John James Audubon.

Ornithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) online

. (page 46 of 50)
Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) → online text (page 46 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

form, and pure white colour. If not disturbed, this species lays only
one set of eggs in the season. The young remain in the nest until they
are able to fly. At first they are covered with a downy substance of a
dull yellowish-white. By the middle of August, they are fully feathered,
and are then generally of the colour exhibited in the plate, although
considerable differences exist between individuals, as I have seen some
of a deep chocolate colour, and others nearly black. The feathers change
their colours as the pairing season advances, and in the first spring
the bird is in its perfect dress.

After nearly thirty years of observation, I may say, hardly interrupted,
I may be allowed to draw your attention to the following fact as highly
curious. I have observed that every species of Owl which breeds in the
Northern and Middle States is considerably more deficient in its powers
of vision during the day or on moonlight nights, when the ground is
covered with snow, than the species that breed in, and consequently
may be considered as residents of, more northern countries, such as the
Snow Owl, the Forked-tailed Owl, and the Hawk Owl, all of which shew no
material difference in their power of vision, be the sun or moon shining
ever so brightly on the snow. I have frequently approached the Great
Horned Owl, as well as every other species that breeds in the United
States, during what I call _glaring_ snows, whilst, on the same day,
my attempts to approach the Snow Owl or the Hawk Owl were ineffectual.
Yet on examining the structure of the eyes of all these species, I have
found little or no difference in them. I wish some competent anatomist
would investigate this singular fact, and communicate the result of
his inquiries, for the benefit of the scientific world, and that of the
author of the Biography of the Birds of the United States.

The Mottled Owl rests or spends the day either in a hole of some decayed
tree, or in the thickest part of the evergreens which are found so
abundantly in the country, to which it usually resorts during the breeding
season as well as in the depth of winter.

The branch on which you see three individuals of this species, an adult
bird and two young ones, is that of the Jersey Pine (_Pinus inops_),
a tree of moderate height and diameter, and of a scrubby appearance.
The stem is generally crooked, and the wood is not considered of great
utility. It grows in large groves in the state from which it has derived
its name, and is now mostly used for fuel on board our steam-vessels.
The Mottled Owl is often observed perched on its branches.

STRIX ASIO, _Linn._ Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 132.—_Lath._ Ind.
Ornith. vol. i. p. 54.—_Ch. Bonaparte_, Synopsis of Birds of
the United States, p. 36.

RED EARED OWL, _Lath._ Synops. vol. i. p. 123.

MOTTLED OWL, STRIX NÆVIA, _Wils._ Amer. Ornith. vol. iii. p. 16.
Pl. 19. fig. 1. Adult.

RED OWL, STRIX ASIO, _Wils._ Americ. Ornith. vol. v. p. 83.
Pl. 42. fig. 1. Young.

Adult. Plate XCVII. Fig. 1.

Bill very short, compressed, curved, acute, with a small cere at the
base; upper mandible with its dorsal outline curved from the base, the
edges acute, the point trigonal, very acute, deflected; lower mandible
with the edges acute and inflected, obtuse at the tip. Nostrils roundish,
in the fore part of the cere, concealed by the recumbent bristles. Head
disproportionally large, as are the eyes and external ears. Body short.
Legs of ordinary length, tarsus feathered; toes scutellate and sparsely
covered with bristles, papillar and tubercular beneath; claws curved,
slender, rounded, extremely sharp.

Plumage very soft and downy, somewhat distinct on the head and back,
tufty and loose beneath. Long bristly feathers at the base of the bill,
stretching forwards and outwards; auricular feathers forming a ruff. Two
tufts of erectile feathers on the head, one over each eye. Wings ample,
the fourth quill, longest, the first short. Tail short, even, of twelve
broad, rounded feathers.

Bill yellowish-green. Iris gold-yellow. Feet greenish-yellow. The
general colour of the upper parts pale brown, spotted and sprinkled with
brownish-black. A pale grey line from the base of the upper mandible over
each eye. Primaries light brownish-grey, barred with brownish-black.
Primary coverts dark brown, secondary coverts white at the tip. Throat
yellowish-grey, under parts light grey, patched and sprinkled with
brownish-black. Tarsal feathers tinged with red.

Length 10 inches, extent of wings 22.

Young birds fully fledged. Plate XCVII. Fig. 2, 3.

