The Bird Study Book
by Thomas Gilbert Pearson
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E-text prepared by Al Haines

Transcriber's note:

Page numbers in this book are indicated by numbers enclosed in curly braces, e.g. {99}. They have been located where page breaks occurred in the original book. The locations of some illustrations have been moved to avoid splitting paragraphs.




Secretary, National Association of Audubon Societies

Coloured Frontispiece

Pen and ink drawings by Will Simmons

And sixteen photographs

[Frontispiece: Wood Thrush]

Garden City ——— New York Doubleday, Page & Company 1917 Copyright, 1917, by Doubleday, Page & Company All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian





This book has been written for the consideration of that ever-increasing class of Americans who are interested in acquiring a greater familiarity with the habits and activities of wild birds. There are many valuable publications treating more or less exhaustively of the classification of birds, as well as of form, colour, distribution, migration, songs, and foods. Here an attempt is made to place before the reader a brief consideration of these and many similar topics, and suggest lines of action and thought that may perhaps stimulate a fuller study of the subject. Attention is also given to the relation of birds to mankind and the effect of civilisation on the bird-life of the country. The book is not intended so much for the advanced student in ornithology, as for the beginner. Its purpose is to answer many of the questions that students in this charming field of outdoor study are constantly asking of those more advanced in bird-lore. In conformity with the custom employed during many years of college and summer-school teaching, the author has discussed numerous details of field observation, the importance of which is so often overlooked by writers on the subject.

If one can, in the recounting of some experience that he has found interesting, awaken in the mind of a sympathetic hearer a desire to go forth and acquire a similar experience, then indeed may he regard himself as a worthy disciple of the immortal Pestalozzi. Let the teacher who would instruct pupils in bird-study first acquire, therefore, that love for the subject which is sure to come when one begins to learn the birds and observe their movements. This book, it is hoped, will aid such seekers after truth by the simple means of pointing out some of the interesting things that may be sought and readily found in the field and by the open road.

In the preparation of this volume much valuable aid has been received from Messrs. E. W. Nelson, F. E. L. Beal, Wells W. Cooke, T. S. Palmer, H. C. Oberholser, and others of the United States Biological Survey, for which the author desires to make grateful acknowledgment.

Parts of some of the chapters have previously appeared in the "Craftsman Magazine" and "Country Life in America," and are here reproduced by the courtesy of the editors.





PREFACE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . v


I. FIRST ACQUAINTANCE WITH THE BIRDS . . . . . . . . . . . 3

Caution in Nest Hunting—Going Afield—Notebooks—Reporting Blanks—Bird Books—Movements of Birds—Artificial Cover in Hiding—The Umbrella Blind—Conclusion.

II. THE LIFE ABOUT THE NEST . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21

Nest Hunting—Behaviour when Nest Is Discovered—Lessons to Be Learned—Character of Material Used—Nests in Holes—Variety of Locations—Variation in Families—Meagre Nests.

III. DOMESTIC LIFE OF THE BIRDS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42

Parental Care of Young—Sharing the Labours—Length of Mated Life—A Much-married Bluebird—The Faithful Canada Geese—Unmated Birds—Polygamy Among Birds—The Outcast.

IV. THE MIGRATION OF BIRDS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61

Moulting—Why Birds Migrate—The Gathering Flocks—The Usual Movement—The Travelling Shore Birds—The World's Migrating Champion—Perils of Migration—Keeping Migration Records.

V. THE BIRDS IN WINTER . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82

A Good Time for Field Walks—The Downy's Winter Quarters—Birds and the Night—The Food Question in Winter—When the Food Supply Fails—Wild Fowl Destroyed in the Oil Fields—Hunting Winter Birds.

VI. THE ECONOMIC VALUE OF BIRDS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101

A Government Report—Plagues of Insects—Some Useful Birds—The Question of the Weed Seeds—Dealing with the Rodent Pests—The Terror That Flies by Night—A Seldom Recognised Blessing.


Number of Birds in the World—Number in the Different States—Increase of Farm-land Species—Effect of Forest Devastation—Commercializing Birds—Wild Pigeon—Ivory-billed Woodpecker—Labrador Duck—Great Auk—Eskimo Curlew.

VIII. THE TRAFFIC IN FEATHERS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 140

War on the Sea Swallows—What the Ladies Wore—The Story of the Egrets—Amateur Feather Hunters—Maribou—Pheasants—Numidie—Goura—Women's Love for Feathers—Ostrich Feathers Are Desirable.

IX. BIRD-PROTECTIVE LAWS AND THEIR ENFORCEMENT . . . HOW LAWS ARE MADE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 167

Definition of Game—Audubon Laws—Game Law Enforcement—Lacy Lava—Federal Migratory Bird Law—History of Game Laws—The Theory of Shiras—Work of the Bird Committee—Government Explanations—World's Only Bird Treaty.

X. BIRD RESERVATIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 190

First Federal Bird Reservation—Congressional Sanction—Florida Reservations—Distant Reservations—President Taft a Bird Protectionist—Audubon Society Reservations—The Corkscrew Rookery—Wardens Shot by Plume Hunters.

XI. MAKING BIRD SANCTUARIES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 214

Natural Nesting Places Destroyed—Nesting Boxes for Birds—Some Rules for Making and Erecting Bird Boxes—Sites of Bird Boxes—Feeding Birds—Community Sanctuaries—Birdcraft Sanctuary—Cemeteries as Bird Sanctuaries—A Birdless Cemetery—Birds of a New York Graveyard—Enemies to Be Eliminated—Berries and Fruit for Birds.

XII. TEACHING BIRD STUDY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 239

Teaching Children—Junior Audubon Societies—Correlated Studies—Keeping Scrapbooks—Records of Migrants—Essays—Sending Old Nests to City Children—Audubon Prizes—Bird Day.



Wood Thrush . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Frontispiece in color


Facing Page

A ferocious young Eagle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16

Gannets nesting on the cliffs of Bonaventure Island, Gulf of St. Lawrence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32

A male Plumbeous Gnatcatcher feeding young . . . . . . . . . . 38

A mountain Bluebird family whose home has been destroyed . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48

Young Robins quarreling at their bath . . . . . . . . . . . . 64

Feeding station for birds . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 80

Snowy Egret shot on its feeding grounds . . . . . . . . . . . 96

Farallone Cormorants and White Pelicans on a Government Bird Reservation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 112

Window "Cafeteria" at home of Mrs. Granville Pike . . . . . . 128

A Christmas dinner for the birds . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 144

An Egret, bearing "aigrettes," in attendance on her young . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 160

Egret brooding on a Florida island owned and guarded by the Audubon Society . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 176

The Downy Woodpecker is fond of suet . . . . . . . . . . . . . 192

Members of a Junior Audubon class at Fergus Falls, Minnesota . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 208

A California Hospital for injured birds . . . . . . . . . . . 224

Preparing for the coming of the birds . . . . . . . . . . . . 240



The fox that followed the footsteps . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7

Heads and feet of various birds . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11

Sample page of reporting-blank . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13

The umbrella blind . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18

Nest of the ruby-throated hummingbird . . . . . . . . . . . . 30

Bald Eagle's eyrie . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32

Grebe or "water witch" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37

Canada Geese decoys . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 52

A greedy young Cowbird . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58

Migration routes of some North American birds . . . . . . . . 71

Lighthouses cause the death of many birds . . . . . . . . . . 76

Tired migrating birds often alight on ships . . . . . . . . . 79

Grouse "budding" in an apple tree . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88

Cuckoo raiding a tent of caterpillars . . . . . . . . . . . . 111

Screech owl and its prey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 115

Passenger Pigeons are now extinct . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127

The Great Auk, now extinct . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 133

Terns formerly sought by the feather trade . . . . . . . . . . 144

Crowned Pigeon that furnishes the "goura" of the feather trade . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 159

Migrative birds are protected by the Government . . . . . . . 172

The grotesque Wood Ibis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 208

Hungry young Egrets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 210

Cemented holes shut out the Chickadee . . . . . . . . . . . . 216

Gourds and boxes for Martins . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 219

A bird bath . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 235

Coloring of birds upon outline drawings . . . . . . . . . . . 257





It is in spring that wild birds make their strongest appeal to the human mind; in fact, the words "birds" and "spring" seem almost synonymous, so accustomed are we to associate one with the other. All the wild riotous singing, all the brave flashing of wings and tail, all the mad dashing in and out among the thickets or soaring upward above the tree-tops, are impelled by the perfectly natural instinct of mating and rearing young. And where, pray, dwells the soul so poor that it does not thrill in response to the appeals of the ardent lover, even if it be a bird, or feel sympathy upon beholding expressions of parental love and solicitude. Most people, therefore, are interested in such spring bird life as comes to their notice, the extent of this interest depending {4} in part on their opportunity for observation, but more especially, perhaps, on their individual taste and liking for things out of doors.

It would seem safe to assume that there is hardly any one who does not know by sight at least a few birds. Nearly every one in the eastern United States and Canada knows the Robin, Crow, and English Sparrow; in the South most people are acquainted with the Mockingbird and Turkey Buzzard; in California the House Finch is abundant about the towns and cities; and to the dwellers in the Prairie States the Meadowlark is very familiar.

