The Bird Man Of Oregon County
Dan Cover remembers his hawks the way old bird hunters reminisce about their favorite pointers or retrievers. You can almost feel the sharp bite of cold prairie mornings gone by as Cover recalls the exploits of his beloved falcons, goshawks and sakers. The birds, with names like Colonel, Tiger and Speedy, were his hunting partners for more than 40 years.
A native of Thayer, in southern Missouri, Cover, along with a handful of other hawk fanciers, helped revive the sport of falconry in America. During the 1960s, various outdoor magazines immortalized these falconers' exploits across the prairies of Canada and the upper Midwest. Cover also chronicled many of his hawking adventures in his 1996 book, "Oh, Those Wonderful Hawks!"
His fondness for raptors extended far beyond hunting. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, Cover possessed two peregrine falcons that successfully hatched and fledged 29 offspring. The addition of these birds into the population was a contributed significantly to a struggling population.
"I was one of the first people to raise peregrine falcons in captivity," Cover said. "Back then, very little was known about these birds, so there was no one to turn to."
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University (Ithaca, N.Y.) sent eggs and brood stock for Cover to raise. They wanted him to establish a separate colony of peregrines so that if a disease outbreak occurred among Cornell's captive peregrine flock, it wouldn't wipe out the entire population. Cover also taught the birds to hunt so they could survive when released.
"When they first started releasing peregrines, they had individual birds, generally in cities, but they didn't have mates," Cover recalled.
Children across America marveled at the story of Scarlett and Rhett, the first pair of captive-bred peregrines to raise young in the wild. Scarlett took up residence atop a Baltimore, Maryland, skyscraper in the early 70s. Rhett was released nearby, and, as the story goes, it was love at first sight.
That story is no fairy tale, and it has a Missouri connection, for it was Dan Cover who taught Scarlett and Rhett to hunt.
"When Scarlett accepted Rhett, it was a turning point, a highly emotional moment," Cover said. "They raised four birds together before Rhett succumbed from eating a poisoned pigeon."
These efforts all occurred at a time when raptors, including peregrines, were imperiled not only by the effects of DDT, but also by hostile attitudes of the public.
"To many people, the only good hawk was a dead hawk," Cover said. "I've had some of my hunting hawks shot right in front of me. Attitudes have changed tremendously."
Cover can take some credit for the favorable change in attitude. Along with his other contributions, he also helped establish the National Falconry Association and later served as its president. In its early days, he helped keep the organization afloat with his own money.
Along with his love for birds of prey, Cover also has a deep appreciation and respect for the environment. A disciple of Aldo Leopold, regarded by many as the father of modern wildlife management, Cover has a special attachment to the remnants of native prairie that once blanketed southern Missouri. His current passion is preserving the integrity of a 736-acre parcel in Oregon County. This property offers a small window to Missouri's not too distant pioneer past, and it's also a showcase for prairie habitat management. The land supports a variety of native forbs, legumes and grasses, and it's one of the few places in the region that still supports large numbers of wild bobwhite quail.
"Last year, we didn't produce very many quail on the property because it was so dry," Cover said. "The best I've been able to do was about 450 on it back in 1984."
When Cover first obtained the property in the 1980s, it was, in his words, "an abused prairie." Once a vibrant grassland, Cover's new purchase was choked by thick brush and scrub timber.
"When I first bought the property, the only thing you could see there was straight up," Cover said. "It had been brush-hogged, so the root systems of the brush were like those of 40-year old plants. It was just the thickest, most tangled mess I'd ever seen.
"Not only that, but the former owner had dozed off the place," he added. "After he roughed up the ground, he sprinkled fescue seed all over the place, and that's bad news for quail."
Rehabilitating the property requires a multi-faceted strategy, not to mention a lot of time, sweat and money. Cover says he's eliminated about 10,000 hickory sprouts and is converting the fescue to native vegetation, big bluestem, ragweed and lespedeza. Also, he uses a regular regimen of prescribed fire to reduce wood growth and stimulate the growth of native plants and grasses.
"We burn regularly, and we get results almost immediately," Cover said. "It's always like a gift, a box you might open at Christmas. With a new burn, you never know what you're going to get. It's always full of surprises, especially in the form of wild forbs."
Nevertheless, Cover's prairie rehabilitation efforts mystify his neighbors.
"A lot of people think I should be raising cattle on that place," Cover said. "What I'm doing to bring back the prairie doesn't make sense to a lot of folks, but I consider it essential to restoring an important part of our heritage."
Originally, Cover's prairie restoration began on 282 acres elsewhere in Oregon County. That property was too far from his home for Cover to work and monitor effectively, so he donated it to the Conservation Department. He used the tax break from the donation to help purchase the larger acreage.
The most delightful product of Cover's management scheme has been the growth of prairie wildflowers. Unfortunately, said Cover, they have been besieged this year by cotton rats. Cover's solution was simple and likely was strongly influenced by his fascination with birds of prey.
"I put up some poles for red-tailed hawks to sit on," he explained. "If anything can straighten out a rodent problem, hawks can."