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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Length 19 to 20 inches.

Male Entire plumage black, more glossy above. Upper half of
bill, which is tumid, or bulging, is yellow or orange at the

Female Sooty brown above, waved with obscure dusky lines ;
throat and sides of head whitish; dirty white underneath;
bill dark, but not bulging nor parti-colored. Young resem-
ble the mother.

Range Seacoasts and large bodies of inland waters of northern
North America; nesting from Labrador inland, and migrat-
ing in winter to New England and the Middle Atlantic States
and to California.

Season Winter resident and visitor.

The three species of coots, or scoters, that come out of the
north to visit us in winter have neither fine feathers nor edible
flesh to recommend them to popular notice; nor do they seem to
possess any unique traits of character or singular habits to excite
our lively interest. Their chief concern in life appears to be
diving for mussels, clams, small fry, and mollusks in the estuaries
of rivers and shallow sounds along our coasts. Some go to large
bodies of inland waters for the same purpose. As this active
exercise toughens their muscles to a leather-like quality, and as
the fish food gives their reddish, dark flesh a rank flavor, the
poultry dealer who sells one of these birds to an uninitiated
housekeeper for black duck loses a customer.

Most friendly with its own kin, the American coot may
usually be found in flocks of white-winged and surf scoters,


Sea and Bay Ducks

eiders, and other sea ducks, where they congregate above beds of
shell fish ; and, at least while in the United States, the habits
of all these birds appear to be identical. But they are as shy
of men as if their breasts were covered with more desirable
meat, and dive when approached rather than take to wing and
expose their precious ugliness to an unoffending field-glass.
Human friendship is discouraged by them, however much their
long list of common names, which are as often applied to one
species as another, falsely testifies to their popularity.

Ridgway describes their nests as on the ground, near water,
and containing from six to ten pale dull buff or pale brownish
buff eggs.

The White-winged Scoter or Coot (Oidemia deglandi),
which is sometimes called Velvet Duck, differs from the preced-
ing in plumage only, in having a white patch under the eye,
a white mirror, or speculum, on wings, and orange-colored legs,
much the same shade as its protuberant bill, which is feathered
beyond the corners of the mouth. Possibly it goes farther away
from water than the other scoters to place its nest under a bush
on the ground, but the habits of all three species appear to be
generally the same, and like those of nearly all sea ducks.

The Surf Scoter, or Sea Coot (Oidemia perspicillata), has a
square white mark on the crown of its head and a triangular one
on the nape, to distinguish it from its sombre and rather uninter-
esting relatives.

Ruddy Duck.

(Erismatura rubida)


Length 15 to 17 inches.

Male In summer : Crown of head and nape glossy black ; chin
and sides of head dull white ; neck all around and upper
parts and sides of body rich reddish brown ; lower parts
white, with dusky bars ; wing coverts, quills, and stiff-
pointed tail feathers darkest brown ; head small ; neck thick.
Bill, which is as long as head, broader at tip ; wings very

Sea and Bay Ducks

short, and without speculum. In winter the drake re-
sembles female.

Female Upper parts dusky grayish brown, the feathers rippled
with buff ; crown and nape more reddish, and streaked with
black ; sides of head and chin white ; throat gray ; under
parts white. Young resemble mother.

Range North America at large ; nesting chiefly north of the
United States, but also locally within its range ; winters in
the United States.

Season Spring and autumn migrant ; also locally a winter resi-

The heavy moult this drake undergoes after he deserts his
brooding mate transforms him into an obscure, commonplace-
looking bird from the faultlessly attired gallant of his courting
days ; so that when the ruddy ducks appear on our inland lakes or
the estuaries of rivers, shallow bays, and ponds near the sea, there
is a close family resemblance between both the parents and the
young, none of whom seem worthy bearers of their popular
name. But however inconspicuous the feathers, this duck may
always be named by its stiff tail quills, that no other bird but a
cormorant can match. This curious tail, which is used as a rud-
der under water, or a vertical paddle, is carried cocked up at right
angles to the body when the duck floats about on the surface.