Taking such knowledge, however slight, as a basis, there is no reason why any one, if he so desires, should not, with a little effort, get on neighbourly terms with a large number of birds of the region, and spring is a most favourable time to begin such an effort. One may learn more about a bird's habits by closely observing its movements for a few hours at this season than by watching it for a month later on. The life that centres about the nest is most {5} absorbing. Few sights are more stimulating to interest in outdoor life than spying on a pair of wild birds engaged in nest building. Nest hunting, therefore, soon becomes a part of the bird student's occupation, and I heartily recommend such a course to beginners, provided great care is exercised not to injure the nests and their contents.

Caution in Nest Hunting.—A thoughtful person will, of course, be careful in approaching a wild bird's nest, otherwise much mischief may be done in a very short time. I have known "dainty eggs" and "darling baby-birds" to be literally visited to death by well-meaning people, with the best of intentions. The parents become discouraged by constantly recurring alarms and desert the nest, or a cat will follow the path made through the weeds and leave nothing in the nest worth observing. Even the bending of limbs, or the pushing aside of leaves, will produce a change in the surroundings, which, however slight, may be sufficient to draw the attention of some feathered enemy.


When one stumbles on the nest of a Quail, Meadowlark, or Oven-bird, it is well not to approach it closely, because all over the country many night-prowling animals have the habit of following by scent the footsteps of any one who has lately gone along through the woods or across the fields. One afternoon by the rarest chance I found three Quails' nests containing eggs. The next morning I took out a friend to share the pleasure of my discoveries. We found every nest destroyed and the eggs eaten. My trail the evening before lay through cultivated fields, and it was thus easy for us to find in the soft ground the tracks of the fox or small dog that, during the night, had followed the trail with calamitous results to the birds. When finding the nests I had made the mistake of going to within a few inches of them. Had I stopped six feet away the despoiler that followed probably never would have known there was a nest near, for unless a dog approaches within a very few feet of a brooding Quail it seems not to possess the power of smelling it.


Going Afield.—It is rarely necessary to go far afield to begin the study of birds. Often one may get good views of birds from one's open window, as many species build their nests close to the house when the surroundings are favourable. Last spring {8} I counted eighteen kinds of birds one morning while sitting on the veranda of a friend's house, and later found the nests of no less than seven of them within sight of the house. When one starts out to hunt birds it is well to bear in mind a few simple rules. The first of these is to go quietly. One's good sense would of course tell him not to rush headlong through the woods, talking loudly to a companion, stepping upon brittle twigs, and crashing through the underbrush. Go quietly, stopping to listen every few steps. Make no violent motions, as such actions often frighten a bird more than a noise. Do not wear brightly coloured clothing, but garments of neutral tones which blend well with the surroundings of field and wood. It is a good idea to sit silently for a time on some log or stump, and soon the birds will come about you, for they seldom notice a person who is motionless. A great aid to field study is a good Field Glass. A glass enables one to see the colours of small birds hopping about the shrubbery, or moving through the branches of trees. With its {9} aid one may learn much of their movements, and even observe the kind of food they consume. A very serviceable glass may be secured at a price varying from five to ten dollars. The National Association of Audubon Societies, New York City, sells a popular one for five dollars. If you choose a more expensive, high-powered binocular, it will be found of greater advantage when watching birds at a distance, as on a lake or at the seashore.

Notebooks.—The bird student should early acquire the custom of making notes on such subjects as are of special interest. In listening to the song or call of some unknown bird, the notes can usually be written down in characters of human speech so that they may be recalled later with sufficient accuracy to identify the singer. It is well to keep a list of the species observed when on a trip. For many years in my field excursions I have kept careful lists of the birds seen and identified, and have found these notes to be of subsequent use and pleasure. In college and summer-school work I {10} have always insisted on pupils cultivating the notebook habit, and results have well justified this course.

In making notes on a bird that you do not know it is well to state the size by comparing it with some bird you know, as, for example, "smaller than an English Sparrow," "about the size of a Robin," and so on. Try to determine the true colours of the birds and record these. Also note the shape and approximate length of the bill. This, for example, may be short and conical like a Canary's, awl-shaped like the bill of a Warbler, or very long and slender like that of a Snipe. By failing to observe these simple rules the learner may be in despair when he tries to find out the name of his strange bird by examining a bird book, or may cause some kindly friend an equal amount of annoyance.

As a further aid to subsequent identification it is well to record the place where the bird was seen, for example: "hopping up the side of a tree," "wading in a marsh," "circling about in the air," or "feeding {12} on dandelions." Such secondary information, while often a valuable aid to identification, would in itself hardly be sufficient to enable an ornithologist to render the service desired.

That a young correspondent of mine entertained a contrary view was evident from a letter I received a few weeks ago from an inexperienced boy enthusiast, who was a member of a newly formed nature-study class. Here is the exact wording of the communication: "Dear Sir: 10 A. M. Wind East. Cloudy. Small bird seen on ground in orchard. Please name. P. S. All the leaves have fallen."

Reporting Blanks.—A convenient booklet of reporting blanks and directions for using them is issued by the National Association of Audubon Societies, New York City. This is very useful in recording descriptions of birds. (See sample, page 13.) The blanks may be sent to the office of the National Association and the species described will be named.

Bird Books.—There are a number of inexpensive {14} books which contain illustrations of birds in natural colours. One of these will be of the greatest aid to the beginner in bird study. Among the most useful are the Reed's, "Bird Guides," one covering the birds of the eastern and the other those of the western part of the United States. The pictures alone will be of great use in learning the names of feathered neighbours, while an intelligent study of the text will reveal the identity of many others.

Local lists of such birds as are found in a neighbourhood, or a county, are always a great aid in determining, with a fair degree of accuracy, just what species may or may not be expected to appear in a given locality. Such lists are usually first published in The Auk, The Condor, or other ornithological publications, and in many cases are printed and distributed later as separate pamphlets.

There have been published also many State lists of birds, usually accompanied by detailed information regarding abundance and distribution of all the species known to occur in the State. Every bird {15} student should, if possible, get a copy of his own State bird book. Any reader who may wish to learn if such a list of the birds of his neighbourhood or State has been published is at liberty to address the question to the author of this book.

Movements of Birds.—One does not get very far in the work of bird study without discovering that certain movements are characteristic of various families; and when the observer is able to recognize this difference in manner a long step has been taken in acquiring the power of identifying species.

After watching for a time the actions of a Downy Woodpecker as it clings to the side of a tree, or hops along its bark, one is quick to recognize the Woodpecker manner when some other species of that family is encountered. Recalling the ceaseless activities of a Yellow Warbler the observer feels, without quite knowing why, that he has discovered another Warbler of some kind when a Redstart or Chestnut-sided Warbler appears. Once identify a Barn Swallow coursing through the air, and a long {16} stride is made toward the identification of the Cliff or Tree Swallow when one swings into view. The flight of the Flicker, the Goldfinch, the Nighthawk, and the Sparrow Hawk, is so characteristic in each case that I have often been able to name the bird for a student upon being told its approximate size and the character of its flight. Who can see a Wild Duck swimming, or a Gull flying, without at once referring it to the group of birds to which it belongs? Thus the first step is taken toward learning the names of the species, and the grouping of them into families.

Artificial Cover in Hiding.—When studying the larger or the shyer species it is sometimes well to hide one's self from view with whatever articles are at hand that resemble the natural surroundings. This may be done by covering with hay if in a field, or by holding some leafy branches about you if in the woods.

On a lonely island in Pamlico Sound I once got some fishermen to cover me with sand and sea-shells, and in that way managed to get a close view of {17} the large flocks of Cormorants that came there to roost every night. The island was small and perfectly barren, and any other method of attempted concealment would have failed utterly.

Another time, while crouched among some boulders watching for a flock of Gambel's Quails to come to a water-hole in the Santa Catalina Mountains of Arizona, a Canyon Wren alighted on my back, for I was covered with an old tent fly so spotted with mildew that it closely resembled the neighbouring rocks. A moment later it flew to a point scarcely more than a foot from my face, when, after one terrified look, it departed.

The Umbrella Blind.—A device now often used by ornithologists is the umbrella blind, which is easy to construct. Take a stout umbrella, remove the handle, and insert the end in a hollow brass rod five feet long. Sharpen the rod at the other end and thrust it into the ground. Over the raised umbrella throw a dark green cloth cut and sewed so as to make a curtain that will reach the ground all round. A {19} draw-string will make it fit over the top. Get inside, cut a few vertical observation slits six inches long, and your work is done. Erect this within ten feet of a nest, and leave it alone for a few hours. The birds will quickly get accustomed to it so that later you may go inside and watch at close range without disturbing them in the least. This blind is often used for close bird photography. I have taken pictures of Herring Gulls at a distance of only six feet with the aid of such a blind. If you wish to use it on a windy day it may be stayed by a few guy-lines from the top and sides.

