John James Audubon.

Ornithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) online

. (page 40 of 56)
Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 40 of 56)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

very difficult to characterize the two by any comparative marks. The
principal differences are to be found in the size and colouring. The
American bird is much larger than the European, as will be seen by the
following measurements taken from an adult male.

Length 14 inches, extent of wings 3 feet; bill along the back 1-6/12;
tarsus 2⅜, middle toe and claw 2-1/12.

The colouring of the American is much darker than that of the European
bird, and in the former the ruff is red, whereas it is usually white in
the latter; but as both birds present variations of colour, no stress
can be laid on this circumstance. The difference that strikes one most
on comparing the two, is the greater size of the American bird, and more
especially of its tarsus and toes.

On the whole, although I suspect they will ultimately be found to be
different species, I am unable to point out any satisfactory distinctions.


With the exception of the Flying Squirrel, we have no small quadruped
more interesting than this. It occurs in all parts of the United States,
and being so beautifully marked in its colouring, is known to every body.
It seems to me, by the liveliness of its motions, to be among quadrupeds
what the Wren is among birds; for, like it, the Ground Squirrel, full
of vivacity, plays as it were with the utmost grace and agility among
the rocky debris or the uprooted stumps of trees; and its chatter,
although less musical than that of the Little Winter Wren, excites a
peculiar pleasure as it comes on the ear. I think I see him as he runs
before me with the speed of thought, his tail quite erect, his chops
distended with the produce of the woods, until he reaches the entrance
of his retreat. Now he stands upright, clatters his little chops, and
as I move onwards a single step, he disappears in a moment. Stone after
stone I have removed from the fence, but in vain, for beneath the whole
the cunning creature has formed its deep and circuitous burrow. With my
hatchet I cut the tangled roots, and as I follow the animal into its
innermost recesses, I hear its angry voice. I am indeed within a few
inches of his last retreat, and now I see his large dark protruded eye;
but at this moment out he rushes with such speed that it would be vain
to follow him. He has twenty burrows all ready prepared, and, delighted
with his foresight and sagacity, I willingly leave him unmolested in
that to which he has now betaken himself.

The Ground Squirrel varies greatly in its external appearance in different
parts of the United States. In the Southern Districts it is smaller than
to the eastward, and the farther north you go the lighter are its tints,
the differences being at least as great as those between the Barn Owl of
America and that of Europe. But the variations are confined to size and
intensity of colouring, nor can I perceive any differences indicative
of specific distinction. I am not inclined to consider variations of
colour sufficient to constitute species, for instance, in the case of
the Chimney Swallow of Europe and the Barn Swallow of America; nor is
there any reason for believing that very considerable differences in
size may not exist in the same species; indeed the fact is very apparent
among water birds especially.




A few of these birds migrate each spring from the Island of Cuba to the
Keys of Florida, but are rarely seen, on account of the deep tangled woods
in which they live. Early in May 1832, while on a shooting excursion
with the commander of the United States Revenue Cutter, the Marion, I
saw a pair of them on the western side of Key West. They were near the
water, picking gravel, but on our approaching them they ran back into
the thickets, which were only a few yards distant. Several fishermen and
wreckers informed us that they were more abundant on the "Mule Keys;"
but although a large party and myself searched these islands for a whole
day, not one did we discover there. I saw a pair which I was told had
been caught when young on the latter Keys, but I could not obtain any
other information respecting them, than that they were fed on cracked
corn and rice, which answered the purpose well.

I have represented three of these Pigeons on the ground, with some of the
creeping plants which grew in the place where I saw the pair mentioned

COLUMBA CYANOCEPHALA, _Linn._ Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 282.—_Lath._
Ind. Ornith. vol. ii. p. 698.

BLUE-HEADED TURTLE, _Lath._ Synops. vol. iv. p. 651.

Adult Male. Plate CLXXII.

