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The thrushes are the birds of real melody, and will afford one more delight perhaps than any other cla.s.s. The robin is the most familiar example. Their manners, flight, and form are the same in each species.
See the robin hop along upon the ground, strike an att.i.tude, scratch for a worm, fix his eye upon something before him or upon the beholder, flip his wings suspiciously, fly straight to his perch, or sit at sundown on some high branch caroling his sweet and honest strain, and you have seen what is characteristic of all the thrushes.
Their carriage is preeminently marked by grace, and their songs by melody.
Beside the robin, which is in no sense a wood-bird, we have, in New York, the wood-thrush, the hermit-thrush, the veery, or Wilson's thrush, the olive-backed thrush, and, transiently, one or two other species not so clearly defined.
The wood-thrush and the hermit stand at the head as songsters, no two persons, perhaps, agreeing as to which is the superior.
Under the general head of finches, Audubon describes over sixty different birds, ranging from the sparrows to the grossbeaks, and including the buntings, the linnets, the snow-birds, the cross-bills, and the red-birds.
We have nearly or quite a dozen varieties of the sparrow in the Atlantic States, but perhaps no more than half that number would be discriminated by the unprofessional observer. The song-sparrow, which every child knows, comes first; at least, his voice is first heard.
And can there be anything more fresh and pleasing than this first simple strain heard from the garden fence or a near hedge, on some bright, still March morning?
The field or vesper-sparrow, called also gra.s.s-finch, and bay-winged sparrow, a bird slightly larger than the song-sparrow and of a lighter gray color, is abundant in all our upland fields and pastures, and is a very sweet songster. It builds upon the ground, without the slightest cover or protection, and also roosts there. Walking through the fields at dusk I frequently start them up almost beneath my feet.
When disturbed by day they fly with a quick, sharp movement, showing two white quills in the tail. The traveler along the country roads disturbs them earthing their wings in the soft dry earth, or sees them skulking and flitting along the fences in front of him. They run in the furrow in advance of the team, or perch upon the stones a few roads off. They sing much after sundown, hence the aptness of the name vesper-sparrow, which a recent writer, Wilson Flagg, has bestowed upon them.
In the meadows and low wet lands the Savannah sparrow is met with, and may be known by its fine, insect-like song. In the swamp, the swamp-sparrow.
The fox-sparrow, the largest and handsomest species of this family, comes to us in the fall, from the North, where it breeds. Likewise the tree or Canada sparrow, and the white-crowned and white-throated sparrows.
The social-sparrow, _alias_ "hair-bird," _alias_ "red-headed chipping-bird," is the smallest of the sparrows, and, I believe, the only one that builds in trees.
The finches, as a cla.s.s, all have short conical bills, with tails more or less forked. The purple finch heads the list in varied musical ability.
Beside the groups of our more familiar birds which I have thus hastily outlined, there are numerous other groups, more limited in specimens but comprising some of our best known songsters. The bobolink, for instance, has properly no congener. The famous mocking-bird of the Southern States belongs to a genus which has but two other representatives in the Atlantic States, namely, the cat-bird and the long-tailed or ferruginous thrush.
The wrens are a large and interesting family, and as songsters are noted for vivacity and volubility. The more common species are the house-wren, the wood-wren, the marsh-wren, the great Carolina wren, and the winter-wren, the latter perhaps deriving its name from the fact that it breeds in the North. It is an exquisite songster, and pours forth its notes so rapidly and with such sylvan sweetness and cadence, that it seems to _go off_ like a musical alarm.
Wilson called the kinglets wrens, but they have little to justify the name, except their song, which is of the same continuous, gushing, lyrical character as that referred to above. Dr. Brewer was entranced with the song of one of these tiny minstrels in the woods of New Brunswick, and thought he had found the author of the strain in the black-poll warbler. He seems loath to believe that a bird so small as either of the kinglets could possess such vocal powers. It may indeed have been the winter-wren, but from my own observation I believe the golden-crowned kinglet quite capable of such a performance.
But I must leave this part of the subject and hasten on. As to works on ornithology. Audubon's, though its expense puts it beyond the reach of the ma.s.s of readers, is, by far, the most full and accurate. His drawings surpa.s.s all others in accuracy and spirit, while his enthusiasm and devotion to the work he had undertaken, have but few parallels in the history of science. His chapter on the wild goose is as good as a poem. One readily overlooks his style, which is often verbose and affected, in consideration of enthusiasm so genuine and purpose so single.
