Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/September 1895/Study of Birds Out-Of-Doors

1228770Popular Science Monthly Volume 47 September 1895 — Study of Birds Out-Of-Doors1895Frank Michler Chapman



WHETHER your object be to study birds as a scientist or simply as a lover of Nature, the first step is the same—you must learn to know them. This problem of identification has been given up in despair by many would-be ornithologists. We can neither pick, press, net, nor impale birds; and here the botanist and the entomologist have a distinct advantage. Even if we have the desire to resort to a gun its use is not always possible. But with patience and practice the identification of birds is a comparatively easy matter, and in the end you will name them with surprising ease and certainty. There is generally more character in the flight of a bird than there is in the gait of a man. Both are frequently indescribable but perfectly diagnostic, and you learn to recognize bird friends as you do human ones—by experience.

If you confine your studies to one locality, probably not more than one third of the species described in this volume will come within the field of your observation. To aid you in learning which species should be included in this third, the paragraphs on range are followed by a statement of the bird's standing at Washington, D. C. Sing Sing, N. Y., and Cambridge, Mass., while the water-birds of Long Island are treated specially. Take the list of birds from the point nearest your home as an index of those you may expect to find. This may be abridged for a given season by considering the times of the year at which a bird is present.

After this slight preparation you may take to the field with a much clearer understanding of the situation. Two quite different ways of identifying birds are open to you. Either you may shoot them, or study them through a field-or opera-glass. A "bird in the hand" is a definite object whose structure and color can be studied to such advantage that in most cases you will afterward recognize it at sight. After learning the names of its parts, its identity is simply a question of keys and descriptions.

If you would "name the birds without a gun" by all means first visit a museum, and, with text-book in hand, study those species which you have previously found are to be looked for Head of Barred owl. near your home. This preliminary introduction will serve to ripen your acquaintance in the field. A good field-or opera-glass is absolutely indispensable. A strong opera-glass with a large eyepiece is most useful in the woods, while a field-glass is more serviceable in observing water-birds. Study your bird as closely as circumstances will permit, and write on the spot a comparative description Of its Size, the shape of its bill, tail, etc., and a detailed description of its colors. In describing form take a Robin, Chipping Sparrow, or any bird you know, which best serves the purpose, as a basis for comparison. A bird's bill is generally its most diagnostic external character. A sketch of it in your note-book will frequently give you a good clew to its owner's family. It is of the utmost importance that this description should be written in the field. Not only do our memories sometimes deceive us, but we really see nothing with exactness until we attempt to describe it. Haunts, actions, and notes should also be carefully recorded. This account is your "bird in the hand," and while you can not hope to identify it as easily as you could a specimen, you will rarely fail to learn its name, and experience will render each attempt less difficult than the preceding.

The best times of the day in which to look for birds are early morning and late afternoon. After a night of fasting and resting, birds are active and hungry. When their appetites are satisfied they rest quietly until afternoon, hunger again sending them forth in search of food.

Experience will soon show you the places where birds are most abundant. The more varied the nature of the country the greater number of species you may expect to find inhabiting it. An ideal locality would be a bit of tree-dotted meadow with a

Hairy Woodpecker.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

reed-bordered pond or stream, surrounded by woods, rolling uplands, and orchards.

Common sense will tell you how to act in the field. Birds are generally shy creatures and must be approached with caution. You must not, therefore, go observing or collecting dressed in flaming red, but in some inconspicuous garb and as quietly as a cat. Furthermore, go alone and keep the sun at your back—two apparently unrelated but equally important bits of advice.

The collector generally has the instincts of a hunter, and practice will develop them. The "squeak" is one of his most valuable Head of Cedar Waxwing. aids. It is made by placing the lips to the back of the hand or finger and kissing vigorously. The sound produced bears some resemblance to the cries of a wounded or young bird. In the nesting season its utterance frequently creates much excitement in the bird world, and at all times it is useful as a means of drawing bush-or reed-haunting species from their retreats. One may enter an apparently deserted thicket, and, after a few minutes' squeaking, find himself surrounded by an anxious or curious group of its feathered inhabitants.

The observer of birds will find that by far the best way to study their habits is to take a sheltered seat in some favored locality and become a part of the background. Your passage through the woods is generally attended by sufficient noise to warn birds of your coming long before you see them. They are then suspicious and ill at ease. But secrete yourself near some spot loved by birds, and it may be your privilege to learn the secrets of the forest.

During the year the bird life of temperate and boreal regions fluctuates with the changing seasons. Birds may thus be classed in the following groups according to the manner of their occurrence: Permanent residents are birds found in one locality throughout the year. Summer residents come from the south in the spring, rear their young, and leave in the fall. Winter visitants come from the north in the fall, pass the winter, and Golden-crowned Kinglet. leave in the spring. Transient visitants pass through a given place in migrating to and from their summer homes north of it. Accidental visitants are birds which have lost their way. They are generally young and inexperienced, and are usually found in the fall.

