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Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Tyrant Fly-catcher

79 Tyrant Fly-catcher.jpg


Muscicapa Tyrannus, Briss.

PLATE LXXIX. Male and Female.

The Tyrant Fly-catcher, or, as it is commonly named, the Field Martin, or King Bird, is one of the most interesting visitors of the United States, where it is to be found during spring and summer, and where, were its good qualities appreciated as they deserve to be, it would remain unmolested. But man being generally disposed to consider in his subjects a single fault sufficient to obliterate the remembrance of a thousand good qualities, even when the latter are beneficial to his interest, and tend to promote his comfort, persecutes the King Bird without mercy, and extends his enmity to its whole progeny. This mortal hatred is occasioned by a propensity which the Tyrant Fly-catcher now and then shews to eat a honey-bee, which the narrow-minded farmer looks upon as exclusively his own property, although he is presently to destroy thousands of its race, for the selfish purpose of seizing upon the fruits of their labours, which he does with as little remorse as if nature's bounties were destined for man alone.

The Field Martin arrives in Louisiana, from the south, about the middle of March. Many individuals remain until the middle of September, but the greater number proceed gradually northwards, and are dispersed over every portion of the United States. For a few days after its arrival, it seems fatigued and doleful, and remains perfectly silent. But no sooner has it recovered its naturally lively spirits, than its sharp tremulous cry is heard over the fields, and along the skirts of all our woods. It seldom enters the forests, but is fond of orchards, large fields of clover, the neighbourhood of rivers, and the gardens close to the houses of the planters. In this last situation, its habits are best observed.

Its flight has now assumed a different manner. The love-season is at hand. The male and female are seen moving about through the air, with a continued quivering motion of their wings, at a height of twenty or thirty yards above the ground, uttering a continual, tremulous, loud shriek. The male follows in the wake of the female, and both seem panting for a suitable place in which to form their nest. Meanwhile, they watch the motions of different insects, deviate a little from the course of their playful rounds, and with a sweeping dart secure and swallow the prey in an instant. Probably the next sees them perched on the twig of a tree, close together, and answering the calls of nature.

The choice of a place being settled by the happy pair, they procure small dry twigs from the ground, and rising to a horizontal branch, arrange them as the foundation of their cherished home. Flakes of cotton, wool or tow, and other substances of a similar nature, are then placed in thick and regular layers, giving great bulk and consistence to the fabric, which is finally lined with fibrous roots and horse-hair. The female then deposits her eggs, which are from four to six in number, broadly ovate, reddish-white, or blush colour, irregularly spotted with brown. No sooner has incubation commenced, than the male, full of ardour, evinces the most daring courage, and gallantly drives off every intruder. Perched on a twig not far from his beloved mate, in order to protect and defend her, he seems to direct every thought and action to these objects. His snow-white breast expands with the warmest feelings; the feathers of his head are raised and spread, the bright orange spot laid open to the rays of the sun; he stands firm on his feet, and his vigilant eye glances over the wide field of vision around him. Should he spy a Crow, a Vulture, a Martin, or an Eagle, in the neighbourhood or at a distance, he spreads his wings to the air, and pressing towards the dangerous foe, approaches him, and commences his attack with fury. He mounts above the enemy, sounds the charge, and repeatedly plunging upon the very back of his more powerful antagonist, essays to secure a hold. In this manner, harassing his less active foe with continued blows of his bill, he follows him probably for a mile, when, satisfied that he has done his duty, he gives his wings their usual quivering motion, and returns exulting and elated to his nest, trilling his notes all the while.

Few Hawks will venture to approach the farm-yard while the King Bird is near. Even the cat in a great measure remains at home; and, should she appear, the little warrior, fearless as the boldest Eagle, plunges towards her, with such rapid and violent motions, and so perplexes her with attempts to peck on all sides, that grimalkin, ashamed of herself, returns discomfited to the house.

The many eggs of the poultry which he saves from the plundering Crow, the many chickens that are reared under his protection, safe from the clutches of the prowling Hawks, the vast number of insects which he devours, and which would otherwise torment the cattle and horses, are benefits conferred by him, more than sufficient to balance the few raspberries and figs which he eats, and calculated to insure for him the favour and protection of man.

The King Bird fears none of his aërial enemies save the Martin; and although the latter frequently aids him in protecting his nest, and watching over the farm-yard, it sometimes attacks him with such animosity as to force him to retreat, the flight of the Martin being so superior to that of the King Bird in quickness and power, as to enable it to elude the blows which the superior strength of the latter might render fatal. I knew an instance in which some Martins, that had been sole proprietors of a farm-yard for several seasons, shewed so strong an antipathy to a pair of King Birds, which had chanced to build their nest on a tree within a few yards of the house, that, no sooner had the female begun to sit on her eggs, than the Martin attacked the male with unremitting violence for several days, and, notwithstanding his courage and superior strength, repeatedly felled him to the ground, until he at length died of fatigue, when the female was beaten off in a state of despair, and forced to seek a new protector.

