Neltje Blanchan.

Birds that hunt and are hunted; life histories of one hundred and seventy birds of prey, game birds and water fowls online

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and fry are not accessible, or to the harsh, discordant scaup it
utters, but which most people think sounds more like quauck. Its
broad, bluish bill, its glossy black head, its not unique habit of
living in large flocks, its readiness to dive under a raft rather
than swim around one, and its awkward, shuffling gait on land,
where it rarely ventures, make up the sum of its eccentricities set
forth in its nicknames.

Gunners in the west and on the Atlantic shores from Long
Island southward, especially in the Chesapeake, where wild
celery abounds, find the bluebills among the most inveterate
divers: they plunge for food or to escape danger, loon fashion,
and when wounded have been known to cling to a rock or tuft
of sedges under water with an agonized grip that even death did
not unfasten. They do not rise with ease from the surface of the
water, which doubtless often makes diving a safer resort than
flight. Audubon spoke of their "laborious flight;" but when
once fairly launched in the air, their wings set in rigid curves,
they rush through the sky with a hissing sound and a rate of
speed that no amateur marksman ever estimates correctly. They
are high flyers, these bluebills; and as they come swiftly wind-
ing downward to rest upon the bays of the seacoast or large
bodies of inland waters, they seem to drop from the very clouds.


Sea and Bay Ducks

No dabblers in mud puddles are they: they must have water
deep enough for diving and cold enough to be exhilarating.
Diving ducks feed by daylight chiefly, or they would never be
able to distinguish a crab claw from a celery blade ; but they also
take advantage of moonlight for extra late suppers. In the
Chesapeake region flocks of ducks that have "bedded" for the
night rise with the rising moon, and disport themselves above
and below the silvery waters with greater abandon even than by
day. Owing to the thick feathered armor these ducks wear, the
sportsman often counts birds shot that, being only stunned, are
able to escape under water.

It is only when the nesting season has closed that we find
the bluebills near the seacoast. They build the usual rude, duck-
like cradle or, rather, the duck builds it, for the drake gives
nursery duties no thought whatever in the sedges near an
inland lake or stream, where this ideal mother closely confines
herself for four weeks on from six to ten pale olive buff eggs.
Nuttall observed that "both male and female make a similar
grunting noise " (the quauck or scaup referred to), " and have the
same singular toss of the head with an opening of the bill when
sporting on the water in spring."

The Lesser Scaup Duck (Aythyra affinis), Creek Broadbill,
Little Bluebill, and so on through diminutives of all the greater
scaup's popular names, may scarcely be distinguished from its
larger counterpart, except when close enough for its smaller size
(sixteen inches), the purplish reflections on its head and neck, and
the heavier black and white markings on its flanks to be noted.
Apparently there is no great difference in the habits of these fre-
quently confused allies, except the preference for fresh water and
inland creeks shown by the lesser scaup, which is not common
in the salt waters near the sea at the north, and its more south-
ern distribution in winter. Chapman says: "It is by far the
most abundant duck in Florida waters at that season, where it
occurs in enormous flocks in the rivers and bays along the

The Ring-necked Duck (Aythyra collaris), or Ring-necked
Blackhead, Marsh Bluebill, Ring-billed Blackhead, and Bastard
Broadbill, as it is variously called, though of the same size as the

Sea and Bay Ducks

lesser scaup, may be distinguished from either of its allies by a
broad reddish brown collar, a white chin, entirely black shoulders,
gray speculum on wings, and a bluish gray band across the end
of the broad, black bill, which are its distinguishing marks.
While the female closely resembles the female redhead, its smaller
size, darker brown coloration, gray speculum, indistinct collar,
and the shape and marking of its bill, are always diagnostic with
a bird in the hand. This broadbill is almost exclusively a fresh
water duck: not an abundant bird anywhere, apparently, even in
the well-watered interior of this country and Canada, which is all
ducks' paradise ; and mention of its occurrences are so rare along
the Atlantic coast as to make those seem accidental. On the
fresh water lakes of some of the southern Atlantic states it is as
abundant in winter, perhaps, as it is anywhere. Its classification
among the sea and bay ducks has reference only to the full
development of its feet.

