Birds in Kansas

Birds in KansasOne favorite book on Kansas birds is the two-volume work titled Birds in Kansas by Max C. Thompson and Charles Ely.  Although these books are no longer entirely up to date (new species are sighted occasionally, and even the old species turn up in new places), Birds in Kansas still has a place on a serious birdwatcher’s bookshelf because of the valuable information it contains.

The information provided on each bird varies somewhat, but the entries for most of the species contain the following:

  • Map.
  • Status.
  • Period of occurrence.
  • Breeding habits.
  • Habits and habitat.
  • Field marks.
  • Food.

Birds in Kansas: Volume IIThe first volume is devoted to nonpasserines, while the second is about passerines (perching birds).

Birds in Kansas is not a field guide, but rather a valuable reference work about the past and present habits of birds within our state.  If you have questions about when and where you can expect to see a particular species, this book can be a big help.  Great addition to the Kansas birdwatcher’s library.

Vitamin A (Retinol)

Vitamin A (Retinol)Vitamin A, also known as retinol, has an incredible array of functions within the bodies of animals.  One of its best-known purposes is to maintain eye health and night vision.  However, it is also necessary for healthy teeth, skin, coats, hooves, bones, nerves, kidneys, mucus glands, and adrenal glands.

This vitamin is key to the proper functioning of nearly all immune cells, and it works as an antioxidant, removing substances that have the potential to harm cells.  For this reason, vitamin A is important for preventing infections and parasite infestations.

Vitamin A also plays a vital role in reproduction.  It is necessary for fertility and conception, as well as proper development of embryos.  In mammals, vitamin A ensures healthy mammary glands.  In poultry, the vitamin is necessary for a smooth hatch and for chick vigor.  In all types of livestock, vitamin A is needed for proper growth.

Beta carotene is a plant pigment which is converted to vitamin A in the gut of many animals.  Some animals, such as cattle, do not absorb vitamin A directly from their food, but rely on its precursor, beta carotene.  Swine, poultry, and dogs, however, can also use the preformed vitamin A found in animal-derived foods.  Cats cannot use beta carotene at all, but must rely solely on animal sources.


Natural Sources

By far the best source of beta carotene for grazing animals is green, leafy forage.  Hay (particularly legume hay) qualifies provided that it is properly grown and harvested.  Beta carotene can be destroyed, however, by poor storage.

Yellow corn has more beta carotene than any other cereal grain.  Other sources of vitamin A include organ meat (particularly liver), cod liver oil, egg yolks, and whole milk.


Causes of Deficiency

Because vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, stored in the animal’s fat and in its liver, it takes approximately two to four months to build up a deficiency.  Any type of prolonged stress can cause vitamin A deficiency, including disease, parasites, and abrupt changes of diet.  Deficiencies in zinc and vitamin E can also lead to a deficiency in vitamin A.

Many animals suffer from vitamin A deficiency after receiving poor-quality diets.  This may include extremely processed feeds and feeds that have been stored for long periods of time.  Since green forage is the best source of vitamin A for grazing animals, a diet high in grain and low in roughage can lead to deficiency.  So can a prolonged spell of drought, which reduces the beta carotene and increases the toxins present in grass.

Chemicals can also interfere with vitamin A synthesis.  Common culprits include steroids and other hormone treatments, as well as nitrate contamination of pasture or drinking water.


Symptoms of Deficiency

Vitamin A (Retinol)
Darker corn is higher in beta carotene content.

Symptoms may vary widely.

Early signs:

  • Drowsiness.
  • Lack of resistance to parasites and infections.
  • Night blindness.
  • Dry, watering, cloudy, or ulcerated eyes.
  • Nasal discharge.
  • Pale combs and wattles.
  • Harsh coat.
  • Ruffled feathers.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Emaciation.
  • Scouring.
  • Pneumonia in young animals.
  • Genital and urinary tract infections.
  • Infertility/drop in egg production.
  • Abortions and stillbirths.
  • Young animals born with serious defects leading to death.
  • Slow growth.

Late signs:

  • Excessive panting at high temperatures.
  • Hard mucus membranes which accumulate a cheesy material.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Swollen brisket, leg joints, and sometimes abdomen.
  • Incoordination.
  • Posterior paralysis in young swine.
  • Seizures.
  • Collapse.


