The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 1/Number 2/Our Birds, and Their Ways

The Atlantic Monthly  (1857) 
Our Birds, and Their Ways


Among our summer birds, the vast majority are but transient visitors, born and bred far to the northward, and returning thither every year. The North, then, is their proper domicile, their legal "place of residence," which they have never renounced, but only temporarily desert, for special reasons. Their sojourn with us, or farther south, is merely an exile by stress of climate, like the flitting of the Southern planters from the rice-fields to the mountains in summer, or the pleasure tour or watering-place visit customary with the citizens of Boston and New York.

The lower orders, such as the humming-bird with his insect-like stomach and sucking-tube, and so on up through the warblers and flycatchers, more strictly bound by the necessities of their life, closely follow the sun,—while the upper-ten-thousand, the robins, cedar-birds, sparrows, etc., like man, omnivorous in their diet and their attendant chevaliers d'industrie, the rapacious birds, allow themselves greater latitude, and go and come occasionally at all seasons, though in general tending to the south in winter and north in summer. But precedence before all is due to permanent residents, with whom our intercourse is not of this transitory and fair-weather sort. Such are the crow, the blue jay, the chickadee, the partridge, and the quail, who may be called regular inhabitants, though perhaps all of them wander occasionally from one district to another. Besides these, perhaps some of the hawks and owls remain here throughout the year. But the species I have named are the only ones that occur to me as equally numerous at all seasons in the immediate vicinity of Boston, and never out of town, whether you take the census in May or in January.

In spite of our uninterrupted acquaintance with them, however, there are still many of the nearest questions concerning these birds for which I find no sufficient answers. Even to the first question—How do they get their living?—there are only vague replies in the books.

There is the crow, for example. I have seen crows in the neighborhood of Boston every week of the year, and in not very different numbers. My friend the ornithologist said to me last winter, "You will see that they will be off as soon as the ground is well covered with snow." But on the contrary, when the snow came, and after it had lain deep on the fields for many days, I saw more than before,—probably because they found it easier to get food in the neighborhood of the houses and cultivated grounds.

A crow must require certainly half a pound of animal food, or its equivalent, daily, in order to keep from starving. Yet they not only do not starve that I hear of, but seem to keep in as good case in winter as in summer, though what they find to eat is not immediately apparent. The vague traditional suggestion of "carrion," as of dead horses and the like, does not help us much. Some scraps doubtless may be left lying about, but any reliable stores of this kind are hardly to be looked for in this neighborhood. A few scattered kernels of corn, perhaps on a pinch a few berries, he may pick up; though I suspect the crow is somewhat human in his tastes, and, besides animal food, affects only the cereals. The frogs are deep in the mud. Now and then a squirrel or a mouse may be had; but they are mostly dozing in their holes. As for larger game, rabbits and the like, the crow is hardly nimble enough for them, nor are his claws well adapted for seizing; anything of this kind he will scarcely get, except as the leavings of the weasel or skunk. These he will not refuse; for though he is of a different species from the carrion crow of Europe, with whom he was formerly confounded, yet he is of similar, though perhaps less extreme, tastes as to his food. But when the ground is freshly covered with snow, all supplies of this sort would seem to be cut off, for the time at least. Yet who ever found a starved crow, or even saw one driven by hunger from any of his accustomed caution? He is ever the same alert, vivacious, harsh-tongued wanderer over the white fields as over the summer meadows.

A partial solution of the mystery is to be found in the habit which the bird has in common with most of the crow kind, of depositing any surplus food in a place of safety for future use. A tame crow that I saw last year was constantly employed in this way. As soon as his hunger was satisfied, if a piece of meat was given to him, he flew off to some remote spot, and there covered it up with twigs and leaves. I was told that the woods were full of these caches of his. Bits of bread and the like he was too well-fed to care much about, but he would generally go through the form of covering them, at your very feet, with a little rubbish, not taking the trouble to hide them. Meanwhile his hunting went on as if he still had his living to get, and he would watch for field-mice, or come flying in from the woods with a squirrel swinging from his claws, either for variety's sake, or because he had really forgotten the stores he had laid up. Scattered magazines of this kind, established in times of accidental plenty, may render life during our winters possible to the crow.