The foregoing instructions include all the necessary aids to a beginner in bird study who desires to start afield properly equipped. To summarize them, all that is really necessary is a field glass, a notebook for memoranda, inconspicuous clothing, and a desire to listen and learn.

In the next chapter we shall discuss some of the things to be learned in the study of the life about the nest.


NOTE.—The following publications will be found of great aid to the student in identifying wild birds:

"Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America," by Frank M. Chapman, published by D. Appleton Or Company, price $3.65, postpaid.

"Handbook of Birds of Western United States," by Florence Merriam Bailey, published by Houghton, Mifflin Company, price $3.68, postpaid.

"Water and Game Birds: Birds of Prey" and "Land Birds East of the Rockies: From Parrots to Blue Birds," by Chester A. Reed, published by Doubleday, Page & Company, price of each in sock cloth, $1.10, postpaid; inflexible leather, $1.35, postpaid.

Educational Leaflets, published by the National Association of Audubon Societies, New York City, a series of nearly one hundred, price 2 cents each.




In view of the fact that birds display much activity about their nests there is a great advantage in studying the nesting bird. Once locate an occupied nest, and by quietly watching for a time, your field glass and bird guide will usually enable you to learn the owner's name. If you do not know where any nest is to be found go out and hunt for one. This in itself will be an exciting sport, although it should be pursued with good judgment. Children unattended should not be permitted to hunt nests in spring. A very excellent way to find one is to keep a sharp watch upon birds at the time when they are engaged in nest building.

Nest Hunting.—By noticing every bird suspected of being interested in domestic affairs, you are pretty {22} sure to see one before long with grass, twigs, rootlets, or something of the kind in its bill. Now watch closely, for you are in a fair way to discover a nest. The bird may not go directly to the spot. If it suspects it is being watched it may hop from twig to twig and from bush to bush for many minutes before revealing its secret, and if it becomes very apprehensive it may even drop its burden and begin a search for insects with the air of one who had never even dreamed of building a nest. Even when unsuspicious it will not always go directly to the nest. From an outhouse I once watched a Blue Jay, with a twig, change its perch more than thirty times before going to the fork where its nest was being built.

Sometimes a bird may be induced to reveal its secret by placing in its sight tempting nesting material. By this means Mrs. Pearson last summer found a Redstart's nest. Discovering a female industriously hopping about near the camp, and suspecting what it was seeking, she dropped some ravellings of a white cotton string from the veranda railing, letting {23} them fall where the bird could see them. These proved most acceptable, and the Redstart immediately appropriated them, one at a time, with the result that she soon betrayed her nest.

Early morning is the best time of the day to find birds working at their nests, for then they are most active. Perhaps a reason for this is that the broken twigs, leaves, and dead grasses, wet with the dews of night, are more pliable, and consequently more easily woven into place.

For nesting sites birds as a rule prefer the open country. Rolling meadowlands, with orchards, thickets, and occasional streams, are ideal places for birds in spring.

Number and Colour of Eggs.—The full complement of eggs laid by a bird is known as a set or clutch. The number varies greatly with different species. The Leach's Petrel, Murre, and some other sea birds, have but one egg. The Turkey Vulture, Mourning Dove, Hummingbird, Whip-poor-will, and Nighthawk lay two. Various Thrushes, such as the {24} Robin, Veery, and Wood Thrush, deposit from three to five, four being the most usual number. Wild Ducks, Turkeys, and Grouse range from eight to a dozen or more; while Quails sometimes lay as many as eighteen.

Eggs are variously coloured, and some are so marked that the blending of their colours with those of their surroundings renders them inconspicuous. Thus those of the Killdeer, Sandpiper, and Nighthawk, for example, are not easily distinguished from the ground on which they lie.

Many eggs that are laid in holes or other dark places are white without markings of any kind, as illustrated by those of the Chimney Swift, Belted Kingfisher, and all Woodpeckers. In such instances Nature shows no disposition to be lavish with her colouring matter where it is not needed.

Behaviour When Nest Is Discovered.—After the young are hatched it is even easier to find nests by watching the parents. The nestlings are hungry at all hours, and the old ones are visiting the nest at frequent intervals throughout the day. Birds {25} behave very differently when their nests are discovered. A Cuckoo will glide away instantly and will make no effort to dispute your possession of her treasures. A Crow will also fly off, and so will a Wild Duck and some others. On the other hand, the Mockingbird, Robin, or Shrike, will raise a great outcry and bring about her half the birds of the neighbourhood to pour out on you their vials of wrath, unless you have the good judgment to retire at once to a respectful distance. Warblers will flit from bush to bush uttering cries of distress and showing their uneasiness. The Mourning Dove, Nighthawk, and many others will feign lameness and seek to lead you away in a vain pursuit. A still larger number will employ the same means of deception after the young have been hatched, as, for example, the Quail, Killdeer, Sandpiper, and Grouse.

However much a bird may resent your intrusion on the privacy of its sanctuary, it is very rare for one to attack you. I remember, however, a boy who once had the bad manners to put his hand into a {26} Cardinal's nest and had a finger well bitten for his misdeed. Beware, too, of trying to caress a Screech Owl sitting on its eggs in a hollow tree; its claws are very sharp, and you will need first-aid attention if you persist. Occasionally some bird will let you stroke its back before deserting its eggs, and may even let you take its photograph while you are thus engaged. On one occasion I removed a Turkey Vulture's egg from beneath the sitting bird. It merely hissed feebly as I approached, and a moment later humbly laid at my feet a portion of the carrion which it had eaten a short time before—a well-meant but not wholly appreciated peace-offering.

Lessons to Be Learned.—An infinite variety of interesting things may be learned by watching birds at their nests, or by a study of the nests themselves. How many persons have ever tried to answer seriously the old conundrum: "How many straws go to make a bird's nest?" Let us examine critically one nest and see what we find. One spring after a red squirrel had destroyed the three eggs in a Veery's {27} nest which I had had under observation, I determined to study carefully its composition, knowing the birds would not want to make use of it again. The nest rested among the top limbs of a little brush-pile and was just two feet above the ground. Some young shoots had grown up through the brush and their leaves partly covered the nest from view. It had an extreme breadth of ten inches and was five inches high. The inner cup was two and one-half inches deep, and measured the same across the top. In its construction two small weed stalks and eleven slender twigs were used. The latter were from four and one-half to eight inches long. The main bulk of the nest was made up of sixty-eight large leaves, besides a mass of decayed leaf fragments. Inside this bed was the inner nest, composed of strips of soft bark. Assembling this latter material I found that when compressed with the hands its bulk was about the size of a baseball. Among the decaying leaves near the base of the nest three beetles and a small snail had found a home.


The Veery, in common with a large number of other birds, builds a nest open at the top. The eggs, therefore, are often more or less exposed to the Crow, the pilfering Jay, and the egg-stealing red squirrel. This necessitates a very close and careful watch on the part of the owners. At times it may seem that the birds are not in sight, and that the eggs are deserted; but let the observer go too near, and invariably one or both old birds will let him know of their presence by voicing their resentment and sending abroad their cries of distress.

Character of Material Used.—A wide variety of material is used by birds that build open nests. Cotton and feathers enter largely into the composition of the lining of a Shrike's nest. In Florida the Mockingbird shows a decided preference for the withered leaves and stems of life-everlasting, better known as the plant that produces "rabbit tobacco." The nest of the Summer Tanager is made almost entirely of grasses, the outer half being green, freshly plucked blades that contrast strikingly with the {29} brown inner layer with which the nest is lined. Many of the Thrushes make use of large flat leaves, and also of rags and pieces of paper. Robins stiffen their nests by making in them a substantial cup of mud, which, when dry, adds greatly to the solidity of the structure. On the island of Cape Hatteras there are many sheep, and many Prairie Warblers of the region make their nests entirely of wool.

The most dainty structure built, in this country, by the bill and feet of birds, is the nest made by the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. When completed it is scarcely larger than an English walnut, and is saddled on a small horizontal limb of a tree, often many feet from the ground. It is composed almost entirely of soft plant fibres, fragments of spiders' webs sometimes being used to hold them in shape. The outer sides are thickly studded with bits of lichen, and practised, indeed, is the eye of the man or woman that can distinguish it from a knot on a limb. Although the Hummingbird's nest is exceedingly frail, there is nothing on record to show that {30} any great number of them come to grief during the summer rains. It is, however, not called upon for a long term of occupation. Within a month after the two white eggs are laid the young depart on their tiny pinions. Young birds that require a longer period for growth before leaving the nest are furnished usually with more enduring abiding places. {31} In the case of the Bald Eagle, the young of which do not fly until they are many weeks old, a most substantial structure is provided.

It was on the twentieth of January, a number of years ago, that the writer was first delighted by the sight of a Bald Eagle's nest. It was in an enormous pine tree growing in a swamp in central Florida, and being ambitious to examine its contents, I determined to climb to the great eyrie in the topmost crotch of the tree, one hundred and thirty-one feet above the earth. By means of climbing-irons and a rope that passed around the tree and around my body, I slowly ascended, nailing cleats for support as I advanced. After two hours of toil the nest was reached, but another twenty minutes were required to tear aside enough of the structure to permit climbing up one of the limbs on which it rested. In doing this there were brought to view several layers of decayed twigs, pine straw, and fish bones, showing that the birds had been using the nest for many years. Season after season the huge structure had been enlarged by {33} additions until now it was nearly five feet in thickness and about four feet across the top.