Bill and feet pale greenish-yellow. Iris light yellow. The general
colour of the upper parts is light brownish-red, each feather with a
blackish-brown line in the centre, the tail and quills barred with dull
brown. A reddish-white line over each eye, the tips of the secondary
coverts of the same colour. Breast and sides light yellowish grey,
spotted and lined with brownish-black and bright reddish-brown, the rest
of the under parts very uniform yellowish-grey, the tarsal feathers pale


PINUS INOPS, _Pursh_, Fl. Amer. vol. ii. p, 641. _Mich._ Arbr.
de l'Amer. Sept. vol. i. p. 58. pl. iv.—MONŒCIA MONADELPHIA,
_Linn._ CONIFERÆ, _Juss._

Leaves short, in pairs; cones recurved, oblongo-conical, of the length
of the leaves; prickles of the scales subulate, straight. It is also
named the _Pitch Pine_ and _Scrub Pine_. It grows in dry sterile ground,
from New Jersey to Carolina.




This Swallow often spends the winter months in the State of Louisiana,
resorting principally to the neighbourhood of the marshes that border
the lakes of Pont Chartrain and those of Bayou St John, near the city of
New Orleans, an account of which I have already given when speaking of
the Republican Swallow. At the beginning of spring, it spreads widely
over the country, and may be observed skimming over the streets of our
cities, as well as along the meadows in their neighbourhood.

Its flight is easy, continued, and capable of being greatly protracted.
It is seen sailing, circling, turning, and winding in all directions,
during the greater part of the day. Like all other Swallows, it feeds on
the wing, unceasingly pursuing insects of various kinds, and in seizing
them producing a snapping noise which may be heard at some distance.
So quarrelsome is this Swallow, that it is almost continually fighting
with its own species. Yet they remain in flocks at all seasons, and many
pairs are often seen to breed within a short distance of each other. It
also attacks the House Swallow, and frequently takes possession of its

It generally prefers the hollow of a tree for its nest, which is of a
globular form, composed of slender grasses, and abundantly lined with
feathers of various kinds. The eggs are from four to six, of a pure
white colour, strongly tinged with blush, occasioned by the transparency
of the shell, and are deposited about the end of May. It breeds twice
during the season.

No sooner have the young of the second brood acquired their full power of
flight, than parents and offspring assemble in large flocks, and resort
to the roofs of houses, the tops of decayed trees, or the sandy beaches
of our rivers, from whence they take their departure for the south. They
fly in a close body, and thus continue their journey, until they reach
the places adapted for their winter residence, when they again resume
by day the habits which they exhibit during their summer sojourn in
the Middle and Northern States, but collect at night and resort to the
sedges and tall plants of the marshes.

HIRUNDO BICOLOR, _Ch. Bonaparte_, Synops. of Birds of the
United States, p. 65.

Amer. Ornith. vol. iii. p. 44. Pl. 38. fig. 3.

Adult Male. Plate XCVIII. Fig. 1.

Bill short, feeble, much depressed and very broad at the base, compressed
at the tip; upper mandible slightly arched in its dorsal outline;
gap as wide as the head, and extending to beneath the eye. Nostrils
basal, lateral, roundish. Head large, flattened above. Neck short. Body
rather slender. Feet very short and feeble; tarsus and toes scutellate
anteriorly; lateral toes nearly equal, the outer united to the second
joint; claws short, weak, arched.

Plumage silky, shining, and blended. Wings very long, acute, the first
quill longest. Tail of ordinary length, deeply emarginate, of twelve
rounded feathers.

The general colour of the upper parts is steel-blue with green
reflections. Quills and tail-feathers brownish-black. The under parts
are white.

Length 5¼ inches, extent of wings 10; bill along the back ⅓, along the
gap ⅝; tarsus ⅜, middle toe ⅝.

Adult Female. Plate XCVIII. Fig. 2.

The female resembles the male in size and colour.




The works of Nature are evidently perfect in all their parts. From the
manifestations of consummate skill everywhere displayed, we must infer
that the intellect which planned the grand scheme, is infinite in power;
and even when we observe parts or objects which to us seem unnecessary,
superfluous, or useless, it would be more consistent with the ideas which
we ought to have of our own feeble apprehension, to consider them as
still perfect, to have been formed for a purpose, and to execute their
intended function, than to view them as abortive and futile attempts.

