. During their first Wisconsin winter on the farm the pump froze. In a gesture fraught with symbolism Fran thawed it by burning the velvet dress she had worn as a debutante in Boston. "We had to burn something expendable," says Fran, still laughing. "I looked, and the dress was it. We don't save rags, and all our warm clothing had to be kept."
Similar moments have been plentiful. When the Hamerstroms started their prairie-chicken project money was scarce. Their first blind was a card table wrapped in blankets. The first time they used it, crouching in 18° cold for seven hours, only one chicken appeared and boomed for five minutes. When the Hamerstroms progressed to packing crates Fran made regular rounds of local merchants, begging boxes. At one store—she has no difficulty remembering—a clerk came back with a truly tiny carton. "Oh, that won't do," she said in disappointment. "My husband is going to be in it."
Those days of making traps out of saplings and scavenged nails, of supporting both themselves and the project on $50 a month, were no unforeseen novelty, however. Ever since 1931, when Fred married Fran, graduated from Harvard and embarked on a career of wildlife studies and management long before such a field existed, the Hamerstroms had had comprehensive experience in converting utter impracticality into accomplished reality. Fred held one of the nation's first fellowships in wildlife research. Hearing a rumor that such a position was being considered at Iowa State, he applied. "The reply said a number of discouraging things, but it never conclusively said no," he remembers. "So we packed up and presented ourselves on Professor Paul Errington's doorstep. Our old car broke down as we entered Ames, leaving us with neither means to get back nor money to repair it. Learning that we had been sleeping in the field to save money, Professor Errington—that is the kind of man he is—put us up in his own bed, and he slept on the couch."
With the help of Errington's goodwill and Hamerstrom's brilliant fieldwork, the fellowship research was highly successful, launching the couple on a career leading to the University of Wisconsin for work with wildlife research pioneer Aldo Leopold, then to the University of Michigan and, in 1949, to the Prairie Grouse Management Research Unit on Buena Vista Marsh. An exhausting list of honors was accumulated along the way. In spite of these the Hamerstroms have retained their flair and style.
Of late the Hamerstroms have frequently been able to rely upon others, particularly the 450-odd volunteer observers of the booming season, for entertainment and heartwarming zeal. Two Sues from the University of Illinois, for a recent example, left Champaign on a bus at 12:58 a.m., rode three and a half hours, spent four hours in a Chicago bus station, from 4:30 to 8:30, and finally arrived at Prairiechickenville late that afternoon.
Their rewards were three mornings of rising before dawn to sit in the cold and a considerable lot of fun. Not surprisingly, much of that fun was provided by a likable mob of rodeo riders, storytellers, falconers, birdbanders, band-beaters and general hell-raisers from Rockford, Ill.
The younger amateur researchers naturally originate a good portion of the livelier chicken-watching anecdotes. One observer is fond of telling how a hitherto unintroduced couple was put together in one of two blinds on a booming ground. Now, a pinnated grouse blind, as built in Wisconsin, is a tight fit for two. After some hours of propinquity the student scientists got vastly more interested in courtship inside the blind than out. So intense did the interest become that suddenly, before the eyes of the startled occupants of the other shelter, the entire canvas blind—scopes, stakes, seats and all—violently tipped over backward, spilling its embarrassed tenants onto the grass and into a flushing flurry of indignant prairie chickens.
But persistence was the best virtue of a rather elderly and definitely corpulent couple who spent hours in a blind, crouching on their hands and knees, peering out of peepholes unaccountably placed only inches above the ground, without ever getting a good look at a bird. It was not until much later that they discovered the blind was upside down.
Another bit of madness is one of Fran's favorite anecdotes, partly because it illustrates the rural friendliness of the locality. "This couple," says Fran, "telephoned to say they would be a little late. We delayed the evening briefing, then held it and they still hadn't appeared. We all went to bed a little worried. As it happened, the couple had gone to the Potton farm up the road. With true country hospitality the Pottons let them in, not even asking who they were, and talked weather for hours. Finally, about 10 o'clock, they gave them cake and coffee. That is the country signal to go, but the couple just settled down, obviously staying. Finally, about midnight, they realized their error, jumped up full of apologies and came down here. The house was dark, and by that time they were pretty rattled. Being city people, they somehow thought the thing to do was to crawl through a window as quietly as possible. Unfortunately, of all the possible choices in this house, the one they picked was our bedroom window."
As befits any group dedicated to nature's finest soft-shoe shuffler, the Society of Tympanuchus Cupido Pinnatus has its own vaudeville moments, too. Oh, mostly the members restrict themselves to the simple pleasure and light entertainment they find, after a hard week of managing large sums of money, in driving around Buena Vista Marsh and rearranging its 50,000 acres. But sometimes they conduct business meetings consisting of five to six minutes of businesslike business and 300 minutes of cocktail party for 600 people. Or they write bylaws containing sections like "5. Ruffled Feathers" (pertaining to voluntary withdrawals from membership) and "6. Day of Reckoning" (governing annual contributions). And the club quasi-quarterly, BOOM!, runs heavily toward quotations from odes of John Marston (1575-1634), letters to the editor in Latin and such announcements as: Fuzzy Thurston, Green Bay Packer left guard, is the newest member.
Some well remember the time a non-member was invited along to watch birds dance. The party on the evening before had lasted much longer than 300 minutes, so everyone had intended to spare the man the obligation of struggling into hunting clothes and hip boots before dawn by not waking him. In the first faint light of morning, however, the guest, a very British Swiss gentleman raised in India, was seen walking across a burn. Homburg on head, Savile Row suit coat framing silk tie and starched collar, he was impeccably dressed to the waist—and wore nothing below.
Tympanuchus Cupido's friends succeed pretty well in demonstrating Fred Hamerstrom's most quoted maxim: "Good works," Fred Hamerstrom says, "don't have to be done in a sepulchral atmosphere."
One random incident from last spring's booming conclusively and finally reinforces that conviction. A bearded chicken-counter's small son had come running to the Hamerstrom house, breathlessly recounting how he had seen a mysterious creature, neither animal nor vegetable, neither feathered nor furred, hanging from a tree limb.
"In all likelihood," someone said, "the beast the boy has seen, from its description, is either a bird watcher or a conservationist, and it is probably both."
The hanging thing turned out to be a fungus.