Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/January 1900/Winter Birds in a City Park



MOST of us are so used to thinking of birds, if we notice them at all, as belonging to spring and summer that we easily fail to see or hear the comparatively few feathered winter visitors. Among these, however, are some of the most attractive and amusing of birds, and to hear their cheery notes and to watch their busy hunt for food on a cold winter day adds a very considerable pleasure to a walk in a city park or the near-by woods. In New York city bird lovers have learned that Central Park is one of the very best places in which to watch birds both summer and winter. There is room enough there and the conditions are varied enough to offer congenial dwelling places for nearly all of the better-known birds. In the spring and fall the beautiful and tiny migrating wood warblers find PSM V56 D0380 Chickadee observing.pngMr. Chickadee taking Observations. the park a good feeding ground, and a safe place wherein to linger for a brief time on their journeys north and south.

With the approach of winter the innumerable fat and saucy robins that have hunted angleworms, and strutted about the lawns of the park since early spring disappear, except for an occasional hardy fellow who perhaps prefers the dangers of a northern winter to those of the long journey southward. The wood-and the hermit-thrush; the veery, or Wilson's thrush; the yellow warbler, so abundant and so musical; the perky little redstart, whose song of "Sweet, sweet, sweeter" closely resembles the yellow warbler's; the somber-colored blackbirds; the Baltimore and the orchard oriole; the scarlet tanager; the catbird; Phoebe; Jenny Wren; the tiny chipping sparrow; the vireos; and many other familiar warm-weather friends have also journeyed southward.

The bare trees and the ground brown with fallen leaves have to some a bleak and dreary look, but this is because a wrong impression has gone abroad concerning them. PSM V56 D0381 Squirrel acclimated to humans.pngGetting Acquainted. Nature in winter is not dead, not even sleeping; she is all the time storing up energy to enable her to greet the returning sun in her very best dress. If you will look carefully at the bare limbs and branches of the trees and bushes, you will see the little buds that are slowly but surely swelling up with the pride of young, active, vigorous life, only waiting, with the great patience of Nature, for the proper and suitable time to break away from their winter retirement and take up their part in the new year.

Some of the pleasantest days I have ever known in the open have been spent in the winter woods, when the snow was on the ground and everything seemed still and unfamiliar. Every little sound is accented on a cold day, and the creaking of a swaying limb or the note of a bird comes to you with almost startling distinctness. Somehow you feel on such days that you are more a part of the things about you than in the full flush of summer. It is like meeting people stripped of all the artificial distinctions of clothes and position.

There is something fine in the way the trees stand up in winter; no one can fail to understand what is meant by the "sturdy oak." They seem to feel pretty much as you do, and show a spirit of vigorous resistance and power to enjoy and cope with the worst that Jack Frost can bring, and the bright sun sends the sap tingling through their limbs just as it does the blood through yours. One day especially that I remember in Central Park brought me a somewhat novel experience, and gave me the privilege of transferring some old bird acquaintance to the list of my bird friends. It was after a fall of snow, and the air was crisp and sharp, indeed it was nipping, and standing still was a chilly occupation. From long familiarity I knew just about where to go to find certain birds, and I

PSM V56 D0382 The silent winter woods.png

The Silent Winter Woods.