It was Charles Bonaparte, Prince of Canino, who first named
this duck, which had been previously confounded with the two
other broadbills, as a distinct species ; and we are still indebted
to that tireless enthusiast for the greater part of our informa-
tion concerning it, which is little enough. So far as studied,
its habits differ little from those of its allies. At the base of
the head, a few long feathers, scarcely to be distinguished as a
crest, are constantly erected as the bird swims about on the
lake with its neck curved swan fashion ; and Audubon tells of its
"emitting a note resembling the sound produced by a person
blowing through a tube." Like many another duck, there is
more interest shown in this one's flavor than in its life history.

American Golden-eye

(Glaucionetta clangula americana)


Length 17 to 2O inches.

Male Head and short throat dark, glossy green ; feathers on the
former, puffy ; a round white space at base of bill ; neck all
around, breast, greater part of wings, including speculum
and under parts, white; wing linings dusky; rest of plumage

Sea and Bay Ducks

black. Feet orange, with dusky webs ; bill black or blackish

green, and with large nostrils; iris bright golden.
Female Much smaller; head and throat snuff color, and lacking

the white space near the bill ; fore neck white ; upper parts

brownish black; under parts white, shading into gray on

sides and upper breast, which are waved with gray or brown ;

speculum white, but with less white elsewhere on wings

than male's. Bills variable.
Range North America, nesting from our northern boundaries to

the far north, and wintering in the United States southward

to Cuba.
Season Winter resident, also spring and summer migrant in

United States.

The Indians of Fraser valley tell a story of two men in one
of their tribes who began to discuss whether the whistling noise
made by this duck was produced by its wings or by the air rush-
ing through its nostrils. The discussion waxed warm and furious,
and soon others joined in. Sides were taken, one side claiming
that the drakes, with their larger nostrils, make a louder noise than
their mates, and that the scoters, which also have large nostrils,
make a similar whistling sound when flying. The other side con-
tended that whereas the wings of all ducks whistle more or less,
the incessant beating of the golden-eye's short, stiff wings, that
cut the air like a knife, would account for the louder music.
Before long the entire crowd became involved in the dispute;
tomahawks were brandished and a free fight followed, according
to Allan Brooks, in which a majority of the warriors were killed
without settling the question an excellent story for the Peace

Pale Faces, backed by scientific investigation, take sides with
the wing whistler party. The golden-eye, in spite of its short,
heavy body and small wings, covers immense distances, ninety
miles an hour being the speed Audubon credited it with, and a half
mile the distance at which he distinctly heard the whistle. Al-
though the drake', at least, has every requisite in his vocal organs
for making a noise, and the specific name, clangula, entitles him
to a voice, it has never been lifted in our presence. But then
this duck has been very little studied in its nesting grounds,
where, if ever, a bird gives utterance to any pent-up emotion.
In the desolate fur countries at the far north of Europe and
America, the golden-eye duck makes a nest in a stump or hollow

Sea and Bay Ducks

tree, close by the lake or river side, and covers over her large clutch
of pale bluish eggs with down from her breast. As usual in the
duck tribe, the drake avoids all nursery duties by joining a club
of males that disport themselves at leisure during the summer

Wonderfully expert swimmers and divers, their fully webbed
feet, that make these accomplishments possible, so interfere with
their progress on land that they visit it only rarely. One can dis-
tinctly hear the broad webs slap the ground, as, with wings partly
distended to help keep a balance, the golden-eye labors awk-
wardly on by jerks to reach the water, where not even the loon
is more at home. As the golden-eye's flesh is rank and fishy and
tough, owing to the small proportion of vegetable food it eats,
and the large amount of exercise it must take to secure active
prey, there can be no excuse for the sportsman's hunting it; and,
happily, there is apt to be scant reward for his efforts.

Exceedingly shy and wary, with a sentinel on the constant
lookout, and associated only with those ducks that are as quick
to take alarm as themselves, the whistlers are among the most
difficult birds to approach. They dive at the slightest fear, swim
under water like a fish, or, bounding upward with a few labored
strokes from the surface of the lake, make off at a speed and at a
height the tyro need not hope to overtake with a shot. During
the late autumn migration the males precede their discarded mates
and young by a fortnight. They continue abundant around many
parts of our country, inland and on the coast, and enliven the
winter desolation after most other birds have deserted us for
warmer climes.