At this date it contained two fledglings perhaps three weeks old. Having been led to believe that Eagles were ferocious birds when their nests were approached, it was with feelings of relief that I noticed the parents flying about at long rifle-range. The female, which, as is usual with birds of prey, was the larger of the pair, once or twice swept within twenty yards of my head, but quickly veered off and resumed her former action of beating back and forth over the tree-tops two hundred yards away.

Nests in Holes.—The members of the Woodpecker family, contrary to certain popular beliefs, do not lay their eggs in hollow trees but deposit them in cavities that they excavate for the purpose. The bird student will soon learn just where to look for the nest of each species. Thus you may find the nesting cavity of the Red-headed Woodpecker in a tall stump or dead tree; in some States it is a common bird in towns, and often digs its cavity in a telephone {34} pole. Some years ago a pair excavated a nest and reared their young in a wooden ball on the staff of the dome of the State House in Raleigh, North Carolina.

On the plains, where trees are few, the telegraph poles provide convenient nesting sites for Woodpeckers of various species. While travelling on a slow train through Texas I counted one hundred and fifty telegraph poles in succession, thirty-nine of which contained Woodpeckers' holes. Probably I did not see all of them, for not over two-thirds of the surface of each pole was visible from the car window. Not all of these holes, of course, were occupied by Woodpeckers in any one season.

Flickers, or "Yellowhammers," use dead trees as a rule, but sometimes make use of a living tree by digging the nest out of the dead wood where a knot hole offers a convenient opening. The only place I have ever known them regularly to nest in living trees is in the deserts of Arizona, where the saguaro or "tree cactus" is about the only tree large enough to be employed for such a purpose. In the {35} Northern States Flickers sometimes chisel holes through the weatherboarding of ice-houses and make cavities for their eggs in the tightly packed sawdust within. They have been known also to lay their eggs in nesting boxes put up for their accommodation.

In travelling through the pine barrens of the Southern States one frequently finds grouped about the negroes' cabins and plantation houses the popular chinaberry, or Pride of India tree. Here are the places to look for the nest of the Hairy Woodpecker. In that country, in fact, I have never found a nest of this bird except in the dead, slanting limb of a chinaberry tree.

The member of this family which displays most originality in its nest building is the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. It is a Southern bird, and the abode for its young is always chiselled from a living pitch-pine tree. This, in itself, is very unusual for any of our eastern Woodpeckers. The bird, however, has a still stranger habit. For two or three feet above the {36} entrance hole, and for five or six feet below it, all around the tree, innumerable small openings are dug through to the inner bark. From these little wells pour streams of soft resin that completely cover the bark and give the trunk a white, glistening appearance, which is visible sometimes for a quarter of a mile. Just why they do this has never been explained. It is true, however, that the sticky resin prevents ants and flying squirrels from reaching the nest, and both of these are known to be troublesome to eggs and young birds.

A simple plan, which is usually successful in finding out if a Woodpecker is at home in its nesting hole, is to strike a few sharp blows on the tree with some convenient club or rock. After a little treatment of this kind the bird will often come to the entrance and look down, as if to inquire into the meaning of all the disturbance. If the nest has been newly made many fragments of small chips of wood will be found on the ground beneath the tree.

Variety of Situations.—The student who takes up {37} the subject of nest architecture will soon be impressed not only with the wide assortment of materials used, but also with the wonderful variety of situations chosen.

The Grebe, or "Water Witch," builds one of the most remarkable nests of any American bird. It is a floating raft, the buoyant part of which is the green {38} stems of water plants, not bent over, but severed from their roots and piled across one another. On this platform is collected decaying vegetation gathered from beneath the water. Here the eggs are deposited, and are carefully covered with more decaying vegetation when the bird desires to be absent from the nest.

Variation in Families.—Sometimes there is wide variety in the character of the nests of different species classified as belonging to the same family. The Flycatcher group is a good example of this fact. Here we have as one member of the family the Kingbird, that makes a heavy bulky nest often on one of the upper, outermost limbs of an apple tree. The Wood Pewee's nest is a frail, shallow excuse for a nest, resting securely on a horizontal limb of some well-grown tree. Then there is the Phoebe, that plasters its cup-shaped mass of nesting material with mud, thus securing it to a rafter or other projection beneath a bridge, outbuilding, or porch roof. Still farther away from the typical Flycatcher's {39} nest is that made by a perfectly regular member of the family, the Great-crested Flycatcher. The straw and other substances it collects as a bed for its eggs and young is carried into some hollow tree, old Woodpecker hole, or nesting box. Often a cast-off skin of a snake is used, and sometimes the end is permitted to hang out of the hole—a sort of "scare-crow," perhaps, intended for the notice of annoying neighbours.

Meagre Nests.—Heretofore, mention has been made only of the nests of birds built with much labour and usually constructed in trees or bushes. A very large number of species, however, lay their eggs on the ground with little or no attempt to gather around or beneath them any special nesting material. The Killdeer's eggs are simply deposited in a slight hole scratched in the earth, usually in an open field or on a rocky hillside. The only lining is a few grass blades or smooth pebbles. To protect them from enemies the birds depend much upon the peculiar marking of the eggs, which makes them look like the {40} ground on which they lie, and this seems to be a sufficient safeguard for the eggs and offspring of the species. The Nighthawk lays her two eggs on the bare ground in a field or open woods; and the Whip-poor-will's nest is on the fallen leaves of a thicket at any spot which the bird happens to select.

The Gulls so common along our coast and about the larger lakes make substantial nests, as a rule—but not always. I have found them on the islands along the coast of Maine containing not a dozen blades of grass, a seemingly scant protection against the danger of rolling away to destruction.

On the sandy islands of the Atlantic Coast, from Long Island southward, many species of Terns make nests by simply burrowing a slight depression in the sand among the sea-shells. Some of the sea birds of the far North, as, for example, the Murres and Auks, often lay their eggs on the shelving cliffs exposed to the sweep of the ocean gales. These are shaped as if designed by nature to prevent them rolling off the rocks. They are very large at one {41} end and toward the other taper sharply. When the wind blows they simply swing around in circles.

Although we sometimes speak of the bird's nest as its home, such really is not the case, for the nest of the wild bird is simply the cradle for the young. When the little ones have flown it is seldom that either they or their parents ever return to its shelter.




It is a privilege to be so situated that one may watch from day to day the occurrences about a wild bird's nest. Here feathered life reaches its greatest heights of emotion, and comedies and threatened tragedies are of daily occurrence. The people we know best are those whom we have seen at their play and at their work, in moments of elation and doubt, and in times of great happiness and dire distress. And so it is that he who has followed the activities of a pair of birds through all the joys and anxieties of nest building, brooding, and of caring for the young, may well lay claim to a close acquaintanceship with them.

In watching a nest one will learn, for example, that with most of our small birds both parents engage in {43} the pleasant duty of feeding the young, at times shielding the little ones from the hot rays of the sun with their half-extended wings, and now and then driving away intruders. The common passerine birds also attend carefully to the sanitation of the nest and remove the feces, which is inclosed in a membrane and is thus easily carried in the bill. This is usually dropped several yards away. If allowed to accumulate on the ground beneath the nest it might attract the attention of some prowling enemy and lead to a disastrous discovery.

Parental Care of Young.—There is a wide difference in the relative helplessness of nesting birds, and a corresponding difference in the methods of parental care. The young of praecocial birds are able to run or swim with their parents almost as soon as hatched, for they not only have the strength to do this, but their bodies being covered with down they are protected from the sun or cold. Examples of such birds are the Quail, Grouse, Sandpipers, Plovers, and Ducks. The young of these and allied species are {44} able from the beginning to pick up their food, and they quickly learn from the example of their parents what is desirable. Soon they are able to shift for themselves, although one or both of the parents continue to attend them until grown.

With the altricial birds the young are hatched in an absolutely helpless condition, being both blind and naked, and it is necessary that they be fed by the parents, not only while occupying the nest, but also for several weeks afterward. To this group belong most of the small birds we are accustomed to see about the house. When newly born the food they receive is first digested in the crop or the stomach of the parent from which it is regurgitated into the mouth of the young. Flickers, Hummingbirds, Doves, and some others continue to feed their young in this manner, but usually the method soon gives way to that, more commonly observed, of simply supplying soft-bodied insects which have been captured and killed but not eaten.

In the case of Pelicans, Cormorants, and Ibises, {45} the young thrust their bills far down the throats of the parents to procure the regurgitated food. From this custom the ancients may have got the idea that Pelicans feed their young with their own life blood. The suggestion still persists, and on the seal of one of our large life insurance companies of America a Pelican and her young are represented accompanied with the motto: "I live and die for those I love." The great seal of the State of Louisiana uses a similar picture without the motto.

Hawks and Owls tear their prey to pieces and on this the young feed at infrequent intervals. Sometimes several hours pass between the visits of the food-laden parents, but the supply is usually adequate when at length it arrives.

