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the hard, rapid, rattling notes of our Kingsfisher, even amongst the
murmuring cascades of our higher mountains. When the bird is found in
such sequestered situations, well may the angler be assured that trout
is abundant. Mill-ponds are also favourite resorts of the Kingsfisher,
the usual calmness of the water in such places permitting it to discover
its prey with ease. As the freshets are proportionally less felt on the
adjoining shores, the holes dug in the earth or sand by this species, in
which it deposits its eggs, are generally found in places not far from
a mill worked by water.

I have laid open to my view several of these holes, in different
situations and soils, and have generally found them to be formed as
follows. The male and female, after having fixed upon a proper spot, are
seen clinging to the bank of the stream in the manner of Woodpeckers.
Their long and stout bills are set to work, and as soon as the hole has
acquired a certain depth, one of the birds enters it, and scratches out
the sand, earth or clay, with its feet, striking meanwhile with its bill
to extend the depth. The other bird all the while appears to cheer the
labourer, and urge it to continue its exertions; and, when the latter is
fatigued, takes its place. Thus, by the co-operation of both, the hole is
dug to the depth of four, five, or sometimes six feet, in a horizontal
direction, at times not more than eighteen inches below the surface of
the ground, at others eight or ten feet. At the Chicasaw Bluffs, on the
Mississippi, I have seen some of these holes more than fifty feet below
the surface, but generally beyond reach of the highest freshets. The
hole is just large enough to admit the passage of a single bird at a
time. The end is rounded and finished in the form of a common oven, to
allow the pair or the whole brood to turn round in it at ease. Here, on a
few sticks and feathers, the eggs are deposited to the number generally
of six. They are pure white. Incubation continues for sixteen days. In
the Middle States, these birds seldom raise more than one brood in the
year, but in the southern usually two. Incubation is performed by both
parents, which evince great solicitude for the safety of their young.
The mother sometimes drops on the water, as if severely wounded, and
flutters and flounders as if unable to rise from the stream, in order to
induce the intruder to wade or swim after her, whilst her mate, perched
on the nearest bough, or even on the edge of the bank, jerks his tail,
erects his crest, rattles his notes with angry vehemence, and then
springing off, passes and repasses before the enemy, with a continued
cry of despair.

I have not been able to ascertain whether or not the young are fed with
macerated food disgorged by the parents into their bills, but I have
reason to think so, and I have always observed the old ones to swallow
the fishes which they had caught, before they entered the hole. The
young are, however, afterwards fed directly on the entire fish; and I
have frequently seen them follow the parent birds, and alight on the
same branch, flapping their wings, and calling with open bill for the
food just taken out of the water, when the petition was seldom denied.

The Kingsfisher resorts to the same hole, to breed and roost, for many
years in succession. On one occasion, when I attempted two evenings to
seize one of these birds, long after night had closed, I tried in vain
the first time. I fitted a small net bag to the entrance, and returned
home. Next morning the bird had scratched a passage under the net, and
thus escaped. The following evening I saw it enter the hole, and having
procured a stick that filled the entrance for upwards of a foot, I felt
certain of obtaining it; but before I reached the place next day, it
had worked its way out. After this, I abandoned my attempt, although
the bird continued to repose in the same hole.

No superstitious notions exist in the United States respecting this
species. The flesh is extremely fishy, oily, and disagreeable to the
taste. On the contrary, the eggs are fine eating.

I was ready to put my pen aside, kind reader, when, on consulting my
journals, all of which are now at hand, I happened to read, that I have
seen instances of this bird's plunging into the sea after small fry,
at Powles Hook, in the bay opposite to the City of New York. I am not
aware that this is a common occurrence.

ALCEDO ALCYON, _Linn._ Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 180.—_Lath._ Ind.
Ornith. vol. i. p, 257.—_Ch. Bonaparte_, Synops. of Birds of
the United States, p. 48.

BELTED KINGSFISHER, _Lath._ Synops. vol. ii. p. 637.—_Wils._
Amer. Ornith. vol. iii. p. 59, Pl. 23, fig. 1.

Adult Male. Plate LXXVII. Fig. 1, 2.