Bill straight, and short, rather slender, compressed; upper mandible with
a tumid fleshy covering at the base, a convex declinate obtuse tip, of
which the margins are acute and overlapping; lower mandible with the angle
near the extremity, which is compressed and rounded. Nostrils medial,
oblique, linear. Head small and compressed; the general form robust,
resembling that of many partridges. Legs short and of moderate length;
tarsus covered anteriorly and laterally with quincuncial subhexagonal
scales, rounded and scaly behind; toes scutellate, free, margined; claws
rather small, arched, compressed, flat beneath, obtuse.

Plumage compact all over. Wings short, rounded, third, fourth and fifth
quills longest and almost equal; second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth
slightly cut out on the outer web. Tail of moderate length, slightly
rounded, of twelve broad rounded feathers.

Bill bright blue above, the fleshy parts at the base bright carmine.
Iris very dark brown. Scales of the feet carmine, the interspaces white;
claws bluish-grey. The general colour of the plumage above is a rich deep
chocolate, slightly tinged with olive, beneath brownish-red, lighter on
the middle of the breast, the sides and under tail coverts approaching to
the tint of the back. The upper part of the head bright blue, encircled
by a band of deep black, broader on the occiput, and very narrow in
front; a band of white under the eye meeting its fellow on the chin, a
broad patch of black on the fore neck, margined with white beneath, and
on the sides spotted with bright blue.

Length 12¼ inches, extent of wings 17½; bill along the ridge ½, along
the edge 1; tarsus 1¼, middle toe 1¼; weight 10¼ oz.

Adult Female. Plate CLXXII. Fig. 2.

The Female is rather less, but in external appearance resembles the male.

The beautiful Cyperus represented in this plate is quite abundant on
all the dry Keys of the Floridas, and is also found in many parts of
the interior of the peninsula.




There is a pleasure known but to few, a pleasure which I have often
enjoyed and still enjoy, whenever an opportunity occurs. It is when
the heats of summer have already swelled the fruits of our fields, our
gardens, and our orchards; when Nature herself benignantly smiles on the
rich scenery which she has thus embellished; when the husbandman guides
the healthful labours of his sons, and wields the instruments of his
humble but important calling from the early dawn to the noontide hour
of repose; when the bee herself for a while retires from the honeyed
flower, which now languishingly droops on its tender stem; when the
cattle recline beneath the broad shade of some majestic tree, and the
labourers retire to the banks of some favourite brook to enjoy their
frugal meal, and quench their thirst from the limpid waters. Now all is
silent, sweet sleep closes their eyes, and nature seems to pause in her
labours. But no sooner have the meridian hours passed, than all return
to their occupations, and again every thing is full of life and activity.

Observe that passing Swallow, how swiftly she glides around us, how
frequently she comes and goes, how graceful her flight, how pleasant
her musical twitterings, how happy she seems to be! Now she has again
entered the barn. I will follow her into her summer abode, and laying
myself down on the fragrant new-mown hay, watch her motions in silence.
Ah! over my head a nest is firmly fixed to each rafter; nay on this and
that are placed several, and the barn is filled with swallows and their
melodies. Happy and charming little creatures! There a female sits on her
eggs, and is receiving a store of insects from the mouth of her mate.
Having fed her, he solaces her with a soft chattering voice, and away
he goes in search of more food. Here is another nest filled to the brim
with young birds trimming their new clothing, and shaking their little
wings, while their parents approach with a supply of food. See how they
open their yellow throats! There, how busily are these two birds occupied
in sticking layer after layer of damp sandy earth mixed with bits of
grass against the beam! Dear things! their old tenement has crumbled
and fallen down, or they are unusually late; but going and returning so
often will surely enable them to accomplish their undertaking. Leaving
them for a moment, I see some old birds meeting their young on wing.
How cleverly have the little things received the proffered fly! and now
away for more speeds the happy parent. I wish I could count the number
now in the barn; but I cannot unless I ascertain first how many young
there are, and then double the quantity of nests to get the number of
their parents. I have done so:—there are more than a hundred.

