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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/July 1880/Notes on a Few of our Birds

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 17‎ | July 1880

NOTES ON A FEW OF OUR BIRDS.
By HARRY MERRILL.

MUCH has been said and written in regard to the fact that birds temporarily change their habits and customs, and adapt themselves to surrounding circumstances so as to meet their immediate wants and necessities; and these changes are by no means rare, but occur whenever anything is interposed which may conflict with their usual methods of practice. In some cases these habits have been perpetuated, and have become the established custom of a number of species. Our martins and chimney-swallows have almost entirely deserted their original quarters in hollow trees for those that have been furnished by the advent of man. Some sea-birds, that in Labrador build nests and raise their young in the usual way, in the south abandon their eggs to the sand and sun, which perform the duties of a parent in the most acceptable manner. It is noticed that birds which usually build on the ground, particularly sparrows, frequently build in bushes or even in low trees. This is very often the case in pastures where the nest and eggs would be liable to be destroyed by being trodden on by cattle or sheep; in such a situation I have found a nest of the song-sparrow at a height of six feet.

During the past few years I have met with many instances where birds have so changed their habits; and the purple grackle or crow-blackbird has furnished several examples of this kind. These birds are quite common, and rule with undisputed sway over the groves in which they dwell. One of these nesting-places is situated on the banks of the Kenduskeag River in Maine, in a most beautiful spot, where steep ledges rise abruptly from the water's edge, and are covered with a rich growth of pine and cedar, together with wild flowers and climbing plants. Here these birds for many years have built their nests, a single tree often containing several of them; they are very bulky affairs, composed of mud, weeds, and similar materials, and lined with hay.

Peace and prosperity dwelt in this little colony until a few years ago, when the destroyer, man—or rather the father of the man, the boy—commenced to collect birds' eggs; then this spot offered a rare field for his depredations, and one that was not overlooked, so that in a short time many were robbed of home and its treasures, and driven from their ancestral grove. Thereupon, large numbers of the birds proceeded to a lumberyard situated on the river a short distance below, and, seeking there that peace which the grove failed to give, commenced building their nests in the huge piles of boards which lined the water's edge, and in this peculiar situation they began anew the battle of life and reared their young.

In 1874 I found a pair of these birds occupying a woodpecker's deserted hole, and every new year finds them in their old abode, in spite of the fact that they were once robbed of all their eggs, showing very plainly how attached they become to their old haunts, and that even to a blackbird "there is no place like home." Audubon says that in the South the crow-blackbird frequently makes use of holes in trees, where a few dry weeds and feathers are collected on which the female deposits her eggs; Burroughs, also, notices that this bird, "seized with a fit of indolence, drops its eggs in the cavity of a decayed branch." In New England, however, this is not often the case, and in the instance mentioned indolence was clearly not the cause of their selecting this residence, for the nest was constructed exactly similar to those built in trees. I also found a nest of this species in a low marsh which was occupied by red-winged blackbirds as a nesting-place. This nest was built in low bushes about eighteen inches above the water, and was in structure like the redwing's nests among which it was placed, there being no mud used in the construction. This case, so far as I can learn, stands alone as a peculiar instance of adaptation to surroundings as exhibited by these birds.

Every one in New England probably knows the night-hawk, though persons generally are but little interested in it, and very few indeed become well acquainted with its habits. This may be partly due to the fact that it has no song to recommend it, but is principally owing to its habit of remaining perched along some limb during the daytime, when, on account of the similarity of its coat to the branch on which it rests, it remains unnoticed by the casual observer. At the approach of evening, however, he ascends into the air, and there darting about in every direction he procures his food, which consists of various kinds of insects; now he is by no means silent, but makes the night resound with his shrill cries, varying the entertainment occasionally by diving from a great height with partially closed wings, and making a noise which, as Nuttall says, resembles the sound produced by blowing into the bung-hole of an empty hogshead. Early in June you may perhaps witness their courtship. The male is all attention, strutting around with spread tail and ruffled feathers, for all the world like a miniature turkey-cock; stopping now within a short distance of his charmer, he ducks his head and wags his body from side to side, uttering all the while a growling sound which seems to come from the very depths of his distended throat. During this time the female is apparently regardless of this mass of fuss and feathers, and sits perfectly still—a sweet picture of modesty; this is continued for some time, when off my lady goes sailing through the air, leaving her suitor to follow at his leisure. Audubon says, "The male may be said to court his mate entirely on the wing, strutting as it were through the air." In this statement, however, he is hardly correct, as for the last three years a pair of these birds have used a roof a few feet from my window as a trysting-place, and there evening after evening the little domestic drama just described was enacted, thus offering me a superior opportunity to witness their love-making.

