John James Audubon.

Ornithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) online

. (page 48 of 56)
Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 48 of 56)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Spotted Grous of North America.

The curious notes emitted in the love season are peculiar to the male.
When the receptacles of air, which in form, colour, and size, resemble
a small orange, are perfectly inflated, the bird lowers its head to the
ground, opens its bill, and sends forth, as it were, the air contained in
these bladders in distinctly separated notes, rolling one after another
from loud to low, and producing a sound like that of a large muffled drum.
This done, the bird immediately erects itself, refills its receptacles by
inhalation, and again proceeds with its tootings. I frequently observed in
those Prairie Hens which I had tamed at Henderson, that after producing
the noise, the bags lost their rotundity, and assumed the appearance of
a burst bladder, but that in a few seconds they were again inflated.
Having caught one of the birds, I passed the point of a pin through
each of its air-cells, the consequence of which was, that it was unable
to toot any more. With another bird I performed the same operation on
one only of the cells, and next morning it tooted with the sound one,
although not so loudly as before, but could not inflate the one which
had been punctured. The sound, in my opinion, cannot be heard at a much
greater distance than a mile. All my endeavours to decoy this species,
by imitating its curious sounds, were unsuccessful, although the Ruffed
Grous is easily deceived in this manner. As soon as the strutting and
fighting are over, the collapsed bladders are concealed by the feathers
of the ruff, and during autumn and winter are much reduced in size. These
birds, indeed, seldom, if ever, meet in groups on the scratching grounds
after incubation has taken place; at all events, I have never seen them
fight after that period, for, like the Wild Turkeys, after spending a
few weeks apart to recover their strength, they gradually unite, and as
soon as the young are grown up, individuals of both sexes mix with the
latter, and continue in company till spring. The young males exhibit the
bladders, and elongated feathers of the neck before the first winter,
and by the next spring have attained maturity, although, as in many
other species, they increase in size and beauty for several years.

As I have never shot these birds in the Eastern States, and therefore
cannot speak from experience of the sport which they afford, I here
introduce a very interesting letter from a well known sportsman, my
friend DAVID ECKLEIY, Esq., residing at Boston, who is in the habit of
shooting them annually.

"Dear Sir,—I have the pleasure of sending you a brace of Grous from
Martha's Vineyard, one of the Elizabeth Islands, which for many years past
I have been accustomed to visit annually, for the purpose of enjoying
the sport of shooting these fine birds. Nashawenna is the only other
island of the group on which they are found. This, however, is a sort
of preserve, as the island being small and the birds few, strangers are
not permitted to shoot without the consent of the owners of the soil. It
would be difficult to assign a reason why they are found upon the islands
above named, and not upon others, particularly Nashann, which, being
large, well wooded, and abounding in feed, seems quite as favourable to
the peculiar habits of the birds.

"Fifteen or twenty years ago, I know from my own experience, it was a
common thing to see as many birds in a day as we now see in a week; but
whilst they have grown scarcer, our knowledge of the ground has become
more extended, so that the result of a few weeks' residence of a party
of three, with which I usually take the field, is ten brace of birds.
Packs of twenty to fifty are now no longer seen, and the numbers have so
diminished, in consequence of a more general knowledge of their value,
the price in Boston market being five dollars per brace, that we rarely
see of late more than ten or twelve collected together. It is often
observed, however, that there is very little encouragement to be derived
from the circumstance of falling in with a large number, and that the
greater the pack, the more likely they are to elude the vigilance of the
sportsman; though it must be acknowledged that it is a most exhilarating
yet tantalizing sight, to start a large pack out of gunshot. To watch
them as their wings glisten in the sun, alternately sailing, fluttering,
and scooming over the undulating ground, apparently just about alighting,
but exerting their strength and fluttering on once more, some old stager
of the pack leading them beyond an intervening swell, out of harm's
way, beyond which all is conjecture as to the extent or the direction
of their flight. In such a case, it is best to follow on as quick and as
straight as possible, keeping the eye fixed upon the tree or bush, which
served to mark them, and after having proceeded a reasonable distance
in the direction which they have flown, if a "clear" or "cutting place"
should lie in the course, the birds may be confidently expected to have
alighted there. They never in fact settle down where the woods are thick,
or the bushes close and tangled, but invariably in some open space, and
often in the roads; neither do they start from thick foliage or briary
places, but seek at once to disengage themselves from all embarrassment
to their flight, by attaining the nearest open space, thus offering to
the sportsman the fairest mark of all game birds. It frequently happens
that not one is killed on the first flight of a pack, as they are often
very unexpectedly started, but on approaching them a second time with
greater caution, success is more likely to follow, particularly if they
have become scattered.

