E-text prepared by Al Haines
OUR BIRD COMRADES
LEANDER S. KEYSER
Author of "Birddom," "In Bird Land," and "Birds of the Rockies," etc.
[Frontispiece: American Sparrow-hawk]
Rand, McNally & Company Chicago New York London
Copyright, 1907 by Rand, McNally & Co.
The Rand-McNally Press Chicago
ALL WHO LOVE THE BIRDS FOR THEIR OWN SAKES,
who desire to cultivate comradeship with them in books and in the field, and who will study them with the glass and without the gun._
BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION
To know the birds intimately, to interpret their lives in all their varied conditions, one must get close to them. For the purpose of accomplishing this object the author of this volume has gone to their haunts day after day and watched them persistently at not a little cost of time, effort, and money. While the limits of a single volume do not permit him to present all of his observations, it is hoped that those here offered will be satisfactory as far as they go, and that the reader will be able to glean from these pages some new as well as interesting facts relative to bird life.
The writer has had another purpose in view in preparing this book: He wishes to inspire others, especially the young, to use their eyes and ears in the study of the enchanting volume of Nature. This object, he believes, will be best accomplished by furnishing concrete examples of what may be achieved by earnest research. For purposes of stimulus an ounce of example is worth a pound of precept. If another sees you and me doing a thing joyfully, earnestly, we need scarcely say to him, "Go thou and do likewise."
There is not much in the book that is technical, yet it aims at scientific accuracy in all of its statements, no bird being described whose status in the avian system has not been determined. If strange exploits are sometimes recited, the author has simply to say that he has been veracious in all of his statements, and that all the stories are "true bird stories." The author modestly believes that it will not be found uninteresting to nature lovers in general.
Much of the material included in this volume has previously appeared in various periodicals, to the publishers of which the writer would hereby make grateful acknowledgment for their courtesy in waiving their copyright privileges. A number of the journals are given due credit elsewhere in the book.
THE TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE PREFACE THE ILLUSTRATIONS BEGINNING THE STUDY MAKING NEW FRIENDS WILDWOOD MINSTRELS CHICKADEE WAYS THE NUTHATCH FAMILY A FEATHERED PARASITE A BLUE CANNIBAL A HANDSOME SCISSORSTAIL AN ALPINE ROSY FINCH HAPPENINGS BY THE WAY ODDS AND ENDS WAYSIDE OBSERVATIONS TROUBLE AMONG THE BIRDS A BIRD'S EDUCATION ARE BIRDS SINGERS OR WHISTLERS? BIRD FLIGHT A BIRD'S FOOT
AMERICAN SPARROW-HAWK . . . . . . . . . Frontispiece
PEWEE, OR PHOEBE
BOB-WHITE, OR QUAIL
SPOTTED SANDPIPER, OR "PEET-WEET"
BEGINNING THE STUDY
Why should not people ride natural history hobbies as well as other kinds of hobbies? Almost all persons become interested in some special study, recreation, or pastime, and their choice is not always as profitable as the selection of a specific branch of nature lore would be. The writer confesses that he would rather pursue a bright, lilting bird or butterfly than a bounding tennis-ball or football, and he finds the chase every whit as exciting and the knowledge gained of more permanent value; and he says this without in anywise intending to discountenance healthful games and athletic exercises, but simply to express a preference. What could be more fascinating, for instance, than for a young person—or an older person, either, for that matter—to spend his leisure in trying to identify every bird in his neighborhood? As a result of such an attempt he would doubtless become so interested in the study of his bird neighbors that he would resolve to learn all he could about their charming habits.
How may one study the birds intelligently? That is a question every beginner will want to have answered. When I began my bird studies I spent much valuable time in simply trying to learn the modus operandi, and while I do not consider the time thus spent entirely wasted, still I am anxious to save my readers as much needless effort as possible. This I shall do by showing them how they may begin at once to form an acquaintance with the various families and species of birds.
It goes without saying that, to become a successful nature student, one must have good eyes, strong limbs, nimble feet, and, above all, an alert mind. People who lack these qualities, especially the last, will not be likely to pursue the noble science of ornithology. The stupid sort will prefer to drowse in the shade, and the light-minded will care only for the gay round of social pleasures. Any bright and earnest person, however, can in good time become an expert student of the feathered creation, provided only that he feels a genuine interest in such pursuit. No one, let it be repeated, can study nature successfully in a dull, perfunctory spirit. Here, as in religion, one must have the baptism of fire, the temper of devotion.
In the study of birds it must be admitted that men and boys have some advantage over their cousins of the gentler sex. Men folk may ramble pretty much where they please without danger, whereas the freedom of women folk in this respect is somewhat restricted. However, the engaging works of Mrs. Olive Thorne Miller, of Mrs. Florence M. Bailey, and of many others prove that women are not debarred from outdoor studies, and that in some ways they may even have an advantage over men; they are not so ambitious to cover a wide territory, to penetrate to out-of-the-way haunts, or to roll up a long "list," and they are therefore apt to make more intimate studies of the common species, thus getting into the very heart of the bird's life. A man's observations may embrace a wider range, and he may add more species to the science of ornithology than his sister, but she will be likely to discover facts about the commonest fowl that he will overlook. The study of birds, therefore, offers a fascinating field for girls and women as well as for their brothers.
What tools are needed for acquiring bird lore? To begin at the beginning, let me ask: Who would expect to study the plants and flowers without a botany? or the rocks and fossils and the general structure of the earth without a reliable work on geology? or the planets and stars without a treatise on astronomy? So, if you desire a knowledge of ornithology, you will need what is known as a bird "key," or "manual," or "handbook"—that is, a scientific work that shows how the birds have been classified, with accurate descriptions of all the families, genera, species, subspecies, and varieties, together with the common and scientific names of all the species and brief accounts of their ranges and general habits. When you have found a plant or a flower that is new to you, what is your first task? To "run it down" in a botanical key. Just so, having found a feathered stranger, you should note its markings, shape, size, etc., and then "run it down" with the aid of a bird manual. It is much better to run a bird down in this way than to shoot it down.
It is pertinent to say at this time that no one should disparage scientific treatises, or the learned and painstaking people who gather the material for them and prepare them. It is quite the fashion nowadays, when a "popular" book on birds appears, for some reviewers to compare it with the so-called "dry" scientific works of the specialists, to the disparagement of the latter. This is as wrong as it is gratuitous. The "popular" book, delightful as it may be, could not have been written, or, if written, would have had little real value, had it not been for the help obtained from the systematists, who, with almost infinite toil, have made possible the scientific classification of the numerous members of the bird tribe. Pioneer work in ornithology, as elsewhere, may not be very enchanting to most people, but it is necessary. The scientific spirit should be honored, not disdained, for without it accuracy would be impossible. On the other hand, the man who plods with scientific details should not look with contempt upon the man who popularizes the results of technical study by giving it an attractive literary setting. In short, the scientific writer and the "popular" writer are alike worthy of "honorable mention," for both of them are needful factors in the dissemination of knowledge.
You will want to know where a first-rate bird manual can be obtained. It affords me sincere pleasure to recommend two works of the kind that cover the entire avian field for residents of the United States. They are new, up-to-date, and convenient. To those who live east of the Mississippi River I would commend Mr. Frank M. Chapman's "Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America." The best praise I can bestow upon this book is to assure you that it will give entire satisfaction as a handbook. Happily another manual (Mrs. Florence M. Bailey's "Handbook of Birds of the Western United States") was recently issued, treating the avifauna west of the Mississippi just as thoroughly as Mr. Chapman's work deals with that of the eastern part of our country. Both books contain lavish illustrations by expert and accurate bird artists—a feature that is invaluable in the work of identification. They possess a further advantage in not being too large to be carried with you in your excursions afield, enabling you to name each feathered stranger on the spot.
Should you desire a single volume that will help you to identify any bird you may meet on our continent, I would urge you to secure the latest revised edition of Dr. Elliott Coues's "Key to North American Birds." It is fully illustrated, thoroughly scientific and up-to-date in the matter of classification, and yet not too technical for practical use. This book is too bulky to be carried with you to the haunts of the birds, but it may be used in this way: Note carefully the markings and other peculiarities of each new bird you meet; then, as soon as you return home, while all the circumstances are fresh in your memory, consult your "key" and make sure, if possible, of the identity of all your "finds."
Mr. Robert Ridgway, one of the foremost ornithologists of our country, is now preparing a great work which is worthy of the highest praise. It is entitled "The Birds of North and Middle America," and is the most comprehensive work yet undertaken relative to the avifauna of the entire North American Continent, giving a large amount of scientific data respecting all the species. After its completion it will enable the student to identify every bird known to science from the Isthmus of Panama to the far North and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. At this writing two volumes have been issued. They are published under government auspices by the United States National Museum at Washington, D. C., and may be procured perhaps without cost by writing to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Of this the writer cannot be absolutely sure, as the supply of printed copies may be limited.