was not disappointed in my hunt. My overcoat pocket, it is needless to say, was fully stocked with peanuts and a box of bird seed, and demands were very soon made upon the peanut supply by the fat and friendly gray squirrels that come bravely up to your hand to be fed. They have a most attractive and appealing way of approaching you. The more timid ones stop often to sit up inquiringly, and put one hand on their heart, as if to stop its excited beating. The first birds I saw were the rugged and noisy English sparrows, written down in most bird books as "pests," but I confess I could not resist giving them a crumb or two, for they appeal to my sympathies much as the plucky little gamin newsboys of the streets do, and then, too, I have learned that their loud chatter and rush for food attract more desirable acquaintances. I soon heard the sharp, shrill peep of the white-throated sparrows, and listened to their scratching "with both feet" under the bushes. Now and then one would try his throat with his full song, two sweet whistles followed by very plain calls for "Peabody, peabody, peabody." They are called the peabody bird by many. There is no mistaking this beautiful sparrow. Among a bunch of his noisy English neighbors the rich brown of his feathers is easily seen, and the three white stripes on his head and the white patch on the throat attract your eye at once. In a group of thirty or forty whitethroats that were feeding on my bird seed I noticed also two plump song sparrows. They are brovm, too, but smaller than the whitethroats, and their breasts are streaked with dark-brown stripes, with a spot right in the center. This is the sparrow that makes music for us from very early spring until late in the autumn. I have heard them in February, with the snow yet on the ground, perched on the tip of some bush and singing away with a joyfulness that made everything take on a more cheerful look. While I was watching the whitethroats I heard the jolly little song that I especially hoped for, and very soon had a near view of wee Mr. Chickadee himself, with his jet-black head, throat, and chin, and gray cheeks. He, in company with several of his friends, came down to feed at once, and hopped about my feet and a near-by bench to pick up the bits of peanut I had dropped for his benefit. The chickadees are always "chummy" little birds, and seem to have found their human acquaintances in general pretty good sort of people. After a time I put some peanut crumbs in my hand and held it out invitingly. The chickadees would alight on the tree over my head, sing their song, look down inquiringly, and then fly off, apparently interested in searching for some important business they had overlooked on the bark of another tree. Gradually, however, one became more familiar and finally lighted on my hand with entire confidence, selected the largest piece of peanut to be had, and flew away to eat it. He held the bit between both feet on a bench, and leaned forward and pecked away until it disappeared. Occasionally he would hold a small piece in one foot only. One little fellow stopped to sing me his Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, as he perched on my little finger, before selecting his morsel. They followed me about the paths, and wherever I stopped there were sure to be several chickadees peeping about the tree trunks asking me to please give them more peanuts. While this was going on I heard a hoarse "Quank, quank, quank!" that sounded very near, and on looking up saw a white-breasted nuthatch, a blue-gray bird with a very distinct black band on the top of his head that extends back across his shoulders. His short tail and legs make him look very funny when on the ground. On a tree, however, he is a regular circus, walking head up or head down on the limbs and trunk, and now and then doing the giant swing, completely circling some twig, just to show what he can do when he tries. He was attracted by the noise and conduct of the chickadees, his winter companions, and was calling for something for himself. His long, slim bill is not made for cracking things as the sparrows can with their short, strong bills, but he punches holes in them very much as the woodpeckers do. When he came down to the path and picked up a peanut he flew off to a near-by tree and hunted up and down until he found a place in the bark where he could wedge the nut in and then proceeded to hatch or crack it into bits to suit his taste. A brown creeper was walking up his tree a short distance away very much as the nuthatch does, poking his long, curved bill into the bark, though I did not see him for some time, as his brown and gray feathers were so like the color of the tree on which he walked. He circles round the trunk or limb, and you have to keep a sharp lookout to get more than an occasional rapid glance at him. A loud rapping and a noise that sounded a good deal like a giggle attracted my attention to a downy black-and-white woodpecker, with a bright-red spot on the back of his head. He was hammering away with all his might, and the limb on which he hung, back down, fairly rattled as he drove his chisel-like bill into the wood. Another woodpecker, the big and beautifully marked flicker, with his brown back barred with black, his spotted breast with its big black crescent and the red band on the back of his head, stopped for a minute or two on a tree a hundred feet away. His cry of alarm rang out shrilly as he flew away. All of these birds are handsomely marked, though none of them compare, in the mere matter of color, with some of the many beautiful summer species. There was one bird there that day, though, whose brilliant plumage and altogether tropical aspect comes as a great surprise to the unaccustomed visitor to the park in winter. As he lighted on the snow-covered ground among a group of feeding whitethroats the cardinal, with his splendid crest, stood out like a jet of flame, and the black spot at the base of his bill only made the rest of him seem the brighter. Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal spend their winters regularly in Central Park, and I hear or see them every time I go there. His only note now is a sharp squeak of alarm, but a little later he will perch high up in some tree near the lake and awake the echoes with his loud whistling. High over my head, mere specks of shining white against the blue-gray of the sky, I could see several gulls floating along on their way to the reservoir, where hundreds of them often gather in the open water that is usually found in the center. As I walked toward the entrance of the park, on my way to the car, I heard, on some cedars near the border of the lake, the gurgling music of a party of goldfinches. They had on their winter coats of yellowish brown, but their song and dipping flight made them easily recognizable.

Once you become acquainted with a few birds, every flutter of a wing or cheep or peep becomes an object of interest and a motive for many days in the open. It is very easy also to sentimentalize about Nature and to assume a patronizing air toward her, but the more you know of her and her ways the sooner you get over this. You can not help being impressed with the fact that the life and ways of the animals and birds are, after all, in many ways very like your own. Birds, you will find, are very human indeed, and show a wide diversity in disposition and habit. There is one thing sure to follow an interest of this kind, and that is a greater respect and care for wild life. The cruelty of egg-collecting and the wanton destruction of birds for millinery purposes are becoming less tolerable every year in civilized communities.