The best time of the year to begin studying birds is in the winter, when the bird population of temperate regions is at the minimum. The problem of identification is thus reduced to its simplest terms, and should be mastered before spring introduces new elements.

The commoner permanent residents of the middle Eastern States are the following:

Bob-white, Hairy Woodpecker,
Ruffed Grouse, Flicker,
Red-shouldered Hawk, Blue Jay,
Red-tailed Hawk, Crow,
Sharp-shinned Hawk, Meadowlark,
Barred Owl, American Goldfinch,
Long-eared Owl, Purple Finch,
Screech Owl, Song Sparrow,
Great Horned Owl, White-breasted Nuthatch,
Downy Woodpecker, Chickadee,

and occasionally the Waxwing, Myrtle Warbler, Bluebird, and Robin. To these should be added the following more or less common winter visitant land-birds:

Saw-whet Owl, Tree Sparrow,
Horned Lark, Junco,
Snowflake, Northern Shrike,
Lapland Longspur, Winter Wren,
Redpoll, Golden crowned Kinglet,
American Crossbill, Brown Creeper,
White-throated Sparrow,

Let us now begin with the opening of the spring migration and briefly review the ornithological year. In the vicinity of New York city the first birds arrive from the south late in February or early in March. There is much variation in the coming of these early birds. Later, when the weather is more settled, migrants arrive within a few days of a given date. In April most of our winter visitants leave for the north. The current of migration grows steadily stronger until about May 12th, when high-water mark is reached. Then it rapidly subsides, and the spring migration is practically over by June 1st. The winter visitants have gone, the great army of transients has passed us, and our bird population is now composed of permanent residents with the addition of about ninety summer residents.

Nesting time has arrived, and birds which for nearly a year have been free to go and come as inclination directed, now have homes where, day after day, they may be found in tireless attendance upon the nest and its treasures. Courtship, the construction of a dwelling, the task of incubation, and care of the young, all tend to stimulate the characteristic traits of the bird, and at no other time can its habits be studied to better advantage.

But resident birds begin building long before the migration is concluded. The Great Horned Owl lays in February, other birds in March and April; still, the height of the breeding season is not reached until June 1st.

Another period in the avian year closely connected with the spring migration and nesting time is the song season. Near New

Song Sparrow.
Swamp Sparrow.

York city it is inaugurated late in February by the Song Sparrow. Voice after voice is added to the choir, and in June our woods and fields ring with the chorus so dear to lovers of Nature. By the middle of July it is on the wane, and early in August it is practically over. Some birds have a brief second song season in the fall, but as a rule it lasts only a few days—it is a farewell their summer homes.

August is a most discouraging month to the student of birds. Birds leave their accustomed haunts and retire to secluded places to renew their worn plumages. They are silent and inactive, and therefore difficult to find. Late in the month they reappear clad in traveling costumes and ready for their southern journey. One by one they leave us, and there are days late in August and early in September when the woods are almost deserted of birds. Later the fall migration becomes continuous, and each night brings a host of new arrivals.

The spring migration is scarcely concluded before the fall migration begins. July 1st, Tree Swallows, which rarely nest near New York city, appear in numbers from the north and gather in immense flocks in our marshes. Later in the month they are joined by Bobolinks. Early in August the careful observer will detect occasional small nights of Warblers passing southward, and by September 10th the great southern march of the birds is well under way; it reaches its height between the 20th and last of the month, when most of the winter residents arrive, and from this time our bird life rapidly decreases. Some of the seed-and berry-eaters remain until driven southward by the cold weather in December. When they have gone our bird population is again reduced to the ever-present permanent residents and hardy winter visitants.

In a careful study of the great divine's works, the Rev. J. A. Zahm finds that St. Augustine clearly distinguishes between creation, properly so called, and the work of formation and development. The former was direct and simultaneous, while the latter, he contends, was gradual and progressive. "As there is invisibly in the seed," he affirms, "all that which in the course of time constitutes the tree, so also are we to view the world, when it was created by God, as containing all that which was subsequently manifested, not only the heavens with the sun and moon and stars, but also those things which he produced potentially and causally, from the waters and the earth, before they appeared as we now know them." The formless matter, which God created from nothing, was first called heaven and earth, and it is written that "in the beginning God created heaven and earth," not because it was forthwith heaven and earth, but because it was destined to become heaven and earth. When we consider the seed of a tree, we say that it contains the roots, the trunk, the branches, the fruits, and the leaves, not because they are already there, but because they shall be produced from it. "Verily," says Mr. Zahm, "in reading these words, we can fancy that we are perusing some modern scientific treatise on cosmogony instead of an exposition of Genesis written by a father of the Church fifteen hundred years ago."
  1. Being part of a chapter from the author's illustrated Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America recently issued by Messrs. D. Appleton & Co.