Nothing more need be said about bird manuals, save to warn you against spending your money for books which describe only a part of the avifauna of a given region and yet are advertised as serviceable for the identification of all birds. Unless you have plenty of money to spend, when you buy a manual buy one that is scientifically accurate and complete. Nothing is more trying to the student of birds, whether tyro or expert, than to encounter a new bird and then fail to find it described or even mentioned in the book that has been foisted upon him as a manual. In saying this I do not mean to discourage the purchase of the charming popular books written in a literary vein and describing personal observations on bird life, such as the works of John Burroughs, Bradford Torrey, Olive Thorne Miller, and many others. These books, however, are not advertised as handbooks, and thus no one is deceived in buying them.
Even with the best manual in hand, you must not expect to be able to identify every new bird at the first attempt, for some species are either exceedingly shy or obscurely marked, or probably both, while quite a number are so much alike in markings and habits that it is hard to distinguish them from one another. A few birds remained enigmas to me for a number of years, in spite of the help of the field glass. At intervals for several months you will often catch provoking glimpses of some nymph-like bird before you succeed in determining its true place in the avian system. But patience and persistence will some day overcome the most stubborn difficulties.
Since the foregoing references to leading bird manuals were written, a new work, which is unique in plan, has been published. I refer to the book entitled "Color Key to North American Birds"; text by Frank M. Chapman, pictures by Chester A. Reed. The range of the volume is from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean and from the southern boundary of the United States to the far north. It contains a brief description of every species and sub-species within the limits named; a key to all the Orders and Families, with the common and scientific names of all the birds; an introduction to every chief division; and last, and highly important, colored pictures of all the species and many of the geographical varieties. What more can the bird student desire for purposes of identification? While the other manuals give fuller descriptions of habits, songs, etc., and need not, therefore, be superseded by this volume, yet frankness forces us to say that if the student, and especially the beginner, cannot afford to buy more than one bird book, the Chapman-Reed "Color Key" is the one to get. It is of a convenient size for carrying afield, so that a feathered stranger can be identified on the spot. It can be used anywhere in the United States, in British America, and Alaska. Think of that, fellow bird-lovers!
A good field glass is indispensable to successful bird study, especially if you desire to name all the birds without killing any, as I hope you do. Perhaps the older ornithologists, like Audubon and Wilson, did not use helps of this kind, but they used guns, and consequently had to study dead birds, while you and I want to study living ones. Their killing of birds was, indeed, necessary, for purposes of scientific classification; but now that such classifying has, for the most part, been attained, the gun has largely gone out of vogue, and the glass has taken its place. Let your alliterative motto be: With the glass, not the gun.
I would advise you not to buy a flashily colored glass, for it will dazzle your eyes on sunshiny days. Be sure to get one that is easily focused, as you must be quick in studying such shy creatures as the birds. At first the glass may strain and tire your eyes, but that difficulty will pass in a short time. Expertness will soon be won in the use of a binocular, so that you will be able, almost instantly, to get the desired object within its field, even though the object be quite tiny. An opera glass is a great deal better than no glass at all; a field glass is better still, and a Bausch & Lomb binocular of six to eight magnifying power is the best of all; being almost equal to having the bird in hand. The observer must lose as little time as possible in sighting a shy bird, or it may escape him altogether.
A book-bag or haversack, strapped around your shoulders, will also be a convenience. In it you can stow your bird manual, and a luncheon in case you expect to spend the whole day in the open, for a hungry rambler is not likely to be an acute observer. A notebook and a lead pencil, carried in handy pockets, should not be forgotten. Donning an old suit of clothes, you can roam where you will, threading your way through brier and bush, wading the bog or the shallow stream, dropping upon your knees, even flinging yourself upon the ground, to spy upon a wary bird flitting about in the copse.
In almost all kinds of weather I wear rubber boots in my excursions to the haunts of the birds. The observer can never tell when he may have to wade a stream or tramp through a boggy marsh. In wet and cold weather the need of rubber boots can be seen readily, but even in dry and warm weather they have one decided advantage—they do not become slippery on the soles as one tramps through the leaf-strewn woods or the grassy fields. Every pedestrian knows that sole-leather is apt to become as smooth as glass, making it difficult to retain one's footing. On the other hand, rubber seems to cling to the ground, no matter how much it is worn. The only objection to rubbers is that they are uncomfortably warm in hot weather; but that difficulty can be overcome by frequently plunging into a cool stream and standing there for several minutes.
Let me caution you, however, not to purchase a heavy pair of rubber boots. Insist on having a light pair or none at all. A good pair of rubber boots are a real luxury, for with them you may tramp about in all kinds of damp and boggy places without fear of wetting your feet, though it goes without saying that you must be careful not to wade in over the tops of your footgear.
Of great assistance to the pedestrian is a light cane. In climbing Pikes Peak one evening after dark, I doubt whether I should have been able to gain the summit had it not been for my tough little wild-cherry cane, upon which I could lean when almost exhausted, which supported my faltering steps, and which happily never grew weary. Two years later it helped me to scale a number of snow-capped mountains, among them Grays Peak and Peak Number Eight of the Ten Mile Range. Indeed, my little cane was of so much service to me that I came to look upon it as a personal friend that cared almost as much for me as I did for it. It pushed aside thorny bushes and nettlesome weeds when I was looking for nests, thus saving my hands many a painful wound. And more than one serpent, including the rattlesnake, has had his head crushed or his spine broken by sturdy blows from my little wild-cherry cane. I should add that it had a hooked handle, so that I could hang it on the strap of my haversack when I needed both hands.
In the beginning of your observations you will find the work of identifying the birds a rare and exciting pleasure; then, after you have named all the species in your neighborhood, it will be no less delightful to study their interesting ways, or to extend your researches to other fields. And if at any time you observe some odd bits of bird behavior which you think will be news to the many bird lovers the world over, why should you not report them to one of the bird magazines, so that others may share the pleasures of your discoveries? An admirer of feathered folk should not be selfish; indeed, I do not see how he can be.
It simply remains to be said that this volume is an illustration of the method of bird study just indicated. In the first place, I shall show, in a few chapters, how the student goes about his work of identifying species and making new bird friends; then will follow a number of monographs indicating how much may be learned about the life histories of several interesting species; next there will be a miscellaneous collection of incidents of bird life, showing how many odds and ends the industrious and observing rambler may gather by the way; and, finally, the book will conclude with four somewhat technical chapters on bird education, bird music, bird flight, and bird feet, which I hope will prove interesting as well as instructive.
MAKING NEW FRIENDS
A friend once told me of a letter he had received from a correspondent who is an enthusiastic botanist. The writer, having just returned from an excursion in which he found a flower that was new to him, gave vent to his feelings of exultation by exclaiming, "Oh, the joy! the joy!" A like experience comes to the bird lover when he makes a new acquaintance in the feathered domain, no matter how many other observers may have seen and studied the species. "A bird that is new to me is to all intents and purposes a new bird," is his self-complacent mode of reasoning, though it may not be distinguished for its logic.
After studying the birds in Ohio and Indiana for a good many years, I moved to eastern Kansas, where I lived for five and a half years. My rambles were by no means confined to the wooded bluffs and hollows that bound the Missouri River on the west, for I also made excursions out upon the prairies of Kansas, over into the state of Missouri, and down into Oklahoma; and everywhere I carried my field glass with me and kept both eyes intent on the birds. You would expect an enthusiast in the pursuit of bird lore to do nothing else. What a pleasure it was to ramble about in new fields and make acquaintance with new bird friends! There is not a very marked difference between the avifauna of eastern Kansas and Ohio, and yet there are some birds found in the former state that are not met with in the latter—enough to keep the observer on the tiptoe of expectancy for several months.
One of my new acquaintances was a little bird which is known as the clay-colored sparrow. It belongs to the same genus (Spizella) as the chipping and field sparrows which are so well known in the East; but it has an individuality of its own, and is not merely a copy. I stumbled upon it while pursuing my explorations near Peabody, far out on the level prairie, where the species was abundant during the season of migration. As I was sauntering along a road, a peculiar croaking little trill greeted me from the hedge, sounding very much like the rasping call of certain kinds of grasshoppers when they are suddenly startled and take to wing. But no insect had ever emitted quite such a sound in my hearing. This could not be an insect. It was worth while to look and make sure of the identity of the odd musician.
After some difficulty, I fixed my glass upon a number of little sparrows about the size of the chippies. They bore a close resemblance to that species too, save that the crown-piece and the general tone of the back were decidedly darker, while the under parts were a good deal whiter. The clear, ash-colored cervical interval between the crown and the back and the distinct brown loral and auricular space told me plainly who the little charmers were. Not at the moment, however, for the birds were new to me, and I had to wait until I could consult my manual before I was able to decide that they were the clay-colored sparrows.
Their song is an odd vocal performance—a low, croaking trill, preceded by a few longer notes, all delivered in the same key. It is, in fact, a contralto solo divided into brief stanzas, and easily might be mistaken for the grating buzz of an insect, especially if heard at a distance of a few rods. It possesses little or no musical quality, and is perhaps the most curious style of bird minstrelsy with which I am acquainted. In comparison the chippie's trill sounds loud and clear and bell-like, with a distinctly melodious quality of tone. The song of the little clay-colored sparrow is also marked by a kind of drawl, giving one the impression that the bird is just a little too lazy to exert himself; yet when you get him in the field of your glass and see him throw back his head, expand his throat and chest, and open his mandibles as wide as he can, you quickly decide that he is not the apathetic creature his desultory song would lead you to infer. It really is laughable, and almost pathetic, too, to note how much energy he expends in the production of his poor little aria.
