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Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Rice Bird

Rice Bird (Audubon).jpg


Icterus agripennis, Ch. Bonap.

PLATE LIV. Male and Female.

Very few of these birds pass through Louisiana in spring, and still fewer, on their return, in autumn; for which reason I am inclined to think that they do not spend the winter months so much in the Southern parts of America as in some of the West India Islands. Indeed, I am the more inclined to believe this to be the case, that they seldom penetrate far into the interior, during their stay with us, but prefer the districts bordering upon the Atlantic, through which they pass and repass in incredible numbers.

In Louisiana, small detached flocks of males or of females appear about the middle of March and beginning of April, alighting in the meadows and grain-fields, where they pick up the grubs and insects found about the roots of the blades. I have heard it asserted, though I cannot give it as a fact, that the appearance of the Rice Bird in spring forebodes a bad harvest. The idea probably originates from the circumstance that these birds do not pass through Louisiana regularly every year, there being sometimes three or four springs in succession in which they are not observed.

The plumage of many of the males at this early season still resembles that of the females, but it changes in the course of their stay, which is seldom more than a fortnight. I have ascertained this fact by dissecting many at this period, when, notwithstanding the dull colour of their plumage, I found the sexual organs greatly developed, which is not the case in autumn, even in the old males. I had another clew to the discovery of this fact. No sooner did a flock of females make its appearance, than these dull-looking gentlemen immediately paid them such particular attention, and sang so vehemently, that the fact of their being of a different sex became undeniable.

Here they pass under the name of Meadow Birds. In Pennsylvania they are called Reed Birds, in Carolina Rice Buntings, and in the State of New York Boblinks. The latter appellation is given to them as far eastward as they are known to proceed for the purpose of breeding.

During their sojourn in Louisiana, in spring, their song, which is extremely interesting, and emitted with a volubility bordering on the burlesque, is heard from a whole party at the same time; when, as each individual is, of course, possessed of the same musical powers as his neighbours, it becomes amusing to listen to thirty or forty of them beginning one after another, as if ordered to follow in quick succession, after the first notes are given by a leader, and producing such a medley as it is impossible to describe, although it is extremely pleasant to hear it. While you are listening, the whole flock simultaneously ceases, which appears equally extraordinary. This curious exhibition takes place every time that the flock has alighted on a tree, after feeding for a while on the ground, and is renewed at intervals during the day.

There is a very remarkable fact in the history of this species, which is, that while moving eastward, during their migration, in spring, they fly mostly at night; whereas in autumn, when they are returning southward, their flight is diurnal. This, kind reader, is another puzzle to me.

About the middle of May, the Boblinks reach the State of New York, their stay in the intermediate States being of short duration at that season, although sufficient to enable them to cause great injury to the corn fields in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, where it is said, although I can scarcely give credit to the assertion, that they cut the blade near the root. This is perhaps laid to their charge for the purpose of aggravating the real injury which they afterwards inflict on the farmers, by feeding on the grain when in a milky and tender state. However, they reach the States of New York and Connecticut, and extend their journey to the easternmost of our districts, proceeding also to the borders of Lake Champlain, Lake Ontario, and the St Laurence.

By this time, they have become so plentiful, and have so dispersed all over the country, that it is impossible to see a meadow or a field of corn, which does not contain several pairs of them. The beauty, or, perhaps more properly, the variety of their plumage, as well as of their song, attracts the attention of the bird-catchers. Great numbers are captured and exposed for sale in the markets, particularly in those of the city of New York. They are caught in trap-cages, and feed and sing almost immediately after. Many are carried to Europe, where the shipper is often disappointed in his profits, as by the time they reach there, the birds have changed their colours and seem all females.

Whilst the love season lasts, the males are more sprightly than ever. Their song is mostly performed in the air, while they are rising and falling in successive jerks, which are as amusing as the jingling of their vocal essays. The variety of their colours is at this juncture very remarkable. It is equally so, when, on rising from among the grass and flying away from the observer, they display the pure black and white of their wings and body.

The nest of the Rice Bunting is placed on the ground, without much apparent care as to choice of situation, but always amongst the grass, or in a field of wheat or barley. It is composed of coarse dried grasses and leaves externally, and is lined with finer meadow grass. It appears large for the size of the bird. The female lays from four to six eggs, of a white colour, strongly tinged with dull blue, and irregularly spotted with blackish. They raise only one brood in a season.

No sooner have the young left the nest, than they and their parents associate with other families, so that by the end of July large flocks begin to appear. They seem to come from every portion of the Eastern States, and already resort to the borders of the rivers and estuaries to roost. Their songs have ceased, the males have lost their gay livery, and have assumed the yellow hue of the females and young, although the latter are more firm in their tints than the old males, and the whole begin to return southward, slowly and with a single clink, sufficient however to give intimation of their passage, as they fly high in long files during the whole day.