The night-hawk builds no nest, but deposits her two speckled eggs on the ground, usually selecting some ledge for this purpose. Birds of this species are very numerous in New England, and in walking a few rods I have often seen numbers of them perched on the trees which border our streets. Still, for a long time I had been unable to find their breeding-grounds, for there seemed to be no suitable places near their favorite resorts; at last, however, I found that they made use of the house-tops for this purpose, and several pair with young or eggs were discovered so situated. I have never seen the fact mentioned, but it is undoubtedly true that these birds return to their old haunts year after year, and deposit their eggs on the same spot for successive seasons. Some years ago I found two young birds just out of the shell; and the next year, being in that vicinity, I had the curiosity to visit the place, and there on the very same spot were two eggs; again the following season it was occupied by the birds. They sometimes raise two broods in a season, as was proved to me by finding two young birds about to fly, and shortly after two more eggs were deposited on the same spot. This is, I believe, contrary to their usual practice, however. A very strange peculiarity which these birds exhibit is that of removing their eggs upon being disturbed during incubation. I visited a pair that had deposited their eggs on the house-top, and the next day was surprised to find them gone, for the situation rendered them unapproachable by other than myself; but a little search revealed the fact that the eggs had been moved to another part of the roof, about a rod from their former resting-place. This removal is perhaps made by taking the egg in their very large mouths, in the manner described by Audubon. In speaking of chuck-will's widow, an allied species found in the South, he says: "When chuck-will's-widow, either male or female (for each sits alternately), has discovered that the eggs have been touched, it ruffles its feathers and appears extremely dejected for a minute or two, after which it emits a low, murmuring cry, scarcely audible at a distance of more than eighteen or twenty yards. At this time the other parent reaches the spot, flying so low over the ground that I thought its little. feet must have touched it as it skimmed along, and, after a few low notes and some gesticulations, all indicative of great distress, takes an egg in its large mouth, the other bird doing the same, when they fly off together, skimming closely over the ground, until they disappeared among the branches and trees."

On any of our streams or lakes, whether in the unbroken forest or where civilization reigns, we may find the kingfisher perched on some stake or rock, surveying the water beneath him with eager eye in search of his finny prey, or skimming over the surface and uttering his harsh cry, which is so similar to the sound of the watchman's rattle that we can easily imagine some guilty sojourner in our native wilds, who hears it for the first time, starting from his slumbers, thinking that the Philistines were upon him.

In Williamson's "History of Maine" is given a list of our native birds, or what purport to be so, and there a very strange mistake is made in his description of the kingfisher. He says, "It is heavy as a plover, has a long bill, its head is crested with red, its back is of a blue color." He also says that this bird is plentiful, but it is very evident from his description that he never examined one, since the bird's entire upper parts, including the head, are ashy blue. These birds excavate in sand-banks a hole about six feet deep and three and a half inches in diameter; this hole is enlarged at the end, where, as Audubon, Nuttall, Samuels, and other authors agree in saying, a nest, is built, composed of grasses, leaves, feathers, and perhaps a few sticks, on which the eggs are deposited. This, however, is not the case in central Maine, for I have examined a great many of their burrows, with a view to ascertaining the facts regarding the construction of their nests, and in not a single instance has there been the slightest attempt at the formation of a nest, but the eggs were laid on the bare sand, over which in some cases fish-scales were scattered. I have spoken with many persons in different parts of this State in regard to these facts, and their observations have agreed with my own. Mr. H. D. Minot, in his "Land and Game Birds of New England," says: "From the abundant evidence recently offered on the subject of the nest, and from my own limited experience, it may be gathered that it" (i. e., the burrow) "varies in length; . . . that it may be either straight or have a bend, and that it is rarely lined at the end, except with fish-bones, as is sometimes the case."