But why should he give himself so much trouble to subsist here, when a few hours' work with those broad wings would bear him to a land of tropical abundance? The crow, it seems, is not a mere eating and drinking machine, drawn hither and thither by the balance of supply and demand, but has his motives of another sort. Is it, perhaps, some local attachment, so that a crow hatched in Brookline, for example, would be more loath than another to quit that neighborhood,—a sort of crow patriotism, akin to that which keeps the Greenlanders slowly starving of cold and hunger on that awful coast of theirs.

It is not probable, however, that the crow allows himself to suffer much from these causes; he is far too knowing for that, and shows his position at the head of the bird kind by an almost total emancipation from scruples and prejudices, and by the facility with which he adapts himself to special cases. Instinct works by formulas, which, as it were, make up the animal, so that the ant and the bee are atoms of incarnate constructiveness and acquisitiveness, and nothing else. And as intelligence, when its action is too narrowly concentrated, whether upon pin-making or money-making, tends to degenerate into mere instinct,—-so instinct, when it begins to compare, and to except, and to vary its action according to circumstances, shows itself in the act of passing into intelligence. This marks the superiority of the crow over birds it often resembles in its actions. Most birds are wary. The crow is wary, and something more. Other shy birds, for instance ducks, avoid every strange object. The crow considers whether there be anything dangerous in the strangeness. An ordinary scarecrow will not keep our crow from anything worth a little risk. He fathoms the scarecrow, compares its behavior, under various circumstances, with that of the usual wearer of its garments, and decides to take the risk. To protect his corn, the farmer takes advantage of this very discursiveness, and stretches round the field a simple line, nothing in itself, but hinting at some undeveloped mischief which the bird cannot penetrate.

Again, the crow is sometimes looked upon as a mere marauder; but this description also is much too narrow for him. He is anxious only for his dinner, and swallows seed-corn and noxious grubs with perfect impartiality. He is not a mere pirate, living by plunder alone, but rather like the old Phoenician sea-farer, indifferently honest or robber as occasion serves,—and robber not from fierceness of disposition, but merely from utter unscrupulousness as to means.

This is shown in his docility. A hawk or an eagle is never tamed, but a crow is more easily and completely tamable than the gentlest singing-bird. The one I have just spoken of, though hardly six months from the nest, would allow himself to be handled by his owner, and would suffer even a stranger to touch him. When I first came near the house, he greeted me with a suppressed caw, and flew along some hundred yards just over my head, looking down, first with one eye and then with the other, to get a complete view of the stranger. Next morning I became aware, when but half awake, of a sort of mewing sound in the neighborhood, and at last looking around, I saw through the window, which opened to the floor, my new acquaintance perched on the porch roof, which was at the same level, turning his head from side to side, and eyeing me through the glass with divers queer contortions and gesticulations, reminding me of some odd, old, dried-up French dancing-master, and with a varied succession of croakings, now high, now low, evidently bent upon attracting my attention. When he had succeeded, he flew off with loud, joyous caws to the top of the house, where I heard him rolling nuts or acorns from the ridge, and flying to catch them before they fell off.

Their independence of seasons is shown also in their habit of associating in about equal numbers throughout the year. In the spring the flocks are more noticeable, hovering about some grove of pines, flying straight up in the air and swooping down again with an uninterrupted cawing,—seemingly a sort of crow ball, with a view to match-making. Afterwards they become more silent, and apparently more solitary, but still fly out to their feeding-grounds morning and evening; and if you sit down in the woods near one of their nests, the uneasy choking chuckle, ending at last in the outright cawing of the disturbed owner, will generally be answered from every point, and crow after crow come edging up from tree to tree to see what is the matter.