Symptoms of Toxicity

There are no reported cases of beta carotene toxicity in livestock.  Pets may temporarily develop darker coloring in their skin and fur.

When animals are given excessive vitamin A supplementation, however, the following symptoms may be observed:

  • Loose teeth in kittens.
  • Rough, unkempt coat.
  • Fragile and/or malformed bones.
  • Irreversible arthritis (particularly in the neck) due to fused joints.
  • Appetite loss.
  • Constipation.
  • Infertility.
  • Birth defects.
  • Slow growth.


Medicinal Uses

Vitamin A can be rather dangerous when supplemented on its own.  However, its precursor, beta carotene, has been used with success to treat eye problems.  Studies also indicate it may have potential in preventing mammary infections in dairy cattle.


Content regarding medical conditions and treatment is provided for general information purposes only, and is not to be construed as legal, medical, or professional advice.  Please consult your veterinarian for advice regarding your specific animal’s needs.


Complete Series



Body Condition Scoring: Sheep

Body Condition Scoring: SheepBody condition scoring a sheep can be a little more difficult than scoring other kinds of livestock because of the sheep’s thick covering of wool. While most animals can be scored with a simple visual inspection, evaluating a sheep’s condition is a more hands-on process.

So first you will need to know what you are feeling for. Most of your examination will center around the sheep’s spine. Each vertebra has a number of projections, or processes, three of which you will use to score the animal. The spinous process is vertical, forming the ridge down the center of the back. The two transverse processes are horizontal, pointing out to the sheep’s sides. A body condition score for sheep is based on how prominent the ends of these processes are, although you will also be checking for muscle and fat in the loin eye, the area between the spinous and transverse processes.

The scoring system itself is simple. Sheep are scored on a five-point scale, with 1 being emaciated and 5 being obese:

  1. Emaciated. Spinous processes feel sharp. Fingers pass easily under transverse processes, and a space can be felt between each one. Loin eye shallow and concave with no fat.
  2. Thin. Spinous processes still prominent, but starting to feel smooth. Fingers can pass under transverse processes with a little pressure. Loin eye moderately deep, but with no fat cover.
  3. Average. Spinous processes feel smooth and rounded; individual bones can only be felt with pressure. Firm pressure required to feel transverse processes. Loin eye full with moderate fat cover.
  4. Fat. Spinous processes feel like a hard line down the back and can only be detected with firm pressure. Transverse processes cannot be felt. Loin eye full with a thick fat cover.
  5. Obese. Spinous processes cannot be felt at all; instead, there is a crease or dip down the back. Loin eye very full and wide with a thick fat cover. Thick fat deposits may be noticed over the ribs, rump, and tail.

The ideal body condition score will depend on where the sheep is in the breeding cycle. A BCS between 3 and 4 is necessary at the beginning of the breeding season to ensure maximum fertility. In the early stages of gestation, the ewe should score no lower than 2.5 at any time. Her condition should also increase before lambing. A score between 3 and 4 is necessary to ensure that she will be able to feed her lambs properly. The more lambs that she has, the higher her score should be. No sheep should ever be allowed to fall below BCS 2.


Helpful Resource

Body Condition Scoring of Sheep
Handy PDF with illustrations and more information on scoring sheep.


Complete Series

Body Condition ScoringBody Condition Scoring


The Wonderful Art of Drawing Horses

The Wonderful Art of Drawing HorsesChildren love drawing horses! Here’s a book that can guide them through the process in a fun way.

The Wonderful Art of Drawing Horses by Barry Stebbing starts with the basics:

  • Shading.
  • Mixing colors.
  • Using shapes to make drawing easier.

Then on to a number of discussions on drawing different breeds, markings, gaits, and poses. Interesting activities liven up the lessons.

The intermediate section of the book helps artists to develop their skills in a number of ways:

  • Understanding horse anatomy.
  • Copying from pictures.
  • Drawing from life.
  • Exploring more advanced shading techniques.
  • Keeping an art journal.

Then follows an excellent exploration of a number of master artists who drew horses:

  • Eugene Delacroix.
  • George Stubbs.
  • Charles Russell.
  • Frederick Remington.
  • Leonardo da Vinci.