The King Bird is often seen passing on the wing over a field of clover, diving down to the very blossoms, and reascending in graceful undulations, snapping his bill, and securing various sorts of insects, now and then varying his mode of chase in curious zigzag lines, shooting to the right and left, up and down, as if the object which he is pursuing were manœuvring for the purpose of eluding him.

About the month of August, this species becomes comparatively mute, and resorts to the old abandoned fields and meadows. There, perched on a fence-stake or a tall mullein stalk, he glances his eye in various directions, watching the passing insects, after which he darts with a more direct motion than in spring. Having secured one, he returns to the same or another stalk, beats the insect, and then swallows it. He frequently flies high over the large rivers and lakes, sailing and dashing about in pursuit of insects. Again, gliding down towards the water, he drinks in the manner of various species of Swallow. When the weather is very warm, he plunges repeatedly into the water, alights after each plunge on the low branch of a tree close by, shakes off the water and plumes himself, when, perceiving some individuals of his tribe passing high over head, he ascends to overtake them, and bidding adieu to the country, proceeds towards a warmer region.

The King Bird leaves the Middle States earlier than most other species. While migrating southwards, at the approach of winter, it flies with a strong and continued motion, flapping its wings six or seven times pretty rapidly, and sailing for a few yards without any undulations, at every cessation of the flappings. On the first days of September, I have several times observed them passing in this manner, in detached parties of twenty or thirty, perfectly silent, and so resembling the Turdus migratorius in their mode of flight, as to induce the looker-on to suppose them of that species, until he recognises them by their inferior size. Their flight is continued through the night, and by the 1st of October none are to be found in the Middle States. The young acquire the full colouring of their plumage before they leave us for the south.

The flesh of this bird is delicate and savoury. Many are shot along the Mississippi, not because these birds eat bees, but because the French of Louisiana are fond of bee-eaters. I have seen some of these birds that had the shafts of the tail-feathers reaching a quarter of an inch beyond the end of the webs.

I have placed a male and a female Field Martin on a twig of the Cotton-wood Tree. This plant is very appropriately named, for not only are the grape-like bunches of seeds filled with a beautiful soft cottony substance, but the wood can scarcely be sawed on account of the looseness of its inner fibres. It grows to a great height and size, particularly along the shores of the Mississippi and Ohio, and in all alluvial grounds to the west of the Alleghany Mountains. It is principally used for firewood and fence-rails, but is of indifferent quality for either purpose.

Muscicapa tyrannus, Briss. vol. ii. p. 391.—Ch. Bonaparte, Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 66.

Lanius tyrannus, Linn. Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 136—Lath. Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 81.

Tyrant Shrike, Lath. Synops. vol. i. p. 184.

Tyrant Fly-catcher, Muscicapa tyrannus, Wils. Amer. Omith. vol.i i. p. 66. Pl. 13. fig. 1.

Adult Male. Plate LXXIX. Fig. 1.

Bill of moderate length, rather stout, subtrigonal, depressed at the base, straight; upper mandible with the dorsal outline nearly straight, and sloping to near the tip, which is deflected and acute, the edges sharp and overlapping; lower mandible with the back broad, the sides slanting, the end slightly declinate. Nostrils basal, lateral, roundish, partly covered by the bristly feathers. Head rather large, neck stout, body ovate. Feet rather short; tarsus covered anteriorly with a few scutella, compressed, acute behind, about the same length as the middle toe; toes free, scutellate above; claws arched, compressed, acute.

Plumage soft, blended, glossy. Basirostral bristles long, directed outwards. Feathers of the head narrow, elongated, and erectile, forming a short longitudinal tuft. Wings rather long, the second and third quills longest. Tail rather long, even, of twelve broadly acuminate feathers.

Bill black. Iris dark brown. Feet greyish-blue. The general colour of the upper parts is dark bluish-grey, the head darker. Feathers along the middle of the crown forming a rich flame-coloured patch, margined with yellow. Quills brownish-black, as are the coverts, which, together with the secondary quills, are externally margined and tipped with dull white. Tail brownish-black, deeper towards the end, each feather largely tipped with white, of which colour also is part of the outer web of the lateral feathers. Under parts greyish-white, throat and fore-neck pure white, the breast tinged with ash-grey.

Length 8+14 inches, extent of wings 14+12; bill along the ridge 712, along the gap 1.

Adult Female. Plate LXXIX. Fig. 2.

The female is duller in colouring; the upper parts being lighter and tinged with brown, the under parts more dusky, the orange spot on the head smaller and not so bright, and the white tip of the tail less pure and not so extensive.

The Cotton-wood.

Populus candicans, Willd. Sp. Pl. vol. iv. p. 806. Pursh. Fl. Amer. vol. ii. p. 618. Mich. Arbr. Forest. de l'Amer. Sept. vol. iii. Pl. 13.—Diœcia octandria, Linn. Amentaceæ, Juss.

This species of Poplar is distinguished by its broadly cordate, acuminate, unequally and obtusely serrated, venous leaves; hairy petioles, resinous buds, and round twigs. The leaves are dark green above, whitish beneath. The resinous substance with which the buds are covered has an agreeable smell. The bark is smooth, of a greenish tint.