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Our Rich History: The environmental history of Newport, a former woodland with rich forest heritage

By Stanley Hedeen
Special to NKyTribune

Part 36 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

When Newport was incorporated in 1795, its landscape was much different than the present grid of buildings and streets. A forest canopy covered the land, with the exception of a few logged patches where pioneers made clearings for cabins and gardens. A squirrel could travel from one border of Newport to the opposite border without touching the ground.

Native American projectile points from Northern Kentucky. (From Stanley Hedeen, Natural History of the Cincinnati Region. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Museum Center, 2006.)

Most of the forest consisted of trees such as those that encircle the campus of Newport Central Catholic High School: oak, maple, hickory, ash, locust, buckeye, cherry, walnut, hackberry and beech. Where the forest continued onto river floodplains, the upland trees gave way to species that can tolerate frequent flooding and saturated soil. The bottomland trees include cottonwood, sycamore, box elder and American elm, all of which continue to grow in General James Taylor Park at the confluence of the Licking and Ohio Rivers.

The forest’s reptiles, birds and mammals had been hunted by Native Americans for thousands of years. The one-foot-long broad-headed skink and the five-foot-long black snake were captured and eaten. The box turtle also supplied meat while its empty shell was used as a bowl or cup. Turkeys were the most hunted birds, but grouse, crows, owls, hawks, Carolina parakeets and passenger pigeons also were taken for their flesh and feathers. Turkey skulls were filled with pebbles to produce rattles while bird bones were employed as pins and needles.

The deer was the largest source of meat for pre-settlement Native Americans. Deer antlers were used to fashion arrow points as well as harpoons for fishing in the rivers. The long bones of deer were grooved crosswise to become musical rasps or were split lengthwise to serve as hide scrapers. Deerskins became clothing, shoes, pouches, blankets and additional articles.

Cliff swallows and nests. (John James Audubon, The Birds of America. New York: George R. Lockwood, 1839.)

Other species killed for hides and food were elk, bison, bear, cougar, lynx and wolf, all of which could be encountered when Newport was founded but soon thereafter vanished from the region. The disappearance of these six mammals was due to continued lumbering and a growing gun-bearing population. Smaller mammals that survived the nineteenth-century growth of Newport include the raccoon, opossum, woodchuck, skunk, cottontail, squirrel, mole and chipmunk.

Newport’s native mammals have been joined by the Norway rat and the house mouse that arrived on the boats of settlers, and the coyote that immigrated from western states when local woods were replaced by farm fields. Another non-native in Newport is the European common wall lizard that appeared in the region when a Cincinnati boy released individuals he had caught during a 1951 visit to Italy. Ninety years earlier, the European house sparrow spread into Newport after Cincinnati imported 80 pairs of the bird to feed on caterpillars that were eating shade trees.

The house sparrow is now Newport’s most numerous bird, followed in abundance by the European starling that reached the city during the 1920s. A hundred starlings had been released in New York’s Central Park in 1890 and 1891 during a project to import every European bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. All of the introductions failed with the exception of the starling, which expanded from Central Park across the continent. A third European bird that now nests in Newport, the domestic pigeon, either escaped or was released from captivity by nineteenth-century pigeon fanciers.

Carolina parakeets. (John James Audubon, The Birds of America. New York: George R. Lockwood, 1839.)

Newport now also is home to the house finch and the cliff swallow, two non-native species that did not originate in Europe. The house finch is a western U.S. bird that appeared in the city around 1980 after a captive population was released from a New York pet store forty years earlier. The cliff swallow did not live in or around Newport prior to the nineteenth century because the region lacks riverside rock bluffs on which the bird plasters its mud nest.

However, with the construction of the Newport Barracks at the confluence of the Licking and Ohio Rivers, suitable perpendicular walls were made available and cliff swallows established a colony there in 1815. John James Audubon visited the barracks in 1820 to draw a portrait of the swallows and their nests, a picture he later included in his monumental Birds of America folio. The Newport Barracks is gone, but cliff swallows continue to nest on the piers of river bridges erected after the completion of the fort.

While non-native birds have taken up residence since Newport’s founding, the native passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet have become locally, and universally, extinct. Their demise was due in part to the destruction of woodland in the eastern U.S., but it was mostly the result of intense hunting. The pigeon, the most abundant bird in North America when Newport was incorporated, was slaughtered for its tasty flesh. The parakeet was seldom shot for meat but was, instead, slain for its fashionable feathers, for sport, and for pest control. Known as the “winged rat,” the parakeet was a hated farm pest that fed on fruit in orchards and grain in crop fields.

The last passenger pigeon recorded in Kentucky was killed in 1898 and the species became extinct when a caged bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The last captive Carolina parakeet passed away at the same zoo in 1918 and infrequent sightings of wild individuals in the South ceased by 1940. Newport residents can no longer view the millions of passenger pigeons that darkened the sky during their seasonal migrations, or the beautiful red, yellow, green and blue feathers of parakeets that nested in the city’s bottomland trees. Hopefully, the remaining animal and plant species that represent Newport’s forest heritage will endure into the city’s future.

Stanley Hedeen is an Emeritus Professor of Biology at Xavier University, where he also served as Dean of Arts and Sciences. He has authored books on Big Bone Lick, Mill Creek and the natural history of the Cincinnati region.

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