Indeed, not in the least sluggish is the blood flowing in the veins of Spizella pallida, for he is a vivacious little body, flitting about actively in the hedges and bushes, and sometimes mounting into the trees, chanting his little alto strain all the while, as if his life depended upon it. He is one of the comparatively few birds who is lavish of his song in migration.
Unlike the familiar chippie, he does not usually find a perch in plain sight, from which to rehearse his song, but keeps himself well hidden in the bushes or trees, darting into a hiding place as soon as he thinks himself discovered. The shy little imp prefers to put a screen of foliage or twigs between himself and the observer. Might his motto be, "Little birds should be heard and not seen"? I had quite a time making sure of him, but, as a pleasant compensation, when his identity was once settled, I could not well have mistaken him for another species, for he is a bird of real distinction.
My study of the clay-colored sparrows was restricted to their habits in migration, at which time they move about in more or less compact little flocks, gathering seeds and chanting their monotonous trills. While I first found these sparrows near Peabody, they were also fairly common, a few days later, in northeastern Kansas, about a mile back from the Missouri River, where their low alto strains formed a kind of gray background for the high-pitched trills of the Harris sparrows and the loud pipings of the cardinals. Quaint as our little contralto's solos are, they have a distinct fascination for me, and now that I no longer live in the Sunflower state, I miss them sorely when the springtime comes.
These sparrows do not, I believe, breed in Kansas, but are known to establish their households in the northern part of Illinois, central and northern Iowa, the Red River region in Minnesota, the country drained by the upper Missouri River and its tributaries, Manitoba as far north as the Saskatchewan River, and the plains and bases of the foothills of eastern Colorado. Their nests are built on the ground or in low bushes, and from three to five eggs, of a greenish-blue tint, flecked with cinnamon-brown, are deposited. They spend the winters in southern Texas and still farther south. Only "accidentally," as the word goes, are they known in the eastern part of the United States, and for that reason little has yet been written about them in popular books on birds. The time will come, no doubt, when they will have a well-recognized place in bird literature, just as the chippie, the vesper sparrow, and the song sparrow have to-day.
In bird study it is never safe to take too much for granted. One must be constantly on the alert, and, more than that, one must be able to make fine distinctions with both the ear and the eye. Here is a case in point. For many days, while strolling about in quest of bird lore, I heard a quaint little song in the bushy clumps, and that, too, in some of the most out-of-the-way places. "It is nothing but the house wren," I muttered to myself, I know not how often. "It isn't worth while to look for it when there are new birds to be found. Still, it's singular," I continued, "that the house wren should dwell in such secluded places. It would seem that his name is a misnomer—at least, in a good many instances." Several times I stopped to listen more intently to the rolling ditty. "There's something odd about that wren's song," I repeated. "Does the house wren always close its song with the rising inflection, as if it were asking a question?"
Then I would perhaps make a half-hearted attempt to get a glimpse of the lyrist, but it kept itself well hidden in the bushes, and I desisted, begrudging the time taken from my quest for feathered rarities. But one day, while strolling along the banks of a small stream, I again heard the labored ditty, and the next moment a small bird darted into full view, calling and scolding in an agitated way, and, while I watched it capering about, it broke into the very song to which for several weeks I had been listening so carelessly. Why, it was not a wren after all! It did not look like a wren, nor act like one, but, rather, its form and conduct were like those of a vireo; and a vireo it was. My bird manual soon settled that point. And what was the name of the little stranger who had introduced himself in so informal a way? It was the Bell vireo, an entirely new species to me.
It is not an eastern species; it ranges from Illinois to the base of the Rocky Mountains. In Kansas it is a summer resident, hanging its little basket of a nest on the twigs of bushes or low trees, after the regular vireo fashion. It was my good fortune to find a nest on a copsy hilltop, where the bird's madrigals and lullabies mingled with those of the yellow-breasted chats, the indigo buntings, the blue-gray gnat catchers, and the Kentucky warblers. To this day I feel a longing to visit the secluded spot where I held so many pleasant interviews with these birds.
Another Kansas bird that was new to my eyes and that afforded me much delight was the Harris sparrow—a distinctively western species, not known, or at least very rarely, east of the Mississippi River. He is truly a fine bird, a little larger than the fox sparrow, neatly clad, his breast prettily decorated with a brooch of black spots held in place by a slender necklace of the same color, while his throat and forehead are bordered with black. His rump and upper tail coverts are a delicate shade of grayish brown, by which he may be readily distinguished from the fox sparrow, whose rear parts are reddish brown. His beak, feet, and legs are of a pinkish tint, making him look quite trig and dressy. The latest of the spring arrivals were the most highly colored, having the whole chin, throat, and top of the head a glossy, uniform black.
It would appear that the most matured individuals migrate farthest south in winter. That, at least, would be the natural conclusion, judging from the fact that they arrive latest in the spring in our central latitudes. In the southern part of Kansas the Harris sparrows are said to be common winter sojourners, but in the north-eastern part of the state they disappeared in November or December, and did not return until the middle of February, or later if the weather happened to be severe. From the time of their vernal arrival they were to be seen in every ramble until they took flight for their breeding haunts in the North. One spring some of them were still loitering in Kansas on the eleventh of May, and were singing blithely, no doubt waiting for the winter cold of their summer homes to be well past before they ventured farther toward the arctic lands.
In general, the habits of these birds are much like those of the white-throated sparrows, which are much more common in the East than in the West. The Harris sparrows are fond of copses and hedges, and especially of brush heaps in new grounds. So marked, indeed, is their penchant for brush heaps that I almost wish one might re-christen them "brush-heap sparrows." Many a time I have played a little trick on the unsuspecting birds by stealing up to a brush pile and giving it a sudden blow with my cane; then a whole covey of them would dash pellmell from their covert with loud chirps of protest against such wantonness.
Sometimes they are found in the depths of the woods, providing there is thick underbrush in which they can conceal themselves. I seldom found them in open places either in the woods or fields. Yet, shy as they are, they have a fondness for the dense hedges along the highways, flitting and chirping as the traveler passes by.
Being wary birds, they do not wander far from their hiding places, into which they precipitate themselves at the approach of a supposed danger. It was quite a while before I could get a clear view of their breasts, for, with provoking persistence, they kept their tails turned toward me. However, when once you really become acquainted with a bird, it seems to lose part of its shyness, and so after a time I often had the Harris sparrows in plain view. One of their characteristic habits was to stand at full height on the top of a brush heap, with tail lifted, crest feathers erect, and eyes wide open, the picture of wild alertness. In such poses they are indeed handsome birds.
It was March 5, 1898, when I heard the first song of this sparrow, and even then it was only a fragment of a song. But, the weather remaining pleasant, the sixteenth of the month brought a fine concert. The bird's song was a surprise to me. It began with a prolonged run so much like the opening tremolo of the white-throated sparrow that it might have led the most expert ornithologist astray. The fact is, I looked around for quite a while in search of a white-throat, thinking him still a little out of tune, and therefore unable to finish his chanson; and I was undeceived only by the singing of several Harris sparrows that with unusual boldness had perched in plain sight. The resemblance ceased, however, with the opening notes, for the western bird did not add the sweet, rhythmic triad of his white-throated cousin, the closing part of his song being only a somewhat labored trill of no distinct character, and not fulfilling the promise of his initial strain.
In the concerts of these birds—and frequently many of them would be trilling at the same time—they sang in several different keys, some of them striking the treble and others dropping almost to the alto. Occasionally two birds in different parts of a field would sing responsively, one trill running very high in the scale, the other an octave lower. It seemed almost as if the responsive exercise was engaged in intentionally.
The Harris sparrow has another song which is quite unlike his melodious trill. It is delivered in a loud voice of little musical quality, and the notes are pounded out in a percussive style, like the explosion in quick succession of a number of little cartridges. Yet you must be quite close to the bird in order to hear the queer canticle distinctly, and when you do hear it you will wonder why nature ever put such a song into a bird's larynx. The Harris sparrow also utters an explosive alarm-call, which expresses not a little petulance and concern.
One day a pretty picture was made by two of these birds that stood face to face on a brush heap, bowing at each other, each threatening to peck the other's head off, and both singing all the while at the top of their voices, yet each afraid, in spite of his bluster, to close with his opponent in actual contest. It was a miniature exhibition of the beak-to-beak challenging often indulged in by two rival cocks of the farmyard. For some minutes the little farce was kept up, then one of the birds became tired of the game and darted over to the next brush heap.
I have said that these birds are scarcely known east of the Mississippi River, but Mr. Ridgway says that they are occasionally seen during migration in Illinois and Wisconsin. In eastern Kansas and western Missouri they are common, almost abundant, during both the vernal and autumnal migrations, and after you have once cultivated their acquaintance they are likable, if not quite companionable, birds. But familiar as they are in the regions named, they are still something of a mystery to the naturalists of our country, for Mr. Ridgway says that their "breeding range is unknown," save that there is a doubtful record of one nest at Fort Custer, Montana; while Mrs. Bailey says: "The breeding range of the Harris sparrow is unknown except for Mr. Preble's Fort Churchill record. The last of July, among the dwarf spruces of Fort Churchill, he found an adult male and female with young just from the nest." It will be remembered that Fort Churchill is away up on the coast of the Hudson Bay. It is probable, therefore, that the nest of the Harris sparrow has never been found by any of the naturalists of America. Who would suppose that these birds, so numerous and so well known in Kansas, would, in the breeding season, surround themselves with such an air of mystery?