Owing to the ruddy duck's short wings, it is less willing to
trust its safety to them when alarmed than most ducks are, and
it will quietly dive in grebe fashion, and drop to safe depths before
swimming out of range, rather than depend upon the awkward
rising from the surface, that must be struggled through before it is
safely launched in steady though labored flight along the water.
Heading against the wind, it at first seems to run along the sur-
face with the help of rapid wing beats, before it is able to clear
the water ; but once fairly started, it flies good distances and at a
fair speed. In figure it more closely resembles a plump, squat
teal than an ordinary sea duck. The head is so small that the
skin of the neck can be easily drawn over it.

Tall sedges near the water's edge make the ideal nesting or
hunting resort of these ducks, that feed chiefly on eel grass and
other vegetable matter growing either above or below the water
in shallow bays and inlets, salt or fresh. It is their habit to drop
into these grasses when surprised, and to hide among them,
which is one reason why they are supposed to be rare ; whereas


Sea and Bay Ducks

they are fairly abundant, though often unsuspected. Numbers
of them find their way into large city markets every winter;
and especially in the Chesapeake region, or where wild celery
abounds, their flesh is tender and well flavored. Happily the
species is very prolific. Some authorities mention finding as many
as twenty yellowish white, rough eggs in the rude nests built by
the marshy lake or river side ; but ten are a good-sized clutch.


(Subfamily Anserince)

American White-fronted Goose

(Anser albifrons gambeli]


Length 27 to 30 inches.

Male and Female Upper part and fore neck brownish gray, the
edgings of the feathers lighter; a white band along forehead
and base of bill bordered behind by blackish ; lower back,
nearest the tail, almost white; wings and tail dusky; sides
like the back ; breast paler than throat, and marked, like the
white under parts, with black blotches; bill pink or pale red;
feet yellow; eyes brown. Immature birds, which are darker
and browner than adults, lack white on forehead and tail
coverts, also the black patches on the under parts.

Range North America; rare on Atlantic coast; common on the
Pacific slope and in the interior; nesting in the far north,
and wintering in the United States southward to Mexico and

Season Spring and autumn migrant or winter resident on the
plains and westward to the Pacific.

A long, clanging cackle, wah, wah, wah, wah, rapidly
repeated, rings out of the late autumn sky, and looking up, we
see a long, orderly line of laughing geese that have been feeding
since daybreak in the stubble of harvested grain fields, heading a
direct course for the open water of some lake. With heads
thrust far forward, these flying projectiles go through space with
enviable ease of motion. Because they are large and fly high,
they appear to move slowly ; whereas the truth is that all geese,
when once fairly launched, fly rapidly, which becomes evident
enough when they whiz by us at close range. It is only when
rising against the wind and making a start that their flight is


actually slow and difficult. When migrating, they often trail
across the clouds like dots, so high do they go sometimes a
thousand feet or more, it is said as if they spurned the earth.
But as a matter of fact they spend a great part of their lives on
land ; far more than any of the ducks.

On reaching a point above the water when returning from
the feeding grounds, the long defile closes up into a mass. The
geese now break ranks, and each for itself goes wheeling about,
cackling constantly, as they sail on stiff, set wings; or, diving,
tumbling, turning somersaults downward, and catching them-
selves before they strike the water, form an orderly array again,
and fly silently, close along the surface quite a distance before
finally settling down upon it softly to rest.

Such a performance must be gone through twice a day, once
after their breakfast, begun at daybreak, and again in the late
afternoon, on their return from their inland excursion, which may
be to stubble fields, or to low, wet, timbered country, or to bushy
prairie lands. Not only the farmer's cereals, but any sort of wild
grain and grasses, berries, and leaf buds of bushes, these hearty
vegetarians nip off with relish. When we see them on shallow
waters, with tail pointing skyward and head and neck immersed,
they are probing the bottom for roots of water plants, particularly
for a sort of eel-grass that they fatten on, or for gravel, and are not
eating mollusks or any sort of animal food, as is sometimes said.