"Towards the middle of November, they have attained their average
weight of nearly two pounds each; and nothing can be fuller, richer, or
more game-like than their plumage. At this time of year, however, in
sportsman's phrase, they will seldom "lie to the dog," but are easily
started by every sound they hear. Even loud talking alarms them; for which
reason, a high wind, which drowns the approach of danger, is the most
desirable weather. A calm drizzly day is also favourable; for the birds
being less likely to be disturbed by the glare of objects, venture into
the old rye fields, the low edges of the wood, and the bushy pastures,
to feed.

"It is seldom that we start a bird a second time in the exact spot where
he has been seen to hover down, for no sooner do they alight than they
run, and frequently into thick cover, from which they often attempt in
vain to disentangle themselves. A dog is then necessary to scent the
bird, which alternately runs and squats, until, being hard pressed, it
rises, and frequently with a sound which resembles the syllables _coo,
coo, coo_, uttered with rapidity. One good dog is better than two, and
though sufficient, is absolutely necessary, for besides the enjoyment of
observing his action generally, his challenging cheers, and his pointing
prepare you. But more than all, a dog is required in recovering those
which are winged or not fatally wounded, which, but for his tracking
them, would be entirely lost.

"The barberry, which abounds in many parts of Martha's Vineyard, is the
principal food of the Grouse, particularly such as grow on low bushes,
near the ground, and easily reached by the birds. They also feed on the
boxberry or partridgeberry, the highland and lowland cranberry, rosebuds,
pine and alder buds, acorns, &c. In summer, when young, they feed on
the more succulent berries.

"We frequently meet with the remains of such as have been destroyed in
various ways, but more particularly by the domestic cat, which prowls
the woods in a wild state, and which often receives a very unwelcome
salute for the mischief it does. Owls, hawks, and skunks also do their
part towards the destruction of these valuable but defenceless birds.
In these ways they are thinned off much more effectually than by the
sportsman's gun. They frequent no particular soil, and like all other
hunting, wherever the feed is, there is the likeliest place for the game.
In addition to this rule as a guide, we look for their fresh tracks among
the sandy barberry hillocks, and along the numerous paths which intersect
that remarkable part of the Vineyard called Tisbury Plain. Into this,
should the birds fly from the edges, as they sometimes do, it is almost
impossible to start them a second time, as there are no trees or large
objects to mark their flight. Being mostly covered with scrub oaks of a
uniform height, with occasional mossy hollows, it affords them a place
of refuge, into which they fly for protection, but from which they soon
emerge, when the danger is past, to their more favourite haunts.

"I have only seen them in the month of November, but I am told that
in the spring of the year, previous to the season of incubation, they
congregate in large companies, in particular places, where they hold
a grand tournament, fighting with great desperation, and doing one
another all the mischief possible. In these chosen spots, it is said
the cunning natives were accustomed to strew ashes, and rush upon them
with sticks when blinded by the dust which they had raised. In later
times, the custom of baiting them has proved more destructive to the
species. In this way, very great but very unsportsman-like shots have
often been made. Another practice has been that of stealing upon them
unawares, guided by that peculiar sound for which they are remarkable in
the spring of the year, called "tooting." By these and other means, to
which I have adverted, the birds were diminishing in numbers from year
to year; but it is to be hoped that they will revive again, as they are
now protected by an act of the State of Massachusetts, passed in 1831,
which limits the time of shooting them to the months of November and
December, and imposes a penalty of ten dollars each bird for all that
are killed, except in those two months.

"BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS, _December 6. 1832_."