Though all of the crow tribe are notorious for their harsh voices, yet if the power of mimicry be considered as a mark of superiority, the crow has claims to high rank in this department also. The closest imitators of the human voice are birds of this family: for instance, the Mino bird. Our crow also is a vocal mimic, and that not in the matter-of-course way of the mocking-bird, but, as it were, more individual and spontaneous. He is not merely an imitator of the human voice, like the parrots, (and a better one as regards tone,) nor of other birds, like the thrushes, but combines both. The tame crow already mentioned very readily undertook extempore imitations of words, and with considerable success. I once heard a crow imitate the warbling of a small bird, in a tone so entirely at variance with his ordinary voice, that, though assured by one who had heard him before, that it was a crow and nothing else, it was only on the clearest proof that I could satisfy myself of the fact. It seemed to be quite an original and individual performance.

The blue jay is a near relative of the crow, and, like him, omnivorous, harsh-voiced, predaceous, a robber of birds' nests; so that if you hear the robins during their nesting-time making an unusual clamor about the house, the chances are you will get a glimpse of this brilliant marauder, sneaking away with a troop of them in pursuit. His usual voice is a harsh scream, but he has some low flute-like notes not without melody. The presence of a hawk, or more particularly an owl in the woods, is often made known by the screaming of the jays, who flock together about him with ever-increasing noise, like a troop of jackals about a lion, pressing in upon him closer and closer in a paroxysm of excitement, while the owl, thus taken at disadvantage, sidles along his bough seeking concealment, and at length softly flaps off to some more undisturbed retreat.

The blue jay is a shy bird, but he is enough of a crow to take a risk where anything is to be had for it, and in winter will come close to the house for food. In his choice of a nesting-place he seems at first sight to show less than his usual caution; for, though the nest is a very conspicuous one, it is generally made in a pine sapling not far from the ground, and often on a path or other opening in the woods. But perhaps, in the somewhat remote situations where he builds, the danger is less from below than from birds of prey sailing overhead. I once found a blue jay's nest on a path in the woods somewhat frequented by me, but not often trodden by any one else, and passed it twice on different days, and saw the bird sitting, but took some pains not to alarm her. The next time, and the next, she was not there; and on examination I found the nest empty, though with no marks of having been robbed. There was not time for the eggs to have hatched, and it was plain, that, finding herself observed, she had carried them off.

As a general thing, the severity of our winters does not seem much to affect the birds that stay with us. I have found chickadees and some of the smaller sparrows apparently frozen to death, but the extravasation of blood usual in such cases leaves us in doubt whether some accident may not have first disabled the bird; and if dead birds are more often found in winter than in summer, it may be only that the body keeps longer, and, from the absence of grass and leaves, and the white covering of the ground, is more readily seen. At all events, such specimens are not usually emaciated, and sometimes they are in remarkably good case, which, considering the rapid circulation and the corresponding waste of the body, shows that the cold had not affected their activity and their power of obtaining food.

The truth is, that birds are remarkably well guarded against cold by their quick circulation, their dense covering of down and feathers, and the ease with which they can protect their extremities. The chickadee is never so lively as in clear, cold weather;—not that he is absolutely insensible to cold; for on those days, rare in this neighborhood, when the mercury falls to fifteen degrees or more below zero, the chickadee shows by his behavior that he, too, feels it to be an exceptional state of things. Of such a morning I have seen a small flock of them collected on the sunny side of a thick hemlock, rather silent and quiet, with ruffled plumage, like balls of gray fur, waiting, with an occasional chirp, for the sun's rays to begin to warm them up, and meanwhile not depressed, but only a little sobered in their deportment, and ready, if the cold continued, to get used to that too.

The matter of food-supply during the winter for the smaller birds is more easily understood than in the case of the crow. The seeds of grasses and the taller summer flowers, and of the birches, alders, and maples, furnish supplies that are not interfered with by cold or snow; also the buds of various trees and shrubs,—for the buds do not first come into existence in the spring, as our city friends suppose, but are to be found all winter. Nor is insect-life suspended at this season to the extent that a careless observer might suppose. A sunny, sheltered nook, at any time during the winter, will show you a variety of two-winged flies, and several species of spiders, often in considerable abundance, and as brisk as ever. And the numbers of eggs, and larvae, and of the lurking tenants of crevices in tree-bark and dead wood, may be guessed by the incessant and assuredly not aimless activity of the chickadees and gold-crests and their associates.