Night now draws near, the sun is beneath the horizon; the farmer has
closed the barn door, the Swallows enter by the air-holes; there is
still enough of light to enable them to find their nests, and now each
has alighted on the edge, and addresses itself to rest. Here are no
bickerings, no quarrels; all is peace and harmony, and now, the labours
of the day ended, how quiet is their repose! I too may take a nap among
the fragrant hay, and dream of the joys of my distant home.

Day-light approaches from the east. All is calm, pure, and delightful.
The little birds shoot forth from their retreats, and with songs of joy
commence their pleasant labours. What a happy world are they in! Here a
smart fellow roguishly challenges his neighbour in all the pride of his
full song, or listens for a while to the gentler notes of his beloved
mate, while she sits on her pearly egglets. Others have already resorted
to the fields, the meadows, or the river's side; and there I will follow
them. The dew glitters on every leaf and blade, and the bright sun throws
his glory over the face of nature, which joyously spreads out all her
treasures before him. The husbandman, who is seen advancing toward the
scene of his labours, observes the flight of the Swallows, and assures
himself that there will be a continuance of fair feather. Numberless
insects have already left their place of rest, and, like the birds,
are seen in search of food, swiftly moving through the calm and balmy
air. She of the forked-tail follows them with gliding motion, and with
unerring dexterity seizes one and another. She seems hardly to exert
herself on this occasion; for all her movements, upwards, downwards,
or sidewise, are performed with perfect ease, and now she sweeps along
like a meteor. How many circuits she makes in the hour is more than I
can tell, but numerous indeed they must be, when every one knows that
at her ordinary speed she can travel a mile in a minute.

Now, towards the sandy shores of the lake or river, she betakes herself.
She alights, and with delicate steps, aiding her motions by gentle
flappings of her wings, she advances towards the edge, takes a few
drops, plumes herself, and returns to her nest, filling as she flies her
wide mouth with insects. Should her nest be not finished, or need some
repair, she carries a pellet of tempered earth in her bill, or picks up a
feather that has been shed by a goose or a fowl, or from the hay carries
off a stem of long grass to mix with the mortar. As the heat becomes
oppressive to all animals save herself, she passes and repasses round
the cattle under the shady trees, and snaps off each teasing insect. Now
on the fence she alights by the side of her offspring, or teaches them
to settle on the slender dry twig of some convenient tree. There they
plume themselves, chatter, and rest for a while, until, sorry to have
lost so much time, they launch into the air, to continue their sport.

The summer has now closed, and the Swallows, young and old, assemble
on the roof of the barn, and in a few days are joined by many others,
reared in humbler situations. Each parent bird perhaps tells her young
that, before dismal winter cramps the insects, they must escape to some
far distant land, where the genial heat continues unabated. The talk
becomes general, and day after day increases. The course of the journey is
pointed out to each inexperienced traveller, by means of short excursions
through the air. At length a chill night comes, the following brings a
slight frost, the time has arrived, and on the next bright morning the
flocks rise high above the trees, and commence their journey.

The Barn Swallow makes its first appearance at New Orleans, from the
middle of February to the first of March. They do not arrive in flocks,
but apparently in pairs, or a few together, and immediately resort to
the places where they have bred before, or where they have been reared.
Their progress over the Union depends much on the state of the weather;
and I have observed a difference of a whole month, owing to the varying
temperature, in their arrival at different places. Thus in Kentucky,
Virginia, or Pennsylvania, they now and then do not arrive until the
middle of April or the beginning of May. In milder seasons, they reach
Massachusetts and the eastern parts of Maine by the 10th of the latter
month, when you may rest assured that they are distributed over all
the intermediate districts. So hardy does this species seem to be, that
I observed it near Eastport in Maine, on the 7th May 1833, in company
with the Republican or Cliff Swallow, pursuing its different avocations,
while masses of ice hung from every cliff, and the weather felt cold
to me. I saw them in the Gut of Cansso on the 10th of June, and on the
Magdeleine Islands on the 13th of the same month. They were occupied in
building their nests in the open cupola of a church. Not one, however,
was observed in Labrador, although many Sand Martins were seen there.
On our return, I found at Newfoundland some of the present species, and
of the Cliff Swallow, all of which were migrating southward on the 14th
of August, when Fahrenheit's thermometer stood at 41°.