Bill long, straight, tetragonal, tapering to an acute point, compressed
towards the end; upper mandible keeled, with the dorsal line straight, the
edges overlapping; lower mandible with the dorsal line slightly convex,
the tip ascending; gap-line extending to beneath the eyes. Nostrils basal,
dorsal, oblong, oblique, half-closed by a bare membrane. Head large,
neck short, body robust. Feet very short; tarsus roundish, anteriorly
scutellate, half the length of the middle toe; outer and middle toes
nearly equal, inner much shorter, hind toe small; claws rather strong,
arched, acute, channelled beneath.

Plumage compact. Feathers of the head long, narrow, rather loose, pointed,
and erectile, in the form of a longitudinal crest, of which the anterior
feathers are longest. Wings longish, the third primary longest. Tail
short, even, of twelve broad rounded feathers.

Bill brownish-black, light greenish-blue at the base. Iris hazel. Feet
greyish-blue; claws black. Head, cheeks, hind neck and upper parts,
generally light blue, the shaft of each feather blackish. A white spot
before the eye, and a slight streak of the same colour on the under
eyelid. Quills brownish-black, the base of the primaries barred with
white, the secondaries blue on the outer web. Two middle tail-feathers
blue, as are the outer edges of the rest, excepting the outermost; all,
excepting the two middle ones, brownish-black, barred with white. A broad
band of white across the neck, broader anteriorly and including the chin
and throat. A band of blue across the fore part of the breast. The rest
of the under parts white, excepting the sides, which are mottled with

Length 12½ inches, extent of wings 20; bill along the ridge 2, along
the gap 2½; tarsus ½, middle toe 1-1/12.

Adult Female. Plate LXXVII. Fig. 3.

The blue of the female is much duller. The band on the upper part of
the breast is of dull greyish blue and light red intermixed; below this
is a narrow band of white, and across the middle of the breast a broad
band of yellowish-red, of which colour also are the sides. The rest of
the under parts are white, tinged with red.




Permit me to suggest, kind reader, that I think it always best to see
and judge of individuals in their own country. There independence and
ease are more commonly met with, and the observer is less attended to.
This being admitted, I shall give you the history and life of the Great
Carolina Wren, as studied in the State of Louisiana, where that bird is
a constant resident.

Its flight is performed by short flappings of the wings, the concave
under surfaces of which occasion a low rustling, as the bird moves to
the distance of a few steps only at each start. It is accompanied by
violent jerks of the tail and body, and is by no means graceful. In this
manner the Carolina Wren moves from one fence-rail to another, from log
to log, up and down among the low branches of bushes, piles of wood, and
decayed roots of prostrate trees, or between the stalks of canes. Its
tail is almost constantly erect, and before it starts to make the least
flight or leap, it uses a quick motion, which brings its body almost
into contact with the object on which it stands, and then springs from
its legs. All this is accompanied with a strong _chirr-up_, uttered as
if the bird were in an angry mood, and repeated at short intervals.

The quickness of the motions of this active little bird is fully equal
to that of the mouse. Like the latter it appears and is out of sight
in a moment, peeps into a crevice, passes rapidly through it, and shews
itself at a different place the next instant. When satiated with food,
or fatigued with these multiplied exertions, the little fellow stops,
droops its tail, and sings with great energy a short ditty something
resembling the words _come-to-me, come-to-me_, repeated several times
in quick succession, so loud, and yet so mellow, that it is always
agreeable to listen to them. During spring, these notes are heard from
all parts of the plantations, the damp woods, the swamps, the sides
of creeks and rivers, as well as from the barns, the stables and the
piles of wood, within a few yards of the house. I have frequently heard
these Wrens singing from the roof of an abandoned flat-boat, fastened
to the shore, a small distance below the city of New Orleans. When its
song was finished, the bird went on creeping from one board to another,
thrust itself through an auger-hole, entered through the boat's side
at one place, and peeped out at another, catching numerous spiders and
other insects all the while. It sometimes ascends to the higher branches
of a tree of moderate size, by climbing along a grape-vine, searching
diligently amongst the leaves and in the chinks of the bark, alighting
sidewise against the trunk, and moving like a true Creeper. It possesses
the power of creeping and of hopping in a nearly equal degree. The latter
kind of motion it employs when nearer the ground, and among piles of
drifted timber. So fond is this bird of the immediate neighbourhood of
water, that it would be next to impossible to walk along the shore of
any of the islands of the Mississippi, from the mouth of the Ohio to
New Orleans, without observing several on each island.

