It had been a cold, wet and windswept Wednesday on the prairies of Portage County, so cold and wet that by 3 in the afternoon dairy cows stood inline at barn doors waiting to be let in out of the rain.
The following morning, however, the sky cleared, and succeeding days, the first greening days of the Wisconsin spring, fairly implored us to be up and about before dawn. Tramping across the Buena Vista marshland and sand plain, orchestrated by lark and killdeer and winnowing snipe, would have been justification enough. Watching hundreds of chattering geese northbound in a wobbly V would have, too. But Drs. Fred and Fran Hamerstrom and members of an extraordinary organization known as the Society of Tympanuchus Cupido Pinnatus, Ltd. had an even better reason: the prairie chickens (pinnated grouse) were beginning to boom.
Prairie chickens (Tympanuchus etc. translated into English), which everyone has heard of but few have seen, stage a courtship ritual distinguished by some of the most colorful pageantry in all of nature. This booming, as it is called, is a haunting sound more characteristic of the ritual than the other whoops, hoots, crows, cackles and supercoos the bird emits and is a strong evocation of the nearly vanished prairie. To see these singular creatures trot over a swale at false dawn, picket off' territories on blue grass and native blue stem, dance a curious Charleston, fight scores of real and mock battles after puffing up bright orange eyebrows and air sacs is to see the prairie as it must have been when Francis Parkman rode the Oregon Trail in 1846.
And no one has a better right to enjoy this spectacle than the remarkable Hamerstroms, among the world's foremost authorities on grouse and certainly the most colorful. They, with the irreplaceable aid of the society and the Prairie Chicken Foundation, are responsible for survival of the prairie chicken east of the Mississippi—and probably elsewhere.
Despite the magnitude of that job, perhaps the Hamerstroms' most important achievement has been inspiring the formation of the Tympanuchus Society. Some $500,000 and more than 8,500 acres have been given for cover lands, and in six short years the society has contributed over half of that. Its means of doing so have enormous significance for all conservation work, for three reasons. First, the society—although national in scope—represents a remarkable percentage of the power structure of Milwaukee and the rest of Wisconsin. Three hundred thirty-three members are presidents or board chairmen of corporations ranging from Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company to the Wrought Washer Mfg. Co. Second, it minimizes local opposition by not taking land off tax rolls. It simply leases acreage to the state for chicken management. Third, and best, the society has firmly attached an aura of fun and social status to conservation. That image is attracting cash with an alacrity never attained by long-faced doom-crying. Just a year after the society's 1961 founding, for notable example, foreign competition forced out of business a huge adjacent grass-seed farm on whose existence the entire project had depended. Instead of conceding disaster, the society quickly and cheerfully committed itself to spending $110,000 for all 3,005 acres. It looked almost easy.
But what really draws the Beautiful People of Milwaukee (besides the merits of the prairie chicken itself) is, one suspects, fascination with the Hamerstroms, the project biologists, and their way of life.
The Hamerstroms, to begin with, have lived for 18 years in a big, old, magnificently weathered house—part Charles Addams and part baronial manor—whose construction was interrupted by the Civil War and never wholly completed. (The bare-lathed ballroom on which the boys were working just before leaving for battle now serves as shelter for dozens and scores of volunteer bird watchers in sleeping bags.) "The first time our children—then 6 and 8—saw the house was when we moved in," Fran Hamerstrom relates, "and it was night. You can imagine how it looked to them. We gave each a candle and, dressed in long white nightdresses, they explored all the odd staircases and empty rooms."
No lesser setting would suffice for the Hamerstroms, who are stamped from no common die. Fred Hamerstrom is a gray-bearded but young-looking patriarch whose appearance and manner at all times suggest both Commander Whitehead and Santa Claus. Fran (pronounced Frahn) crosses the stronger qualities of a younger Margaret Rutherford and a sculptor's representation of indomitable Britannia. Daughter Elva has worked summers at the lion exhibit in a children's zoo, and son John delighted in informing Harvard classmates that his mother customarily drove a telephone repairman's truck and his father was a professional bird watcher.
Lack of central heating and plumbing ("the only thing that flushes anywhere near the Hamerstrom house is grouse") suits this family fine. It is with genuine relish that they boil water to bathe in tin tubs ("Achtung!" a sign warns. "Bath in progress") and stoke huge ornate nickel-and-cast-iron stoves wrought with rampant sea serpents.
Quite routinely, a visitor will break off his admiration of these stoves to inspect one of several enormous horned owls realistically mounted on random transoms and bookcases. Just as the guest is about to compliment the taxidermy, an owl blinks, swivels its head and flies off to another perch. The current owls-in-residence are Ambrose and Zuleika (named for Max Beerbohm's heroine).