This winter activity of the birds ought to be taken into account by those who accuse them of mischief-doing in summer. In winter, at least, no mischief can be done; there is no fruit to steal; and even sap-sucking, if such a practice at any time be not altogether fabulous, certainly cannot be carried on now. Nothing can be destroyed now except the farmer's enemies, or at best neutrals. Yet the birds keep at work all the time.

The only bird that occurs to me as a proved sufferer from famine in the winter is the quail. This is the most limited in its range of all our birds. Not only does it not migrate, (or only exceptionally,) but it does not even wander much,—the same covey keeping all the year, and even year after year, to the same feeding-ground. Nor does it ever seek its food upon trees, like the partridge, but solely upon the ground.

The quail is our nearest representative of the common barn-yard fowl. This it resembles in many respects, and among others, in its habit of going a-foot, except when the covey crosses from one feeding or roosting ground to another, or when the cock-bird mounts upon a rail-fence or stone-wall to sound his call in the spring. This persistence exposes the quail to hardship when the ground is covered with snow, and the fruit of the skunk-cabbage and all the berries and grain are inaccessible. He takes refuge at such times in the smilax-thickets, whose dense, matted covering leaves an open feeding-ground below. But a snowy winter always tells upon their numbers in any neighborhood. Whole coveys are said to have been found dead, frozen stiff, under the bush where they had huddled together for warmth; and even before this extremity, their hardships lay them open to their enemies, and the fox and the weasel, and the farmer's boy with his box-trap, destroy them by wholesale. The deep snows of 1856 and 1857 have nearly exterminated them hereabouts; and I was told at Vergennes, in Vermont, that there were quails there many years ago, but that they had now entirely disappeared.

The appearance and disappearance of species within our experience teach us that Nature's lists are not filled once for all, but that the changes which geology shows in past ages continue into the present. Sometimes we can trace the immediate cause, or rather occasion, as in the case of the quail's congeners, the pinnated grouse, and the wild turkey, both of them inhabitants of all parts of the State in the early times. The pinnated grouse has been seen near Boston within the present century, but is now exterminated, I believe, except in Martha's Vineyard. The wild turkey was to be found not long since in Berkshire, but probably it has become extinct there too. Sometimes, for no reason that we can see, certain species forsake their old abodes, as the purple martin, which within the last quarter-century has receded some twenty miles from the seaboard,—or appear where they were before unknown, as the cliff swallow, which was first seen in the neighborhood of the Rocky Mountains, but within about the same space of time has become as common hereabouts as any of the genus. In examples so conspicuous the movement is obvious enough; but in the case of rarer species, for instance, the olive-sided flycatcher, who can tell whether, when first observed, it was new to naturalists merely, or to this part of the country, or to the earth generally? The distinction sometimes made in such cases between accidental influences and the regular course of nature is a superficial one. The regular course of nature is in itself a series of accidental influences; that is, the particular occasion is subservient to a general law with which it does not seem at first sight to have any connection. A severe winter may be sufficient to kill the quails, just as the ancient morass was sufficient to drown the mastodon. But the question is, why these causes began to operate just at these times. We may as well stop with the evident fact, that the unresting circulation is forever going on in the universe.

But if the quail, who is here very near his northern limits, has a hard time of it in the winter, and is threatened with such "removal" as we treat the Indians to, his relative, the partridge, our other gallinaceous or hen-like bird, is of a tougher fibre, as you see when you come upon his star-like tracks across the path, eight or nine inches apart, and struck sharp and deep in the snow, or closer together among the bushes, where he stretched up for barberries or buds, and ending on either side with a series of fine parallel cuts, where the sharp-pointed quills struck the snow as he rose,—a picture of vigor and success. He knows how to take care of himself, and to find both food and shelter in the evergreens, when the snow lies fresh upon the ground. There, in some sunny glade among the pines, he will ensconce himself in the thickest branches, and whir off as you come near, sailing down the opening with his body balancing from side to side.