Sharing the Labours.—Most young birds, however, are fed with great frequency. For more than an hour one day the writer watched a pair of Georgia Mockingbirds feeding their young. The one that appeared to be the female visited the nest with food on an average once every two minutes, and the male {46} made a similar trip about once in twelve minutes. He could have done better had he not spent so much time flying aimlessly about and scolding imaginary enemies.

Some birds have what seem to be very curious habits at the nesting time. The jealous-hearted Hornbill of the Old World never trusts his spouse to wander away from the nest after her duties there once begin. In order that he may always know just where she is he quite willingly undertakes to supply her with all her food during the days while the incubation of the eggs is going forward. With mud he daubs up the entrance to the hollow in the tree where she is sitting, leaving only a small opening through which food may be passed. When the mud has dried it becomes very hard and the patient mate is an absolute prisoner until the day comes when she passes the word to her lord that the eggs have hatched, and he sets her free.

In our own western country there dwells a bird known as the Phalarope, the females of which enjoy {47} an immunity from domestic duties that might cause the lady Hornbill many an envious sigh did she know of the freedom of her American sister.

Mrs. Phalarope has no intention of being shut in with her eggs for a month while her mate goes roaming at large about the country, nor has she any idea of playing the part of the Georgia Mockingbird and bringing five-sixths of the food which the young require. Her method of procedure is first to permit her mate to search for a suitable nesting site. When some sheltered spot in the ground, quite to her liking, has been found she deposits the eggs and goes her way. Little companies of female Phalaropes may be seen at this time of the year frequenting the ponds and sloughs they inhabit. The dutiful and well-trained males are all at home, where they are responsible for the entire task of caring for, and incubating, the eggs.

Length of Mated Life.—The length of time which birds remain mated is a question often asked but seldom answered satisfactorily. The truth of the {48} matter is that not much is known about the subject. Apparently a great many birds return to the same yard and even to the same tree to build their nest year after year. I say apparently because such birds are seldom marked in such a way as to enable one to be positive that they are the identical individuals which came the year before. It is probably somewhere near the truth to say that most small birds usually choose the same mates year after year if both survive the dangers of winter and in spring meet again on their old trysting grounds. It is safe to assert that as a rule birds retain the same mates throughout the breeding season if misfortune does not befall one of them. During the fall and winter months, when the impulses governing domestic duties are dormant, birds pay little or no attention to their mates.

A Much-married Bluebird.—One spring a pair of Bluebirds came into our yard, and to the accompaniment of much cheerful bird conversation, in the form of whistles, twitters, chirps, and snatches of {49} song, began hunting eagerly for some place to locate a nest. Out in the woodshed I found a box, perhaps six inches square and twice as long. Cutting a small entrance hole on one side, I fastened the box seven or eight feet from the ground on the side of a young tree. The newcomers immediately took possession and began carrying dry grasses into their adopted sanctuary. Several days elapsed and then one morning, while standing on the back of a garden settee and peeping into the hole, I discovered that a pale-blue egg had been laid. When the nest contained four of these little beauties incubation began.

One rainy night while the mother bird was on duty she must have heard the scratching of claws on the box outside. A moment later two yellow eyes blazed at the entrance and a long arm reached into the nest. The next morning on the grass beneath the window we found her wing tips and many other fragments of her plumage. All that day the distressed mate flew about the lawn and called continually. He seemed to gather but little food and {50} the evidence of his suffering was pitiful. In fact, he stirred our feelings to such a pitch we at length closed the windows to shut out the sounds of his mournful calls.

Upon looking out next morning, the first note we heard was that of a Bluebird, but his voice seemed to have lost some of its sorrow. Walking around the corner of the house, I found him sitting on a limb near the box. Two feet from him sat another Bluebird—a female. At eleven o'clock we saw her clinging to the side of the box and looking inquiringly into the entrance hole. We knew what this meant; incidentally we knew, too, that being a ladybird she would have no use for the nest and eggs that had been placed there by another, so I cleaned out the box.

We were anxious that the cat should have no chance to destroy our little friend's second wife, so the box was suspended from a limb by a wire over two feet in length. Five eggs were laid and the mother bird began sitting. Then one night the cat {51} found out what was happening. How she ever succeeded in her undertaking, I know not. She must have started by climbing the tree and creeping out on the limb. I have never seen a cat slide down a wire; nevertheless the next morning the box was tenantless and the feathers of the second female were scattered over the lawn. This time the Bluebird's heart seemed really broken and his cries of lamentation filled the grove. Eleven days now passed before a third soul-mate came to share his fortunes. We could afford to take no more risks. On a sunny hillside in the garden the cat was buried, and a few weeks later four little Bluebirds left the lawn on their own wings.

The Faithful Canada Geese.—Along the Atlantic Coast, where the shooting of wildfowl is an important industry with many people, the raising of Canada Geese is a common custom. Not only do these great birds serve as food, but they play the part of decoys when their owners go ahunting. They are genuine Wild Geese, some of them having been {52} wounded and captured from the great flocks which frequent these waters during the colder months of the year. They retain their wild characteristics with great tenacity and it is necessary to keep them pinioned to prevent their flying away to the North when in spring the spirit of migration calls aloud to all the bird world.


The conduct of these decoys indicates that the losing of a mate is a much more serious matter among them than with the Bluebird and others of our small feathered friends. When a gander has chosen his goose and she has accepted his advances, the pair remain constantly together, summer and winter, as long as they live. If one is killed, many years may elapse before the survivor selects another companion.

In Currituck County, North Carolina, there was not long ago a gander that local tradition said was sixty-two years of age. The first thirty years of his life he remained unmated and for the last thirty-two he has been the proud possessor of a mate from whose side he has never strayed.

These Geese do not mate readily, and a man who has a company of thirty or forty may well be satisfied if six or eight pairs of them are mated. The truth of this statement is proved by the fact that on the local market a single Goose is worth about one dollar, while a pair of mated Geese will readily bring five dollars.


Unmated Birds.—A little reflection will make the student realize the fact that out in the fields and woods, in the swamps and on the mountains, on the beaches, as well as far away on the ocean, there are many birds that are not mated. Among them are widows and widowers, heartfree spinsters and pining bachelors. Just what per cent. of the bird life is unmated in any one season it would, of course, be impossible to tell. The information which the writer has gathered by a careful census of a certain species in a given limited territory enabled him to determine that in this particular case only about three-fifths of the individuals are mated any one season.

Polygamy Among Birds.—As with mankind, some races have well-developed tendencies toward polygamy. In the warmer regions of the United States there dwells a great, splendid, glossy Blackbird, the Boat-tailed Crackle. The nest of this bird is a wonderfully woven structure of water plants and grasses and is usually built in a bush growing in the {55} water. When you find one nest of the Crackle you are pretty certain to find several other occupied nests in the immediate vicinity. From three to six of these marvellous cradles, with their quiet brown female owners, often appear to be watched over by one shining, iridescent lord Crackle, who may be husband to them all. He guards his own with jealous care. Evidently, too, he desires the whole country to know that he is the most handsome, ferocious bird on the earth; for all day long his hoarse shoutings may be heard, and when he launches into the air, the sound of the ponderous beating of his wings can, on a still day, be heard half a mile away, across the lake.

One of the best-known polygamous birds of North America is the Wild Turkey. Go into any part of the country where this fast-disappearing game bird still survives, and the experienced local gunners will tell you that in the mating season you will usually find a gobbler accompanied by two or more Turkey hens. When a female gets ready to make her nest she slips away from her sultan and the other members {56} of the seraglio and, going to some broom-sedge field or open place in the woods, constructs her nest on the ground beneath some slight, convenient shelter. Day after day she absents herself for a short time, and the speckled treasures grow in number until from twelve to fifteen have been deposited. All this time her movements are characterized by absolute secrecy, for if the gobbler by any chance comes upon the nest he immediately breaks every egg. He is perhaps wise enough to know that when his hens begin to set lonely times are in store for him.

The Outcast.—One of our wild birds whose domestic relations are not fully understood is strongly suspected of being promiscuously polygamous. Suspicion on this point is heightened by the fact that it never has a nest even of the most humble character, and shuns absolutely all the ordinary dangers and responsibilities of parentage. We call this seemingly unnatural creature the Cowbird, probably because it is often seen feeding in pastures {57} among cattle, where it captures many insects disturbed into activity by the movements of the browsing animals.

The Cowbird lays its eggs in the nests of various other birds, distributing them about the neighbourhood. Here they are left to be hatched and the young to be reared by the foster parents. Cowbird's eggs have been found in the nests of nearly one hundred species of birds, and nearly always the nest of some smaller bird is chosen. Despite this fact the Cowbird's eggs are often first to hatch. The young grow rapidly and, being strong and aggressive, not only secure the lion's share of the food, but frequently crowd the young of the rightful owner out of the nest to perish on the ground beneath.