When all Nature is covered with her snowy mantle, and our feathered friends have deserted us for more congenial climes, we may still see the red-bellied nuthatch hopping about on our trees, peering into crannies in search of food, and uttering their short and ceaseless note; but, as the weather grows milder, they gradually disappear, going away to the north, where they breed. The author of "Land and Game Birds of New England" notes that a nest was found in Roxbury, in 1886, but the instances recorded of its nest and eggs being found in New England are not common, and for this reason I trust the description of a nest and eggs which I was so fortunate as to find may be of interest. On the 23d day of May, 1877, while passing through the woods on a collecting tour, I chanced to place my hand on an old and very much decayed hemlock-stub, but no sooner had I touched it than a red-bellied nuthatch popped out of a hole about six feet from the ground, and, feeling sure of a prize, I proceeded to inspect her snug quarters. The nest was placed in a cavity in the stub, which extended downward about six inches below the entrance: at the bottom of this hole was the nest proper, which was composed entirely of soft bark; it was about three and a half inches across and slightly hollowed, perhaps three quarters of an inch. This nest contained six eggs, speckled with reddish-brown.

Around the hole on the outside of the stub a circle of fresh pitch had been smeared by the birds, perhaps for the purpose of keeping out the ants with which decaying stumps are apt to swarm. I have never before heard or read of this habit; none of our ornithologists, so far as I can learn, make any mention of the fact; but since the above instance came to my notice I have learned of another case of the kind, where the stub was a white birch, showing that my example was not altogether exceptional, and the fact that it is unnoticed by our ornithologists may be owing only to a scarcity of observers.

The geographical range of different species of birds is not so definitely marked as might be supposed, for, although there are certain well defined boundaries which separate the birds of different parts of the world, and of different parts of the same country, yet these limits are being constantly broken over by accidental visitors from other countries, by the birds increasing their range, or by stragglers from other ornithological districts of the same country. A South American hummingbird was obtained at Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few years ago. The Egyptian neophron has been shot in England, and the European corncrake is occasionally found on the Atlantic coast of the United States.

The cliff or eave-swallow, perhaps, furnishes the best example of increased range to be found among our birds. When first discovered it was apparently confined to limited areas in the west and Southwest, but at present it spreads over nearly the whole country and is yearly increasing its limits.

In order to be more fully understood in speaking of ornithological districts, it may be well to cite as examples the two regions of New England sometimes called the Alleghanian and Canadian. These districts are divided by a line drawn from the coast of Maine, near Mount Desert, and running southwesterly on the ridge of high land which extends across the southern portion of the State into the highland region of New Hampshire, thence running northwesterly across Vermont. This division is so marked that some birds that are common in the southern district are almost unknown in the northern, where they may occasionally appear, however, as stragglers. Much more striking examples are sometimes seen, as in the case of a cardinal grosbeak that was shot at Orrington, in Maine, a few years since—this bird's habitat being the southern portions of the United States.

I recently had the pleasure of following up and reporting a most interesting case of the finding of birds beyond their supposed limits. In this instance the bird was the loggerhead shrike (Colluris ludovicianus), which is a resident of the Southern States, and not supposed to breed in New England. As the case is one of considerable interest, I shall state the facts in full. On May 5, 1877, a nest, four eggs, and parent bird, were obtained near Bangor, Maine, which the finder believed to be the great northern shrike (C. corealis), and it was described as such in "The Oölogist." Later in the same year another nest was found, and the parent bird shot. The following year four more nests were obtained, and some eight birds procured, some being immature specimens. During this latter season (1878), I obtained some of the specimens mentioned, and was surprised to find that they were not great northern but loggerhead shrikes. Soon after this, at the request of Dr. T. M. Brewer, of Boston, I made a thorough inquiry into the facts concerning the breeding of shrikes near Bangor, and then examined all the specimens of both birds and eggs that had been procured. The result showed that there was not a single authentic instance of the great northern shrike's breeding in this vicinity—every reported instance proving that the bird in question was the loggerhead species.