The partridge is altogether a wilder and more solitary bird than the quail, and does not frequent cultivated fields, nor make his nest in the orchard, as the quail does, but prefers the shelf of some rocky ledge under the shadow of the pines in remote woods. He is one of the few birds found in the forest; for it is a mistake to suppose that birds abound in the forest, or avoid the neighborhood of man. On the contrary, you may pass days and weeks in our northern woods without seeing more than half a dozen species, of which the partridge is pretty sure to be one. All birds increase in numbers about settlements,—even the crow, though he is a forest bird too. Hence, no doubt, has arisen the notion that the crow (supposed to be of the same species with the European) made his appearance in this country first on the Atlantic coast, and gradually spread westward, passing through the State of New York about the time of the Revolution. I was told some years since by a resident of Chicago, that the quails had increased eight-fold in that vicinity since he came there. The fact is, that the bird population, like the human, in the absence of counteracting causes, will continue to expand in precise ratio to the supply of food. The partridge goes farther north than the quail, and is found throughout the United States. With us he affects high and rocky ground, but northward he keeps at a lower level. At the White Mountains, the regions of this species and of the Canada grouse or spruce partridge are as well defined in height as those of the maples and the "black growth." Still farther north I have observed that our partridge frequents the lowest marshy ground, thus equalizing his climate in every latitude.

There are few of our land-birds that flock together in summer, and few that are solitary in winter,—none that I recollect, except birds of prey. And not only do birds of the same kind associate, but certain species are almost always found together. Thus, the chickadee, the golden-crested wren, the white-breasted nuthatch, and, less constantly, the brown creeper and the downy woodpecker, form a little winter clique, of which you do not often see one of the members without one or more of the others. No sound in nature more cheery and refreshing than the alternating calls of a little troop of this kind echoing through the glades of the woods on a still, sunny day in winter: the vivacious chatter of the chickadee, the slender, contented pipe of the gold-crest, and the emphatic, business-like hank of the nuthatch, as they drift leisurely along from tree to tree. The winter seems to be the season of holiday enjoyment to the chickadee, and he is never so evidently and conspicuously contented as in very cold weather. In summer he withdraws to the thickets, and becomes less noisy and active. His plumage becomes dull, and his brisk note changes to a fine, delicate pēē-pĕ-wy, or oftenest a mere whisper. They are so much less noticeable at this season that one might suppose they had followed their gold-crest companions to the North, as some of them doubtless do, but their nests are not uncommon with us. Fearless as the chickadee is in winter,—so fearless, that, if you stand still, he will alight upon your head or shoulder,—in summer he becomes cautious about his nest, and will desert it, if much watched. They build here, generally, in a partly decayed white-birch or apple-tree, excavating a hole eighteen inches or two feet deep,—the chips being carefully carried off a short distance, so as not to betray the workman,—and lining the bottom of it with a felting of soft materials, generally rabbits' fur, of which I have taken from one hole as much as could be conveniently grasped with the hand.

Besides the species that we regularly count upon in winter, there are more or less irregular visitors at this season, some of them summer birds also,—as the purple finch, cedar-bird, gold-finch, robin, the flicker, or pigeon woodpecker, and the yellow-bellied and hairy woodpeckers. Others, again, linger on from the autumn, and sometimes through the winter,—as the snow-bird, song-sparrow, tree-sparrow. Still others are seen only in winter,—as the brown and shore larks, the crossbills, redpolls, snow-buntings, pine grosbeak, and some of the hawks and owls; and of these some are merely accidental,—as the pine grosbeak, which in 1836 appeared here in great numbers in October, and remained until May. This beautiful and gentle bird (a sweet songster too) is doubtless a permanent resident within the United States, for I have seen them at the White Mountains in August. What impels them to these occasional wanderings it is difficult to guess; it is obviously not mere stress of weather; for in 1836, as I have remarked, they came early in autumn and continued resident until late in the spring; and their food, being mainly the buds of resinous trees, must have been as easy to get elsewhere as here. Their coming, like the crow's staying, is a mystery to us.

