By Curt Burnette
Gene Stratton-Porter was known as "The Bird Woman". It was a nickname she acquired as a child when her other called her "the little Bird Woman", and it stuck with her for the rest of her life. A feature article in a 1904 Muncie newspaper was titled "The Bird Woman of the Limberlost." Gene capitalized on the name by writing herself into her two most popular novels, Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost, as the character of the Bird Woman who befriends Freckles and Elnora. Gene's love of nature was broad, but of all the living things which are a part of nature her greatest love was for birds.
It might be thought this love encompassed every type of bird---but that would not be entirely true. There were, in fact, two types which she definitely did not love, and actually wished for their extinction. In her own words: "If I have any influence whatever, I shall mot earnestly use it in advocating the complete extermination of cowbirds and English sparrows". What was it about these two species that could bring about such vitriol and hate from a passionate bird-lover?
The English sparrow, also known as house sparrow, is a species from Europe and Asia that was introduced to the United States in New York in 1852. they spread rapidly across this country and by 1886, the year Gene married Charles Porter, they had already invaded the entire Midwest and were making their way across the Great Plains. The Bird Woman considered English sparrows to be a threat to her beloved native Limberlost species as they would attack other birds, destroy their nests, break their eggs, and kill their young. She considered them to have "disgusting habits: and called them ".....little villains....[which]....were always hanging around ready for any mischief they might do."
Cowbirds, specifically the brown-headed cowbird in Indiana, are nest parasites which the Bird woman found to be intolerable, even though they are native, not introduced like the English sparrow. Cowbirds do not build their own nests in which to lay their eggs, they lay in the nests of other birds and let a different species rear their young. The Bird Woman witnessed cowbirds destroying host bird eggs when they laid their eggs in, and if they see that their own eggs have been thrown out, will ransack or destroy the nest of the offenders. This amazing vengeance has been labeled "mafia behavior"! although the Bird Woman apparently did not know about his nasty side of her despised cowbirds it did not matter. She still thought of them as "such unspeakable pests they are worthy of mention only to advise their extinction."
Source: Berne Tri-Weekly, Limberlost Notebook, January 2014.