In the western country, at the approach of winter, these birds frequent
the tops of the sumach bushes, to feed on their seeds, often in such
numbers that I have seen them bent by their weight; and I have counted
more than fifty on a single apple tree, the buds of which they entirely
destroyed in a few hours. They also alight on high forest trees on the
margins of large rivers, such as the Mississippi, to eat grapes, and the
berries and leaves of the parasitical mistletoe. During several weeks
which I spent on the banks of the Mississippi, above the mouth of the
Ohio, I often observed flocks of them flying to and fro across the broad
stream, alighting at once on the highest trees with as much ease as any
other bird. They were then so abundant that the Indians, with whom I was
in company, killed them with arrows whenever they chanced to alight on
the ground or low bushes.

During the sowing season, their visits to the wheat and corn fields are
productive of considerable damage. They are fond of grasshoppers, and
pursue these insects as chickens are wont to do, sometimes to a distance
of thirty or forty yards. They drink water like the common fowl when at
liberty, and, like all other species of this family, are fond of dusting
themselves in the paths, or among the earth of the fields.

I have often observed them carry their tail in the manner of the Common
Hen. During the first years of my residence at Henderson, in severe
winters, the number of Grous of this species was greatly augmented by
large flocks of them that evidently came from Indiana, Illinois, and even
from the western side of the Mississippi. They retired at the approach
of spring, no doubt to escape from the persecution of man.

It would not perhaps be proper that I should speak of the value put on the
flesh of these birds by epicures. All that I shall say is, that I never
thought much of it, and would at any time prefer a piece of buffalo or
bear flesh; so that I have no reason to regret my inability to purchase
Prairie Hens for eating at five dollars the pair.

TETRAO CUPIDO, _Linn._ Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 274.—_Lath._ Ind.
Ornith. vol. ii. p. 638.—_Ch. Bonaparte_, Synops. of Birds of
the United States, p. 126.

PINNATED GROUS, TETRAO CUPIDO, _Wils._ Amer. Ornith. vol. iii.
p. 104. pl. 27. fig. 1. Male.—_Nuttall_, Manual, part i. p.

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

Bill short, robust; upper mandible with the dorsal outline curved, the
edges overlapping, the tip declinate and rounded; lower mandible convex,
broad, with the tip rounded. Nostrils basal, roundish, concealed by the
feathers. Head small, neck rather long, body bulky. Feet of ordinary
length; tarsus short, feathered; toes covered above with numerous short
scutella, marginated and pectinated; hind toe extremely short, two lateral
equal, middle toe much longer; claws of ordinary length, strong, arched,
rather obtuse, concave beneath.

Plumage compact, the feathers generally broad and rounded; those of
the head and neck narrow, and proportionally shorter, excepting those
of the crown, which are elongated. Two tufts of lanceolate, elongated
feathers on the sides of the neck, under which is an oblong bare space on
either side capable of being inflated. Lower tibial and tarsal feathers
short, soft and blended. Wings short and curved, the primaries strong
and narrow; fourth longest, third and fifth nearly equal, second longer
than sixth, first much shorter. Tail very short, much rounded, sloping
on both sides, of eighteen broad rounded feathers.

Bill dusky, paler beneath. Iris brown. Toes dull yellow, claws
greyish-brown, the general colour of the upper parts is blackish-brown,
transversely marked with broad undulating bands of light yellowish-red,
the wing-coverts and secondaries of a lighter brown tinged with grey,
and barred with paler red, the latter only on the outer webs; primary
quills greyish-brown, with black shafts, and spots of pale reddish on the
outer webs, excepting towards the end. Tail dark greyish-brown, narrowly
tipped with dull white, the two middle feathers mottled with brownish-red.
Space from the bill to the eye, a band from the lower mandible over the
cheek and the throat, pale yellowish-red or cream-colour; a band of
blackish-brown under the eye, including the ear-coverts, and another
about an inch and a half long on the side of the throat. Supra-ocular
membrane scarlet; bare skin of the sounding-bladder dusky orange. The
long feathers of the cervical tufts are dark brown on the outer webs,
pale yellowish-red and margined with dusky on the inner, excepting the
lowest, which are all brownish-black. The lower parts are marked with
large transverse curved bands of greyish-brown and pale yellowish-grey,
the tints deeper on the anterior parts and under the wings. Under
tail-coverts arranged in three sets, the middle feathers convex, involute,
white, with two concealed brown spots; the lateral larger, of the same
form, abrupt, variegated with dusky, red, and white, the extremity of
the latter colour, but with a very narrow terminal margin of black. The
tibial and tarsal feathers are grey, obscurely and minutely banded with

Length 18 inches, extent of wings 27½; bill along the back 7/12, along
the edge 11/12; tarsus 1½; weight 1 lb. 13 oz.