I have spoken only of the land-birds; but the position of our city, so embraced by the sea, affords unusual opportunities for observing the sea-birds also. All winter long, from the most crowded thoroughfares of the city, any one, who has leisure enough to raise his eyes over the level of the roofs to the tranquil air above, may see the gulls passing to and fro between the harbor and the flats at the mouth of Charles River. The gulls, and particularly that cosmopolite, the herring gull, are met with in this neighborhood throughout the year, though in summer most of them go farther north to breed. On a still, sunny day in winter, you may see them high in the air over the river, calmly soaring in wide circles, a hundred perhaps at a time, or pluming themselves leisurely on the edge of a hole in the ice. When the wind is violent from the west, they come in over the city from the bay outside, strong-winged and undaunted, breasting the gale, now high, now low, but always working to windward, until they reach the shelter of the inland waters.

In the spring they come in greater numbers, and other species arrive: the great saddle-back, from the similarity of coloring almost to be mistaken for the white-headed eagle, as he sits among the broken ice at the edge of the channel; and the beautiful little Bonaparte's gull.

The ducks, too, still resort to our rivermouth, in spite of the railroads and the tall chimneys by which their old feeding-grounds are surrounded. As long as the channel is open, you may see the golden-eyes, or "whistlers," in extended lines, visible only as a row of bright specks, as their white breasts rise and fall on the waves; and farther than you can see them, you may hear the whistle of their wings as they rise. Spring and fall the "black ducks" still come to find the brackish waters which they like, and to fill their crops with the seeds of the eel-grass and the mixed food of the flats. In the late twilight you may sometimes catch sight of a flock speeding in, silent and swift, over the Mill-dam, or hear their sonorous quacking from their feeding-ground.

At least, these things were,—and not long since,—though I cannot answer for a year or two back. The birds long retain the tradition of the old places, and strive to keep their hold upon them; but we are building them out year by year. The memory is still fresh of flocks of teal by the "Green Stores" on the Neck; but the teal and the "Stores" are gone, and perhaps the last black duck has quacked on the river, and the last whistler taken his final flight. Some of us, who are not yet old men, have killed "brown-backs" and "yellow-legs" on the marshes that lie along to the west and south of the city, now cut up by the railroads; and you may yet see from the cars an occasional long-booted individual, whose hopes still live on the tales of the past, stalking through the sedge with "superfluous gun," or patiently watching his troop of one-legged wooden decoys.

The sea keeps its own climate, and keeps its highways open, after all on the land is shut up by frost. The sea-birds, accordingly, seem to lead an existence more independent of latitude and of seasons. In midwinter, when the seashore watering-places are forsaken by men, you may find Nahant or Nantasket Beach more thronged with bipeds of this sort than by the featherless kind in summer. The Long Beach of Nahant at that season is lined sometimes by an almost continuous flock of sea-ducks, and a constant passing and repassing are kept up between Lynn Bay and the surf outside.

Early of a winter's morning at Nantasket I once saw a flock of geese, many hundreds in number, coming in from the Bay to cross the land in their line of migration. They advanced with a vast, irregular front extending far along the horizon, their multitudinous honking softened into music by the distance. As they neared the beach the clamor increased and the line broke up in apparent confusion, circling round and round for some minutes in what seemed aimless uncertainty. Gradually the cloud of birds resolved itself into a number of open triangles, each of which with its deeper-voiced leader took its way inland; as if they trusted to their general sense of direction while flying over the water, but on coming to encounter the dangers of the land, preferred to delegate the responsibility. This done, all is left to the leader; if he is shot, it is said the whole flock seem bewildered, and often alight without regard to place or to their safety. The selection of the leader must therefore be a matter of deliberation with them; and this, no doubt, was going on in the flock I saw at Nantasket during their pause at the edge of the beach. The leader is probably always an old bird. I have noticed sometimes that his honking is more steady and in a deeper tone, and that it is answered in a higher key along the line.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.