In spring, the Barn Swallow is welcomed by all, for she seldom appears
before the final melting of the snows and the commencement of mild
weather, and is looked upon as the harbinger of summer. As she never
commits depredations on any thing that men consider as their own, every
body loves her, and, as the child was taught by his parents, so the man
teaches his offspring, to cherish her. About a week after the arrival
of this species, and when it has already resorted to its wonted haunts,
examined its last year's tenement, or made choice of a place to which
it may securely fix its nest, it begins either to build or to deposit
its eggs.

The nest is attached to the side of a beam or rafter in a barn or shed,
under a bridge, or sometimes even in an old well, or in a sink hole,
such as those found in the Kentucky barrens. Whenever the situation is
convenient and affords sufficient room, you find several nests together,
and in some instances I have seen seven or eight within a few inches
of each other; nay, in some large barns I have counted forty, fifty,
or more. The male and the female both betake themselves to the borders
of creeks, rivers, ponds, or lakes, where they form small pellets of
mud or moist earth, which they carry in their bill to the chosen spot,
and place against the wood, the wall, or the rock, as it may chance to
be. They dispose of these pellets in regular layers, mixing, especially
with the lower, a considerable quantity of long slender grasses, which
often dangle for several inches beneath the bottom of the nest. The
first layers are short, but the rest gradually increase in length, as
the birds proceed upwards with their work, until they reach the top,
when the fabric resembles the section of an inverted cone, the length
being eight inches, and the greatest diameter six, while that from the
wall or other flat surface to the outside of the shell is three and a
half, and the latter is fully an inch thick. I have never observed in
a newly finished nest, the expansion of the upper layer mentioned by
WILSON, although I have frequently seen it in one that has been repaired
or enlarged. The average weight of such a nest as I have described is
more than two pounds, but there is considerable difference as to size
between different nests, some being shorter by two or three inches, and
proportionally narrow at the top. These differences depend much on the
time the birds have to construct their tenement previous to depositing
the eggs. Now and then I have seen some formed at a late period, that
were altogether destitute of the intermixture of grass with the mud
observed in the nest described above, which was a perfect one, and had
occupied the birds seven days in constructing it, during which period
they laboured from sunrise until dusk, with an intermission of several
hours in the middle of the day. Within the shell of mud is a bed, several
inches thick, of slender grasses arranged in a circular form, over which
is placed a quantity of large soft feathers. I never saw one of these
nests in a chimney, nor have I ever heard of their occurring in such
situations, they being usually occupied by the American Swift, which is
a more powerful bird, and may perhaps prevent them from entering. The
eggs are from four to six, rather small and elongated, semitranslucent,
white, and sparingly spotted all over with reddish-brown. The period
of incubation is thirteen days, and both sexes sit, although not for
the same length of time, the female performing the greater part of the
task. Each provides the other with food on this occasion, and both rest
at night beside each other in the nest. In South Carolina, where a few
breed, the nest is formed in the beginning of April, and in Kentucky
about the first of May.

When the young have attained a considerable size, the parents, who
feed them with much care and affection, roost in the nearest convenient
place. This species seldom raises more than two broods in the Southern
and Middle Districts, and never, I believe, more than one in Maine and
farther north. The little ones, when fully fledged, are enticed to fly
by their parents, who, shortly after their first essays, lead them to
the sides of fields, roads or rivers, where you may see them alight,
often not far from each other, on low walls, fence-stakes and rails, or
the withered twigs or branches of some convenient tree, generally in the
vicinity of a place in which the old birds can easily procure food for
them. As the young improve in flying, they are often fed on the wing
by the parent birds. On such occasions, when the old and young birds
meet, they both rise obliquely in the air, and come close together, when
the food is delivered in a moment, and they separate to continue their
gambols. In the evening the family retires to the breeding place, to
which it usually resorts until the period of their migration.

