Episode 17: Native Creatures: The Indigenous Mammals and Birds of Missouri: Transcript


Bicentennial Episode


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>>  Welcome back to another episode of Nature Boost.  I am Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation.  

2021 marks the 200th anniversary of Missouri's induction into the United States.   In honor of that bicentennial, The State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia is showing Native Creatures the Indigenous Mammals and Birds of Missouri.  The art exhibit allows visitors to explore images of wildlife that were present in Missouri at the time it became a state in 1821.  

Here with me to tell me more about this exhibit is curator Joan Stack.  Now, Joan, thank you so much for taking the time to show me around today.  I am really excited about talking about these images with you.  

>>  Oh, thank you so much!  I am so glad that you are here and that you are letting more people know about this exhibition.  

>>  What can visitors expect to see whenever they come and learn about the Native Creatures exhibit?  

>>  Well, as you walk into our gallery you will be introduced to two beautiful art works by John James Audubon.  One is an image of birds, and one is an image of a mammal that used to be in Missouri and still is, I understand.  It has been reintroduced.  The mammal is a bison, or buffalo, and it is a beautiful image of the buffalo alone on the prairie-like space.  Beside it we have the red-headed duck, which is a migratory bird that comes into Missouri from time to time.  So, as you walk in you will be introduced to the idea of Missouri's native mammals and birds, but also to the idea that maybe the wildlife of Missouri was different.  Bison were much more common.  


They were especially common near the Kansas border.  But my understanding is that they were pretty common here in central Missouri as well.  Things changed soon after settlement.  They were changing by 1821, but bison were still around during that period.  

>>  It really makes you think about wow, what if they were around . . . there are some in Missouri, but like you were saying they were much more common.  Just to think if they were more present in our areas today.  

>>  Obviously, we have changed the landscape of Missouri and the bison really prefer the prairie landscape.  We got rid of many of our prairies in exchange for agricultural land because it was good land to grow crops on, people would kind of remake the land as farmland and then the buffalo were not in their element anymore.  They became less and less frequently seen.  

>>  So, we have some images from James Audubon, and he was a pretty famous ornithologist, artist, big conservationist.  What other artists are featured in this exhibit?  

>>  Well, for Missourians, you may know the name of Charles Schwartz or Charlie Schwartz as I think he was known by his colleagues in the Department of Conservation.  Charlie Schwartz had a master's degree in biology, but he was also an artist.  He is most famous probably here for his book The Wild Mammals of Missouri, which is still being published today by the University of Missouri Press.  You may have seen that book and seen the wonderful images that he made of all the mammals of Missouri that he could identify.  He would include an image of the mammal in life in its natural habitat, and then he would include images of its skull, and of its feet, and any distinguishing features about the animal he would have these scientific details at the bottom of the page.  The pages are really beautifully designed.  We have the entire Wild Mammals of Missouri original drawings for that in our collection.  We are showing just a few of them in this exhibition.  But they are wonderful in that they show us animals that we may see every day like the gray squirrel or the racoon and really make us appreciate the beauty of these animals.  

The gray squirrel is so intimately represented.  Every hair on that little squirrel's body is drawn meticulously with Charlie Schwartz's pencil and it is just striking.  You think that is the animal that is in my backyard.  One of the things I like about both Audubon and Schwartz is that they make us see these animals in a way we have not thought about before.  We are forced to look at them more deeply and understand them as these living creatures.  They are wonderful for helping us better appreciate the animals around us.  


>>  As we went through the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people really took to nature as a way to escape as we were in lock-down and we were stuck at home.  That was a big trending thing that a lot of people rediscovered bird watching.  That blew up this past year, and even just wildlife watching in general.  It is one of those things where we do see squirrels every day or birds every day.  Before all this we didn't really think anything about it but now I think there are many people that can have that appreciation for these critters in our backyard and the role that they play in the ecosystem and then them just being a part of nature and helping us destress and escape the stress of our days.  

>>  Yeah, one of the images that I think really gets that across is this wonderful image that Audubon did of a crow.  Now, every single one of Audubon's birds is life size.  This is a giant image with a giant crow sitting on the branch of a walnut tree.  The crow seems to be turning around and looking at us.  Audubon actually wrote about the crow and said that it was an animal that people did often overlook.   