But fatal consequences await on ducks and geese alike that
do not know enough to toughen their flesh and make it rank by a
fish diet. White-fronted geese, delicious game birds of the first
order, were once abundant during the migrations in the Chesa-
peake country, where they freely associated with the snow goose
and the Canada species, just as they do in the far west to-day;
but the sportsman must now travel to the Great Lakes or the
plains, or, better still, to California, their favorite winter resort,
if he would see a good sized flight above the stubble fields, in
which, hidden in a hole, and with flat decoys standing all about
him, he waits, cramped and breathless, for the cackling flock to
come within range.

The stupidity of this bird is more proverbial than real. If
any one doubts this, let him try to stalk one when it is feeding in
the fields, or listen to the tales of woe the California farmers tell
of its provoking vigilance and cleverness.



Snow Goose

(Chen hyperborea nivalis)


Length 27 to 35 inches.

Male and Female Entire plumage white, except the ends of
wings, which are blackish, and the wing coverts, which are
grayish ; bill carmine ; legs dull red. Immature birds have
feathers of upper parts grayish with white edges.

Range North America at large, nesting in the far north (exact
sites unknown), and migrating to the United States to pass
the winter. More abundant in the interior and on the Pacific
slope than on the Atlantic, north of Virginia.

Season Spring and autumn migrant, April and October ; or
winter resident in milder parts of the United States to Cuba.

The dullest imagination cannot but be quickened at the sight
of a great flock of these magnificent birds streaming across the
blue of an October sky like a trail of fleecy white clouds. Such
a sight is rare indeed to people on the Atlantic coast north of the
Chesapeake; but in the Mississippi valley during the migrations, on
the great plains, and in parts of California all winter, fields are
whitened by them as by a sudden fall of snow. Lakes in Min-
nesota may still be seen reflecting their glistening whiteness as
if snow peaks were mirrored there ; and in the Sacramento and
San Joaquin valleys, in Oregon and beyond, they are still suf-
ficiently abundant to be hunted on horseback by the indignant
farmers, who see no beauty in their plumage to compensate them
for their devasted fields of winter wheat that the hungry flocks
nip off close to the ground. But like most other choice game
birds, the snow goose is fast disappearing. Who that knows
how rapid this decrease is ever expects to see such flocks of
these superb fowl as gladdened the eyes of Lewis and Clarke
when they reached the mouth of the Oregon ?

Closely associated with the white-fronted and the Canada
geese, the white brant may be named, even when too high up in
the sky at the twilight of dawn or evening for us to see its dark-
tipped wings and white plumage, by the higher pitched, noisier
cackling that distinguishes its voice from that of the laughing goose



and the mellow honk of the Canada brant. It migrates by night
and day ; observes punctual meal hours like the the rest of its
kin ; keeps a sentinel always on guard while it feeds in the grain
fields or roots among the rushes on the tide-water flats and
grassy patches bordering streams ; circles, gyrates, tumbles, and
floats above the water on returning from its feeding grounds.
In short, it behaves quite as other geese do when intoxicated
with food.

While it is supposed the white brant nests somewhere in the
region of the Barren Grounds between the Mackenzie basin and
Greenland, the nest and eggs are still unknown in that little-
visited country beyond the north wind (hyperboreus) , as the
bird's name indicates.

The Lesser Snow Goose (Chen hyperbored), a smaller species,
identical in plumage with the preceding, and very like it in habits,
nests in Alaska, and wanders down the Pacific coast in winter,
eastward to the Mississippi and southward to the Gulf.

Canada Goose

(Branta canadensis)


Length From I yard to 43 inches.

Male and Female Head and neck black, a broad white band run-
ning from eye to eye under the head ; mantle over back and
wings grayish brown, the edges of feathers lightest ; breast
gray, fading to soiled white underneath. Female paler ; tail,
bill, and feet black.

Range North America at large ; nests in northern parts of the
United States and in the British possessions ; winters south-
ward to Mexico.

Season Chiefly a spring and autumn migrant, north of Washing-
ton ; although a few remain so late (December) and return so
early (March) they may almost be said to be winter resi-
dents north as well as in the south. The most abundant and
widely distributed of all our wild geese.

