Column: Dramatic story from century gone by is more dramatic still
Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared June 3, 2006.
WORTHINGTON — When you get into this column business, you try to make things timely. You save Christmas stories for the Christmas season and turkey stories for September. Lately I was introduced to a late winter story that I think people will want to hear, even though we have come to June’s first Saturday.
Lew Hudson told the unbelievable story of Worthington and the Lapland Longspurs in his 1976 book, “From New Cloth.” In a later time, Ruth Hein developed the story. Lately, I got to see a copy of the original report — 99 years old. It was printed in The AUK, the Journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union. AUK is the scientific magazine for America’s “bird people.” The Longspur story just gets bigger and harder to believe.
The actual event came on the night of March 13, into the morning of March 14, 1904. It was a mild night. Above freezing. A heavy and notably wet snow began to fall across southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa. At about 11 p.m., the night watchman at Worthington noticed birds falling from the sky. Before long, birds were everywhere, plummeting like hail. Birds pounded onto the ice of the two Okabena lakes, they fell on lawns and into eaves troughs. Some fell into the globes of street lamps. There were other witnesses — the night agent at the depot, Dr. Mork and Dr. Humiston. The doctors were answering night calls.
In the morning, Worthington residents found birds everywhere, in just incredible numbers. They all were Lapland Longspurs — little birds, somewhat like sparrows. Today and at that time, many people would call them sparrows.
As word got out, Minnesota sent an authority, Dr. L.O. Dart, to Worthington. Dr. Dart said it was not like anything he ever knew.
Bird bodies remained on the two lakes just as they had fallen, frozen into the ice after a heavy rain on March 20. This is where Dr. Dart first directed his attention. He worked out a formula for counting the little creatures. His finding: there were (about) 374,328 birds on each lake. He concluded no fewer than 1.5 million birds plunged into the earth from the black sky over Worthington.
The doctor went next to Slayton. He heard largely the same story. Along the way, “A Mr. Drobeck reported that on the morning following the storm, he noticed lumps or balls of snow on the roof of his barn and that when they thawed in the morning sun, they were found to contain live birds. The heads of the birds would first appear, and then, shaking off the snow, they would sit for a time in the sun, drying and preening themselves, and then fly off.”
Dart began to study all the region. Birds fell on Avoca. The lake at Avoca was like the lakes at Worthington. Birds fell on Heron Lake and on Luverne. The postmaster at Sibley saw up to 100 dead birds as he walked to work. There were dead birds at Adrian.
Dr. Dart’s conclusion: “… it would appear this area embraced fifteen hundred (1,500) square miles … about 40 towns and villages.” How many birds? “It would be futile to attempt any calculation.” Millions of them.
The little Longspurs had begun a migration north out of Iowa. In the manner of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his fatal airplane crash, the birds plunged to the earth when they believed they were flying ahead. They became confused by the swirling snow.
All across the region there were stories of residents bringing birds indoors and drying them. Some put them in cages and made pets of them. Many nursed birds with cuts and broken bones back to health. The story remains as mysterious and remarkable today as it did in 1904.
March 1922. An editorial in the Omaha World Herald reflected, “Tragedies in birddom are generally as interesting as they are pathetic, and this has been certainly the case in the untimely death of thousands of Snowflakes and Lapland Longspurs in central and eastern Nebraska during the snowstorm of two weeks ago …”
Little birds sometimes face tough going. It was never worse for them than in the spring of 1904 over southwest Minnesota.