It was in Kansas, too, that I really came to know the Lincoln sparrow and hear his song, although I had caught a few fleeting glimpses of him in the East, and also in the neighborhood of Duluth, Minnesota. In the Sunflower state his conduct was just about as inconsistent as it could have been without being downright absurd. What do I mean by that? Why, while he was as wild as a deer, he still came to town, flitting about in the bushes of a vacant lot near my house, and even visiting the fence between my yard and the adjoining one, hopping about on the ground with one eye on the lookout for nits and worms and the other for human disturbers. My attention was first drawn to him by hearing a squeaky little trill in the vacant lot. But, my! how wary he was when I went out to find him! The song bore some resemblance to that of the house wren, but had not so rolling and gurgling a quality, and was pitched to a slightly higher and finer key. For a long time he kept himself ensconced in the thicket, trilling saucily at intervals, as if daring me to find him if I could, and when I finally drove him out of his hiding place, he darted off in a zigzag course to another bush clump, into which he dropped in the greatest possible haste.
By and by his curiosity got the better of him, and he flitted to the top of a brush heap and peeped out at me surreptitiously. My glass was upon him in a moment, revealing his whitish throat and mottled chest washed with buff, the latter being his characteristic marking. A few days later he was singing in a small apple tree by my neighbor's fence. I stole as close to him as I could and peered at him through my binocular, while he returned the compliment by peering at me, and then warily ventured to rehearse his little tune. The least movement on my part would startle him, cause him to flit to another perch and crane out his neck to glare at me questioningly with wild, dilated eyes, uncertain whether I was to be trusted or not. Both of us presently grew tired of our strained position, and so I walked off and he flew away. No doubt there was mutual satisfaction in the inspection we gave each other; at least, I felt well satisfied with having heard the song of so shy a bird. His stay in my neighborhood lasted only a few days; then he left as mysteriously as he had come, without even the courtesy of a good-bye. He went to his summer home in the North, and I did not see him again until the next spring, just twelve months later almost to the day.
* Parts of this and several other chapters of this book were first published in The New York Times, whose courtesy in permitting him to reprint, the author hereby acknowledges.
Nothing affords the bird student more pleasure than settling the identity of species, albeit sometimes it is hard and patience-trying work. And of all the birds, none are so provokingly and charmingly elusive as some of the wood warblers. What a time I had for several years in making sure of some of these little nymph-like creatures which were flitting about in the foliage of the trees, concealing themselves by a leafy barrier! Many a weary chase did they lead me through the woods, and more than once I almost unjointed my neck by long-continued looking up.
For identifying the tree-top flitters an opera glass is scarcely powerful enough. A field glass or a Bausch & Lomb binocular is really a necessity. It draws the bird right down to you, while at the same time the elusive creature remains at what it regards a safe distance. Its conduct will therefore not be constrained, and the observer can study it in its natural poses.
What an enigma the Tennessee warbler for a long time remained to me! Never still for a moment, yet so indistinctly marked that at a distance it looks like a dozen other birds one might name—a veritable feathered rebus. But finally I fixed its place in the avian schedule with the help of my field glass—white under parts, slightly tinged with yellow, back and rump olive green, top and sides of head delicate bluish-ash; no eye-ring, no wing-bars. There is no other warbler marked quite like that. And yet its song is its most conspicuous mark, so to speak, for it is a loud, shrill, and very rapidly repeated run, which might be spelled out in this way: "Chippy, chippy, chippy, chippity-chippity-chippity." The whole song is emitted at a galloping pace, giving you the impression that the bird is in a desperate hurry. Important business on hand, no doubt! Yes, there is a worm or a nit on the under side of that leaf, and he must nab it now or never! With such pressing business matters on hand, he has no time for regaling you with "linked sweetness long drawn out."
Still, he sometimes does prolong his ditty, giving it a saucy, challenging air. No other warbler sings so loudly. His voice is as shrill and penetrating as that of the indigo bird, though the song is quite different in technique.
Another feathered conundrum was the Nashville warbler, whose back and head are colored like those of the Tennessee, but whose under parts are bright yellow, instead of white or white only slightly washed with yellow; and, besides, sharp peering through your glass will reveal a distinct white ring encircling the eye. The bird in the hand would also show a dainty chestnut patch on the crown, but this mark is seldom seen while it is flitting about in the leafy trees. The songs of the Nashville and the Tennessee are somewhat similar, but not the same, the Tennessee's being louder, shriller, and more sharply accentuated, while his cousin's is more liquid and musical and far less sibilant. My notes represent the Nashville's song phonetically as follows: "Swee, swee, swee, ah-wit-ah-wit-ah-wit," delivered rapidly in a high key and with not a little energy and emphasis. When my notes were made the little lyrist was putting his best foot forward, and was not high in the trees, so that I heard him distinctly. The Tennessee warblers were also singing near at hand, giving me a good opportunity to compare the arias of the two species.
Belonging to the same subfamily is the orange-crowned warbler. It has not so marked a preference for trees as its little relatives just mentioned, but likes, so far as my observation goes, to flit about in thickets, where it remains in hiding until driven from its covert or drawn forth by curiosity. Only for a moment does it appear in sight, then plunges into another covert. You will note that its eye-ring is yellow, and that its under parts are neither bright yellow, like the Nashville's, nor white, like the Tennessee's, but greenish yellow obscurely streaked on the chest. I have never heard the song of the orange-crown.
There are a number of shy warblers that are especially partial to wild, unfrequented parts of the woods, where they are seldom disturbed by human intruders. In Kansas I found them in the deep, densely wooded ravines running back from the Missouri River and its tributary valleys. Although these feathered recluses are rarely molested by man, they seem to know enough about his character to look upon him with a suspicious eye when he ventures into their sylvan domain. Hence they are hard to study, and it is not often that their deftly hidden nests can be found.
One of the most delightful of these hermits is the Kentucky warbler. A brilliant little bird he is, with his golden under parts and superciliary line, his black patch on the cheek just below the eye, his black cap, and his coat of iridescent olive green. You will not mistake him for the Maryland yellow-throat, which also wears a black patch on the side of his head; but this patch lies over the eye and includes it, and its upper border is white, while this bird lacks the yellow and curved superciliary band. Besides, the yellow-throat is not a woodland but a marsh bird. The Kentucky warbler is attractive in many ways. An industrious minstrel, his voice is strong and full for so small a bird, and until you learn to know his tune well, you may mistake it for that of the cardinal. But, as a piper, he lacks the versatility of the cardinal, who carries a number of music sheets in his repertory, while the little Kentuckian confines his lyrical efforts principally to one strain. Sometimes he delivers his intermittent aria from a low bush or even from the ground, but his favorite song-perches are the branches of saplings and trees just below the zone of foliage. Here, in the shadows, you may be compelled to look for him for some time before you espy his trig little form, and even then you are likely to see him because he flits to another perch rather than because you first catch the glint of his colors. Whether he means it or not, he is something of a ventriloquist, for which reason you will often look for him in many places before seeing him.
As I have noted, he is an untiring singer. It never occurred to me to time him, but Dr. Frank M. Chapman has had the patience to do so. "On one occasion," says this observer, "at Englewood, New Jersey, I watched a male for three hours. During this period, with the exception of five interruptions of less than forty-five seconds each, he sang with the greatest regularity once every twelve seconds. Thus, allowing for the brief intervals of silence, he sang about 875 times, or some 5,250 notes. I found him singing, and when I departed he showed no signs of ceasing." It is such painstaking observations that add something new and fresh to our knowledge of birds.
The Kentucky warbler is fond of walking about on the ground in the woods, seeking for his favorite insects. As you slowly follow, you will now and then catch a glimpse of him through the apertures of the leaves; then he will again disappear beneath his canvas of green. Thus he pursues his quest hour after hour, and you may hear the rustle of his tiny feet upon the carpet of dead leaves. Is it only a notion of mine, or am I correct, in thinking that his promenades on the ground are mostly taken early in the spring before there is danger from snakes?
I like the pretty Kentuckians, but must grant you that in some respects they are quite exasperating, never inclined to be as confiding as some other birds. And then most birds will sooner or later betray the presence of their nests, but the Kentucky warblers seldom do so, knowing too well how to keep their procreant secrets. They have evidently learned the use of strategy, as you will see: One day a pair began to chirp vigorously as I approached their demesne in a lonely hollow, and I felt a thrill of joy at the prospect of finding a nest. One of them even flitted about with a worm in its bill—a sure sign of nestlings in the neighborhood. For nearly four hours I watched the chirping couple, and peered, as I thought, into every nook and cranny of the place, but all in vain; neither nest nor bantlings could I find. Yet in some way that seemed almost mysterious enough to be uncanny, the mother bird got rid of the tidbit which she held in her bill. She probably decided to eat it herself rather than betray the whereabouts of her younglings. I have seen more than one parent bird do that.