Now begin their devastations. They plunder every field, but are shot in immense numbers. As they pass along the sea shores, and follow the muddy edges of the rivers, covered at that season with full grown reeds, whose tops are bent down with the weight of the ripe seeds, they alight amongst them in countless multitudes, and afford abundant practice to every gunner.

It is particularly towards sunset, and when the weather is fine, that the sport of shooting Reed Birds is most profitable. They have then fully satiated their appetite, and have collected closely for the purpose of roosting. At the discharge of a gun, a flock sufficient to cover several acres rises en masse, and performing various evolutions, densely packed, and resembling a sultry cloud, passes over and near the sportsman, when he lets fly, and finds occupation for some time in picking up the dozens which he has brought down at a single shot. One would think that every gun in the country has been put in requisition. Millions of these birds are destroyed, and yet millions remain, for after all the havock that has been made among them in the Middle Districts, they follow the coast, and reach the rice plantations of the Carolinas in such astonishing numbers, that no one could conceive their flocks to have been already thinned. Their flesh is extremely tender and juicy. The markets are amply supplied, and the epicures have a glorious time of it.

By the end of October, few are found remaining in the States of New York and Pennsylvania; and by the first of December they have left the United States.

The food of these birds varies according to the seasons, and consists of grubs, caterpillars, insects of various kinds, such as beetles, grass-hoppers, crickets, and ground-spiders, and the seeds of wild oats, wheat, barley, rice, and other grasses. They cling or climb along the stalks of rank weeds, reeds, and corn, with great activity and ease, and when at roost place themselves as near the ground as possible.

Icterus agripennis, Ch. Bonaparte, Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 53.

Emberiza oryzivora, Linn. Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 311.—Lath. Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 408.

Rice Bunting, Lath. Synops. vol. iii. p. 188—Wils. Amer. Ornith. vol. ii. p. 48, PI. xii. fig. 1, 2.

Plate LIV. Fig. 1. Adult Male in summer.

Bill of ordinary length, robust, conical, compressed; upper mandible narrower, inflected at the edges, the dorsal outline a little convex, the ridge slightly prolonged on the forehead, the palate furnished with a hard tubercle; under mandible with the dorsal outline convex, as are the sides, the edges inflected; the gap line much deflected at the base, straight. Nostrils basal, oval, in a short deep grove, nearly concealed by the feathers. Head large, neck thick, body full. Feet of ordinary length, rather strong; tarsus compressed, anteriorly covered with six scutella, posteriorly acute; toes scutellate above, the outer united at the base; claws arched, compressed, acute, the hind one very long.

Plumage compact, glossy. Wings of ordinary length, the second quill longest. Tail of ordinary length, composed of twelve acuminate feathers.

Bill dark brown above, bluish-grey beneath. Iris hazel. Feet light reddish-brown. Upper and fore part of the head, cheeks, tail, quills, and the whole under parts, black. Back of the head and neck yellow. Fore part of the back black, the feathers margined with yellow, as are the secondary quills and coverts. Lower back, tail-coverts and scapulars, pure white.

Length 7 inches, extent of wings 11; bill along the ridge 7/12, along the gap ⅔; tarsus 1 1/6, middle toe 1¼.

Adult Female in summer. Plate LIV. Fig. 2.

The female is somewhat less than the male, and differs greatly in the colours of the plumage, the upper parts being light yellowish-brown, longitudinally streaked with blackish-brown, the under parts pale greyish-yellow, the sides longitudinally marked with dark brown. There is a broad band of dark brown on each side of the head, beneath which is a yellowish streak over the eye, and a blackish spot behind it. The quills and tail-feathers are wood-brown, the former, as well as the coverts, margined with yellowish.

Notwithstanding the somewhat greater length of the bill, this bird evidently approaches very nearly to the genus Emberiza, or is one of the connecting links between it and the genus Icterus. The female in colouring bears a striking resemblance to Emberiza miliaria.

The Red Maple.

Acer rubrum, Willd. Sp. Plant, vol. iv. p. 984. Pursh, Flor. Amer. vol. 1. p. 265. Mich. Arb. Forest. de I'Amer. Sept. vol. ii. p. 210. Pl. 14—Octandria Monogynia, Linn. Acerineæ, Juss.

This species, which is known by the names of Red Maple and Swamp Maple, is distinguished by its five-lobed or three-lobed leaves, which are cordate at the base, unequally and deeply toothed, and glaucous beneath; its sessile umbels, elongated pedicels, and smooth germens. The flowers and seeds are red. It is very extensively distributed, and in the Swamps of Pennsylvania and New Jersey attains a height of from sixty to eighty feet. When young, the bark is smooth, and covered with large white spots, but it ultimately cracks and becomes brown. The wood is hard and close, and takes a good polish. It is extensively used for various purposes.