Amongst the many species of insects which they destroy, several are of
an aquatic nature, and are procured by them whilst creeping about the
masses of drifted wood. Their _chirr-up_ and _come-to-me come-to-me_
seldom cease for more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a time, commencing
with the first glimpse of day, and continuing sometimes after sunset.

The nest of the Carolina Wren is usually placed in a hole in some low
decayed tree, or in a fence-stake, sometimes even in the stable, barn or
coach-house, should it there find a place suitable for its reception.
I have found some not more than two feet from the ground, in the stump
of a tree that had long before been felled by the axe. The materials
employed in its construction are hay, grasses, leaves, feathers, and
horse-hair, or the dry fibres of the Spanish moss; the feathers, hair
or moss forming the lining, the coarse materials the outer parts. When
the hole is sufficiently large, the nest is not unfrequently five or
six inches in depth, although only just wide enough to admit one of the
birds at a time. The number of eggs is from five to eight. They are of a
broad oval form, greyish-white, sprinkled with reddish-brown. Whilst at
Oakley, the residence of my friend JAMES PERRIE, Esq. near Bayou Sara,
I discovered that one of these birds was in the habit of roosting in a
Wood Thrush's nest that was placed on a low horizontal branch, and had
been filled with leaves that had fallen during the autumn. It was in the
habit of thrusting his body beneath the leaves, and I doubt not found
the place very comfortable.

They usually raise two, sometimes three broods in a season. The young
soon come out from the nest, and in a few days after creep and hop about
with as much nimbleness as the old ones. Their plumage undergoes no
change, merely becoming firmer in the colouring.

Many of these birds are destroyed by Weasels and Minxes. It is,
notwithstanding, one of the most common birds which we have as resident
in Louisiana. They ascend along the shores of the Mississippi as high as
the Missouri River, and along the Ohio nearly to Pittsburgh, although
they do not occur in great numbers in the neighbourhood of that city.
They are common in Georgia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.
A few are to be seen along the Atlantic shores as far as Pennsylvania
and New Jersey. In the latter State I have found its nest, near a swamp,
a few miles from Philadelphia. I never observed them farther to the

The Dwarf Buck-eye, on a blossomed twig of which you observe a pair
of Great Carolina Wrens, is by nature as well as name a low shrub. It
grows near swampy ground in great abundance. Its flowers, which are
scentless, are much resorted to by the Humming Birds, on their first
arrival, as they appear at a very early season. The wood resembles that
of the Common Horse-chestnut, and its fruit is nearly the same in form
and colour, but much smaller. I know of no valuable property possessed
by this beautiful shrub.

TROGLODYTES LUDOVICIANUS, _Ch. Bonaparte_, Synops. of Birds
of the United States, p. 93.

SYLVIA LUDOVICIANA, _Lath._ Ind. Ornith. vol. ii. p. 548.

vol. ii. p. 61, Pl. 12, fig. 5.

Adult Male. Plate LXXVIII. Fig. 1.

Bill nearly as long as the head, subulato-conical, slightly arched,
compressed towards the tip; upper mandible with the sides convex towards
the end, concave at the base, the edges acute and overlapping; under
mandible with the back and sides convex. Nostrils oblong, straight,
basal, with a cartilaginous lid above, open and bare. Head oblong, neck
of ordinary size, body ovate. Legs of ordinary length; tarsus longer
than the middle toe, compressed, anteriorly scutate, posteriorly edged;
toes, scutellate above, inferiorly granulate; second and fourth nearly
equal, the hind toe almost as long as the middle one, third and fourth
united as far as the second joint; claws long, slender, acute, arcuate,
much compressed.

Plumage soft, lax, and tufty. Wings short, very convex, broad and rounded,
the first quill very short, the fourth longest. Tail rather long, curved
downwards, much rounded, of twelve narrowish, rounded feathers.

Bill wood-brown above, bluish beneath. Iris hazel. Legs flesh-colour.
The general colour of the upper part is brownish-red. A yellowish-white
streak over the eye, extending far down the neck, and edged above with
dark brown. Quills, coverts and tail barred with blackish-brown; secondary
and middle coverts tipped with white; shafts of the scapulars white.
Throat greyish-white, under parts reddish-buff, paler behind. Under
tail-coverts white, barred with blackish.