Stebbing wraps up with a few fun activities.

This book provides young artists with an excellent way to practice basic art techniques on a favorite subject, but it also presents more advanced skills in a friendly manner. Furthermore, The Wonderful Art of Drawing Horses goes beyond art and provides information on horse breeds, care, and anatomy.

So if you need a book for a young horse enthusiast who also happens to be a fledgling artist…this is the one!

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

America’s most common native swan is the tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus). This magnificent white bird is smaller than a trumpeter swan, its wingspan measuring only six to seven feet.

The tundra swan has a few unique characteristics about its face. Its black bill has a somewhat concave slope, while its lores cut across its forehead in a straight line. Many times adult swans will have a small yellow spot in front of their eyes, although this is not invariably the case.

Kansans may sometimes see a swan with dirty-looking feathers, particularly on its head and neck. This is likely an immature swan. By the time it returns the following winter, it will be snowy white like its parents.

Best Field Marks

Tundra Swan

  • Pure white plumage.
  • Lores form a straight line across forehead.
  • Yellow spot in front of eye.


The tundra swan is known for its soft, mellow call, which has been compared to cooing, laughing, and yodeling. This sound is often described as whoo-ho or wow-HOW-ow.

Distribution & Occurrence

The tundra swan is a rare migrant in Kansas, and it also occurs on a casual basis throughout the winter. It may be spotted anytime between early November and late April. Tundra swans are typically seen in the eastern part of the state, especially at the larger reservoirs, as well as at Cheyenne Bottoms.

Tundra SwanBehavior

Watching a group of tundra swans take off can be a rather interesting sight, as they run across the water flapping their wings. Once airborne, they fly in either straight lines or V formations.

The tundra swan dabbles for its food, using its long neck to hunt for submerged pond weeds and roots. It will also eat some seeds and occasionally shoots of grain plants.


Few birdwatchers are likely to be able to attract tundra swans to their property.

Similar Species

Trumpeter Swan
The trumpeter swan is the larger of the two swans of Kansas, but size is rarely a reliable field mark. Instead, look for the facial features that make these two birds distinct. The trumpeter swan’s bill slopes evenly into its head, creating a smooth, triangular look. Its lores form a V across its forehead, instead of a straight line. Also be sure to check for a yellow spot in front of the eye. Not all tundra swans have this field mark, but no trumpeter swan ever has it. Finally, hearing the swan call will make identification easy. The trumpeter swan’s voice is powerful and resonant, while the tundra swan sounds soft and mellow.

Helpful Resource

Tundra Swan
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.

Complete Series

Geese & Swans of KansasGeese & Swans of Kansas


The Railroads and the Homesteaders

The Railroads and the HomesteadersAfter the Civil War, two notable events took place, changing the nature of Kansas forever:

  1. In 1870, the Union Pacific, Eastern Division, (also called the Kansas Pacific Railway), reached across the state from Kansas City to Denver.
  2. In 1872, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe crossed the western state line.

These were grueling projects, with workers racing to lay tracks and towns vying for places along the line. The costs were enormous, too. Those in charge of both lines looked to the federal government for assistance in funding the work. In both cases, the government responded with land grants.


Land Grants

Section 3 of the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act reads:

And be it further enacted, That there be, and is hereby, granted to the said company [the Union Pacific], for the purpose of aiding in the construction of said railroad and telegraph line, and to secure the safe and speedy transportation of the mails, troops, munitions of war, and public stores thereon, every alternate section of public land, designated by odd numbers, to the amount of five alternate sections per mile on each side of said railroad, on the line thereof, and within the limits of ten miles on each side of said road, not sold, reserved, or otherwise disposed of by the United States, and to which a preemption or homestead claim may not have attached, at the time the line of said road is definitely fixed….

In 1864 the grant was increased to ten alternate sections on each side of the railroad. This privilege was allowed to the Santa Fe Railroad, as well.

The Railroads and the Homesteaders
First page of the Homestead Act

Both companies sold their lands to help fund their enterprises, but at first few settlers were terribly interested. After all, the Homestead Act made land in Kansas easy to obtain. Homesteaders just had to live on their claims for five years to receive 160 acres—for free! In 1873, the Timber Culture Act was passed, which gave settlers an additional 160 acres simply for planting trees on 40 acres of the claim. Why pay the railroads four dollars per acre or more?

