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Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Solitary Fly-catcher

Solitary Flycatcher or Vireo (Audubon).jpg


Vireo solitarius, Viell.

PLATE XXVIII. Male and Female.

This, reader, is one of the scarce birds that visit the United States from the south, and I have much pleasure in being able to give you an account of it, as hitherto little or nothing has been known of its history.

It is an inhabitant of Louisiana during the spring and summer months, when it resorts to the thick cane-brakes of the alluvial lands near the Mississippi, and the borders of the numberless swamps that lie in a direction parallel to that river. It is many years since I discovered it, but as I am not at all anxious respecting priority of names, I shall not insist upon this circumstance. In the month of May 1809, I killed a male and a female of this species, near the mouth of the Ohio, while on a shooting expedition after young swans. The following spring, I killed a female near Henderson in Kentucky. In 1821, I again procured a pair, with their nest and eggs, near the mouth of Bayou La Fourche, on the Mississippi, and since that period have killed eight or ten pairs.

The nest is prettily constructed, and fixed in a partially pensile manner between two twigs of a low bush, on a branch running horizontally from the main stem. It is formed externally of grey lichens, slightly put together, and lined with hair, chiefly from the deer and raccoon. The female lays four or five eggs, which are white, with a strong tinge of flesh-colour, and sprinkled with brownish-red dots at the larger end. I am inclined to believe that the bird raises only one brood in a season.

The manners of this bird are not those of the Titmouse, Fly-catcher, or Warbler, but partake of those of all three. It has the want of shyness exhibited in the Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Fly-catchers. It hangs to bunches of small berries, feeding upon them as a Titmouse does on buds of trees; and again searches amongst the leaves and along the twigs of low bushes, like most of the Warblers. On the other hand, it differs from all these in their principal habits. Thus, it never snaps at insects on the wing, although it pursues them; it never attacks small birds and kills them by breaking in their skulls, as the Titmouse does; nor does it hold its prey under its foot in the way of the Yellow-throated Fly-catcher or Vireo, a habit which allies the latter to the Shrikes. On account of all these circumstances, I look upon this bird as deserving the attention of systematic writers, who probably will find its proper place in the general arrangement.

The flight of this bird is performed by a continued tremor of the wings, as if it were at all times angry. It seldom rises high above its favourite cane-brakes, but is seen hopping up and down about the stems of low bushes and the stalks of the canes, silently searching for food, more in the manner of the Worm-eating Warbler than in that of any other bird known to me. Their confidence at the approach of man is very remarkable. They look on without moving until you are within a few feet, and retire only in proportion as you advance towards them. In this respect it resembles the White-eyed Fly-catcher.

When wounded by a shot, it remains quite still on the ground, opens its bill when you approach it, and bites with all its might when laid hold of, although its strength is not sufficient to enable it to inflict a wound. I have never heard it utter a note beyond that of a querulous low murmuring sound, when chasing another bird from the vicinity of its nest. The young all leave the nest, if once touched, and hide among the grass and weeds, where the parents continue to feed them. I once attempted to feed some young birds of this species, but they rejected the food, which consisted of flies, worms, and hard-boiled eggs, and died in three days without ever uttering a note. In 1829, I shot one of these birds, a fine male, in the Great Pine Swamp. This was the only individual I ever saw to the eastward of Henderson on the Ohio. As this happened in the beginning of September, it is probable that some migrate to a considerable distance north-east; but I am at the same time of opinion that very few of these birds enter the United States.

I have represented a pair of them killed near a nest in a cane-brake. A general description of the American Cane will be found in the present volume.

Vireo solitarius, Ch. Bonaparte. Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 70.

Solitary Fly-catcher, Muscicapa solitaria, Wils, Amer. Ornith. vol. ii. p. 143. PI. xvii. fig. 6.

Adult Male. Plate XXVIII. Fig. 1.

Bill rather short, broad and depressed at the base, strong, nearly straight; upper mandible with the sides convex, the edges overlapping and notched near the tip, which is suddenly decurved; lower mandible a little shorter, convex on the sides and back. Nostrils basal, roundish. Head and neck large. Body ovate. Feet of ordinary length, rather strong; tarsus compressed, covered anteriorly with transverse scutella; toes free, scutellate above, the lateral ones nearly equal; claws arched, compressed, acute.

Plumage blended, tufty. Bristle-pointed feathers at the base of the bill. Wings of ordinary length, the third quill longest. Tail slightly forked, of twelve feathers.

Bill black above, light blue beneath. Iris dark brown. Feet and claws light blue. Head and back light olive-green; cheeks of the same colour. A band of white on the forehead, passing over the eye, and nearly encircling it, leaving the loral space dark green. Rump and upper tail-coverts greenish-brown. Quills blackish-brown, margined externally with brownish-yellow; two first rows of coverts blackish-brown, largely tipped with white, forming two bands on the wing. Tail brownish-black, margined externally with yellowish- white. Under parts brownish-grey, fading posteriorly into white.

Length 5½ inches, extent of wings 8½; bill along the ridge 912, along the gap ½; tarsus ⅔.

Adult Female. Plate XXVIII. Fig. 2.

The female is considerably duller. The colouring is generally similar, but the head is brownish-grey, and the band on the forehead and round the eyes narrower and tinged with grey.

Length 5¼.

The American Cane.

Miegia macrosperma, Pursh. Fl. Amer. vol. i. p. 59. Arundinaria macrosperma, Mich. Fl. Amer. vol. i. p. 74.—Triandria Monogynia, Linn. Gramineæ, Juss.

As the Cane is elsewhere described, it is unnecessary to speak particularly of it here.