Length 5½ inches, extent of wings 7½; bill along the ridge 5/4, along
the gap 11/12; tarsus ⅚.

Adult Female. Plate LXXVIII. Fig. 2.

The female differs from the male in being lighter above, tinged with
grey beneath, and in wanting the white tips of the wing-coverts.

This species and the Marsh Wren form the transition from Troglodytes to
Certhia, resembling the former in habits and colouring, and the latter
in the form of the bill, as well as partly in habits.


ÆSCULUS PAVIA, _Willd._ Sp. Pl. vol. ii. p. 286. _Pursh_, Fl.
Amer. vol. ii. p. 254.—HEPTANDRIA MONOGYNIA, _Linn._ ACERA,

Leaves quinate, smooth, unequally serrated; racemes lax; generally with
ternate flowers; corollas tetrapetalous, their connivent claws of the
length of the calyx; stamens seven, shorter than the corolla. The flowers
are scarlet.




The Tyrant Fly-catcher, or, as it is commonly named, the Field Martin,
or King Bird, is one of the most interesting visitors of the United
States, where it is to be found during spring and summer, and where,
were its good qualities appreciated as they deserve to be, it would
remain unmolested. But man being generally disposed to consider in his
subjects a single fault sufficient to obliterate the remembrance of
a thousand good qualities, even when the latter are beneficial to his
interest, and tend to promote his comfort, persecutes the _King Bird_
without mercy, and extends his enmity to its whole progeny. This mortal
hatred is occasioned by a propensity which the Tyrant Fly-catcher now
and then shews to eat a honey-bee, which the narrow-minded farmer looks
upon as exclusively his own property, although he is presently to destroy
thousands of its race, for the selfish purpose of seizing upon the fruits
of their labours, which he does with as little remorse as if nature's
bounties were destined for man alone.

The Field Martin arrives in Louisiana, from the south, about the middle
of March. Many individuals remain until the middle of September, but
the greater number proceed gradually northwards, and are dispersed over
every portion of the United States. For a few days after its arrival, it
seems fatigued and doleful, and remains perfectly silent. But no sooner
has it recovered its naturally lively spirits, than its sharp tremulous
cry is heard over the fields, and along the skirts of all our woods.
It seldom enters the forests, but is fond of orchards, large fields of
clover, the neighbourhood of rivers, and the gardens close to the houses
of the planters. In this last situation, its habits are best observed.

Its flight has now assumed a different manner. The love-season is at
hand. The male and female are seen moving about through the air, with
a continued quivering motion of their wings, at a height of twenty or
thirty yards above the ground, uttering a continual, tremulous, loud
shriek. The male follows in the wake of the female, and both seem panting
for a suitable place in which to form their nest. Meanwhile, they watch
the motions of different insects, deviate a little from the course of
their playful rounds, and with a sweeping dart secure and swallow the
prey in an instant. Probably the next sees them perched on the twig of
a tree, close together, and answering the calls of nature.

The choice of a place being settled by the happy pair, they procure
small dry twigs from the ground, and rising to a horizontal branch,
arrange them as the foundation of their cherished home. Flakes of cotton,
wool or tow, and other substances of a similar nature, are then placed
in thick and regular layers, giving great bulk and consistence to the
fabric, which is finally lined with fibrous roots and horse-hair. The
female then deposits her eggs, which are from four to six in number,
broadly ovate, reddish-white, or blush colour, irregularly spotted
with brown. No sooner has incubation commenced, than the male, full of
ardour, evinces the most daring courage, and gallantly drives off every
intruder. Perched on a twig not far from his beloved mate, in order to
protect and defend her, he seems to direct every thought and action to
these objects. His snow-white breast expands with the warmest feelings;
the feathers of his head are raised and spread, the bright orange spot
laid open to the rays of the sun; he stands firm on his feet, and his
vigilant eye glances over the wide field of vision around him. Should
he spy a Crow, a Vulture, a Martin, or an Eagle, in the neighbourhood
or at a distance, he spreads his wings to the air, and pressing towards
the dangerous foe, approaches him, and commences his attack with fury.
He mounts above the enemy, sounds the charge, and repeatedly plunging
upon the very back of his more powerful antagonist, essays to secure a
hold. In this manner, harassing his less active foe with continued blows
of his bill, he follows him probably for a mile, when, satisfied that
he has done his duty, he gives his wings their usual quivering motion,
and returns exulting and elated to his nest, trilling his notes all the