A few days later, in the same hollow, a Kentucky warbler was singing contentedly, showing no signs of uneasiness. The female was not to be seen or heard. I stalked about a long time, hoping to flush her from her nest, but all my efforts were as futile that day as they had been on my previous visit. In another hollow, on the same day, I watched a Kentucky warbler flitting about with a worm in her bill. Again and again she disappeared somewhere in the tanglewood, and came back with an empty bill to chirp her disapproval of my spying; but look as I would in the very places where she went down, I could discover no nest. In Warbledom it is evidently no violation of ethical principles to act a lie in order to protect a nestful of bantlings.
But my story is not to have a disappointing ending, after all, for in the spring and summer of 1902 my stars became auspicious, and I found three Kentucky warblers' nests that were tenanted and several more that were already deserted. Perhaps the turning of my luck was due not so much to accident as to the fact that I had "caught on," and knew more about their ruses. One of the nests discovered is worth describing.
It was on a hilltop in Kansas, blown by the freshest breezes that sweep over the limitless prairies. An ideal spot, indeed, for the nesting of birds that love lone places. In one of my rambles I found this pleasant elevation, and was attracted by the possibilities it offered for bird study. Presently a male Kentucky warbler appeared with a couple of large worms in his beak, and I made up my mind to find his nest if perseverance could accomplish that object. So I sat down in the shade of a tree and watched the bird closely. Now note his admirable finesse. After flitting about among the bushes for a minute or two, chirping his protest at my presence, he descended into the copse below and disappeared. Of course, any student of birds would have supposed that he had gone down near the nest to feed his bairns, and that he only needed to go and examine the place to discover the little avian secret. My pulses thrilled more than a little as I began my search for the nest right where the bird had descended into the thicket. But do you know that my most strenuous efforts—and they were strenuous on a hot day like that—resulted only in disappointment? The nest was not to be found within a radius of a rod from the point where the little diplomat went down. A few days later I made my way to the hilltop, and do you know that the shrewd bird played me the same trick? He scuttled down into the bushes at almost the same point as before, and no nest rewarded my search. I went home just about ready to give up my search for Kentucky warblers' nests, for I had been hunting them for a number of years without success.
However, in a few days I found my way again to the breezy hilltop. The chats, vireos, and indigo birds gave due warning of my approach, and I felt sure that Master Kentucky and his mate would be on their guard. To my delight, in a few minutes the female presented herself in one of the trees, her bill holding a bunch of worms. Luckily she was not so wary or diplomatic as her husband, and, in addition, she extremely anxious to feed her hungry babies. Instead of going over to the copse where the male bird had played me such a clever trick, she flew down the path about four rods to a small scrub oak, from which she soon dropped into the weeds below. Then I said to myself; "Aha!" and smiled in a knowing way.
I walked down the path to the tree, but no Kentucky warblers were to be seen—not right away. So I sat down in the path and waited to see what would happen. It was only a short time till the female appeared, with a telltale bunch of worms in her beak. A moment later her mate also arrived, carrying a small worm in the usual way. The situation was growing interesting. The two birdlets chirped and flitted about in the tree for a long time, afraid to go down to the nest. I moved slowly and cautiously farther up the path to give them a better chance to divulge their secret. Presently the pretty madame summoned courage to drop to a lower perch in the tree, then to a still lower one, then to the top of one of the bushes below, and at last into the weed clump and out of sight.
I wasted no time. In a minute I was pressing the weeds apart and looking down admiringly into the little cot with its four half-fledged occupants—the first Kentucky warbler's nest I had ever seen. Set upon the ground, its bulky foundation of dry leaves supported the cup proper, which was lined with fine grass. Easy enough to find when you knew precisely where to look for it.
Think now of the little game the male bird had played me on my previous visits to the haunt! He had descended into the copse about four rods distant from the nest instead of going down near its site; then he had doubtless followed a secret pathway through the weeds and bushes to the nest, fed his children, and hurried away without letting himself be seen.
The parent birds did not like the idea of my finding and inspecting their nest, for they chirped and darted about in a panic. To relieve their anguish I retired up the slope a short distance, seated myself in the pleasant shade of a scrub oak, and made an entry of my find in my notebook. Alas! I had probably done harm to my little friends without intending it, for their chirping attracted the attention of one of their worst foes, and drew him to the spot. I loitered about for perhaps ten minutes, and then decided to take one more peep at the pretty domicile before leaving the hilltop. As I drew near, I observed that the parent birds were chirping in a low, but heart-broken way, as if they were almost stricken dumb with terror. Were they so badly frightened because I was returning to their nest?
I stepped up cautiously and looked down at the nest. It was now my turn to give vent to a cry of consternation, for what I saw was this: A large blacksnake coiled about the nest, the fold of his neck wabbling to and fro in a terrifying way, while with his mouth he was trying to seize one of the bantlings. Fortunately I had a good-sized stick, almost a club, in my hand, and I wasted no time in bringing it down with all the force I could command upon the serpent, taking care to deliver the blow at the side of the nest. The snake tried to uncoil, but another blow broke his backbone, if indeed the first one had not done so, and he was in my power. He had swallowed one of the nestlings, but three were left, and seemed to be in good condition. On my return to the place a few days later the nest was empty, and I fear that the remaining little ones had also been destroyed, perhaps by the mate of the snake from which I had rescued them.
On the shelf of a steep bluff covered with a riot of bushes and briars a pair of hooded warblers found a dwelling place to their taste in the spring of 1900. This handsome birdlet may be known by his dainty yellow hood, bordered with black, and cannot be mistaken for any other member of the great feathered fraternity. One cannot look at him without feeling that Nature tried to see what she could do in the way of an unusual arrangement of colors. Who can tell what impelled her to make a living gem like this, as odd as it is beautiful?
On the side of the bluff referred to I was first attracted by the vivacious song of the little male, which I had not heard for several years—not since an excursion I had taken into Louisiana and Mississippi. His voice was clear and ringing, and the tune he executed was by no means a meager performance.
One day a loud, metallic chirping was heard, and presently two hooded warblers appeared, each with the proverbial green worm in its beak. I decided to remain in the nook and watch, for the nesting habits of these rare warblers were new to me. In and out, up and down, here and there, they flitted, making a checker-work of black and gold amid the foliage, craning their necks, peering at me with anxious inquiry in their dark little eyes, and filling the woodland with their uneasy chirping.
It was a long time to wait, but at length patience had its reward; one of the birds flew down to the bushes on the steep slope above me and fed a youngster in plain view. No time was lost in pushing through the bushy tangle to the magic spot. Behold! it was a young cowbird that had been fed by the devoted little mother! That was trying beyond expression—to think that all the efforts of the pretty couple, all their intense solicitude, was wasted on a great, hulking impostor like the cowbird. He had just scrambled from the nest, from which he had doubtless previously crowded the rightful heirs of the family to perish from starvation on the ground. I found the nest only about a foot away from the perch of the young bird—a deep, neat little basket, compactly felted with down and plant fibers, set in the crotch of a slender bush of the thicket. It was certainly too small to accommodate any tenants besides the strapping young cowbird. In the spring of 1902 another hooded warbler's nest rewarded my search. Its holdings were four callow bantlings, all of which were carried off by some marauder before my next visit.
Another little charmer of the woodland, especially of thick second-growth timber, is the blue-winged warbler, which glories in the high-sounding Latin name of Helminthophila pinus. Wherever seen, he would attract attention on account of the peculiar cut and color of his clothes. A conspicuous black line reaching from the corner of the mouth back through the eye is a diagnostic feature of his plumage, while his crown and breast gleam in bright yellow, almost golden in the sunshine; his wings and tail are blue-gray, with some white trimmings, and his back and rump are bright olive There you have an array of colors that makes a picture indeed. Madame Blue-wing wears the same pattern as her lord, but the hues are less brilliant.
The manners of Sir Blue-wing—I call him so because of his distinguished air—are interesting, for they differ, in one respect at least, from those of most of the other warblers of my acquaintance. He flits about among the branches in rather a leisurely way—for a warbler; but his main characteristic is his unwarbler-like fashion of clinging back downward to the under side of the twigs, after the manner of the chickadee, in order to secure the nits and worms under the leaves. He acts decidedly like a diminutive trapeze performer.
His song consists of an insect-like buzz, divided into stanzas of two syllables each, with a pensive strain running through it, as if the heart of the little singer were filled with sadness. While it sounds rather faint at a distance, close at hand it has a strangely penetrating quality.
Although my numerous efforts to find a blue-wing's nest were unavailing, I had the satisfaction of proving beyond doubt that these birds breed in northeastern Kansas. A quaint, squeaking call attracted my attention one day, and I found that it proceeded from the throat of a young blue-wing perched in the bushes, for presently the mamma came and thrust a morsel into the open mouth of the bantling. Some young birds sit quietly and patiently, waiting for their rations, and utter only a faint twitter when they are fed; but the youthful blue-wings are not of so contented and silent a disposition. On the contrary, they are noisy little fellows, making their presence known to friend and foe alike, although they are very careful never to permit the human observer to come too close. They are duly warned of danger by their ever-vigilant parents. Sometimes a youngster will sit on the same perch for a long time, preening his feathers and uttering a little call at intervals, just to keep in practice, as it were; while at other times he will pursue his parents about in the woods, loudly demanding his dinner. One season I succeeded in finding at least five pairs of these warblers, in company with their clamorous broods. The nest is set on the ground in the bushes and grass of second-growth timber tracts. Lined with tendrils and fine strips of bark, it is "firmly wrapped with numerous leaves, whose stems point upward." Another haunter of the dusky depths of the woods is the ovenbird. His song is one of the most peculiar in warblerdom. Beginning in moderate tones, it grows louder and louder as it nears the end, and really seems like a voice moving toward you. This bird also walks about in the woods, and does not hop, as most of his relatives do. As he walks about on his leafy carpet, his head erect, he has quite a consequential air. He derives his name from the fact that his nest, set on the ground, is globular in form, with the entrance at one side, giving it the appearance of a small oven.