People would be out bird watching and see one and say, "Oh, it is just a crow."  So, he talks about how intelligent they are, and how beautiful they are, and also this image which is just really powerful.  You might not think you would want to look at an image of a crow.  They are maligned birds and seen as pests, but here you really do appreciate the crow.  I love the fact that it looks at us and does seem to be conscious of our presence.  That is one of the things that Audubon does as well.  He often makes us feel as though we are in the room with the bird, or in nature with the bird I should say.  

>>  He really does immerse you and especially, you made a good point because a lot of these images are so large.  It really just allows you to step inside of what he saw at the time he was painting these.  


>>  Yes, and we talked about, earlier, you and I were talking and there is this wonderful image of a skunk.  The mother skunk is on top of a log and her little babies are in a little hollow in the log and the mother skunk is mad.  She is mad because the viewer seems to have encountered this skunk in nature and how does the mother behave?  She hisses at you and she lifts her tail, and she is ready to spray you.  He really gives us the feeling of encountering these animals in nature.  

>>  So, we've got Charlie Schwartz, and the Audubon pictures here.  Who else is featured as far as artists?  

>>  Yes, Karl Bodmer.  We have a number of works by him.  These works were done when Karl Bodmer, who was a Swiss artist was touring the United States with Prince Maximillian of Neuwied.  What he was doing was trying to document nature, animals, and people who were living in America in the early 1830s.  Bodmer and Prince Maximilian pretty much followed the road or the river that Lewis and Clark followed, and they saw many of the same things.  There are a couple of images in our collection that do represent Missouri.  But the ones that we have on display were not actually created in Missouri, but they represent animals that were in Missouri.  

For instance, the Carolina parakeet, which is an animal that is now extinct.  This is an example of how human habitation and colonization has really changed the wildlife of Missouri.  These parakeets were fairly pretty common.  They were beautiful and green with yellow heads and I think the males had some red on their heads as well.  They loved sycamore trees.  Of course, we have lots of sycamore trees in Missouri.  They were always around, and they congregated in groups.  

Bodmer shows some parakeets in Indiana.  We were talking as you walked in you said you read the label and you said you couldn't find the parakeets.  They are there, they are up in the vines of the sycamore tree.  There are vines growing in the sycamore tree.  


Once you see them, there is, I don't know, 15 or 20 of them there.  Again, that must have been how you would have experienced them in nature.  You would have seen them gathered in flocks and they were very social.  That apparently was one reason they were easy to kill.  They were sort of a nuisance.  I think they were very noisy.  They liked to eat fruit, so if you had an orchard, you didn't like those parakeets hanging out.  

Just sadly, people exterminated these things and then by the time they realized what they were doing it was too late.  The last parakeet I believe died I think in Ohio in the 1930s.  The last one seen in Missouri was around 1910.  But apparently, pretty common.  

There is discussion of a flock of them in Jefferson City in the 1850s.  They were beginning to be less common as the century progressed.  

The same is true as the passenger pigeon which we also have an image of by Bodmer.  Again, to see these animals that are no longer here is really kind of touching and sad because we feel like if only we had caught this before they had actually become extinct.  

As we did with the bison.  The bison, of course, were almost extinct at one point, so were the bald eagles, they were endangered.  But we came to recognize that we had to preserve habitats and protect these animals and it has been more successful in the 20th and 21st century.  

>>  A hard lesson to learn.  But, in saying that there were parakeets in Missouri.  When you say parakeet you almost think of a rain forest or in some type of landscape like that.  I did, I was looking at that picture and I couldn't find them.  I was not sure where they were.  Then you pointed them out and there were a huge group of 15 sitting on those branches.  


>>  This is a winter landscape, also.  This is actually done in Indiana in a landscape very similar to Missouri.  Kind of a swampy, deciduous wooded area with these sycamores and vines all around.  There is a little stream or a small river.  The parakeets loved that kind of climate.  They were quite hardy.  They could live in very cold climates.  Indiana is pretty similar Missouri; the temperatures go down pretty low, but they could handle that.  It is a real shame that those are gone.  