Heralded by a mellow honk, honk, from the leader of a flying
wedge, on come the long-necked wild geese from their northern
nesting grounds, and stream across the sky so far above us that


their large bodies appear like two lines of dark dots describing
the letter V. In spite of their height, which never seems as great
as it actually is because of the goose's large size, one can distinctly
hear the honk of the temporary captain some heavy veteran
answered in clearer, deeper tones, as the birds pass above, by the
rear guardsmen in the long array that moves with impressive uni-
son across the clouds. Often the fanning of their wings is distinctly
audible too. The migration of all birds can but excite wonder
and stir the imagination ; but that of the wild goose embarked on
a pilgrimage of several thousand miles, made often at night, but
chiefly by broad daylight, attracts perhaps the most attention.
Sometimes the two diverging lines come together into one, and
a serpent seems to crawl with snake-like undulations across the
sky; or, again, the flock in Indian file shoots straight as an arrow.
It is as a bird of passage that one thinks of the goose, however
well one knows that it remains resident in many places at least
a part of the winter.

A slow drift down a slope of a mile or more, on almost
motionless wings, brings them to the surface with majestic grace,
and flying low until the precise spot is reached where they wish
to rest, they settle on the water with a heavy splash. Usually
they stop flying near sunset to feed on the eel-grass, sedges, roots
of aquatic plants, insects, and occasionally on small fish, or on the
wheat, corn, and other grain that has dropped among the stubble
in the farmer's fields, and the berries, grass, and leaf buds they
find in swamps and bushy pastures. Quantities of gravel are
swallowed with their food. After a good supper they return to
the water, preferably to a good-sized lake, to sleep, and there they
float about with head tucked under wing until daybreak, when
another flight must be made inland to secure a breakfast. These
two regular daily flights are characteristic of all the geese.

Such punctuality at meals is confidently reckoned upon by
the sportsman, who is thereby saved unnecessary waiting as he
crouches, cramped and cold, in a pit among the stubble and con-
cealed by a blind. These holes are about thirty inches in diam-
eter and about forty inches in depth. There are no birds with
keener, more suspicious eyes ; no sentinel of a flock more on the
alert, unless it be the sandhill crane, that often feeds with them
and is their ally ; no game birds more wary when the sports-
man tries to stalk them than these; and so no one can possibly



appreciate the expression "a. wild goose chase" who has not
hunted them. The goose is by no means the dolt tradition says
it is. The ordinary methods of hunting water-fowl do not
answer with it, and in different parts of the country a different
ruse is practiced to secure its flesh. Strangely enough, ducks
and geese alike, that are thrown into a state of panic at sight of a
man or dog, show no fear whatever of cows ; and taking advan-
tage of this fact, gunners often hide behind cattle, or lead a horse
or an ox to get within range. On the great plains and in Cali-
fornia, oxen trained for the purpose screen the hunters on horse-
back, and walk straight into the flocks of Canada, snow, and
laughing geese that have been lured by live or artificial decoys
placed in some good feeding ground. Geese are not only gre-
garious, but extremely sociable to their kin and to other birds as
quick to take alarm as they. A constant gabbling goose-talk is
overheard wherever they congregate, like members of a country
sewing society.

And yet these wary creatures have been successfully domes-
ticated and crossed with the common barnyard goose. Many
stories are in circulation of wild geese that have been wounded,
and placed among the farmer's fowls, where they have been
made well and apparently content until a flock of migrants,
passing above, called them to a wild life again; but the very
birds that could be easily identified by the scars of old wounds,
revisited the barnyard whenever their travels to and from the
south permitted. All geese become strongly attached to cer-
tain localities. Ordinarily, a goose that has been wounded in the
wing runs, if on land, but so awkwardly it may be quickly over-
taken. If wounded when above or on the water, it will dive,
and remain under the surface with only its nostrils exposed until
all danger is over. Unless seriously hurt, it generally eludes cap-
ture. The thick coat of feathers, that have an even greater com-
mercial value than its flesh, is the goose's suit of armor, impene-
trable except at close range.