Until brought to my notice, these birds had never been known to breed in New England, and I had the gratification of being the first to so report them. Minot, in his "Land and Game Birds of New England," says that "they are but rarely found as far north as Massachusetts." Since their discovery here, however, Dr. Brewer has been making extended inquiries into the breeding of the shrikes in New England, and it now appears that in several other cases, where great northern shrikes were reported as breeding, the birds have proved to be loggerheads. This was true of the specimens found at Rutland, Vermont, as stated by Dr. Brewer in the "Ornithological Bulletin" for April, 1879. These birds now appear to be regular visitants in this vicinity, and are among our earliest arrivals. About the first of May of this year (1879), I found a nest containing one egg, and on the 28th day of the same month I found another nest with six young.

All of the nests found here, so far as can be learned, were situated in rather open fields, and none were in the deep woods. The birds were not easily alarmed, and apparently cared but little for the presence of man. Sometimes they would perch on an adjacent limb and watch me, as I examined their nests, without showing a sign of fear. It is certainly quite remarkable that a bird with such marked characteristics should dwell with us long, if indeed it has done so, and yet escape notice; and the number of instances of its breeding here which have been reported since its presence was first noted is also remarkable if it is a straggler.

The author of "Land and Game Birds of New England" claims the honor of being the first to discover the nest of the golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa), which discovery he made in 1875 in a forest in the White Mountains. This nest contained six young birds, but no eggs.

Wilson and other ornithologists, believing that the European "goldcrest" and our R. satrapa were the same, took a description of the nest and eggs of that bird and applied it to our "golden crown," but the birds are not identical.

If Mr. Minot is correct, as he undoubtedly is, it is probable that I have the pleasure of possessing the first and possibly the only nest and eggs of this bird ever found. In 1876, the year following Mr. Minot's discovery, I obtained a nest which contained ten eggs. It was found near Bangor, Maine, and was placed about six feet from the ground in a mass of the thick growth so common in many of our fir-trees. The nest was composed of a large ball of soft moss, forming a mass about four and a half inches in diameter. The opening was at the top, and was about one and three fourths inch across and two inches deep; this opening was lined with hair and feathers, principally the latter.

To the eye the eggs appear of a creamy-white color, covered with such very obscure spots that they merely give a dingy or dirty tint to the egg; but Dr. Brewer, who examined them by the aid of a powerful magnifier, states in the "Ornithological Bulletin" for April, 1879, in which he gives an account of these eggs, that "the ground-color is white, with shell-marks of purplish slate, and a few obscure superficial markings of a deep buff, giving to the ground the effect of cream color." These eggs are extremely minute, the largest being only 52100 of an inch long and 41100 of an inch in breadth, while the smallest is 47100 of an inch long and 39100 of an inch in breadth, or about the length of the egg of the ruby-throated humming-bird. These ten tiny eggs in their mossy casket can hardly be excelled for simple beauty.

There are many persons who do not feel particularly interested in natural history in general, but who are nevertheless charmed by our beautiful birds and their sweet songs, and, being touched through the medium of their senses, they come by degrees to learn more and more of their habits, till the charm so grows upon them that without our feathered friends life would lose one of its greatest pleasures. Yet, perhaps, no living creatures are so much abused, being a convenient target for every boy who is large enough to carry a gun or throw a stone. In some localities there is a constant robbery of their nests, carried on to an alarming extent, which the law is practically powerless to prevent. Take a single example of failure to enforce the law in another direction: I am informed that over seven thousand ducks were netted contrary to law in Franklin, Maine, last year, by pot-hunters, and all over our State this business is carried on with impunity, and probably will continue to be till public sentiment is aroused to a proper realization of the fact that our waters are gradually being stripped of their water-fowl, and when it is, perhaps, too late, the wrong which has been permitted may be appreciated but too well.