>>  Well, and you mentioned something pretty important to note about that painting by Bodmer.  You said you can even see in the background signs of humans coming into this area with the wildlife.  Tell me more about the signs in the background.  

>>  Yeah, that is another thing.  I do have a thing with kids sometimes when I do a show like this.  Which is asking them to identify what are the native animals of Missouri and what are the introduced animals.  So, of course, the Native Americans were there while the native animals were here.  So, there were people here.  

But when the Europeans came, they started introducing all these European animals.  I guess some of them have their roots a long time ago in the Middle East, like the horse, I believe.  But the cattle, chickens, pigs, and all those types of animals.  This particular Bodmer shows a group of cattle who had came up to the water's edge and drinking.  When you start to see the cattle, that is a sign of European colonization.  That really did change everything.  

The kids don't necessarily know immediately if cows are native to Missouri.  A lot of the animals we think of as everyday American animals are not American animals.  These are things we brought to America.  

>>  You also have a fourth artist here, Ding Darling.  Let's talk about him for a second.  


>>  Yes, he is a really interesting guy.  We have a number of other artworks by him that are cartoons.  He was an editorial cartoonist and really well known for that.  But he was somebody who really started to recognize the importance of conservation and he was brought into the Roosevelt administration as one of the first government officials charged with trying to promote conservation in the United States.  He got to know some of the early Missourians who were involved in that project.  Missouri was really an important leader in conservation, and already doing some of that work in the 1930s and 1940s.  I don't remember, I think Schwartz didn't get involved until the 1950s, but we foresaw the problems that logging, and habitat destruction were creating in Missouri at a time when other states weren't thinking about those things.  So, conservation was important to us.  In this particular print, it is an image of some hunters and they have gone out duck hunting.  But a little flock of mallards had escaped, and you see them taking flight.  So, a lot of these people really loved hunting, fishing, and loved being out in the wild and loved being with wildlife.  Going out and actually experiencing catching or shooting a duck and then eating it.  Or fishing and then eating the food that you catch.  They realized we aren't going to be able to do this anymore if we don't protect our rivers, streams, and our forests.  

As I said, Ding Darling was involved in that on a national level, and he befriended a number of people in Missouri.  This particular work is dedicated to a Mr. Stephens, who was very involved in the conservation movement here in Columbia and with the various conservation groups.   


Again, early on, considering that that was not something that became super fashionable until a little bit later.  

>>  This exhibit has previously been up, actually right now as we are talking you are in the process of putting this exhibit back up for a short period of time, I think until July 16th, I believe you said.  So, what was the reaction of some of the visitors that you got whenever this was first up earlier this year?  

>>  We found that a lot of groups were really responding to this.  People were even bringing in kids to look at this exhibition.  It's a different way of looking at the bicentennial, in terms of how the last 200 years has changed the wildlife and nature of Missouri.  I think yes, I think we got a good response.  Maybe not what people would immediately think of when they think of the bicentennial.  It is a different take on it.  

What happened was we had this up in February and March and then we had a contemporary group of artists, an exhibit organized by a different group of people of 60 works by 60 different artists who are working now in Missouri.  It is called Missouri Art Now, and we really wanted to show that exhibit.  But we felt like Native Creatures hadn't gotten enough time.  Partly because it was February and March, so the pandemic was still raging to a certain extent and a lot of older people weren't able to come out at that time.  

So now that we have the vaccine, we are hoping we will have even more people coming into the gallery and have a chance to see these things.  Because they really are, I always think of what we are doing is preserving these treasures that help us understand who we are as a state, and who are as a people.  

These artworks bring those things to life in a way that maybe the history books don’t, and you can experience things in a very different way through artworks.  It is not that we own it.  We share these works with the people of Missouri.  These works are owned by the people of Missouri.  We want to get them out there so that people can appreciate their heritage.  


Our mission is to preserve, protect, and make available that heritage.  

>>  What is your favorite image in this exhibition?  

