By Ken Zurski
In 1674, while exploring the Illinois River for the first time, French Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette wrote in his journal: “We have seen nothing like this river that we enter, as regards its fertility of soil, its prairies and woods; its cattle, elk, deer, wildcats, bustards, swans, ducks, parroquets, and even beaver.”
Certainly the reference to parroquets, or perroquets, (French for parrot) raises some eyebrows. But a species called the Carolina Parrot, now extinct, did inhabit portions of North America, as far north as the Great Lakes, as early as the 16th century.
More puzzling, however, is the mention of the bustard.
Even the Illinois State Museum in the state’s capitol of Springfield questions this unusual reference.
“What is a Bustard?” the Museum sign asks in an exhibit showcasing birds native to Illinois, then answers: “We’re not sure.”
Of course, the bustard is a real bird. In Europe and Central Asia it is more commonly known. In North America? It just doesn’t exist. But did it at one time? According to the Museum’s notes, several French explorers described bustards as being common game birds of Illinois and said they resembled “large ducks.”
A Great Bustard can stand 2 to 3 feet in height and weigh up to 30 pounds making it one of the heaviest living animals able to fly. Its one distinctive feature, besides its size, is the gray whiskers that sprouts from its beak in the winter.
Father Marquette was more a man of the cloth than a scientist. His mission was to preach to the Illinois Indians or “savages” as he calls them. Along the way, however, he described the scenery and game in detail. The “bustard” comes up quite often in his journal. He even refers to hunting them, possibly eating them too. “Bustards and ducks pass continually,” he wrote.
Perhaps, as some suggest, Marquette was describing a common wild turkey. His recollections seem to imply they were airborne, which wild turkeys can do, despite the myth that they cannot fly (the “fattened” farm turkey – the one we use for Thanksgiving – does not fly).
The Illinois State Museum goes even further by speculating that the bird Marquette was referencing was not a bustard at all, but the Canada Goose which is similar in size and appearance to the Great Bustard.
But, as the Museum concedes, even that is “open to question.”.