But necessity is the mother of invention.


The Panic of 1873

In 1873, financial panic hit hard. American banks had invested heavily in railroads all across the country. Unable to sell their bonds, they soon found themselves bankrupt. This began a chain reaction which spread throughout the whole economy and created a severe recession. Many of the railroad companies themselves went bankrupt, and the survivors realized that they were hanging by a thread.

Fortunately for the Kansas Pacific and the Santa Fe, the panic had spread to Europe. Many other countries had overextended themselves in various industries, only to watch their bubbles burst one after another. Quite a few foreigners (and even some Americans) were eager to get a fresh start in a new home.

Both railroads, but the Santa Fe in particular, began to energetically promote the farm country of Kansas. This strategy promised two major benefits:

  1. Land sales would greatly assist the struggling railroad companies in the short term.
  2. Future transportation of crops would ensure the growth of the railroads in the long term.


They’re Coming to America

Besides writing glowing reports of the incredibly rich farmlands available in Kansas, the railroad companies attracted settlers by taking great pains to make the move as easy as possible. This was particularly a boon to foreigners who were unfamiliar with the ins and outs of American law. Although foreigners could file for free land under the Homestead Act, provided that they announced their intention to become United States citizens, it was much easier to work with knowledgeable railroad agents.

These men and the companies behind them frequently offered a couple of valuable services:

  • Helping settlers locate the lands most suitable for them.
  • Transporting settlers and all of their belongings for free or for heavily reduced rates.

The Railroads and the HomesteadersThe railroads typically targeted farming cultures when making their sales pitches. (They needed the long-term financial security shipping crops would bring, remember?) This brought a number of European groups to Kansas:

  • Germans.
  • Russian-Germans.
  • Swedes.
  • Englishmen.

Some Americans also came to the railroad lands. Yankees came to invest in town lots. Pennsylvania Germans were actively pursued by railroad agents to pave the way for settlers from overseas. Most Americans, however, still preferred to take advantage of the free lands available under the Homestead Act.


Effects of Railroad Promotion

The new settlers not only added their own distinctive touch to their new homes, but they significantly influenced the state’s agriculture. For example, the Mennonites who arrived among the German and Russian groups introduced Turkey Red winter wheat, a crop that proved to be hardier than the corn that so many Kansans were trying to grow at the time. Also, the Englishmen brought cattle breeds such as the Angus and the Hereford, revolutionizing the American beef industry.

So while changing the nature of Kansas was not really the goal of the railroad companies, they succeeded nevertheless. What started as a strategy for survival still affects the way Kansans live today.


Helpful Resource

Peopling the PlainsPeopling the Plains
If you found this topic interesting, you may enjoy the more in-depth explanation given in this highly recommended book. Read our full review.

The Story of the First Trans-Continental Railroad
This free eBook offers more insight into the Pacific Railroad Act and the history of the Kansas Pacific Railroad.

Body Condition Scoring: Swine

Body Condition Scoring: SwineThe body condition scoring (BCS) system for swine is very simple and is based on a five-point scale:

  1. Emaciated. Ribs, spine, and backbone prominent.
  2. Thin. Hips and backbone noticeable to the eye. Ribs can easily be felt with only slight pressure.
  3. Normal. Animal’s body is tube-shaped. Hips and backbone can only be felt with firm pressure.
  4. Fat. Bulging body. Hips and backbone cannot be felt at all.
  5. Overfat. Bulbous body due to obvious fat deposits. Hips and backbone thickly covered with fat.

With both boars and sows, the idea is to keep the score around 3 at all times.

In reality, however, sows will probably fluctuate slightly throughout their reproductive cycle. A BCS of 3.25 appears to ideal at breeding time. By farrowing time, the sow should score somewhere around 3.75. She should never drop below 2.5 at the end of a lactation.


Helpful Resource

Body Condition Scoring Graphic
This chart uses line drawings to make scoring swine easy to do at a glance.


Complete Series

Body Condition ScoringBody Condition Scoring