As soon as the young leave the nest the greedy Cowbird follows the little mother about the thickets, shouting loudly for food. Its fierce clamour drowns the weaker cries of the legitimate young, which I have reason to believe even then often die for lack {58} of nourishment. So insistent is the young Cowbird and so persistently does it pursue the foster parent that it is well cared for and invariably thrives. It is no uncommon sight, during the days of June and July, to see a worn, bedraggled Song Sparrow {59} working desperately in a frantic effort to feed one or more great hulking Cowbirds twice its size. It is little wonder that discerning people are not fond of the Cowbird. Even the birds seem to regard it as an outcast from avian society, and rarely associate with it on friendly terms. This is the only species of North American birds that exhibits such depravity.

All other birds display great willingness to attend to their home duties, and often give evidence of keen delight while so engaged. One of the most exquisite and dainty forms of bird life found in the United States is the little Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. When occupied in building the nest, which is usually saddled on the limb of some forest tree, the birds call to each other constantly; and even after the eggs are laid there is no attempt to restrain their expressions of happiness. Unlike the Crow and Jay, that sometimes appropriate the nests of other birds, these little creatures have no sins to answer for to their neighbours. One of the most pleasing sights I {60} have witnessed was a male Gnatcatcher that had relieved his mate at the nest. He was sitting on the eggs and, with head thrown back, sang with all his might, apparently unconscious of the evil which such gaiety might bring upon his household.




There is something fascinating about the word migration. It sends our minds back to the dim stories of tribal movements carved on the rocks by men who wrought in the dawn of history. We wonder at the compelling force that drove our ancestors through the forests of northern Germany, or caused the Aztecs to cross the Mexican deserts. It calls to something in our blood, for even the most stolid must at times hearken to the Pied Piper and with Kipling feel that "On the other side the world we're overdue."

Man is not alone the possessor of the migrating passion. Menhaden, in vast schools, sweep along our Atlantic Coast in their season. From unknown regions of the ocean herring and salmon return to {62} the streams of their nativity when the spirit of migration sweeps over the shoals into the abysmal depths. There are butterflies that in companies rise from mud puddles beside the road and go dancing away to the South in autumn. The caribou, in long streams, come southward over the barrens of Labrador when the word is passed, and even squirrels, over extended regions, have been known to migrate en masse for hundreds of miles. There is, however, no phase of the life of birds which is quite so distinctive. The extent and duration of their migrations are among the most wonderful phenomena of the natural world.

Ornithologists have gathered much information regarding their coming and going, but knowledge on many of the points involved is incomplete. It is only of recent years that the nest of the Solitary Sandpiper has been found, and yet this is a very common bird in the eastern United States in certain seasons. Where is the scientist who can yet tell us in what country the common Chimney Swift {63} passes the winter, or over what stretches of sea and land the Arctic Tern passes when journeying between its summer home in the Arctic seas and its winter abode in the Antarctic wastes? The main fact, however, that the great majority of birds of the Northern Hemisphere go south in autumn and return in spring, is well known.

Moulting.—By the time the young are able to care for themselves the plumage of the hard-working parents is worn and frayed and a new suit of feathers becomes necessary. They do not acquire this all at once. The feathers drop out gradually from the various feather tracts over the body, and their places are at once taken by a new growth. While this is going on the birds are less in evidence than at other times. They keep out of sight and few song notes are heard. Perhaps there is some irritation and unpleasantness connected with moulting which causes a dejection of spirit.

With swimming water birds the wing quills disappear nearly all at once and the birds are unable {64} for a short time to fly; but being at home in the water, where they secure their food, they are not left in the helpless, even desperate, condition in which a land bird would find itself if unable to fly. In a few cases birds begin to migrate before this moulting takes place, but with the great majority the moult is complete before they leave their summer homes.

Why Birds Migrate.—Why birds migrate we can only conjecture. Without doubt the growing scarcity of food in autumn is the controlling factor with many of them; and this would seem to be an excellent reason for leaving the region of their summer sojourn. Cold weather alone would not drive all of them southward, else why do many small birds pass the winter in northern latitudes where severe climatic conditions prevail? Should we assume the failing food supply to be the sole cause of migration, we would find ourselves at fault when we came to consider that birds leave the tropic regions in spring, when food is still exceedingly abundant, and journey northward thousands of miles to their former summer haunts.


There is a theory held by many naturalists that the migrating instinct dates back to the glacial period. According to this theory North America was inhabited originally by non-migrating birds. Then the great Arctic ice-cap began to move southward and the birds were forced to flee before it or starve. Now and then during the subsequent period the ice receded and the birds returned, only to be driven again before the next onrush of the Ice King. Thus during these centuries of alternate advance and retreat of the continental glacier, the birds acquired a habit, which later became an instinct, of retreating southward upon the approach of cold weather and coming back again when the ice and snow showed indications of passing away.

The Gathering Flocks.—To the bird student there is keen delight in watching for the first spring arrivals and noting their departure with the dying year. It is usually in August that we first observe an unwonted restlessness on the part of our birds which tells us that they have begun to hear the call of the {66} South. The Blackbirds assemble in flocks and drift aimlessly about the fields. Every evening for weeks they will collect a chattering multitude in the trees of some lawn, or in those skirting a village street, and there at times cause great annoyance to their human neighbours.

Across the Hudson River from New York, in the Hackensack marshes, behind the Palisades, clouds of Swallows collect in the late summer evenings, and for many days one may see them from the car windows as they glide through the upper air or swarm to roost among the rushes. These Swallows and the Blackbirds are getting together before starting on their fall migration.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, there is a small grove of trees clustered about the courthouse which is a very busy place during the nights of summer. Here, before the first of July, Purple Martins begin to collect of an evening. In companies of hundreds and thousands, they whirl about over the tops of the houses, alight in the trees, and then almost {67} immediately dash upward and away again. Not till dark do they finally settle to roost. Until late at night a great chorus of voices may be heard among the branches. The multitude increases daily for six or eight weeks, additions, in the form of new family groups, constantly augmenting their numbers. Some time in September the migration call reaches the Martins, and, yielding to its spell, they at once depart toward their winter home in tropical South America.

The Usual Movement.—Many of our smaller birds, such as Warblers and Vireos, do not possess a strong flocking instinct, but, nevertheless, they may be seen associated in numbers during the season of the northern and southern movements. Such birds migrate chiefly at night and have been observed through telescopes at high altitudes. Such observations are made by pointing the telescope at the disk of the full moon on clear nights. On cloudy or foggy nights the birds fly lower, as may be known by the clearer sounds of their calls as they pass over; at times one may even hear the flutter of their wings. There is a {68} good reason for their travelling at this time, as they need the daylight for gathering food.

There appear to be certain popular pathways of migration along which many, though by no means all, of the aerial voyageurs wing their way. As to the distribution of these avian highways, we know at least that the coastlines of the continents are favourite routes. Longfellow, in the valley of the Charles, lived beneath one of these arteries of migration, and on still autumn nights often listened to the voices of the migrating hosts, "falling dreamily through the sky."

A small number of the species migrate by day; among these are the Hawks, Swallows, Ducks, and Geese. The last two groups also travel by night. The rate at which they proceed on their journey is not as great as was formerly supposed. From twenty to thirty miles an hour is the speed generally taken, and perhaps fifty miles an hour is the greatest rapidity attained. Flights are usually not long sustained, a hundred and fifty miles a day being above the {69} average. Individuals will at times pause and remain for a few days in a favourable locality before proceeding farther. When large bodies of water are encountered longer flights are of course necessary, for land birds cannot rest on the water as their feathers would soon become water-soaked and drowning would result. Multitudes of small birds, including even the little Ruby-throated Hummingbird, annually cross the Gulf of Mexico at a single flight. This necessitates a continuous journey of from five hundred to seven hundred miles. Some North American birds migrate southward only a few hundred miles to pass the winter, while many others go from Canada and the United States to Mexico, Central and South America.

The ponds and sloughs of all that vast country lying between the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay on the east and the mountains of the Far West, constitute the principal nursery of North American waterfowl, whence, in autumn, come the flocks of Ducks and Geese that in winter darken the Southern {70} sounds and lakes. One stream moves down the Pacific Coast, another follows the Mississippi Valley to the marshes of Louisiana and Texas, while a third passes diagonally across the country in a southeasterly direction until it reaches the Maryland and Virginia coastline. Thence the birds disperse along the coastal country from Maine to Florida.

The Travelling Shore Birds.—Turnstones, Sanderlings, Curlews, and other denizens of the beaches and salt marshes migrate in great numbers along our Atlantic Coast. Some of them winter in the United States, and others pass on to the West Indies and southward. The extent of the annual journeys undertaken by some of these birds is indeed marvellous. Admiral Peary has told me that he found shore birds on the most northern land, where it slopes down into the Arctic Sea, less than five hundred miles from the North Pole; and these same birds pass the winter seven thousand miles south of their summer home. One of these wonderful migrants is the Golden Plover. In autumn the birds leave {72} eastern North America at Nova Scotia, striking out boldly across the Atlantic Ocean, and they may not again sight land until they reach the West Indies or the northern coast of South America. Travelling, as they do, in a straight line, they ordinarily pass eastward of the Bermuda Islands. Upon reaching South America, after a flight of two thousand four hundred miles across the sea, they move on down to Argentina and northern Patagonia. In spring they return by an entirely different route. Passing up through western South America, and crossing the Gulf of Mexico, these marvellous travellers follow up the Mississippi Valley to their breeding grounds on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Their main lines of spring and fall migration are separated by as much as two thousand miles. During the course of the year the Golden Plover takes a flight of sixteen thousand miles.