Barrow's Golden-eye (Glaucionetta islandica), a more
northern species, that is often seen in the west, may scarcely be
told from the common whistler either in features or habits. A
crescent-shaped white spot at the base of the bill of the drake
and more purplish iridescence on his head are his distinguish-
ing marks; but the small females of these two species are be-
lieved to be identical. In the region of the salmon canneries
these ducks lose some of their native shyness and boldly gorge
themselves on the decaying fish. Allan Brooks writes that "the
note is a hoarse croak." Doubtless the common golden-eye
makes some such noise also, or that close student, Charles


Sea and Bay Ducks

Bonaparte, would never have named it clangula. "They have
also a peculiar mewling cry," Brooks adds, "made only by the
males in the mating season."


(Cbaritonetta albeola)


Length 13.5010 15 inches.

Male A broad white band running from eye to eye around the
nape of neck ; rest of head with puffy feathers, and, like those
on throat, beautifully glossed with purple, blue, and green
iridescence. Other upper parts black; neck all around,
wings chiefly, and under parts wholly, white. Bill dull blue;
feet flesh color.

Female Blackish brown above, with white streak on each side
of head ; whitish below. Smaller than male.

Range North America at large, nesting from Dakota, Iowa, and
Maine northward to the fur countries; winters from the
southern limit of its nesting range, or near it, to Mexico and
the West Indies.

Season Transient spring and autumn visitor, or winter resident
from November to April.

Not even a grebe or loon is more expert at diving "like a
flash " than this handsome little duck. Samuels says that " when
several of these birds are together one always remains on the
surface while the others are below in search of food, and if
alarmed it utters a short quack, when the others rise to the surface,
and on ascertaining the cause of alarm all dive and swim off
rapidly to the distance of several hundred feet."

A bufflehead overtakes and eats little fish under water or
equally nimble insects on the surface, probes the muddy bottom
of the lake for small shell fish, nibbles the sea-wrack and other
vegetable growth of the salt-water inlets, all the while toughen-
ing its flesh by constant exercise and making it rank by a fishy
diet, until none but the hungriest of sportsmen care to bag it.
Yet this duck is more than commonly suspicious and shy. It will
remain just below the surface, with only its nostrils exposed to the


Sea and Bay Ducks

air, for an hour after a severe fright, rather than expose its fat little
body, that it prizes more highly than do those who know its worth.
In any case a shot is more likely to stun than to kill a buffle-
head, that, like most other diving birds, is armored with a thick,
well-nigh impenetrable suit of feathers. It may fall as if mortally
wounded, but the cold water usually revives it at once, and the
expectant gunner looks for his victim many yards from where it
is safely recovering from its recent excitement.

Because it can so illy protect itself on land, for it is a
wretched walker, and doubtless also because it chooses to nest in
countries where the fox and other appreciative eaters of its flesh
abound, the bufflehead enters a hollow tree to lay her light buff
or olive eggs. Here she sits, often in the dark, for four weary
weeks, quite ignored by the mate that in February almost bobbed
his head off in his frantic efforts to woo her. It is she that must
carry the large brood of ducklings in her bill to the water, teach
them all she knows on it, and count herself well rewarded if her
plumpest babies do not fall into the jaws of a pike ready to
swallow the little divers, but are spared to migrate with her to
open waters when the ice locks up their food at the north.

Old Squaw

(Clangula hyemalis)


Length Variable, according to development of tail 18 to 23

Male In winter : Blackish on back, breast, and tail, whose four
middle feathers are long and narrow; sides of the head
grayish brown ; rest of head, neck all around, upper back,
shoulders, and underneath, white ; no speculum on grayish
wings. Bill with large orange-colored patch; feet dusky
blue; In summer: Sides of head white; top of head, throat,
breast above and below, back and shoulders, black; white
underneath. Tail longer than in winter.