The gay redstarts, which seem to be so tame and confiding in the early spring, turn into veritable eremites in the breeding season, seeking the most secluded portions of the woods as their habitat. Their little nests are harder to find than one would suppose; yet I have had the good fortune to watch two females erecting the walls of their tiny cottages, and a pretty sight it was.
The redstart has some interesting ways. One of them is his habit of spreading out his wings and tail as he perches or flits about in the trees, as if he were anxious to display the fiery trimmings that so elegantly set off his little black suit. Blood will tell, for I have seen the young redstarts imitating their parents by spreading out their odd, croppy tails in a comical way.
How early in life young birds are taught some of the lessons that are needful for their own safety! One day I heard a young redstart chirping for his dinner. I quietly thrust my head into the thicket, and soon espied the birdkin perched on a twig only about a rod away. He either did not see me, or else decided that I was not a bugaboo. A few minutes later the mother darted into the enclosure and fed her baby. She was too much absorbed in her duties to notice me until the repast was over; then she suddenly caught sight of her unwelcome caller. She stood transfixed with astonishment for one breathless moment, then uttered a piercing cry of alarm that sent the little one dashing away like a streak of lightning. Plainly the youngster understood his mamma's signal, for until she uttered it he had sat perfectly quiet and unconcerned, perhaps not even aware of my presence. Birds are taught the language of fear at a tender age. Of course they learn it so readily because there is a basis of timidity in their natures, implanted by heredity.
*Reprinted by permission, from "Our Animal Friends," New York.
In a somewhat casual way, and without going into their natural history, the last two chapters have indicated the method of making an acquaintance with new species and of studying the habits of a few wild birds. A few chapters will now be devoted to a fuller study of a number of interesting birds. Not that I expect to write their complete life histories, which, indeed, would not be necessary; but that I may give you some idea of the large amount of knowledge that can be gained of one species. If this were multiplied by the knowledge procurable from the study of all the members of the feathered brotherhood, think what an education the whole would give one. Let us begin with the familiar little tomtit.
In his valuable manual, "Birds of Eastern North America," Dr. Frank M. Chapman calls the little black-capped chickadee an "animated bunch of black and white feathers." That is certainly a graphic and correct way of putting it, for no bird is more active and alert than this little major with the black skull cap and ashy-blue coat. Everybody knows him, I take it, but if any more points are needed for his identification, you must look for a little bird which, in addition to his cap of glossy black, wears a bib of the same color, buckled up close to his chin, with a wedge of white inserted on each side of his neck between the black of his throat and crown to the corner of his mouth.
If all birds were as sociably disposed as the little tomtit—for that is also one of his names—bird study would be a delight, and almost a sinecure. Trustful and fearless, he often comes within a few feet of you, and fixes you with his keen little eyes, which dart out innumerable interrogation points. Sometimes he calls his own name in a saucy way, "Chick-a-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee," which, being interpreted, means, "What is your business here, sir? Aren't you out of your proper latitude?" Occasionally he will grow terribly excited over your presence—or at least pretend to—scolding and shaming you until you feel yourself a real interloper; at other times he will salute you in the most affable way, as if bidding you welcome to his haunts and inviting you to come often and make yourself at home. What a pity it is he cannot talk, and let us know what he really thinks of us and of the world in general! Dr. Chapman says that on two occasions chickadees have flown down and perched on his hand, giving him the feeling that he was being taken into their confidence.
Watch Master Tomtit as he performs some of his acrobatic feats, putting the tilters and tumblers in the human circus to the blush. He often hangs back downward from a slender twig or even a leaf, and daintily picks the nits that have ensconced themselves in the buds or foliage. Let his flexile perch sway in the wind as it will, he is safe, for if the twig should break or his hold should slip, which seldom occurs, he can recover himself at once by spreading his nimble wings, wheeling about, and alighting on a perch below. Ah, yes! the tomtit is the embodiment and poetry of nimbleness.
But he is more than a mere feathered gentleman; he is an extremely useful citizen. Prof. E. D. Sanderson published a valuable article in "The Auk" for April 1898, in which he proved that this bird serves a most useful purpose as an insecticide. He examined the craws of twenty-eight chickadees, nineteen of them secured in the winter and nine in the spring. During the winter 70.7 per cent of the food found in these stomachs was animal, while in the spring no vegetable matter was found at all, the birds subsisting entirely on insects and their eggs and larvae. By far the larger part of the insects thus destroyed were of the noxious species that bore into the bark and wood of the trees or sting the fruit. An orchard in which several chickadees had taken up their abode one winter and spring was so well cleared of canker worms that an excellent yield of fruit was grown, whereas the trees of other orchards in the neighborhood were largely defoliated by the destructive worms, and there was no yield of fruit.
Professor Sanderson made an interesting estimate of the economic value of our little scavengers. In the state of Michigan, where his observations were made, he thinks that a fair average is seven chickadees to the square mile. If each bird should destroy fifty-five insects per day, which is a very modest estimate, the seven birds would consume three hundred and eighty-five every day, making about 137,500 per year in each square mile. In this way about eight billions of insects would be destroyed annually in the state—an economic fact whose importance cannot be overestimated.
The same investigator also thinks that it would be wise for farmers and fruit-growers to encourage the chickadees to make their homes in orchards, and this could be done, he says, "by placing food for them till they feel at home, by erecting suitable nesting sites, and by careful protection"; to which I would add, by leaving a few old snags in the trees where the birds can find natural nesting places. Besides the useful purpose the birds would serve, what pleasant companions they would be, piping, both summer and winter, their sweet minor tunes!
No one can deny that the tomtit is a companionable little fellow. In addition to his vigorous call of "Chick-a-dee-dee," he whistles, as has been said, a sweet minor strain which may be represented by the syllables, "Phe-e-be-e," repeated again and again. Often in midwinter, when bland days come, and even in very cold weather, too, sometimes, he will pipe his pensive air, which floats through the woods like a song of chastened sadness.
Not infrequently two tits will engage in what may be called a "responsive exercise," swinging their two-part song back and forth in the woods like a silvery pendulum. Not soon shall I forget a winter day on which I listened with delight to such an antiphonal duet. I was standing in a road that wound along the foot of a steep, wooded bluff, and the two minstrels were in the woods above me, one of them singing very high in the scale, the other responding in the same tune, but almost, if not quite, an octave lower. At first they were about twenty rods apart, but as they swung back and forth, they gradually approached each other until the distance between them was only a few feet. The music seemed like a slender thread of silver which was being wound up at both ends, gradually drawing the little fluters together. Sometimes one of them would miss one note of his dissyllabic song, and at times the refrains were repeated in a leisurely way, at times in quick succession; but the performers never sang simultaneously, each waiting until his fellow minstrel had given his reply. The pleasing duet lasted for many minutes; indeed, it was kept up long after I left the immediate neighborhood, for when I had gone quite a distance the sweet cadenzas still fell rhythmically on my ear. To my mind the two-part aria seemed like a voluntary performance, and I cannot doubt that it was. There was too much of an air of purpose about it to permit of the thought that it was a mere accident or coincidence; but whether it was a musical contest between rival vocalists, or the love song of a tomtit and his mate, I could not determine.
Cunning in other ways, it would be strange if the tomtits did not display acuteness in the selection of nesting sites. A cosy hollow in a dead snag or stump is especially acceptable. Sometimes it is a deserted woodpecker's cavity made trig and clean, while quite often, when the wood is soft enough, the tits themselves chisel out a little hole in a tree or stump or fence post. I recall having once watched a pair of chickadees hollowing the upper end of a truncated sassafras tree that was half decayed. They would fly into the cavity, pick off a chip, dash out and away a rod or two, drop the fragment, then dart back to the hollow for another piece. In this way the busy couple worked hour by hour without resting for an instant. Their reason no doubt for carrying the chips some distance away from their nest was that they did not want any telltale fragments to betray their secret to their enemies.
It would be impossible to tell how many chickadee nests I have found in all the years of my bird study. One of them was in an old stump near a path along which I was sauntering. My attention was attracted by the little husband's flying from the stump and calling nervously, thus unwittingly "giving away" his secret. Had he been quiet, my suspicions would not have been aroused; but many birds, like a few people here and there, find it very hard to keep a secret. And this, by the way, is one of the strangest things about Nature—that she has not taught her feathered children to go with apparent unconcern about their employment when a nest is near, but impels them to chirp and flit about in such a way as to excite the suspicion of an enemy.