There has never been a keener eye than Audubon's, though there have been more discriminative ears. Nuttall, for instance, is far more happy in his descriptions of the songs and notes of birds, and more to be relied upon. Audubon thinks the song of the Louisiana water-thrush equal to that of the European nightingale, and, as he had heard both birds, one would think was prepared to judge. Yet he has, no doubt, overrated the one and underrated the other. The song of the water-thrush is very brief, compared with the philomel's, and its quality is brightness and vivacity, while that of the latter bird, if the books are to be credited, is melody and harmony. Again, he says the song of the blue grossbeak resembles the bobolink's, which it does about as much as the color of the two birds resembles each other; one is black and white and the other is blue. The song of the wood-wagtail, he says, consists of a "short succession of simple notes beginning with emphasis and gradually falling." The truth is they run up the scale instead of down; beginning low and ending in a shriek.
Yet considering the extent of Audubon's work, the wonder is the errors are so few. I can, at this moment, recall but one observation of his, the contrary of which I have proved to be true. In his account of the bobolink he makes a point of the fact that in returning South in the fall they do not travel by night as they do when moving North in the spring. In Washington I have heard their calls as they flew over at night for four successive autumns. As he devoted the whole of a long life to the subject, and figured and described over four hundred species, one feels a real triumph on finding in our common woods a bird not described in his work. I have seen but two. Walking in the woods one day in early fall, in the vicinity of West Point, I started up a thrush that was sitting on the ground. It alighted on a branch a few yards off, and looked new to me. I thought I had never before seen so long-legged a thrush. I shot it, and saw that it was a new acquaintance. Its peculiarities were its broad, square tail; the length of its legs, which were three and three quarters inches from the end of the middle toe to the hip-joint; and the deep uniform olive-brown of the upper parts, and the gray of the lower. It proved to be the gray-cheeked thrush (_t.u.r.dus aliciae_), named and first described by Professor Baird. But little seems to be known concerning it, except that it breeds in the far North, even on the sh.o.r.es of the Arctic Ocean. I would go a good way to hear its song.
The present season I met with a pair of them near Washington, as mentioned above. In size this bird approaches the wood-thrush, being larger than either the hermit or the veery; unlike all other species, no part of its plumage has a tawny or yellowish tinge. The other specimen was the Northern or small water-thrush, cousin-german to the oven-bird and half-brother to the Louisiana water-thrush or wagtail. I found it at the head of a remote mountain lake among the sources of the Delaware, where it evidently had a nest. It usually breeds much farther North. It has a strong, clear warble, which at once suggests the song of its congener. I have not been able to find any account of this particular species in the books, though it seems to be well known.
More recent writers and explorers have added to Audubon's list over three hundred new species, the greater number of which belong to the Northern and Western parts of the Continent. Audubon's observations were confined mainly to the Atlantic and Gulf States and the adjacent islands; hence the Western or Pacific birds were but little known to him, and are only briefly mentioned in his works.
It is, by the way, a little remarkable how many of the Western birds seem merely duplicates of the Eastern. Thus, the varied-thrush of the West is our robin, a little differently marked; and the red-shafted woodp.e.c.k.e.r is our golden-wing, or high-hole, colored red instead of yellow. There is also a Western chickadee, a Western chewink, a Western blue jay, a Western meadow-lark, a Western snow-bird, a Western bluebird, a Western song-sparrow, Western grouse, quail, hen-hawk, etc., etc.
One of the most remarkable birds of the West seems to be a species of skylark, met with on the plains of Dakota, which mounts to the height of three or four hundred feet, and showers down its ecstatic notes. It is evidently akin to several of our Eastern species.
A correspondent, writing to me from the country one September, says, "I have observed recently a new species of bird here. They alight upon the buildings and fences as well as upon the ground. They are _walkers_." In a few days he obtained one, and sent me the skin. It proved to be what I had antic.i.p.ated, namely, the American pipit, or t.i.tlark, a slender brown bird, about the size of the sparrow, which pa.s.ses through the States in the fall and spring, to and from its breeding haunts in the far North. They generally appear by twos and threes, or in small loose flocks, searching for food on banks and plowed ground. As they fly up, they show two or three white quills in the tail like the vesper-sparrow. Flying over, they utter a single chirp or cry every few rods. They breed in the bleak, moss-covered rocks of Labrador. Their eggs have also been found in Vermont, and I feel quite certain that I saw this bird in the Adirondac Mountains in the month of August. The male launches into the air, and gives forth a brief but melodious song, after the manner of all larks. They are _walkers_. This is a characteristic of but few of our land-birds. By far the greater number are _hoppers_. Note the track of the common snow-bird; the feet are not placed one in front of the other, as in the track of the crow or partridge, but side and side. The sparrows, thrushes, warblers, woodp.e.c.k.e.rs, buntings, etc., are all hoppers. On the other hand, all aquatic or semi-aquatic birds are walkers. The plovers and sandpipers and snipes run rapidly. Among the land-birds, the grouse, pigeons, quails, larks, and various blackbirds, walk. The swallows walk, also, whenever they use their feet at all, but very awkwardly. The larks walk with ease and grace. Note the meadow-lark strutting about all day in the meadows.