The seed is dropped on the ground. It imbibes moisture, swells, and
its latent principle of life receiving an impulse, slowly unfolds. Its
radicle shoots down into the earth, its plumule rises toward the sky. The
first leaflets appear, and as we watch its progress, we see it assuming
size and strength. Years pass on, and it still enlarges. It produces
flowers and fruits, and gives shelter to multitudes of animated beings.
At length it stands the glory of the forest, spreading abroad its huge
arms, covering with its dense foliage the wild animals that retreat to
it for protection from the sun and the rain. Centuries after its birth,
the stately tree rears its green head to the sky. At length symptoms
of decay begin to manifest themselves. The branches wither, the core
dies and putrefies. Grey and shaggy lichens cover its trunk and limbs.
The Woodpecker resorts to it for the purpose of procuring the insects
which find shelter beneath its decayed bark. Blackness spreads over the
heavens, the muttering of the thunder is heard. Suddenly there comes on
the ear the bickering noise of the whirlwind, which scatters the twigs
and the foliage around, and meeting in its path the patriarch of the
forest, lays him prostrate on the ground. For years the massy trunk lies
extended on the earth; but it is seen gradually giving way. The summer's
sun and the winter's frost crumble it into dust, which goes to augment
the soil. And thus has it finished its course.

Look again at the egg of the bird, dropped on its curious bed, the
construction of which has cost the parent bird many labours and anxieties.
It also is a seed, but it gives rise to a very different object. Fostered
by the warmth imparted by the parent bird, the germ which it contains
swells into life, and at length bursting its fragile enclosure, comes
tottering into existence. To sustain the life and contribute to the
development of this helpless being, the mother issues in quest of food,
which she carefully places in its open throat. Day after day it acquires
new development under the fostering care of its nurse, until at length,
invested with all the powers which Nature intended to bestow upon it,
it spreads its pinions to the breeze, and sallies forth to perform the
many offices for which it is destined.

How often have I watched over the little bird in its nest, and marked
the changes which day after day it exhibited: the unfolding of its first
scanty covering of down, the sprouting of its plumelets, the general
enlargement of all its parts! With what pleasure have I viewed the
development of its colouring and the early manifestations of its future

Amid these wonderful operations of Nature, there is one which has
occasionally engaged my attention, and occupied my thoughts, ever since
I first became acquainted with the bird of which I now proceed to speak.

The Cow Bird, which in form and character is allied to the Crow Blackbird,
the Redwing, the Orchard Oriole, and other species, together with some
of which it forms the genus _Icterus_, differs from these birds in one
important circumstance, which approximates it to the Cuckoo of Europe,
a bird entirely different in habits and appearance. Like that bird, it
makes no nest of its own, but deposits its eggs, one at a time, in the
nests of other birds, leaving them to the care of a foster-parent.

In the State of Louisiana, the Cow-pen Bird, or as it is also called, the
Cow Blackbird, or Cow Bunting, is seen only at long intervals. Some years
pass without the appearance of a single individual there. At other times
immense flocks are observed mixing with the Redwings, Crow Blackbirds
and Robins, searching about the farm-yards, the fields, and the meadows
with great diligence for food. At such times they are easily approached,
and are shot in great numbers, being considered more delicate and better
flavoured than the species with which they associate, excepting the
Robin. Like the Redwings, they seek the swamps and the margins of lakes
and rivers, where they roost among the tall sedges, flags, and other
aquatic plants. When disturbed in these retreats, they rise in a dense
mass, perform various evolutions in the air, and alight again to resume
their repose. At daybreak, they return to the cultivated parts of the
country to search for food. In Georgia and South Carolina, they occur
in great abundance every winter. Some also spend the winter in Virginia
and Maryland, as well as in the States of Kentucky and Indiana, where I
have observed them lingering about farm-houses and cow-pens during severe
weather. Great flocks, however, retire much farther south. I have seen
many of these birds passing high in the air, at mid-day, in the month of
October, pursuing their course steadily, as if bent upon a long journey.

The Cow-pen Bird, after passing the winter in the Southern States, or
in regions nearer the equator, makes its appearance in the Middle States
about the end of March or beginning of April, arriving in small parties.
Their flight is performed chiefly under night; and during the day they are
seen resting on the trees, or frequenting the banks of streams in quest
of food. They continue to be seen in small flocks until the beginning
of June, when they disappear, the various flocks having successively
passed northward.