When surprised, i flock rises suddenly in great confusion ;
the large birds get in one another's way and offer the easiest
shots the tyro ever gets; the honk, honk, k'wonk from many
outstretched throats clamorinj. at once mingles with the roar of
wings, as with slow, heavy, labo ed flight the geese rise against
the wind the point from which th- , must be approached if one



is to get a good view of them. But order somehow comes
speedily out of chaos once the birds are well launched in air.
Double ranks are formed, with the leader at the point where the
two lines converge, and the wedge moves on, far away if they
have been terrorized by firing, but only a few hundred yards if
they find there is no real ground for fear.

Flocks of wild geese go and come in the United States from
September, when the young birds are able to join in the long
flights, until early spring, when the great majority go north to
nest. In some secluded marsh, by the shores of streams, or on
the open prairie, far from the habitations of hungry men, the
goose lays four or five pale buff eggs in a mass of sticks lined
with grass and feathers, and sits very closely, while the gander
keeps guard near by. An empty osprey's nest in a tree top,
or a cavity in some old stump, frequently contains these eggs;
but the goslings never return to the cradle once they have been
led to water, for they are good walkers and swimmers from the
start. After a thorough moult, which often makes the old birds
as incapable of flying as the goslings, the detached families gather
into flocks in September, when a few cold snaps in the Hudson
Bay region suggest the necessity for migrating to warmer climes.
On their arrival here they are very thin, worn out by the long
journey ; but the Christmas goose, as every housekeeper knows,
is perhaps the fattest bird brought to her kitchen.


(Branta bernicla)


Length 26 inches.

Male and Female Head, neck, throat, and upper breast and
shoulders blackish, with a small patch of white streaks on
either side of neck, sometimes also on chin and lower eyelid ;
back brownish gray, the feathers margined with ashy ; lower
breast ashy gray, ending abruptly at the line of black of the
upper breast; sides dark, but fading into white underneath;
much white around tail; bill and feet black. Female smaller
than gander. Immature birds have no white patch on neck,
and plumage above and below is barred or waved with reddish



Range Arctic sea, nesting within the Arctic Circle, to the Caro-
linas in winter. Most common on Atlantic coast; rare in the

Season Winter resident, or spring and autumn migrant in the
United States.

Flocks of brants continue to fly southward down the Atlantic
coast from October until December, some alighting on muddy
flats around the estuaries of rivers and creeks, on sand bars and
in shallow inlets, to feed on eel-grass and other marine plants ;
but the majority passing rapidly by the shores of Canada and our
northern states. High flyers, sea lovers, they keep well out
from land during the migrations rather than follow the coast line,
if any distance may be saved by a bee line from point to point.
It is only in hazy weather that they fly low. A reconnoitre by
the veterans must first be made after the confused mass of hoarse
gabblers rises from the feeding grounds ; but after this spiral soar-
ing has ended and the birds are once fairly started on their jour-
ney, neither pause nor uncertainty may be detected in their
steady flight. They fly in more compact bodies than the long-
drawn-out wedges of Canada geese ; no leader appears to direct
their course, yet the mass moves as one bird, slowly and sedately.
Some one has compared the trumpet-like sounds made by a flock
of brants with the noise of a pack of fox-hounds in full cry.
Occasionally these geese are found in the interior, for all their
strong maritime preferences ; but usually it is the black brant that
is mistaken for them there and on the Pacific slope.

On Long Island and southward these dusky waders walk
about at low tide, tearing up eel-grass by the roots when they
enter the marshes to feed in gabbling, honking companies.
Watched from a distance for a close approach, no matter how
stealthy, frightens these wary birds to wing they appear rather
sluggish and move heavily over the mud flats, nipping every
plant that grows in their path. Youthful gunners constantly
mistake them for some of the larger sea-ducks and wonder that
they do not dive for food. Brants never dive unless wounded.
While the tide is out they feed constantly, stopping only to
gabble and gossip, and quarrel from excessive greediness, with
the result of being too heavy and lazy with much gorging to fly
out to sea when the tide comes in and lifts them off their feet.
After sundown they go streaming in long lines out to deep, open



water to pass the night afloat. Certain localities become favorite
stopping places for these birds of passage, and they return to
them year after year, unless harassed by the gunners beyond en-
durance; but such resorts become rarer every season. In early
winter the young of the year are as delicious a game bird as
finds its way to the gunner's pouch ; but old birds taken in the

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 11 of 29)