Adult Female. Plate CLXXXVI Fig. 3.

The female is considerably smaller, and wants the crest, cervical tufts
and air-bags; but in other respects resembles the male.


LILIUM SUPERBUM, _Willd._ Sp. Pl. vol. ii. p. 88. _Pursh_,
Fl. Amer. Sept. vol. i. p. 280.—HEXANDRIA MONOGYNIA,
_Linn._—LILIACEÆ, _Juss._

This beautiful plant, which grows in swamps and moist copses, in the
Northern and Eastern States, as far as Virginia, as well as in the
western prairies, attains a height for four or five feet, and makes
a splendid appearance with its numerous large drooping flowers, which
sometimes amount to twenty or even thirty on a single stem. The leaves
are linear-lanceolate, three-nerved, smooth, the lower verticillate,
the upper scattered. The flowers are orange-yellow, spotted with black
on their upper surface, the petals revolute. I was forced to reduce the
stem, in order to introduce it into my drawing, the back ground of which
is an attempt to represent our original western meadows.




This elegant bird is an inhabitant of the Southern States, to the
maritime portions of which it is more particularly attached. Indeed,
it seldom goes farther inland than forty or fifty miles, and even then
follows the swampy margins of large rivers, as the Mississippi, the
Santee, the St John's, and the Savannah. It is found in Lower Louisiana,
but never ascends so far as the city of Natchez, and it abounds in the
south-eastern low grounds of the Floridas, and in those of Georgia and
South Carolina, as well as in the sea islands of the Atlantic coasts,
as far north as Carolina, beyond which none are to be seen.

The Boat-tailed Grakles are gregarious at all seasons of the year, and
frequently assemble in very large flocks, which, however, cannot be
compared with those of the Purple Grakle, or of the Red-winged Starling.
They seek for their food amid the large salt marshes, and along their
muddy shores, and throw themselves into the rice plantations as soon
as the grain is fit for being eaten by them. In autumn they resort not
unfrequently to corn fields, and the ploughed lands of the plantations,
interspersed with ponds or marshy places, retiring towards evening
to the salt marshes, where they roost in immense flocks amid the tall
marsh grass (_Spartina glabra_), from which their cries are heard until
darkness comes on.

The food of this species consists principally of those small crabs called
"fiddlers," of which millions are found along the margins of the rivers
and mud-flats, as well as of large insects of all kinds, ground-worms,
and seeds, especially grain. They frequently seize on shrimps, and other
aquatic animals of a similar nature, that have been detained at low water
on the banks of racoon oysters, a kind of shell-fish so named under the
idea that they are eaten by that quadruped. In autumn, while the rice
is yet in the stack, they commit considerable mischief by feeding on
the grain, although not so much as when it is in a juicy state, when
the planters are obliged to employ persons to chase them from the fields.

About the beginning of February, the males have already mated, and
many begin their nest at this early season. It is then that you ought
to see the Boat-tailed Grakle, for at that period its plumage displays
the richest gloss, and its tail, which, after the breeding season, is
no longer navicular, is deeply incurved towards the centre. Proud of
his elegant form and splendid plumage, he alights on the topmost branch
of some evergreen oak, droops his wings and tail, swells his breast,
and glittering in the bright rays of the sun, which call forth all the
variations of tint for which his silken plumes are remarkable, pours
forth his loud though not always agreeable song. He watches his rivals
as they pass, pursues them with ardent courage, returns to his stand
exulting, and again pours forth his song.