Besides being walkers, the larks, or birds allied to the larks, all sing upon the wing, usually poised or circling in the air, with a hovering, tremulous flight. The meadow-lark occasionally does this in the early part of the season. At such times its long-drawn note or whistle becomes a rich, amorous warble.
The bobolink, also, has both characteristics, and, notwithstanding the difference of form and build, etc., is very suggestive of the English skylark, as it figures in the books, and is, no doubt, fully its equal as a songster.
Of our small wood-birds we have three varieties, east of the Mississippi, closely related to each other, which I have already spoken of, and which walk, and sing, more or less, on the wing, namely, the two species of water-thrush or wagtails, and the oven-bird or wood-wagtail.
The latter is the most common, and few observers of the birds can have failed to notice its easy, gliding walk. Its other lark trait, namely, singing in the air, seems not to have been observed by any naturalist.
Yet, it is a well established characteristic, and may be verified by any person who will spend a half-hour in the woods where this bird abounds on some June afternoon or evening. I hear it very frequently after sundown, when the ecstatic singer can hardly be distinguished against the sky. I know of a high, bald-top mountain where I have sat late in the afternoon and heard them as often as one every minute. Sometimes the bird would be far below me, sometimes near at hand; and very frequently the singer would be hovering a hundred feet above the summit. He would start from the trees on one side of the open s.p.a.ce, reach his climax in the air, and plunge down on the other side. Its descent after the song is finished is very rapid, and precisely like that of the t.i.tlark when it sweeps down from its course to alight on the ground.
I first verified this observation some years ago. I had long been familiar with the song, but had only strongly suspected the author of it, when, as I was walking in the woods one evening, just as the leaves were putting out, I saw one of these birds but a few rods from me. I was saying to myself, half audibly, "Come, now, show off, if it is you; I have come to the woods expressly to settle this point," when it began to ascend, by short hops and flights, through the branches, uttering a sharp, preliminary chirp. I followed it with my eye; saw it mount into the air and circle over the woods, and saw it sweep down again and dive through the trees, almost to the very perch from which it had started.
As the paramount question in the life of a bird is the question of food, perhaps the most serious troubles our feathered neighbors encounter are early in the spring, after the supply of fat with which nature stores every corner and by-place of the system, thereby antic.i.p.ating the scarcity of food, has been exhausted, and the sudden and severe changes in the weather which occur at this season make unusual demands upon their vitality. No doubt many of the earlier birds die from starvation and exposure at this season. Among a troop of Canada sparrows, which I came upon one March day, all of them evidently much reduced, one was so feeble that I caught it in my hand.
During the present season, a very severe cold spell, the first week in March, drove the bluebirds to seek shelter about the houses and out-buildings. As night approached, and the winds and the cold increased, they seemed filled with apprehension and alarm, and in the outskirts of the city came about the windows and doors, crept behind the blinds, clung to the gutters and beneath the cornice, flitted from porch to porch, and from house to house, seeking in vain for some safe retreat from the cold. The street pump, which had a small opening, just over the handle, was an attraction which they could not resist.
And yet they seemed aware of the insecurity of the position; for, no sooner would they stow themselves away into the interior of the pump, to the number of six or eight, than they would rush out again, as if apprehensive of some approaching danger. Time after time the cavity was filled and refilled, with blue and brown intermingled, and as often emptied. Presently they tarried longer than usual, when I made a sudden sally and captured three, that found a warmer and safer lodging for the night in the cellar.
In the fall, birds and fowls of all kinds become very fat. The squirrels and mice lay by a supply of food in their dens and retreats, but the birds, to a considerable extent, especially our winter residents, carry an equivalent in their own systems, in the form of adipose tissue. I killed a red-shouldered hawk, one December, and on removing the skin found the body completely encased in a coating of fat one quarter of an inch in thickness. Not a particle of muscle was visible. This coating not only serves as a protection against the cold, but supplies the waste of the system, when food is scarce, or fails altogether.