Its flight is similar to that of the Redwing, with which it frequently
associates in its rambles. During spring and summer it feeds on insects,
larvæ and worms, frequenting the cornfields, meadows and open places.

The males and females arrive together; but contrary to the general
practice among the feathered tribes, these birds do not pair. The males
seem to regard the females with little interest. The numberless acts of
endearment, the many carollings, joyous flights, and bursts of ecstatic
feeling, which other birds display at the commencement of the breeding
season, are entirely dispensed with. When a particular intimacy takes
place between two individuals of different sexes, it soon ceases, and
the same individuals mate with others. The sexual attachment intended
for the benefit of the young brood does not take place, because in this
species the young are not to be reared by their parents, but to be left
to the care of birds of other kinds. The Cow-pen Buntings, in fact, like
some unnatural parents of our own race, send out their progeny to be

When the female is about to deposit her eggs, she is observed to leave
her companions, and perch upon a tree or fence, assuming an appearance
of uneasiness. Her object is to observe other birds while engaged in
constructing their nests. Should she not from this position discover
a nest, she moves off and flies from tree to tree, until at length,
having found a suitable repository for her egg, she waits for a proper
opportunity, drops it, flies off, and returns in exultation to her

The birds in whose nests the eggs of the Cow Bunting are thus deposited,
are all smaller than itself. That which is most frequently favoured with
the unwelcome gift is the Maryland Yellow-throat. The other species in
which I have found the egg of the Cow Bird are the Chipping Sparrow,
the Blue Bird, the Yellow Bird, several Fly-catchers, especially the
Blue-grey and the White-eyed, and the Golden-crowned Thrush. The nests
of these birds are very different in form, size and materials, as well
as in position, some being placed high on trees, others in low bushes,
and that of the Thrush on the ground.

It is also a very remarkable circumstance, that although the Cow-Bird
is larger than the species in the nests of which it deposits its eggs,
the eggs themselves are not much superior in size to those of their
intended foster-parents. This is equally the case with the European
Cuckoo, which selects, for the purpose of depositing its egg, the nest
of the Titlark, Hedge-Sparrow, or some other small bird. And here, as
in so many other cases, may we observe the adaptation of means to ends
which nature has so admirably made. The egg of the Cuckoo, in fact, is
not so large as that of the Skylark, a bird which, to the other, hardly
bears the proportion of one to six. The intention here has not been by
a similarity in size and colouring, to deceive the bird in whose nest
the egg is placed, for, on all occasions, the individuals on which the
gift have been bestowed, receive it unwillingly, and, in fact, manifest
great alarm and resentment. On the contrary, the object has been to
secure the development of the embryo, by adapting the size of the egg
to the capability of imparting heat to it.

Should the Cow-Bird deposit its egg in a nest newly finished, and as
yet empty, the owners of the nest not unfrequently desert it; but, when
they have already deposited one or more eggs, they generally continue
their attachment to it. There is reason for believing, however, that,
on all occasions, they are aware of the intrusion that has been effected.

The Cow-Bird never deposits more than one egg in a nest, although it is
probable it thus leaves several in different nests, especially when we
consider the vast numbers of the species that are to be seen on their
return southward. It does not make a forcible entrance, but watches
its opportunity, and when it finds the nest deserted by its guardians,
slips to it like one bent on the accomplishment of some discreditable
project. When the female returns, and finds in her nest an egg which she
immediately perceives to be different from her own, she leaves the nest,
and perches on a branch near it, returns and retires several times in
succession, flies off, calling loudly for her mate, who soon makes his
appearance, manifesting great anxiety at the distress of his spouse.
They visit the nest together, retire from it, and continue chattering
for a considerable time. Nevertheless, the obnoxious egg retains its
position, the bird continues to deposit its eggs, and incubation takes
place as usual. The egg of the Cow Bird is of a regular oval form, pale
greyish-blue, sprinkled with umber-brown dots and short streaks, which
are more numerous at the larger end.