Moralizing aside, however. On examining the stump, I found a deep cavity just inside of the decaying bark. Though it was quite dusk within, by slightly pressing the bark aside I could see the little mother sitting on the nest, unwilling to leave it in spite of my proximity. I almost touched her with my hand, and still she did not move. Unwilling to disturb so brave a heroine, I stepped back and walked quietly away a few rods to see what would happen, when she popped out of the orifice like an arrow and, joined by her mate, set up a loud chattering, which sounded as if they were saying that I was the nosiest and most impudent man in the whole countryside.
No doubt they were right, for I went back, in spite of their protest, and peeped into the nest, and found four gleaming white eggs studding the bottom like pearls. Alas! when I visited the place two weeks later, the little domicile had been raided, the half-decayed walls having been broken down. A tuft of gray hair hanging to a splinter proved the invader to have been a predatory animal of some kind, probably a cat. The birds were nowhere to be seen—unless a pair chirping in the woods on the other side of the valley were the same couple, trying to rear a family in a safer place.
What a persistent sitter the female blackcap is! One day I discovered a nest in a fence post by the wayside. Pressing the bark aside, I could plainly see the little owner snuggling close to the bottom of the cup. I thrust my finger through the aperture and gently stroked her head and back. Still she hugged the nest, pressing her head close to the grassy bottom, as if she thought she would be safe if her head were hidden. Thinking she must have little ones, or she would not cling so tenaciously to the nest, I pushed my finger under her and partly raised her from her seat. Even this rude treatment she bore for a few moments—but it was going too far even for her courageous little heart; she lifted her head, glanced wildly at me for an intense moment, then sprang from the cavity with a piercing cry.
Imagine my surprise to find the nest entirely empty, not even an egg having yet been deposited. The brave little lady had doubtless just entered the nest to lay her first egg, and was not going to be driven off without knowing the reason why. The tomtit is game every time.
The entrance to most of the chickadee's nests is lateral, but I found one nest whose doorway was in the top of a fence post, so that the owners had to go down into it vertically. The hole was quite deep, and the birds would drop down into it as you have seen swifts dropping into a chimney, but whether they went down head first or tail first I could not learn, their movements were so quick. Another feature of this nest was that it had no roof, for the doorway was open to the sky, so that a cloudburst would have filled up their little nursery and drowned its inmates.
THE NUTHATCH FAMILY*
*This chapter is reprinted from that excellent bird magazine called "American Ornithology," published by Charles K. Reed, Worcester, Mass., and edited by his son, Chester A. Reed. The author is under obligation to these gentlemen for their courtesy in permitting him to reprint the article.
BIRDS OF THE INVERTED POSITION
There are a number of climbers in the bird realm, but none are quite so expert as the nuthatch, which may be regarded as a past-master in the art of clambering. The woodpeckers amble up the boles and branches of trees, and when they wish to descend, as they do occasionally for a short distance, they hitch down backward. The brown creepers ascend their vertical or oblique walls in the same way, but seldom, if ever, do anything else than clamber upward, never descending head downward after the fashion of the nuthatches.
A little bird that comes very near disputing the palm with the nuthatch as a sylvan coaster is the creeping warbler, which flits about over the tree boles in all kinds of attitudes, even with his dainty head pointed toward the earth. No fear in his little striped breast of the blood rushing to his brain. However, even this clever birdlet's dexterity is not equal to that of the nuthatch, for the latter is able to climb up and down a smoother wall than his little rival. More than that, the nuthatch glides downward with more ease and in a straight line, and does not fling himself from side to side as the warbler does. Indeed, the warbler's favorite method of going about is with his head directed toward the sky rather than the reverse, while it really seems that the nuthatch's predilection is to scuttle about in an inverted position. Does he wish to chisel a grub out of the bark of a tree? He usually stands above the target at which he aims, so that he can deliver his blows with more force, just as the human woodchopper prefers to take his position above and not below the stick or log upon which he expects to operate. There the bird clings to his shaggy wall, pounding away with might and main, until you fear he will shatter his beak or strew his brains on the bark. Sometimes, too, he thrusts his long, slender beak into a crevice and pries with it in a way that threatens to snap it off in the middle.
What has been said applies to the white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), but it is fair to assume that all the other members of this subfamily behave in the same way. The woodpeckers and creepers use their spiny tails as supports while stationary or in motion; not so the nuthatches, which are sufficiently nimble on their feet to stand or glide without converting their tails into braces. Odd as it may seem to the uninformed, the nuthatches belong to the order of passeres or perching birds, in spite of their creeping habits. The systematists have placed them in this niche of the avicular scheme, not only because they are able to perch like other passeres on twigs and small branches, but also because they have the foot of the true perching bird, with three toes in front and one, well developed, in the rear. In this respect they differ again from the woodpeckers, which have either two fore and two hind toes, or two in front and only one behind. This will appear all the more remarkable when it is remembered that the Picidae do not descend head downward at all, while the Sittinae are the head-downward goers par excellence. Yet they have only one rear toe to support them in their inverted position. You would naturally suppose that if any bird had need of two hind toes, it would be the nuthatch; but the result proves that, after all, Nature had her wits about her when she evolved this avian family.
The world over, there are twenty distinct species of nuthatches known to scientific observers, but only four of them are natives of America. Of course, there are a number of subspecies or varieties. All of them are incessant climbers and foragers, peering into crannies, pounding here and there to make the grubs stir in their hiding places, jabbing and prying with their beaks, and chiseling out all kinds of larvae, grubs, and borers that would, if permitted to live and multiply, soon devastate the timber and fruit trees and make this world a desert indeed. True, the other feathered clamberers and carpenters are fully as useful, but depend upon it, the nuthatches do their share in preserving our forests and orchards.
The white-breasted nuthatch is our most common species east of the great plains, breeding from the Gulf States to the northern border of the United States and to New Brunswick. One peculiarity about him is that he breeds throughout his range, and therefore may be found as both a summer and winter resident in all suitable localities within these boundaries. In the winter, no matter how old Boreas may bluster, he is one of the most cheerful denizens of the woods in our central latitudes, calling his nasal "yank, yank, yank," and sometimes indulging in a loud, half-merry outburst that goes echoing through the woodlands. No sound of the sylvan solitudes has a more woodsy flavor or is more suggestive of vernal cheer and good will. Sometimes he chatters to his human visitors in the most cordial tones as he glides up and down his arboreal promenade, or holds himself almost straight out.
A hole in a stump or tree makes Madame Nuthatch a cosy nursery, which she lines with feathers and leaves, making it soft and snug for her downy brood. Here they are safe from most of the prowlers that find the more exposed nests of many other birds. She deposits five to eight eggs of a white or creamy-white ground-color, speckled with rufous and lavender. During the season of incubation and brood rearing the nuthatches retire to the depth of the woods, and are quiet, secretive, and unsocial, seldom betraying their procreant secrets.
These birds have another habit that is worth mentioning. Having found a larger supply of food than they require for their immediate use, they carry morsels away and jam them into all sorts of holes and crannies in the bark of the trees. I have watched a pair for an hour diligently laying by a store of sunflower seeds, which they had found at the edge of the woods. They do not store a quantity of provision in one place like the squirrels, but deposit a tidbit here and there, wedging it tightly into a crevice by hammering it with their stout bills. Of course, the woodpeckers and tomtits secure many of these half-hidden goodies, but Master Nuthatch does not mind that, for he evens up the theft by appropriating their stores when he finds them.
The white-breasted nuthatch may be known by his flat body and broad shoulders, his bluish gray coat, black cap and mantle (all in one piece), white cravat, shirt bosom and vest, with a few rufous decorations on the belly and under tail-coverts. The following quotations from Wilson are given as much for their vivacious manner as for the story itself:
"The male is extremely attentive to the female while sitting, supplying her regularly with sustenance, stopping frequently at the mouth of the hole, calling and offering her what he has brought, in the most endearing manner. Sometimes he seems to stop merely to inquire how she is, and to lighten the tedious moments with his soothing chatter. He seldom rambles far from the spot, and when danger appears, regardless of his own safety, he flies instantly to alarm her. When both are feeding on the trunk of the same tree, or of adjoining trees, he is perpetually calling on her; and, from the momentary pause he makes, it is plain he feels pleased to hear her reply.
"He rests and roosts with his head downwards; and appears to possess a degree of curiosity not common in many birds; frequently descending, very silently, within a few feet of the root of the tree where you happen to stand, stopping, head downward, stretching out his neck in a horizontal direction, as if to reconnoiter your appearance, and after several minutes of silent observation, wheeling around, he again mounts, with fresh activity, piping his unisons as before... Sometimes the rain, freezing as it falls, encloses every twig, and even the trunk of the tree, in a hard, transparent coat or shell of ice. On these occasions I have observed his anxiety and dissatisfaction at being with difficulty able to make his way along the smooth surface; at these times he generally abandons the trees, gleans about the stables, around the house, mixing among the fowls, entering the barn, and examining the beams and rafters, and every place where he may pick up a subsistence."