The World's Migrating Champion.—The bird which makes the longest flight, according to the late Wells W. Cooke, America's greatest authority on bird migration, is the Arctic Tern. Professor Cooke, to {73} whom we owe so much of our knowledge of the subject, says of this bird:

"It deserves its title of 'arctic' for it nests as far North as land has been discovered; that is, as far North as the bird can find anything stable on which to construct its nest. Indeed, so arctic are the conditions under which it breeds that the first nest found by man in this region, only seven and one-half degrees from the pole, contained a downy chick surrounded by a wall of newly fallen snow that had been scooped out of the nest by the parent. When the young are full grown the entire family leaves the Arctic, and several months later they are found skirting the edge of the Antarctic continent.

"What their track is over that eleven thousand miles of intervening space no one knows. A few scattered individuals have been noted along the United States coast south to Long Island, but the great flocks of thousands and thousands of these Terns which range from pole to pole have never been noted by ornithologists competent to indicate their {74} preferred route and their time schedule. The Arctic Terns arrive in the Far North about June fifteenth and leave about August twenty-fifth, thus staying fourteen weeks at the nesting site. They probably spend a few weeks longer in the winter than in the summer home, and this would leave them scarcely twenty weeks for the round trip of twenty-two thousand miles. Not less than one hundred and fifty miles in a straight line must be their daily task, and this is undoubtedly multiplied several times by their zigzag twistings and turnings in pursuit of food.

"The Arctic Tern has more hours of daylight and sunlight than any other animal on the globe. At the most northern nesting site the midnight sun has already appeared before the birds' arrival, and it never sets during their entire stay at the breeding grounds. During two months of their sojourn in the Antarctic the birds do not see a sunset, and for the rest of the time the sun dips only a little way below the horizon and broad daylight is continuous. The birds, therefore, have twenty-four hours of daylight for at least {75} eight months in the year, and during the other four months have considerably more daylight than darkness."

Perils of Migration.—The periods of migration are fraught with numerous perils for the travelling hosts. Attracted and blinded by the torches of lighthouses, multitudes of birds are annually killed by striking against lighthouse towers in thick, foggy weather. The keeper of the Cape Hatteras light once showed me a chipped place in the lens which he said had been made by the bill of a great white Gannet which one thick night crashed through the outer protecting glass of the lighthouse lamp. As many as seven hundred birds in one month have killed themselves by flying against the Bartholdi Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour. As its torch is no longer lighted the death-rate here has been greatly reduced, although some birds are still killed by flying against the statue. Many were formerly killed by striking the Washington Monument, the record for one night being one hundred and fifty dead birds.


Locomotive engineers have stated that in foggy weather birds often hurl themselves against the headlight and frequently their bodies are later picked up from the engine platform beneath. Birds seem rarely to lose their sense of direction, and they pursue their way for hundreds of miles across the trackless ocean. Terns, Gulls, and Murres are known to go many miles in quest of food for their young and return through dense fogs with unerring directness to their nests.

During the spring it is not uncommon for strange waterfowl to be found helpless in the streets or fields of a region in which they are ordinarily unknown. These birds have become exhausted during the storm of the night before, or have been injured by striking telephone or telegraph wires, an accident which often happens. Once I picked up a Loon after a stormy night. Apparently it had recovered its strength after a few hours' rest, but, as this bird can rise on the wing only from a body of water, over the surface of which it can paddle and flap for many rods, and as {78} there was no pond or lake in all the neighbouring country, the Loon's fate was evident from the first.

Birds are often swept to sea by storm winds from off shore. Vainly they beat against the gale or fly on quivering wings before its blast, until the hungry waves swallow their weary bodies. One morning in northern Lake Michigan I found a Connecticut Warbler lying dead on the deck beneath my stateroom window after a stormy night of wind and rain. Overtaken many miles from shore, this little waif had been able to reach the steamer on the deck of which it had fallen exhausted and died. What of its companions of the night before?

On May 3, 1915, I was on a ship two hundred miles off Brunswick, Georgia. That day the following birds came aboard, all in an exhausted condition: Brown Creeper, Spotted Sandpiper, Green Heron, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. We also encountered three flocks of Bobolinks, which for some distance flew beside the ship. They appeared to be lost, for they all left us finally, flying straight ahead of the ship, {79} which was bound South, yet birds were supposed to be going North at this season. I wonder if in their bewilderment they mistook the ship for some immense bird pointing the way to land and safety!

Keeping Migration Records.—More than thirty {80} years ago the United States Government put into operation a plan for collecting and tabulating information concerning the dates on which migratory birds reach various points in their journeys. More than two thousand different observers located in various parts of the country have contributed to these records, many of the observers reporting annually through a long series of years. As a result of this carefully gathered material, with the addition of many data collected from other sources, there is now on file in Washington an immense volume of valuable information, much of which, in condensed printed form, is obtainable by the public. This work was in charge of Professor Wells W. Cooke, Biologist, in the Biological Survey of the United States Department of Agriculture until his lamented death in the spring of 1916. Who will take charge of it hereafter is not yet determined; but students may obtain from the director of the Survey migration schedule blanks upon application, and bulletins describing the emigration habits of various North American birds. {81} Watching for the annual appearance of the first individual of each species is most fascinating occupation.

Note.—Government bulletins on the migration of various North American birds may be obtained free, or at slight cost, by addressing H. W. Henshaw, Chief Biological Survey, Department of Agriculture, Washington, D. C.




With the approach of winter the country loses its charm for many people. The blossoms and verdure, so common yet so beloved by all, have departed, and only the brown expanses of dead grass and weeds relieve the blackness of the forest trees. Even ardent nature lovers have been known to forsake their walks at this season when the songs of the birds have ceased and the forest boughs give forth only sobs and shrieks as they sway to the strength of the north winds.

A Good Time for Field Walks.—Nevertheless winter is a good time for the bird student to go afield. If the wild life is less abundant, so is the human life, and you have the country almost to yourself. If you but say in your heart, "I will go and see what may be {83} found," you will later rejoice, for with the falling of the leaves many of Nature's secrets, which she has jealously guarded through the summer months, stand revealed. Among the naked branches of the briars you may find the Catbird's nest which defied all search last June. It will be a comfort to learn that the bird really did have a nest just about the place you thought it was located. Many other pleasing surprises await you in the winter woods.

The Downy's Winter Quarters.—One late autumn day I stopped to watch a Junco feeding among some weed stalks near a hillside trail. After remaining motionless for a minute or two I became conscious of a light muffled tapping somewhere near by. It did not take long to locate the sound. On the underside of a slanting decayed limb, twenty feet above, was a new, well-rounded hole perhaps an inch in diameter. Even as I looked the occupant came to the entrance and threw out a billful of small chips. When these fell, I saw that the dead leaves on the earth beneath had been well sprinkled by previous ejections {84} of the same nature. I had discovered a Downy Woodpecker at work on his winter bedroom, and later I had reason to believe that he made this his nightly retreat during the cold months that followed.

Chancing to pass this way one dark cloudy morning, it occurred to me to look and see if he had yet left his bed. Striking the limb near the hole I was rewarded by seeing a little black-and-white head poked out inquiringly. Fearing he might be resentful if such treatment were repeated, I never afterward disturbed my little neighbour while he was taking his morning nap. But I had learned this much, that one Downy at least sometimes liked to be abed on cold mornings. Perhaps he knew that there was no early worm about at this season.

Birds and the Night.—It may be that others of our winter birds also make excavations for sleeping quarters; the Chickadee and Nuthatch very probably do so, although I have never found them thus engaged. It is well known that many small birds creep into holes to pass the night. Old nesting {85} places of Woodpeckers are thus again rendered useful, and many of the natural cavities of trees contain, during the hours of darkness, the little warm, pulsating bodies of birds.

Quails invariably roost on the ground regardless of the time of year, or the prevailing weather conditions. An entire covey numbering sometimes twelve or fifteen will settle for the night in a compact circular group with heads pointed outward. When a heavy snow falls they are completely buried, and then if a hard crust forms before morning their roosting place becomes their tomb. Grouse now and then are trapped in the same way, but their superior strength enables them to break through and escape. In fact, these larger birds often deliberately go to roost beneath the snow, breaking through the crust by a swift plunging dive from the air. Bearing these facts in mind it is easy to understand why Quails often become scarce in a country where Grouse abound.

Small birds pass the winter nights in evergreens, thick-growing vines, under the eaves of verandas, or {86} on the rafters of bridges. Many creep into cracks of outhouses. I have found them at night in caves, barns, and once in a covered wagon. Almost any available shelter may have its bird tenant on cold nights, who if undisturbed will often return again and again to the refuge it has once found safe and comfortable.

