Arkansas has wildlife varieties — animals, birds and fish — today that weren’t around a hundred years ago. And we are missing some species today that were here in 1912.
Nature is full of changes, and some of these new arrivals on the wildlife scene are natural occurrences. Others were a direct result of man’s work, and some indirect results of man’s hand on the environment come into the mixture as well.
—Gone, as in extinct, since 1912: Passenger pigeons, red wolves and Carolina parakeets.
—New in Arkansas since 1912: Coyotes, cattle egrets, roadrunners, striped bass, trout, armadillos, house finches, scissor-tailed flycatchers.
—Gone in 1912 but back today: Elk. Add bison, too, if you stretch things to captivity.
There are others, especially in the “gone” category — little-known creatures that have departed our scene.
For accuracy’s sake, the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet may have been gone from Arkansas when 1912 arrived. Both were significant on the Arkansas wildlife in early times, and the passenger pigeon was a major game item for our ancestors. Stories are handed down about flights of passenger pigeons so thick they darkened the sky.
In the 1800s, people used them for food. They were easily available, sometimes hunted on roosts in trees with sticks rather than use valuable ammunition. But people of those days did not know when to stop. The passenger pigeons were killed out completely, the last one dying in a Cincinnati zoo as World War I arrived.
Carolina parakeets were colorful residents of Arkansas’ dense woodlands, and they disappeared with the clearing of the forests. Ivory-billed woodpeckers lived in the river bottoms of Arkansas in earlier times but were apparently gone by 1912. A sighting and a brief video in 2004 stirred much interest but lacked follow-up confirmation.
Elk were wiped out well before 1912 arrived by too much killing for food and by the changed land usage. Ditto for bison. Both have returned, the elk in the wild in limited numbers, and the bison as a semi-domesticated resident. More than one person has commented that bison aren’t really tamed, just enclosed.
The elk in Arkansas today are along the Buffalo River’s upper and middle stretches in northern Arkansas. A limited effort at restoration earlier in the century failed, but a restocking that began in 1981 has succeeded to the point limited hunting is allowed.
Wolves, hated and feared, were on their way out in 1912 with the gray wolf numbering only a few and the red wolf already gone. The name persists, though. “Wolf” today is often used to describe a coyote, a wild dog or a crossbreed of coyote and dog.
Coyotes came in from the West. Wily, tough and adaptable, they are now in all counties of the state in too-large numbers. They are blamed for cattle losses, for chickens killed, for pet dogs and cats disappearing or being slain and for declines in some popular game varieties, especially quail.
The scissor-tailed flycatcher is one of the area’s more beautiful songbirds, and it has expanded into Arkansas from Oklahoma and the plains area. Its long twin tails and aerial courtship acrobatics make it a favorite for bird enthusiasts.
Roadrunners moved into Arkansas about the time a certain cartoon series arrived, maybe a little before the fictionalized version.
Roadrunners are another immigrant from the West, from dry areas. Their numbers aren’t large today, but they are in all areas of Arkansas and don’t mind hanging out around houses. Though they don’t “beep beep” like the cartoon favorite, they resemble it in appearance. And they much prefer to run than fly.
Cattle egrets have proliferated to nuisance numbers in Arkansas in a scant 30 years. The nuisances come from the birds’ habit of living and nesting in large colonies, so their droppings and incidents of deaths of young and adults alike are bothersome to humans. The birds themselves are beneficial, consuming large amounts of insects, especially in pastures.
House finches are one of our newer wildlife arrivals. They’ve been described as sparrows dipped in cranberry juice. From escapees in New Jersey and California, the birds have come to Arkansas area in growing numbers in the last dozen or so years. They are plentiful around bird feeders in winter, far outnumbering the purple finches, which are similar in appearance.
On the water scene, man built dams with large lakes resulting, then man scrambled to find partial fixes to the changed environment for fish. The trout in four varieties and the striped bass were brought in.
Stripers came to Arkansas to fill a void, the large areas of deep water on new lakes where native fish wouldn’t live. The ocean transplants feed almost entirely on shad, a prolific small fish that can easily overrun a lake in numbers. The stripers have also provided a news sport fishing impetus in Arkansas, and they are reproducing naturally in the Arkansas River system. In the lakes, they don’t reproduce, however, and the program is on a put and take basis.
Trout were imported from the North and West to fill the fish gaps below dams that emitted cold water. Native bass, catfish, crappie and bream disappeared from these areas nearly as soon as the dam gates were closed.
And there are armadillos, more often seen dead along roads than alive in woods, pastures and yards. These came to Arkansas from the Southwest several decades back and have flourished to near-nuisance quantities. Armadillos are mostly insect eaters, but their habit of rooting in the ground for grubs makes them despised by some people.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.