Female No elongated feathers in tail, which consists of four-
teen feathers coming to a point; head, neck, and upper
parts, dusky brown, with grayish patch around the eye and
one on side of neck; breast grayish, shading to white below;

Sea and Bay Ducks

the feathers on the upper parts more or less edged with buff

in summer.
Range "In North America, south to the Potomac and the Ohio

(more rarely to Florida and Texas) and California; breeds

northward." A. O. U.
Season Common winter resident in northern United States;

November to April.

Like a crowd of gossiping old women these ducks gabble
and scold among themselves all the year round, for in winter,
when most voices are hushed, they are the noisiest birds that
visit us. In summer, they nest so far north that none but Arctic
travellers may hope to study them. Mr. George Clarke, of the
Peary expedition, writes of "the old squaw's clanging call"
ringing out from the drifting ice cakes where the drakes glided
about at no great distance from their brooding mates. South,
south, southerly, is the cry some people with more lively imag-
inations than accuracy of ear have heard ; but the Indians were
nearer right when they "called down" this high flyer with a
hah-ha-way, part of the full cry written by Mr. Mackay as o-onc-
o-onc-ough, egh-ough-egh. The other part is not very different
from the honk of a goose. Most of the duck's popular names,
as well as its scientific one, allude to its noisy, talkative habit.
At evening, and toward spring when the choice of mates in-
volves great discussion and quarrelling, they make more noise
than perhaps all our other sea fowl combined.

The plumage of this duck varies so much with age, season,
and sex, that it is well we have some pronounced characteristics
to help us in naming our bird correctly. The long tail feathers
of the drake are its most striking feature ; but the obscure-looking
duck has little to distinguish her from the female harlequin,
except her white abdomen, which is usually concealed under

When migrating from the icy regions that they haunt after
all other ducks have left for the south, the old squaws proceed
by degrees no faster than Jack Frost compels ; so that in season
as in plumage they are apt to be exceedingly variable, an open
winter keeping them north until late, and a cold autumn driving
them from the ice-bound waters to seek their fish, mollusks, and
water wrack in the open channels of our larger lakes and rivers
and the inlets of the sea. Maritime ducks these certainly are by


Sea and Bay Ducks

preference; famous divers and swimmers; strong, swift flyers;
noisy, restless, lively fellows, that live in a state of happy commo-
tion ; gregarious at all seasons, and strongly in evidence where-
ever they find their way.

There can be no excuse for killing these fish eaters for their
flesh, which is rank and apparently in the very prime of tough-
ness throughout their stay here; but they are clothed with par-
ticularly thick, fine, lively feathers that are in great demand for
pillows. These form an almost invulnerable armor one would
think, yet great quantities of old squaws' down and feathers are
bought by upholsterers every year. At the north the mother
herself pulls out some of her feathers to cover her pale bluish
eggs, concealed in a rude nest in grasses or under some low bush
near the shore. When wounded, as the duck flies low and very
swiftly along the water, it instantly dives from the wing, accord-
ing to Mr. Mackay. He tells of seeing many of them towering,
"usually in the afternoon, collecting in mild weather in large
flocks if undisturbed, and going up in circles so high as to be
scarcely discernible, often coming down with a rush and great
velocity, a portion of the flock scattering and coming down in a
zig-zag course similar to the scoters when whistled down."

The Harlequin Duck ( Histrionicus histrionicus), also called
Lords and Ladies, comes down to our more northern coasts of sea
and large inland lakes only when ice has closed its feeding
grounds at the north ; but no clanging call invites our attention
when these gay masqueraders appear on the scene, tricked out in
black, white, blue, and reddish brown applied in stripes and
spots ; and as they keep well out from shore to hunt in our open
waters, few get a good look at their fantastic coats before they
return to the north to nest. The female can scarcely be dis-
tinguished from the female old squaw, except by her dusky
under parts. A harlequin's flesh is dark and unpalatable, for
fishy food is its staple, and no one not hard pressed by hunger
would care to eat it. From the characteristics of habit that dis-
tinguish all ducks of this subfamily, the harlequin differs little,
except in living near rushing, dashing streams of the Rocky and
Sierra Nevada mountains and northward during the nesting season.
Six or more yellowish or greenish buff eggs are laid in hollow
stumps near the water; and the fact that the young ducklings


Sea and Bay Ducks

are not swept away by the swift current of the stream they
take to and live on, without returning to the nest once it is left,
testifies to the remarkable propelling power of their feet. These
ducks are most expert divers, too, and when alarmed will plunge
like a grebe, and swim under water to parts unknown.