The crows at this season are in the same condition. It is estimated that a crow needs at least half a pound of meat per day, but it is evident that for weeks and months during the winter and spring, they must subsist on a mere fraction of this amount. I have no doubt a crow or hawk, when in their fall condition, would live two weeks without a morsel of food pa.s.sing their beaks; a domestic fowl will do as much. One January, I unwittingly shut a hen under the floor of an out-building, where not a particle of food could be obtained, and where she was entirely unprotected from the severe cold. When the luckless Dominick was discovered, about eighteen days afterward, she was brisk and lively, but fearfully pinched up, and as light as a bunch of feathers. The slightest wind carried her before it. But by judicious feeding she was soon restored.
The circ.u.mstance of the bluebirds being emboldened by the cold, suggests the fact that the fear of man, which now seems like an instinct in the birds, is evidently an acquired trait, and foreign to them in a state of primitive nature. Every gunner has observed, to his chagrin, how wild the pigeons become after a few days of firing among them; and, to his delight, how easy it is to approach near his game in new or unfrequented woods. Professor Baird tells me that a correspondent of theirs visited a small island in the Pacific Ocean, situated about two hundred miles off Cape St. Lucas, to procure specimens. The island was but a few miles in extent, and had probably never been visited half a dozen times by human beings. The naturalist found the birds and water-fowls so tame that it was but a waste of ammunition to shoot them. Fixing a noose on the end of a long stick, he captured them by putting it over their necks and hauling them to him. In some cases not even this contrivance was needed.
A species of mocking-bird, in particular, larger than ours, and a splendid songster, made itself so familiar as to be almost a nuisance, hopping on the table where the collector was writing, and scattering the pens and paper. Eighteen species were found, twelve of them peculiar to the island.
Th.o.r.eau relates that in the woods of Maine the Canada jay will sometimes make its meal with the lumbermen, taking the food out of their hands.
Yet, notwithstanding the birds have come to look upon man as their natural enemy, there can be little doubt that civilization is on the whole favorable to their increase and perpetuity, especially to the smaller species. With man come flies and moths, and insects of all kinds in greater abundance; new plants and weeds are introduced, and, with the clearing up of the country, are sowed broadcast over the land.
The larks and snow-buntings that come to us from the North, subsist almost entirely upon the seeds of gra.s.ses and plants; and how many of our more common and abundant species are field-birds, and entire strangers to deep forests?
In Europe some birds have become almost domesticated, like the house-sparrow, and in our own country the cliff-swallow seem to have entirely abandoned ledges and shelving rocks, as a place to nest, for the eaves and projections of farms and other out-buildings.
After one has made the acquaintance of most of the land-birds, there remain the sea-sh.o.r.e and its treasures. How little one knows of the aquatic fowls, even after reading carefully the best authorities, was recently forced home to my mind by the following circ.u.mstance: I was spending a vacation in the interior of New York, when one day a stranger alighted before the house, and with a cigar box in his hand approached me as I sat in the doorway. I was about to say that he would waste his time in recommending his cigars to me, as I never smoked, when he said that, hearing I knew something about birds, he had brought me one which had been picked up a few hours before in a hay-field near the village, and which was a stranger to all who had seen it. As he began to undo the box I expected to see some of our own rarer birds, perhaps the rose-breasted grossbeak or Bohemian chatterer. Imagine, then, how I was taken aback, when I beheld instead, a swallow-shaped bird, quite as large as a pigeon, with forked tail, glossy-black above, and snow-white beneath. Its parti-webbed feet, and its long graceful wings, at a glance told that it was a sea-bird; but as to its name or habitat I must defer my answer till I could get a peep into Audubon, or some large collection.
The bird had fallen down exhausted in a meadow, and was picked up just as the life was leaving its body. The place must have been one hundred and fifty miles from the sea, as the bird flies. As it was the sooty-tern, which inhabits the Florida Keys, its appearance so far north and so far inland may be considered somewhat remarkable. On removing the skin I found it terribly emaciated. It had no doubt starved to death, ruined by too much wing. Another Icarus. Its great power of flight had made it bold and venturesome, and had carried it so far out of its range that it starved before it could return.
The sooty-tern is sometimes called the sea-swallow, on account of its form and power of flight. It will fly nearly all day at sea, picking up food from the surface of the water. There are several species, some of them strikingly beautiful.
 I am aware that the redstart is generally cla.s.sed among the fly-catchers, but its song, its form, and its habits are in every respect those of a warbler. Its main fly-catcher mark is its beak, but to the _muscicapa_ proper it presents little or no resemblance to the general observer.