Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/May 1900/The Birds of the Adirondacks



I SHALL make no appeal for the protection of our birds, for that is not necessary to those who know them; but I wish we could all know them better, and when we knew we would surely love and give them our protection. We would then realize their great use as insect and weed destroyers; they would fascinate us with their cunning habits, and charm us with their beauty and grace.

Most of our birds are migrators, passing their breeding season in summer with us and then leaving for warmer climes. In addition to the climatic reasons for this migration, the question of food supply is doubtless an important factor, for while they might stand the severity of our winters the insectivorous birds could not get any food when our ground was covered with snow and ice, and, in proof of this, as a rule the omnivorous migratory birds are the first to come in the spring and the last to leave in the fall.

In 1877 I began making notes of the arrival of the robin, bluebird, and swallow; these notes have been made every spring, mostly by myself, but during my absence by some member of my family, and were all taken at Au Sable Forks. The earliest date for the robin is March 10th; for the bluebird, March 7th; and for the swallow, April 4th. The latest date for the robin is April 7th; for the bluebird, April 7th; and for the swallow, April 25th. The average date is for the robin, March 28th; bluebird, March 26th; and the swallow, April 15th.

In every year the first robins that came were males, and this was true with the bluebird excepting two years when I saw both male and female birds on the same day. The sex of the swallow is not as easily determined, and I am not sure about them, but my general observation has been that the males come first, and are followed in a few days by the females, and that the courtship and mating are all arranged after their arrival. My observations have been quite careful, and I think they are full enough to go far toward establishing this fact. Of course, there will be exceptions and our observations are necessarily imperfect, for it is not probable that we happen to see the very first bird that comes.

No bird is more generally known or more universally liked than our common robin. Every year he sings for us our praises to the coming spring from the tallest limb of the elm, and he hops across our lawn with a cuteness that forces a hearty welcome, and, differing from most birds, he seems to be more numerous each year. In a few days his mate joins him, and a search for a site for their first nest begins. The robin lays four eggs, and frequently raises three broods of young in a season, never, so far as I know, using the same site or the same nest twice in one season, or more certainly never using the same nest or site for two consecutive broods. Year after year the same corner in the porch or the same crotch in the apple tree will be used as a nesting place by the robin, and we have all wondered if the same robins came back every year, or if the young birds returned and used the nest in which they were hatched. The birds look and act wonderfully familiar when the old site is occupied, and many people are sure they remember the birds from the year preceding. I have never seen a statement from any ornithologist throwing light on this interesting question, and I twice made an attempt, without success, to obtain the information for myself.

All thrushes except the robin are mottled on the breast, and the breast of the young robin is mottled for the first season, so the young can be readily told from the old birds. The robin is a great lover of angleworms. The young follow the mother while she gathers worms to feed them, and about the time for weaning the young birds I have frequently seen the mother bird pick up straws and sticks and offer them to her young instead of food. This may be done to discourage them from following her any longer, but I think it is more probably caused by a return of the nest-building instinct to the mother.

Some years ago I put a small bird box on a post in our yard, which was soon occupied by a pair of summer wrens, and all went nicely with them until a pair of English sparrows concluded to drive the wrens away and take the house for themselves, and for three or four days the wrens and sparrows were constantly fighting, but the wrens finally won and held possession of the house, although at a great sacrifice, for after the fight was over I raised the lid of the box and found the young birds dead, the fight evidently taking so much of the time and attention of the old birds that they allowed their young to starve. I removed the dead birds, and in a short time the wrens rebuilt the nest, and this time they closed the hole for entrance until it was scarcely large enough to admit my thumb.

The box was occupied by wrens for several years, but the entrance was never closed afterward, and I kept the sparrows from any further interference. In this connection I would say that, at least so far as the English sparrow is concerned, the male selects the site for the nest. When I shot the female the male soon returned with another mate, but when I shot the male the female did not return. The wren builds a very coarse nest, and fills the box nearly half full of sticks three or four inches long. As these sticks are carried in the birds' bills by the middle, they would naturally strike the hole crosswise and could not enter, so when the birds get near the box they turn sideways and poke the sticks in end first, following in and arranging them afterward.