About the middle of August, the old and young birds form more extensive
associations, flying about in loose flocks, which are continually
increasing, and alighting in groups on tall trees, churches, court-houses,
or barns, where they may be seen for hours pluming and dressing
themselves, or removing the small insects which usually infest them.
At such times they chirp almost continually, and make sallies of a few
hundred yards, returning to the same place. These meetings and rambles
often occupy a fortnight, but generally by the 10th of September great
flocks have set out for the south, while others are seen arriving from
the north. The dawn of a fair morning is the time usually chosen by these
birds for their general departure, which I have no reason to believe is
prevented by a contrary wind. They are seen moving off without rising
far above the tops of the trees or towns over which they pass; and I am
of opinion that most of those large parties usually migrate either along
the shores of the Atlantic, or along the course of large streams, such
places being most likely to afford them suitable retreats at night, when
they betake themselves to the reeds and other tall grasses, whenever it
is convenient to do so, although I have witnessed their migration during
a fine clear and quiet evening. Should they meet with a suitable spot,
they alight close together, and for a while twitter loudly, as if to
invite approaching flocks or stragglers to join them. In such places I
have seen great flocks of this species in East Florida;—and here, reader,
I may tell you that the fogs of that latitude seem not unfrequently to
bewilder their whole phalanx. One morning, whilst on board the United
States Schooner "Spark," Lieutenant commandant PIERCEY and the officers
directed my attention to some immense flocks of these birds flying only a
few feet above the water for nearly an hour, and moving round the vessel
as if completely lost. But when the morning is clear, these Swallows
rise in a spiral manner from the reeds to the height of thirty or forty
yards, extend their ranks, and continue their course.

I found flocks of Barn Swallows near St Augustine for several days in
succession, until the beginning of December; but after the first frost
none were to be seen. These could not have removed many degrees farther
south for want of proper food, and I suspect that numbers of them spend
the whole winter along the south coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

The flight of this species is not less interesting than any other of
its characteristics. It probably surpasses in speed that of any other
species of the feathered tribes, excepting the Humming Bird. In fine
calm weather their circuits are performed at a considerable elevation,
with a lightness and ease that are truly admirable. They play over the
river, the field, or the city with equal grace, and during spring and
summer you might imagine their object was to fill the air around them
with their cheerful twitterings. When the weather lowers, they move more
swiftly in tortuous meanderings over the meadows, and through the streets
of the towns; they pass and repass, now close to the pavement, now along
the walls of the buildings, here and there snapping an insect as they
glide along with a motion so rapid that you can scarcely follow them
with the eye. But try:—there she skims against the wind over the ruffled
stream; up she shoots, seizes an insect, and wheeling round, sails down
the breeze with a rapidity that carries her out of your sight almost in
a moment. Noon arrived, and the weather being sultry, round the horse
or the cow she passes a thousand times, seizing on each tormenting fly.
Now she seems fain to enter the wood, so close along its edge does she
pursue her prey; but spying a Crow, a Raven, a Hawk or an Eagle, off
she shoots with doubled speed after the marauder, and the next instant
is seen lashing, as it were, the object of her anger with admirable
dexterity, after which, full of gaiety and pride the tiny thing returns
towards the earth, forming to herself a most tortuous path in the air.

On the ground the movements of this Swallow are by no means awkward,
although, when compared with those of other birds, they seem rather
hampered. It walks by very short steps, and aids itself with its wings.
Should it be necessary to remove to the distance of a few yards, it
prefers flying. When alighted on a twig, it shews a peculiar tremulous
motion of the wings and tail.

The song of our Barn Swallow resembles that of the Chimney Swallow of
England so much that I am unable to discern the smallest difference. Both
sing on the wing and when alighted, and the common _tweet_ which they
utter when flying off is precisely the same in both. Their food also is
similar; at least that of our bird consists entirely of insects, some
being small coleoptera, the crustaceous parts of which are disgorged in
roundish pellets scarcely the size of a small pea.

I have represented a pair of our Barn Swallows in the most perfect spring
plumage, together with a nest taken from one of the rafters of a barn

Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 40 of 56)