Birds that pass the winter in the Northern States are subjected to many hardships. In fact, the fatalities in the bird world in winter are so great, and the population so constantly reduced by one form of tragedy or another, that it is only the stronger and more fortunate individuals of a species that survive to enjoy the summer.

The Food Question in Winter.—Where to secure the food is the big question which confronts every bird when it opens its eyes on the first snowy morning of winter. Not only has the whole aspect of the country been changed, but the old sources of food have passed away. Not a caterpillar is to be found on the dead leaves, and not a winged insect is left to come flying {87} by; hence other food must be looked for in new directions. Emboldened by hunger, the Starlings alight at the kitchen door, and the Juncos, Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, and Nuthatches come to feed on the window-sill. Jays and Meadowlarks haunt the manure piles or haystacks in search of fragments of grain. Purple Finches flock to the wahoo elm trees to feed on the buds, and Crossbills attack the pine cones. Even the wary Ruffed Grouse will leave the shelter of the barren woods, and the farmer finds her in the morning sitting among the branches of his apple tree, relieving the twigs of their buds. In every field a multitude of weed stalks and stout grass stems are holding their heads above the snow tightly clasping their store of seeds until members of the Sparrow family shall thrash them out against the frozen crust beneath.

Among those which are forced to become largely vegetarian in winter is the Bluebird. In summer he is passionately fond of grasshoppers, cutworms, and Arctia caterpillars, but now he wanders sadly over {88} the country of his winter range in quest of the few berries to be found in the swamps and along the hedgerows. The Crow is another bird often met in winter walks, for he, too, in many cases spurns the popular movement southward in the fall, and severe indeed must be the weather before he forsakes his former haunts. You will find him feeding along the banks of streams or in the open spots in the fields, or {89} again in the woods pecking rotten stumps or fallen limbs in search of dormant beetles.

Fifty-five species of Warblers inhabit North America. These birds are insectivorous in their feeding habits, which of course also means that they are migratory. A partial exception to the rule is found in the common Myrtle Warbler. Although in winter these birds range south to Panama, many remain as far north as New Jersey, Kansas, and the Ohio Valley. This does not mean that insects are found in these regions in sufficient numbers to supply the larder of the Myrtle Warblers, but it does mean that they find acceptable substitutes for their usual food. Oddly enough, what they depend on is not animal matter in any form, but consists of berries which contain some of the essential food properties of fatty meats. One of the most popular with them is the common bayberry.

Among the sand dunes of the extensive "Banks" along the North Carolina coast there grows in great profusion a small bushy tree known as the yaupon. {90} The young leaves of this when dried and steeped make a very acceptable drink, and during the hungry days of the Civil War when the Federal blockade became effective the people of the region used this as a substitute for tea and coffee. The yaupon produces in great abundance a berry that is so highly esteemed by the Myrtle Warblers that they pass the winter in these regions in numbers almost incredible.

When the Food Supply Fails.—It is hard to realize the extent of the havoc wrought among birds by cold, snowy weather. Early in the year 1895 a long, severe cold spell, accompanied by snow and sleet, almost exterminated the Bluebird in the eastern United States. The bodies of no less than twenty-four of these birds were found in the cavity of one tree. It looked as if they had crowded together with the hope of keeping warm. It was not the cold alone which had destroyed the birds: a famine had preceded the cold snap, and the birds, weakened by hunger, were ill prepared to withstand its rigours.

One winter some years ago a prolonged freezing {91} wave swept over our South Atlantic States, and played havoc with the Woodcock in South Carolina. This is what happened: the swamps in the upper reaches of the Pee Dee, the Black, and Waccamaw rivers were frozen solid, and the Woodcock, that in winter abound in this region, were thus driven to the softer grounds farther downstream. The cold continued and the frozen area followed the birds. The Woodcock, unable to drive their long bills into the once-responsive mud, were forced to continue their flight toward the coast in search of open ground where worms could be found. When at length they reached Winyaw Bay, where these rivers converge, they were at the point of exhaustion. Thousands of the emaciated birds swarmed in the streets and gardens of Georgetown. They were too weak to fly, and negroes killed them with sticks and offered baskets of these wasted bodies, now worthless as food, for a few cents a dozen. Several shipments were made to Northern cities by local market men, who hoped to realize something by their industry.


Of the Wild Ducks which remain North in the winter many die because of the freezing of the water in which they must dive or dabble for their food. On the morning of February 11, 1912, Cayuga Lake in western New York State was found to be covered with a solid sheet of ice from end to end. It is a large body of water, having an area of nearly sixty-seven square miles. It rarely freezes over—only once in about twenty years, as the records show. The Ducks inhabiting the lake at this time were caught unawares. Many of them moved quickly to more Southern waters, but others tarried, evidently hoping for better times. Subsequently a few air-holes opened and the Ducks gathered about them, but there was little food even here, and numbers starved to death. One observer who went out to the air-holes reported examining the bodies of twenty-eight Canvas-backs and nineteen Scaups in addition to many others such as Redheads and Golden-eyes. His survey was not exhaustive and the Gulls had doubtless removed many bodies from the territory {93} he visited. When the surface of lakes and bays freezes suddenly in the night Ducks are sometimes caught and held fast by the ice adhering to their feathers and legs. In this condition they are utterly unable to escape the attacks of man and beast, and in the latitude of New York captures in this way are now and then reported.

Wild Fowl Destroyed in the Oil Fields.—In the oil fields of the Southwest and old Mexico the surface of many ponds is covered with oil into which unsuspecting flocks of Ducks alight never again to emerge until their dead bodies drift to the shore. It was on November 27, 1912, that the naval tank ship Arethusa steamed into the harbour of Providence, Rhode Island, with a cargo of crude oil. For several days following her bilge pumps sent overboard a continuous stream of water and oil seepage. On December 3d the following news-item appeared in the Providence Daily Bulletin, "The east shore of the lower harbour and upper bay, from Wilkesbarre pier to Riverside and below, is strewn with the bodies of dead {94} Wild Ducks, which began to drift ashore yesterday. The wildfowl came into the bay in enormous flocks about the middle of November and have since been seen flying about or feeding in the shallow water, as is usual at this time of year. As no such amount of oil, it is believed, was ever let loose into the bay at one time before, and as Ducks along the shore, dead from poisoning, have never been seen before, it is reasonable to connect the two occurrences."

Hunting Winter Birds.—Birds are to be found in winter in nearly every neighbourhood, and it is astonishing under what adverse natural conditions one may find them. As I write these lines on a dark February afternoon, here in New York City, I can see through the window a Starling sitting ruffled up on the bare twig of an elm tree. Every minute or two he calls, and as he is looking this way perhaps he is growing impatient for the little girl of the house to give him his daily supply of crumbs. A few minutes ago there was a Downy on the trunk of the same tree, and out over the Harlem River I see a flock of {95} Herring Gulls passing, as their custom is in the late afternoon.

Several years ago Dr. Frank M. Chapman sent out a notice to bird students that he would be pleased to have them make a record of the birds to be seen in their different neighbourhoods on Christmas.

Many responded, and he published their reports in his magazine Bird-Lore. This aroused so much interest that bird observers all over the country now have a regular custom of following this practice. In the January-February, 1916, issue of Bird-Lore appears the results of the last census which was taken on December 25, 1915. By examining this one may get a good idea of the birds to be found in various communities at this season. Some of the lists were very large, ninety-three specimens being noted in the one sent by Ludlow Griscom, from St. Marks, Florida. The largest number reported by any of the observers was 221, seen in the neighbourhood of Los Angeles, California. The following are reports from typical sections:


Wolfville, N. S.—Dec. 25; 10 A. M. to 12.30 P. M. Cloudless; 5 inches of light snow; no wind; temperature 30 degrees. Herring Gull, 2; Black Duck, 100; Canada Ruffed Grouse, 4; Downy Woodpecker, 1; Northern Raven, 1; Crow, 6; Goldfinch, 11; Vesper Sparrow, 1 (collected for positive identification); Black-capped Chickadee, 7; Acadian Chickadee, 2; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 5. Total, 11 species, 140 individuals. Dec. 20, a flock of 8 to 10 American Crossbills.—R. W. TUFTS.

Tilton, N. H.—Dec. 25; 8.20 A. M. to 12.30 P. M. Cloudy, changing to light rain; a little snow on ground; wind light, south-east; temperature 38 degrees. Blue Jay, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 1; Chickadee, 6; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 2. Total, 4 species, 10 individuals. Birds seem unusually scarce this winter.—GEORGE L. PLIMPTON and EDWARD H. PERKINS.

Bridgewater, Mass.—Dec. 25; 8 to 10 A. M. Cloudy; ground bare; wind southeast, moderate; temperature 27 degrees to 42 degrees. Red-tailed Hawk, 2; Northern Flicker, 3; Blue Jay, 3; American Crow, 80; Starling, 6; Meadowlark, 2; Goldfinch, 7; Junco, 5; Song Sparrow, 42; Swamp Sparrow, 2; Myrtle Warbler, 50; Brown Creeper, 2; Chickadee, 50; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 3. Total, 14 species, 256 individuals.—HORACE A. MCFARLIN.

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