>>  It is always changing.  I have sort of become attached to the crow recently.  It is certainly a powerful image.  You know, one of the things when I was researching that, crows had sort of diminished in the last few years because of, I think it is the West Nile Virus was killing a lot of crows.  But they seem to be coming back.  So, I have been seeing a lot of crows lately.  Seeing this crow really brought those crows to life and made me appreciate the crows I do see.  They are remarkable birds.  It is true that you sometimes think of them as chasing away the other birds.  But yeah, I think it is a really powerful image.  Of the Schwartz's, I think I love the little gray squirrel, because I have little gray squirrels in my garden.  It is just wonderful to see all those details of what is a little gray squirrel?  What does its skull look like?  What do its feet look like?  You know?  It is just a wonderful image.  

>>  It is very scientific underneath, you know, he gives you the more educational what you see underneath.  

>>  I love the feet, always.  He always shows you the underside of their feet.  So that would be the kind of footprints they leave.  They are always so beautiful, those little animals' feet.  

>>  And it does, it makes you appreciate what you see every day.  I had a feeling it might be the Audubon Crow that was your favorite image.  It is.  It is so striking.  It does look like the crow is looking right at you and connecting with you.

>>  Also, you know, you always expect your favorite image will be an image of a really beautiful bird that everybody concedes is this beautiful animal like the cardinal or something like that.  But the crow is sort of again, it is sort of maligned and then you think of why?  Why do we malign the crow?  It is, it has this beautiful shimmering quality to its feather.  It is an animal that needs more appreciation and Audubon helps us to do that.  

>>  I would think that is your hope for visitors who come and see this exhibition.  To walk away with a new appreciation for what has been here in the past and what still is here so hopefully we don't repeat history.  


>>  Yeah, and that is true.  One of the things I pointed out is that all through this exhibit we have quotes from the Gazetteer of the state of Missouri that was written in 1837 by Alfonso Wetmore.   

You can see how in that period of statehood people responded to these animals and how that has changed in some ways.  I mean, he talks about all the animals, most of the animals anyway in the gallery.  He talks about them a little differently.  For instance, he talks about the game of Missouri and includes bear as one of the things that you would shoot and eat.  That was quite common in the 19th century.  

Also, there is this kind of sad quote he has about the bison which were already disappearing in Missouri at the time.  He tells a story of how an old bison came in the early 30s.  He doesn't say the date, he says just a few years ago to Cooper County and it was looking for the Salt Lakes.  And the people immediately got excited there was a bison in Cooper County, and they went and shot it.  

It is kind of a different way of thinking about nature than we would have today.  It is interesting to place it into and imaging how the people of the time experienced these animals as well.  I think a lot of times they were thought of in terms of a resource.  The game of Missouri was a big deal.  Sometimes you know you couldn't go to the store and buy your food.  You had to shoot the deer, the elk, the bear to get food during that period.  


>>  Remind us again when can visitors see this exhibition?  

>>  Yes, we are open Tuesday through Friday.  The gallery opens at 10:00 a.m. and closes at 4:30 p.m.  We are open the first Saturdays of each month, but I am thinking the first Saturday of July may be July 4th weekend.  We may not be open that day, but generally we will be open the first Saturdays of the month.  

This exhibition the best time to see it would be during the week.  Come Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday between 10:00-4:30 p.m. and you will be able to see it.  It is open to the public.  It is free.  We also have some other exhibits up including an exhibit of bird paintings by David Klein.  We have some more Missouri nature on display.  We also have works by Thomas Hart Benton, George Taylor Bingham in our permanent collection you can see.  Some editorial cartoons from World War II.  There is a lot of history to see when you come to visit us, but the Audubon’s, Schwartz Native Creatures exhibit is just going to be until the middle of July.  

>>  July 16th?  

>>  Yes, I think so.  

>>  Alright, wonderful.  Joan, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me and especially for giving me all this wonderful and inspiring information on Missouri's native wildlife.  These images are just so striking, and I feel so lucky to have come to see them today.  

>>  Oh, thank you, and I hope more people will come!  

>>  I hope so too!  I am sure they will.  

To learn more about Native Creatures: The Indigenous Mammals and Birds of Missouri you can visit the state historical society of Missouri website at shsmo.org.  I am Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation, urging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.  

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