The merganser is a fish duck nearly as large as our common domestic duck, and is known under the names of sheldrake and sawbill duck. The male is considerably larger than the female; he has a jet-black head, and the black extends down the neck for about two inches, where the color changes to a pure white, the line being as regular and distinct as the painting on the smokestack of a steamship. The body is generally white, with black markings on the wings and some black on the body; the breast is a beautiful salmon color when the bird is killed, but if mounted soon fades to a pure white. The male merganser in full plumage is one of our most beautiful birds.

The female, besides being smaller, is of a grayish color, and the plumage and general appearance are entirely unlike the male, so that the sex can be easily determined even at a long distance.

This bird is common on the Champlain and waters of the Adirondacks. Like all fish ducks, it has a long, sharp bill, which is serrated with sawtooth-shaped notches strongly suggesting teeth, a fact which has given this bird much interest to our evolutionary scientists.

I have noticed a habit of this bird that I believe is entirely unique, and one I am surprised that our authorities on birds have not mentioned—that is, that the males are entirely migratory and the females are not. After the lakes and still waters freeze the mergansers go to the rivers which are open in some places on the rapids all winter. For more than twenty years I have seen female mergansers on the Au Sable River all winter, and I have frequently seen them on the other Adirondack rivers; but I have never seen a male merganser in the winter, and in the late fall the males and females gather in separate flocks, and when the male mergansers appear in the spring they are always in flocks by themselves.

I think the merganser lives entirely on fish, and it is surprising to one who has made no observations on the subject to know what an enormous number of young fish a flock of these ducks will destroy in a season. I quote the following from my notebook: "October 13, 1882, killed fish duck (female merganser) in Slush Pond, and found in her throat and stomach one pickerel, four black bass, and eleven sun perch. Bob (my brother) present. October 18, 1882, killed same kind of duck on Lake Champlain, and took out of her sixty small perch. James R. Graves present."

Our most valuable game bird is the ruffed grouse or partridge. He stays with us all the time. He is a strong, swift flier, and taxes the nerve and skill of the sportsman to a high degree, and to bring down a partridge under full wing in the evergreens in November sends a thrill of delight through one's veins.

The partridge is a gallinaceous bird, and the young leave the nest as soon as hatched, running around with the mother like chickens. Upon the approach of danger the young hide themselves under the leaves in an incredibly short time, and the mother flutters off with an apparently broken wing, keeping just out of reach to lure you away from the hiding place of her young. This ruse is employed by many birds, but in none, so far as I know, to as large an extent as the partridge. Naturally a very timid bird, the partridge will put up quite a bluff for a fight in defense of her young, and on two occasions I knew a partridge to show fight without any young. Experience has satisfied me that a partridge knows enough to try and get a tree between himself and the huntsman, and to keep it there until he is out of range.

Partridges are less numerous around my home than they were twenty years ago, and their habits have undergone a very decided change. Then they usually took to a tree when flushed; now they seldom light on a tree, and take much longer flights. When hunting in Canada last fall I found that the partridges were very tame, and simply ran away from me, or if pressed flew into trees near by and waited for their heads to be taken off with rifle balls.

I notice considerable difference in the shade coloring of the partridge, some being much darker than others, but all have the same markings. The partridge is omnivorous, and, like man and the pig, he eats almost everything. In the winter he lives upon the buds of trees, and many a bird has lost his life while filling his crop from this source, as he is then an easy mark for the hunter, and I have seen the marks of his bill on the carcasses of animals. He is fond of blackberries, and sportsmen often visit blackberry patches when looking for him in the early fall, but I have been surprised to find that when feeding in a blackberry patch he apparently shows no preference for the ripe berries, filling his crop with all kinds. A fact about the partridge which I find is not generally known is, while in summer its toes are plain, like the toes of a chicken, in the winter they are bordered with a stiff hairy fringe that gives it support on the snow, having the same effect as the meshes of our snowshoes. This is a fact of considerable interest, for it seems to have a bearing upon the theory that there is a tendency in animals to develop conditions favorable to their environment. Under this theory one might hope to find a development of a substitute for a snowshoe on a non-migratory bird whose habits keep it largely upon the ground, while no such development would be expected on a bird that leaves us in the winter for warmer climes.