American Eider

(Somateria, dresseri)

Called also: SEA DUCK

Length 23 inches.

Male Upper parts white, except the crown of head, which is
black, with a greenish white line running into it from behind
and a greenish tinge on the feathers at sides of back of head.
Upper breast white with a reddish blush ; lower breast and
all under parts, including tail above and below, black.

Female Upper parts buffy brown, streaked and varied with darker
brown and black; back darkest; breast yellow buff, barred
with black, and shading into grayish brown, indistinctly mar-
gined with buff underneath.

Range Nests around Nova Scotia and Labrador, migrating south-
ward in winter to New England and the Great Lakes, more
rarely south to Delaware.

Season Winter visitor.

When resting under our down coverlets on a winter night,
or tucked about with pillows on the divan of a modern drawing-
room, how many of us give a thought to the duck that has been
robbed of her soft warm feathers for our comfort, or take the
trouble to make her acquaintance when she brings the brood that
were despoiled of their bedding to furnish ours to visit our coast
in winter ? It may be said in extenuation of our apparent indif-
ference that eiders keep well out at sea, and conrie at a season
when boating ceases to be a pleasure. Then, too, there is little
to interest one during the winter in a bird whose chief concern
appears to be deep diving. It is on the constant errand of getting
mussels and other fish food which the saddle-back gull often
snatches from it at the end of an unequal race if the duck does
not end it suddenly by plunging under water. It is to Labrador
and the north Atlantic islands that one must go to know this bird


Sea and Bay Ducks

at home, and most of us are willing to do such travelling in the
easy chairs of our library.

Before these ducks have left our shores in March, courting
has already begun ; sharp contests occur, and the vanquished or
superannuated males wander about in milder climates than the
mated lovers fly to. Though no drake may be credited with
great depth of feeling for his mate, the eider goes to the extreme
of helping her make a nest of moss and seaweed among the
rocks or low bushes under stunted fir trees, and will even pluck
the down from his own breast to cover the eggs when hers has
been persistently robbed. Ha-ho, ha-ho, he half moans/half coos,
in a lackadaisical tone to the busy housewife who replies with
a matter-of-fact quack, like any prosaic barnyard duck. Until
the last one of her bluish or olive gray eggs is laid, the
mother plucks no down from her breast ; but she will continue
to lay, and to cover the new eggs with her feathers, several times
over if her nest is robbed, until her poor breast is naked and the
drake's down is called into requisition. According to Saunders
the average yield of down from a nest in Iceland, where the
birds are encouraged and protected by law, is about one-sixth
of a pound. The gathering of these live feathers, as they are
called, for no one thinks of killing this valuable bird or its allies
to take their down which loses its elasticity after death, is
an important industry in the northern countries of Europe ; but
the industry is neglected and unintelligently managed on this side
of the Atlantic. When all the eggs and down are taken from
a nest repeatedly, the despairing birds abandon it for more re-
mote parts, and never return ; whereas hope eternally springs in
a breast even where feathers do not, if an egg or two are left the
mother. Audubon found large colonies of the American eider
nesting in Labrador in April, and gathered some fresh eggs for
food in May, when ice was still thick in the rivers. He found
both ravens and the larger gulls prowling about the coast ready
to suck the eggs and carry off the ducklings before they had
mastered the art of diving out of harm's reach.

While the females sit upon their nests the drakes withdraw
for a thorough moult, which leaves them so bare of feathers in
July that they are sometimes unable to fly. Henceforth they live
apart, he in flocks of males, she with small companies of mothers
with their broods, which latter are usually the flocks that visit
9 129

Sea and Bay Ducks

us in winter, for the hardy old drakes do not often migrate so far
south. By August ice has begun to form over their northern
fishing grounds, and the flocks move a degree nearer us, flying
swiftly and powerfully in a direct course, not far above the water,
and almost never over land.

American Scoter

(Oidemia americana)


Online LibraryNeltje BlanchanBirds that hunt and are hunted; life histories of one hundred and seventy birds of prey, game birds and water fowls → online text (page 10 of 29)