Incubation has been continued for nearly a fortnight, and the young Cow
Bird bursts the shell. Another remarkable occurrence now takes place. The
eggs of the foster-bird are yet unhatched, and soon after disappear. In
every case the Cow Bird's egg is the first hatched, and herein also is
manifested the wisdom of Nature; for the parent-birds finding a helpless
object, for whose subsistence it behoves them to provide, fly off to
procure food for it. The other eggs are thus neglected, and the chicks
which they contain necessarily perish. Birds have probably the means of
knowing an addle egg, for, when any such remain after the hatching of
the others, they always remove them from the nest; and, in the present
case, the remaining eggs are soon removed, and may sometimes be seen
strewn about in the vicinity of the nest. In the case of the Cuckoo
matters are differently managed, for the young bird of that species very
ungratefully jostles out of the nest all his foster-brothers and sisters,
that he may have room enough for himself. If we are fond of admiring
the wisdom of Nature, we ought to mingle reason with our admiration; and
here we might be tempted to suspect her not so wise as we had imagined,
for why should the poor Yellow-throat have been put to the trouble of
laying all these eggs, if they are, after all, to produce nothing? This
is a mystery to me; nevertheless, my belief in the wisdom of Nature is
not staggered by it.

As the young Cow-Bird grows up, its foster-parents provide for it with
great assiduity, and manifest all the concern and uneasiness at the
intrusion of a stranger, that they would do were their own offspring under
their charge. When fully fledged, the young bird is of a sooty-brown
colour. Long after it has left the nest, it continues to be fed by its
affectionate guardians, until it is at length able to provide for itself.

Towards the end of September, the old and young Cow Birds congregate
in vast numbers, and are seen wending their way southward, sometimes by
themselves, more frequently intermingled with other species, such as the
Purple Grakles and the Redwings, which they join in their plundering
expeditions. They are to be seen in the Middle States until near the
end of October, although unusually severe weather sometimes forces them
southward at an earlier period.

This species derives its name from the circumstance of its frequenting
cow-pens. In this respect it greatly resembles the European Starling.
Like that bird it follows the cattle in the fields, often alights on
their backs, and may be seen diligently searching for worms and larvae
among their dung. In spring, the cattle in many parts of the United
States are much infested with intestinal worms, which they pass in great
quantities, and on these the Cow-bird frequently makes a delicious repast.

It has no song properly so called, but utters a low muttering sort of
chuckle, in performing which, it is seen to swell out its throat, and
move the feathers there in succession, in a manner very much resembling
that of the European Starling.

ICTERUS PECORIS, _Ch. Bonaparte_, Synops. of Birds of the
United States, p. 53.

STURNUS JUNCETI, _Lath._ Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 326. Male.

FRINGILLA PECORIS, _Gmel._ Syst. vol. i. p. 910.—_Lath._ Ind.
Ornith. vol. i. p. 443.

COW-BUNTING, EMBERIZA PECORIS, _Wils._ Amer. Ornith. vol. ii.
p. 145. Pl. 18. fig. 1. Male, fig. 2. Female, fig. 3. Young.

Adult Male. Plate XCIX. Fig. 1.

Bill conical, robust, very acute, compressed towards the end; upper
mandible obtuse above, rounded on the sides, encroaching a little on
the forehead with an angle, the margins acute and overlapping; lower
mandible with the sides inflected; gap-line much deflected at the base.
Nostrils basal, lateral, oval, covered above by a membrane. Head of
ordinary size. Neck rather short. Body rather robust. Feet of ordinary
length; tarsus compressed, acute behind, anteriorly covered with seven
longish scutella; toes free, scutellate, lateral ones nearly equal;
claws arched, compressed, acute.

Plumage blended, glossy. Wings longish, curved, somewhat rounded, the
second quill longest. Tail shortish, rounded, a little emarginate, of
twelve straight, rounded feathers.

Bill and feet brownish-black. Iris dark hazel. Head and neck sooty brown,
the general colour of the other parts is brownish-black, the fore part
of the breast glossed with blue, the upper parts with green and blue

Length 7 inches, extent of wings 11½; bill along the ridge 7/12, along
the gap ⅚, tarsus 1-1/12, middle toe 1-1/12.

Adult Female. Plate XCIX. Fig. 2.

The female is somewhat less than the male. Bill, eyes, and feet of the
same colour as the male. The general colour of the plumage is dusky
brown, resembling that of the head and neck of the male, the under parts

Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) → online text (page 46 of 50)