In this connection I would say that while few of our native birds change the color of their plumage as an adaptation to the seasons, our pretty thistle bird, or American goldfinch, undergoes a radical change. In summer he has a bright yellow body with black markings and a black head, while in winter his plumage is all pale brown or sparrow-color, and we often fail to recognize in our somber winter resident the brilliant goldfinch of our summer. These little birds are gregarious in the winter, and as they fly in small flocks into the trees by the roadside they are frequently mistaken for sparrows, and in fact are usually called tree sparrows.

There are few things connected with the study of natural history more interesting than the tendency in animals to develop conditions suitable to their environment, and it is surprising to see for how long a time an acquired habit will sometimes survive after its usefulness has ceased.

The common chimney swallows always build their nests in chimneys that are unused during their breeding season. They make a semicircular nest of sticks, which they glue to the inside wall of the chimney with a secretion from their mouths. It is interesting to see the swallows gather the sticks for their nests, for they do not alight on the ground, but, while flying, break off dead twigs from trees without stopping in their flight.

This habit of building in chimneys must have been acquired in a comparatively short time, for there were no chimneys in this country before the arrival of the white man, and for a long time afterward the settler had but one chimney in his house, which must have been used, at least for cooking purposes, in the summer. So perfect is this habit that the swallow looks and acts as though he were made for the chimney; his color is a sooty black, so that he does not tarnish his coat by rubbing against the chimney walls; the feathers of his tail end in hard spikes, that he can use them to prop himself against the wall. I have been interested on a summer evening watching these swallows in hundreds circling around a church chimney in Plattsburg, until finally the birds in the center began to enter the chimney, the circle growing smaller and smaller as they apparently poured down in the vortex of a whirlpool of swallows. Many birds have acquired a habit of associating with man, and we rarely find them, except during the season of their flight, far away from houses.

The barn swallows always place their nests under the eaves or cornices of some building, usually a barn. These nests are built of mud gathered by the birds from wet places on the ground, and carried in their mouths to the sites chosen by them. Many of our farmers have an unkind feeling for the barn swallows, as they think the mud-daubed nests on the new red paint are not an artistic addition; but if our cattle could give an intelligent opinion they would welcome the birds, for all swallows are entirely insectivorous, and they must eat many flies and mosquitoes that otherwise would be left to torment our animals.

Birds that build in inaccessible places seem to rely upon that for security, and apparently make little effort to conceal their nests, while those building on or near the ground are generally careful to hide them, and they display considerable cunning in preventing discovery. Robins, for instance, after the young are hatched, never drop the eggshells over the side of the nests to the ground, where they would attract attention and cause one to look directly overhead and thus find the nest, but take the broken shells in their bills and carry them off, dropping them while flying. Frequently birds are very shy and easily frightened away from their nests, but after they are well established they sometimes show a good deal of tenacity in staying by them until the young are ready to leave.

Some years ago we opened an old ore mine, where a pair of phœbe birds had placed their nest on a shelf a few feet overhead, a projecting rock protecting it from the flying stones of the blasts that were fired several times a day, and the men were working so near that they could almost touch it with their hands. These birds did not desert their nests until the young were old enough to leave. The site was not used the following year, as is usually the case with the phœbe bird.

No bird has insinuated himself into our affections more deeply than the bluebird. He charms us as he flits through the air like a painted arrow, reflecting the sunlight from the metallic luster of his wings, while he pours out his inspired song "in notes as sweet as angels' greetings when they meet." He comes to us before the unfolding of the first bud of spring, sings to us until our hills and mountains are covered with the richness of their summer verdure, and stays with us until this verdure is changed to all the beauty of its autumnal glory. I am very sorry, but I believe our bluebirds are gradually though steadily decreasing in numbers. Some years ago two pairs nested in our yard, one pair in a hole in an old apple tree and one pair in a box, but for several years these nesting places have been unoccupied, and I know of a number of other former nesting places that have been vacant for years.