Our charming white-breast has a little cousin called the red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), whose under parts are rufous or reddish buff instead of white. His crown and nape are black, then a white band runs back from the base of the upper mandible to the hind neck, and below this a black stripe reaches back in a parallel direction and encloses the eye. His upper parts, save those mentioned, are bluish gray. He is considerably smaller than the white-breast, and his range is more northerly in summer; but, unlike his cousin, he does not breed throughout his range; only in the localities which he selects for his summer home. Hence he is a migrant, dwelling in winter in the southern states, and in summer in the latitude of Manitoba and Maine and northward, and also on the summits of the mountains as far south as Virginia. It will be seen that the breeding precincts of the two species overlap, while in winter canadensis comes down from the north and takes up his abode in the southern part of the demesne of carolinensis.
While the white-breast is partial to oak, beech, maple, and other deciduous forests, his little relative prefers a woodland of pine, being very fond of scampering about on the cones, clinging to them with his strong claws, and extracting the seeds with his stout little bill. His call, though much like the "yank" of the white-breast, is pitched to a higher key, and has even a more pronounced nasal intonation, sounding as if he had taken a severe cold. Besides, he gives expression to some cheery notes that seem to be reserved for his own family or exclusive social circles. I found these pretty nuthatches in the pine woods on Mackinac Island in midsummer, and have good reason to believe that they breed there.
Cavities in trees or stumps furnish the redbreasts with nesting places suited to their taste; but they have a cunning way of plastering the entrance above and below with pine pitch, so as to make it just large enough to admit their tiny bodies and yet too small to let in their enemies. In this respect they steal the laurels from their white-breasted kinsmen, who seem to have no means by which to lessen the dimensions of their natural doorways.
A still smaller member of this group is the brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla), a resident of the South Atlantic and Gulf states, at rare intervals wandering "accidentally" as far north as Missouri and New York. A daintily dressed little fellow is this bird, the top and back of his head a dark grayish brown with a whitish patch on the nape, the remainder of his upper parts being bluish gray and his under parts grayish white. His favorite dwelling places are in the pine woods of the south, where he is on the most cordial terms socially with the pine warbler and the red-cockaded woodpecker. A most active little body, he scampers from the roots of the trees to the terminal twigs at the top, inspecting every cone, cranny and knot hole, chirping his fine, high-keyed notes, sometimes in a querulous tone, and again in the most cheerful and good-natured temper imaginable, now gliding up a tree trunk, now scudding down head foremost, anon circling in a spiral course.
One autumn I found a number of these nuthatches associated with a flock of myrtle warblers on the most sociable terms in a pine woodland not far from Pensacola, Florida. Now they were up in the trees, now down on the ground. All the while they were chirping in their most genial tones. In a spring jaunt to southern Mississippi, I was fortunate enough to find a nest in a half-decayed snag. It contained four of the prettiest half-fledged bird babies that have ever greeted my sight.
Oddly enough, our tiny clamberers utter a loud, shrill alarm-call that bears close resemblance to the querulous protest of the sparrow hawk as you approach her nest or young. Doctor Chapman says of the brown heads: "They are talkative sprites, and, like a group of school children, each one chatters away without paying the slightest attention to what his companions are saying."
The fourth member of the Sittinae subfamily in America is the pigmy nuthatch, known scientifically as Sitta pygmaea, a genuine westerner, not known east of the plains. However, in the Rocky Mountain district he is an abundant species, his range east and west being from the plains to the Pacific coast, and north and south from the Canadian boundary to the mountains of Mexico. Swinging and gliding about among the pines, performing the same antics as his eastern kinsmen, he utters a cheery whistle, that may be translated, "Whit, whit, whit." His movements are often so rapid that he is difficult to follow with the eye as he flits from one tree to another or dashes amid the branches. He scarcely remains quiet long enough for you to note his markings and settle his identity, but once you are sure of him, you will never mistake him for another bird.
In Colorado there is little of a migratory movement even up and down the mountains among these interesting birdlets. In the winter a few descend from the heights and dwell on the plains, where the weather is not so rigorous. On the approach of spring they again hie up into the mountains, spending the summer there and rearing their pretty bairns. However, the majority of them remain in the mountains all winter, braving the bitterest and fiercest storms, often at an altitude of 8,000 feet. Their breeding range is from 6,000 to 10,000 feet, the latter elevation being only a little below the timber line.
In spite of his unique and interesting habits, the poets have scarcely begun to chant the praises of the American nuthatch. One of the best tributes I have been able to find is from the pen of Edith Thomas, who apostrophizes our bird in this way:
"Shrewd little haunter of woods all gray, Whom I meet on my walk of a winter day, You're busy inspecting each cranny and hole In the ragged bark of yon hickory bole; You intent on your task, and I on the law Of your wonderful head and gymnastic claw!
"The woodpecker well may despair of this feat— Only the fly with you can compete! So much is clear; but I fain would know How you can so reckless and fearless go, Head upward, head downward, all one to you, Zenith and nadir the same to your view."
We have now described the American nuthatch quartette, and will turn to other fields no less inviting, albeit more remote. The nuthatch of central Europe, scientifically known as Sitta caesia, is closely related to our American forms, resembling them in many of his habits. In studying the literature of the transatlantic species, we at once stumble upon the reason for calling this avian family by the somewhat peculiar and apparently inapt name of nuthatch. The older English form of the word was "nuthack," which unfortunately has been changed to "nuthatch," a word that gives an erroneous impression, for no bird ever hatches a nut. But with the last syllable "hack" the difficulty is all cleared up, as his habit of hacking or chipping nuts, which he places in chinks of the bark or wall, is well known.
The nuthatch of England belongs to the species just named. He does not wear a black hood or mantle, but merely a black ribbon on the side of his head, enclosing the eye. His upper parts are bluish gray, save the outer tail feathers, which are black; his cheeks and throat are white, his breast and belly buff, and his flanks and lower tail-coverts chestnut red. A graphic English writer, Dr. W. H. Hudson, gives the following enthusiastic description of the little tobogganist of his native woodlands:
"When I see him sitting quite still for a few moments on a branch of a tree in his most characteristic nuthatch attitude, on or under the branch, perched horizontally or vertically, with head or tail uppermost, but always with the body placed beetle-wise against the bark, head raised, and the straight, sharp bill pointed like an arm lifted to denote attention,—at such times he looks less like a living than a sculptured bird, a bird cut out of beautifully variegated marble—blue-gray, buff, and chestnut, and placed against the tree to deceive the eye. The figure is so smooth and compact, the tints so soft and stone-like; and when he is still, he is so wonderfully still, and his attitude so statuesque! But he is never long still and when he resumes his lively, eccentric, up-and-down and sidewise motions, he is interesting in another way. He is like a small woodpecker who has broken loose from the woodpecker's somewhat narrow laws of progression, preferring to be a law unto himself.
"Without a touch of brilliant color, the nuthatch is a beautiful bird on account of the pleasing softness and harmonious disposition of his tints; and, in like manner, without being a songster in the strict sense of the word, his voice is so clear and far-reaching and of so pleasing a quality, that it often gives more life and spirit to the woods and orchards and avenues he frequents than that of many true melodists. This is more especially the case in the month of March, before the migratory songsters have arrived, when he is most loquacious. A high pitched, clear, ringing note, repeated without variation several times, is his most often-heard call or song. He will sometimes sit motionless on his perch, repeating this call at short intervals, for half an hour at a time. Another bird at a distance will be doing the same, and the two appear to be answering one another. He also has another call, not so loud and piercing, but more melodious: a double note, repeated two or three times, with something liquid and gurgling in the sound, suggesting the musical sound of lapsing water. These various notes and calls are heard incessantly until the young are hatched, when the birds at once become silent."
The nesting habits of caesia are quite similar to those of our American forms, with the following interesting exception: The doorway of the cavity constituting the bird's domicile is plastered up with clay, made viscid by the nuthatch's glutinous saliva, leaving in the center a circular hole just large enough to afford entrance and exit for the little owner. Says the author quoted above: "When the sitting bird is interfered with, she defends her treasures with great courage, hissing like a wryneck, and vigorously striking at her aggressor with her sharp bill." Like our common white-breast, the British bird may be attracted to human dwellings by furnishing him a regular supply of food suited to his taste, and may grow so trustful as to come when called, and even to catch morsels thrown to him in the air. In the forest he often hammers so loudly on a resonant branch that his tattoo is mistaken for that of a woodpecker. The interior of the nest "contains a bed of dry leaves, or the filmy flakes of the inner bark of a fir or cedar, on which the eggs are laid."
In northern Europe another form of the nuthatch guild is found, known scientifically as Sitta europea, whose under parts are white without any washing of buff on the breast.
The Levant furnishes a most charming addition to the feathered brotherhood now under consideration. The scientific gentlemen have christened it Sitta syriaca, and its common name is the rock nuthatch, an appellation that is most appropriate, for its chosen haunts are rocky cliffs, over the faces of which it scuttles in the most approved nuthatch fashion, head up or down, as the whim seizes it, clinging with its sharp claws to the chinks, ledges, protuberances, and rough surfaces of the rocky walls. A little larger than its European cousin, its markings are quite similar. In Syria it is common as far north as the southern shores of the Black Sea. Although somewhat shy, it is described as having "sprightly manners and a clear, ringing trill." Odd indeed are some of nature's evolutions, I had almost said caprices, for the rock nuthatch is just as much at home and apparently just as happy on its bleak precipices as is our merry whitebreast in his umbrageous home in the oak or maple forest.