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Breeding Birds of the Platte River Valley


When the first transcontinental explorers reached the Platte River in the early 19th century, they found a relatively pristine environment occupied by Native Americans along with vast herds of ungulates and flocks of birds. Townsend (1839) and Fremont (1845), the first major explorers in the region, kept records of the natural features of the Platte River Valley in an attempt to identify the wealth of natural resources there. Breeding birds along the Platte River occurred in tremendous numbers at that time. Because forest vegetation was virtually lacking, grassland birds such as greater prairie-chicken (scientific names are given in the Species Accounts), grasshopper sparrow, western meadowlark, and long-billed curlew were among the predominant species. Wet meadows associated with the seasonally wet reaches of the river supported nesting bobolink, upland sandpiper, and dickcissel, among others.

Lured by the gold and other valuable resources farther west, explorers moved rapidly through the valley. A series of trails soon developed as additional travelers pushed westward. From the modest beginnings of wagon trains, cattle grazing, and army forts, the Platte River Valley developed rapidly into a major agricultural and livestock-producing region. Communities were established to provide support services for farming and ranching activities.

A transportation network was essential to development of the area. Until the Union Pacific Railroad was completed through central Nebraska in 1866, there was no effective way to transport agricultural goods to market. The federal government encouraged development of the Union Pacific and other railroads by granting lands along the rights-of-way to the railroad companies. The railroads then generated money by selling these lands to homesteaders. Railroads subsidized the immigration of European settlers to the region with low fares and low land prices. The effort, along with the offer of free land through various amendments of the Homestead Act, promoted settlement of central Nebraska.

Concomitant with the great influx of settlers and resultant development of the agricultural community, extensive and mostly permanent changes occurred in the character of the Platte River Valley landscape. The once-vast areas of tall grass prairie were reduced to odd corners that would not accommodate a plow. Agricultural irrigation development facilitated the drastic reduction in peak and annual flows in the Platte River, ultimately and permanently changing the habitat from sandbar and wet meadow to riparian forest. Shelterbelts, established to reduce the impact of the ever-present prairie wind on tilled lands, provided a new habitat for breeding birds to exploit. The end result of the advance of man across the Platte River system was the unavoidable and irreparable alteration of the habitats and wildlife that once flourished here.

Because man's activities continue to influence the status of many breeding bird species, it is important to summarize the current body of knowledge about those birds. With the accumulation of more data in the future, informed decisions can be made about species populations and distribution. Our objective in this book are to provide an in-depth description of the breeding bird community that occurs in the Platte River Valley in central Nebraska. We describe the effects of prior development on the status and distribution of 141 bird species, and provide maps of their breeding distributions.

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