Twenty years ago the wild pigeons were quite plentiful in the fall of the year in this part of our State, but each fall they came in decreasing numbers, and for the last four or five years I have not seen a single bird.

There is no sweeter songster than the shy hermit thrush, and I am much pleased in believing that his numbers are increasing. In former years they were not often heard; now, as our spring afternoons decline into twilight, his charming notes come to us from almost every suitable point.

For the first eight or ten years of my residence in Au Sable Forks I did not see a turtle dove, and now I see them nearly every summer.

Our American eagle is occasionally seen in the Adirondacks, and some years ago a large female golden eagle was caught in a steel trap near my home and came into my possession, where she occupied a slatted hencoop, and whenever curiosity led a hen to poke her bill through the slats her head was taken off very quickly. I was afraid that if I kept the eagle I would turn vivisectionist or become too cruel for a hunter, so I presented her to the Zoölogical Gardens in Central Park.

In birds of prey the female is the larger and finer bird, while the reverse is true with other birds; but there is a striking exception in the noble woodcock. No bird is held in higher appreciation by the sportsman, and a female woodcock in full plumage is as rich in coloring and as beautiful in marking as any bird I know. He lies well for the dog, is rare sport for the gunner, and has no equal for the palate. He nests in our alder thickets or on wet marshy ground, and around my home it is the work of a man to get him. He is nocturnal in his habits, feeding at night and pushing his long, slender bill into the soft ground, leaving holes that to the casual eye look like worm holes, but which are easily recognized by one familiar with his habits.

Cow blackbirds are common to this locality during the summers, and they are found in our pastures with the cattle. I have never found their eggs in the nests of other birds, but they are Mormonistic in their habits, one often having as many as a dozen wives, and I have known the crow blackbird to have more than one mate.

Some years ago an article went the rounds of the newspapers telling of a man catching a flock of crows by soaking corn in alcohol and leaving it for the crows to eat, and when they became drunk he caught them. I tried bread crumbs soaked in whisky on English sparrows, but they would not eat them, and I finally got a crow, and though I kept him until he was very hungry I could not get him to eat corn soaked in whisky, and he found no difficulty in picking up every unsoaked kernel and leaving the others. You may draw your own moral, but I am satisfied that the crow will not eat food saturated with alcohol. He is either too uncivilized or too intelligent.

Orioles and other birds sometimes give us much annoyance by eating the green peas from our gardens, and, except in the case of English sparrows, we do not like to shoot them. I once killed a hawk and roughly stuffed it with straw, putting it on a pole near my pea vine, where the birds collected in numbers to scold and peck at it, but they were afraid to touch the peas, and finally left mine for those of my neighbors across the street.

The Acadian owl is a pretty, cunning-looking little bird, not much larger than a robin. He is the smallest of our owls and quite tame, and is not often seen around my home. Some two years ago, while hunting with my brother we saw one of these little birds on the limb of a tree not far from the ground, and we concluded to try and snare him. We cut a long pole and made a slip noose with a shoe string, and while my brother kept the owl's attention by standing in front of him I slipped the noose over his head from behind. When we had the owl we wanted to tie him, and since we could not spare the shoe string for that purpose, my brother decided to tie him with his watch chain. He snapped the catch around one leg, and while trying to fasten the other leg the owl made a flutter and got loose, and the last we saw of him he was sailing over the tops of the trees with the watch chain hanging to his leg.

I have always taken an interest in birds because I have loved them, but it does not follow that I know much about them. Some one said that the more we know men the less we love them, but that man was an old cynic and doubtless told an untruth. Certain it is that the more we know our native birds the more we love them, and it is one of the encouraging signs of the day that it has become fashionable for young people to take an increasing interest in the birds and wild flowers of their own country, and a young person would hardly be considered accomplished to-day who is entirely ignorant of at least the common names of the flowers that bloom in our fields and woods and the birds that pour out their ecstatic music from our trees and hedges.

Herbert Spencer's work on Education has been translated into Sanskrit by Mr. H. Soobba Row, who gives as his reason for publishing a version in an "unspoken" language that the pundits, for whom the version is primarily intended, "can more easily appreciate the ideas conveyed in Sanskrit than perhaps in any other vernacular."