Few Hawks will venture to approach the farm-yard while the King Bird
is near. Even the cat in a great measure remains at home; and, should
she appear, the little warrior, fearless as the boldest Eagle, plunges
towards her, with such rapid and violent motions, and so perplexes her
with attempts to peck on all sides, that grimalkin, ashamed of herself,
returns discomfited to the house.

The many eggs of the poultry which he saves from the plundering Crow,
the many chickens that are reared under his protection, safe from the
clutches of the prowling Hawks, the vast number of insects which he
devours, and which would otherwise torment the cattle and horses, are
benefits conferred by him, more than sufficient to balance the few
raspberries and figs which he eats, and calculated to insure for him
the favour and protection of man.

The King Bird fears none of his aërial enemies save the Martin; and
although the latter frequently aids him in protecting his nest, and
watching over the farm-yard, it sometimes attacks him with such animosity
as to force him to retreat, the flight of the Martin being so superior to
that of the King Bird in quickness and power, as to enable it to elude
the blows which the superior strength of the latter might render fatal.
I knew an instance in which some Martins, that had been sole proprietors
of a farm-yard for several seasons, shewed so strong an antipathy to
a pair of King Birds, which had chanced to build their nest on a tree
within a few yards of the house, that, no sooner had the female begun
to sit on her eggs, than the Martin attacked the male with unremitting
violence for several days, and, notwithstanding his courage and superior
strength, repeatedly felled him to the ground, until he at length died
of fatigue, when the female was beaten off in a state of despair, and
forced to seek a new protector.

The King Bird is often seen passing on the wing over a field of clover,
diving down to the very blossoms, and reascending in graceful undulations,
snapping his bill, and securing various sorts of insects, now and then
varying his mode of chase in curious zigzag lines, shooting to the
right and left, up and down, as if the object which he is pursuing were
manœuvring for the purpose of eluding him.

About the month of August, this species becomes comparatively mute,
and resorts to the old abandoned fields and meadows. There, perched on
a fence-stake or a tall mullein stalk, he glances his eye in various
directions, watching the passing insects, after which he darts with a
more direct motion than in spring. Having secured one, he returns to
the same or another stalk, beats the insect, and then swallows it. He
frequently flies high over the large rivers and lakes, sailing and dashing
about in pursuit of insects. Again, gliding down towards the water, he
drinks in the manner of various species of Swallow. When the weather
is very warm, he plunges repeatedly into the water, alights after each
plunge on the low branch of a tree close by, shakes off the water and
plumes himself, when, perceiving some individuals of his tribe passing
high over head, he ascends to overtake them, and bidding adieu to the
country, proceeds towards a warmer region.

The King Bird leaves the Middle States earlier than most other species.
While migrating southwards, at the approach of winter, it flies with
a strong and continued motion, flapping its wings six or seven times
pretty rapidly, and sailing for a few yards without any undulations, at
every cessation of the flappings. On the first days of September, I have
several times observed them passing in this manner, in detached parties
of twenty or thirty, perfectly silent, and so resembling the _Turdus
migratorius_ in their mode of flight, as to induce the looker-on to
suppose them of that species, until he recognises them by their inferior
size. Their flight is continued through the night, and by the 1st of
October none are to be found in the Middle States. The young acquire
the full colouring of their plumage before they leave us for the south.

The flesh of this bird is delicate and savoury. Many are shot along the
Mississippi, not because these birds eat bees, but because the French
of Louisiana are fond of bee-eaters. I have seen some of these birds
that had the shafts of the tail-feathers reaching a quarter of an inch
beyond the end of the webs.

I have placed a male and a female Field Martin on a twig of the
Cotton-wood Tree. This plant is very appropriately named, for not only
are the grape-like bunches of seeds filled with a beautiful soft cottony

Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) → online text (page 38 of 50)