A river runs through my home town. There was a bridge across the river when I was a boy, just a block and a half from my home. I often walked to that bridge, after Mom and Dad decided I was old enough to roam alone, then walked upriver.
The land on one side of the river was hilly, a land of steep bluffs and mature trees. On the other side of the river the land was flat and low. It flooded when the river rose every spring, planted to corn or soybeans when the water went down.
I could walk up either side of the river and return. Or I could go up one side to the next bridge, cross over and return on the other side or return to town by the road.
That was the Des Moines River, west branch. It was my boyhood bird land. There I saw many birds, learned their names and their songs.
I went walking along the river in all seasons. In winter, when the river was frozen over and the ice was thick enough, I walked on the river. I went walking by the river, or on it, in every kind of weather. Almost every kind of weather. I didn’t go to the river, I didn’t go outside, except from the house to the garage, when an Iowa blizzard was blowing.
I didn’t see many birds along the river this time of year.
But I did see a great horned owl many days in fall, and in winter. Crows would alert me to the presence of an owl. One crow would spot an owl, I presume, start calling loudly, circling over and diving on the owl. Other crows would join the first and soon there would be a murder of crows. That’s right, a murder of crows, harassing the owl. Whenever I heard a murder of crows I hurried to the site of the sound and more often than not I saw the owl, head swiveling, staring around at the crows.
Other birds I saw along the river in fall, and in winter, were blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, slate-colored juncos — now called dark-eyed juncos — red-tailed hawks and occasionally a marsh hawk — now called northern harrier. I saw woodpeckers too, on the woodland side of the river, downy and hairy and red-headed.
I didn’t see many birds in winter but I saw more mammals than in fall, or in spring and summer. There were fox squirrels in the trees, bounding across the ground during the day. Each would stop now and then, dig through the snow into the ground and produce a nut, doubtless a nut they’d buried earlier.
There were rabbits, too, of course, many of them, judging by their tracks in the snow. But I seldom saw a rabbit. They were out during the night and I was not, except on rare occasions when I went out at night and listened for great horned owls. And screech owls, which I heard, and sometimes saw, in town, not along the river.
I did see a rabbit one day in winter. It was an unforgettable sighting. The rabbit was in the jaws of a red fox. It had just been caught and was still bleeding, leaving a trail of blood as the fox carried it across the snow. I followed it for some time, losing sight of it when the fox went over a hill, seeing it again when I got to the top of the hill.
I saw signs of beaver along the river, stumps and downed trees, but I never saw a beaver. Beavers, like rabbits, are active at night and the beavers along the Des Moines River in Iowa lived in tunnels they dug into the bank.
I saw many animals along the Des Moines River when I was a boy, but I’ll always remember it as my land of birds.