No sooner has he made himself sure of the attachment of a female, than
his jealous temper is subdued, and he places implicit reliance on the
fidelity of his mate, in which he might be advantageously imitated
by other beings. Many pairs now resort to a place previously known to
them, and in the greatest harmony construct their mansions. Well do they
remember the central islet of the lake, among the thickets of which, in
security and comfort, their brood was reared in the previous season.
Each pair choose their branch of smilax, and if the former tenement
has escaped the shock of the winter winds, they repair and augment it,
so as to render it fit for the reception of their eggs. If it has been
destroyed, they quickly form a new one from the abundant materials around.
The long-fibred Spanish moss dangles from every tree; dry twigs, withered
grasses, and dead leaves lie strewn around, and the thready roots used
for the lining are found in their inaccessible island. Each female now
deposits her eggs, on which she sits in patient hope; while in the mean
time all the male birds fly off together, and leave their mates to rear
their offspring. Far away to the marshes they betake themselves, nor
are they seen any more with their young, until the latter are able to
join their neglectful fathers. Strange arrangement and singular, when,
in other instances, Nature fills the husband and father with so much
affection and solicitude! Nay, in the male Grakle has been implanted a
desire to destroy the eggs of every bird, while at the same time he has
been impelled to leave his mate, that she may hatch her own in security!
Other species are governed by laws equally rigorous. The female Wild
Turkey shuns her mate, that she may save not her eggs only, but even
her young, which he would destroy; and, as I am not the only student
of Nature who has witnessed the extraordinary conduct of the present
species of Grakle in this respect, I am enabled to present you with some
particulars supplied by my generous friend BACHMAN.

"In the spring of 1832, I went with Mr LOGAN in a boat to the centre of
a very large pond, about four or five feet deep, and partially overgrown
with bushes. On a bush of smilax were built about thirty nests of the
Boat-tailed Grakles, from three to five feet apart, some of them not
more than fifteen inches above the surface of the water. The nests
contained mostly three eggs each, and were all quite fresh. The old
birds were not near. In about a quarter of an hour afterwards, a flock
of females appeared, sailing around us, chattering as if distressed at
our intrusion. Some of them were shot, but the remainder still continued
in the neighbourhood, unwilling to leave their nests. It was singular
to observe that no males made their appearance. I have visited the
nests of this species, when placed on live oak-trees, where they also
breed in communities, thirty or forty feet above the ground. I watched
the manners of the old birds, the way in which they built their nests,
and their young, until fully fledged, but never found the males in the
vicinity of the nests from the time the eggs were laid. The males always
kept at a distance, and in flocks, feeding principally in the marshes,
at this season of the year, the females alone taking charge of their
nest and young. These latter are excellent eating whilst squabs. They
do not leave the nest until fully fledged, although they often stand
on the borders of it awaiting the arrival of the mother, squatting back
into it at the least appearance of danger."

The nest of the Boat-tailed Grakle is large, and composed of dry sticks,
mosses, coarse grasses, and leaves intertwined. The interior is formed
of fine grass, circularly disposed, and over this is a lining of fibrous
roots. The eggs are four or five, of a dull white colour, irregularly
streaked with brown and black. This species raises only one brood in
the season, and the young are able to follow their mother, on wing, by
the 20th of June. The period at which these birds usually lay is about
the 1st of April, but this varies according to latitude, and I believe
that the very old birds breed earlier than the others.

When the Boat-tailed Grakles breed on the tall reeds that border open
bayous or grow on the margins of lakes, especially in Louisiana and
the Floridas, the cries of the young when they are nearly fledged
frequently attract the attention of the alligator, which, well knowing
the excellence of these birds as articles of food, swim gently towards
the nest and suddenly thrashing the reeds with their tails, jerk out
the poor nestlings and immediately devour them. One or two such attacks
so frighten the parent Grakles, that, as if of common accord, they
utter a chuck, when the young scramble away among the reeds towards the
shore, and generally escape from their powerful enemies. This species,
the Red-winged Starling and the Crow Blackbird, ascend and descend the
reeds with much celerity and ease, holding on by their feet. In that
portion of East Florida called the "Ever Glades," the Boat-tailed Grakles
frequently breed in company with the Little Bittern (_Ardea exilis_),
the Scolopaceous Curlew, and the Common Gallinule; and when on trees,

Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 2 (of 5) → online text (page 48 of 56)