Neltje Blanchan.

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

. (page 12 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

spring migration defy the inroads of any tooth not canine.

Because it nests so very far to the north, the life history of
this goose is still incomplete. According to Saunders, the nest
is composed of grasses, moss, etc., lined with down and made
on the ground. Four smooth and creamy white eggs fill it.

The Black Brant (Branta nigricans), a name sometimes
applied to the white-fronted goose to distinguish it from the
white brant or snow goose, is the western representative of the
preceding species and of only casual occurrence on the Atlantic
coast. It may be readily distinguished from its ally by its darker
under parts and the white markings on the front as well as the
sides of its neck. Their habits are almost identical. Both these
" barnacle geese " take their name, not from their fondness for
the little crustacean, for they are almost vegetarians, but from the
absurd fable that they grew out of barnacles attached to wood in
the sea. Some etymologists claim that the word brant is derived
from the Italian word branta, coming from branca, a branch ; but
these geese have nothing to do with branches, unlike the Canada
geese that sometimes nest in trees; and we may more confidently
accept Dr. Coues's statement that brant means simply burnt, the
dark color of the goose suggesting its having been charred.



(Subfamily Cygnince)

Whistling- Swan

(Olor columbianus)

Called also: AMERICAN SWAN

Length 55 inches, or a little under 5 feet.

Male and Female Entire plumage white; usually a yellow spot
between the eyes and nostrils, but sometimes wanting;
bill, legs, and feet black. Immature birds have some brown-
ish and grayish washings on parts of their plumage.

Range North America, nesting about the Arctic Ocean, and
migrating in winter to our southern states and the Gulf of
Mexico. Rare on the Atlantic coast north of Maryland;
more abundant on the Pacific.

Season Winter visitor and spring and autumn migrant, October
to April.

It is impossible for one who has seen only the common mute
swans floating about in the artificial lakes of our city parks,
while happy children toss them bits of cake and crackers, to
imagine the grandeur of a flock of the great whistlers in their
wild state. Not far from Chicago such a flock was recently seen
in its autumn migration, and as the huge birds rose from the
lake into the air, it seemed as if an aerial regatta were being
sailed overhead ; the swans, each with a wing-spread of six or
seven feet, moving like yachts under full sail in a mirage where
water blended with sky and tricked one's vision. The sight is
among the most impressive in all nature. It is wonderful !

On the Pacific coast, in the interior, down the Mississippi
to the gulf states, and up the Atlantic coast from Florida to the
Chesapeake, the whistling swans wander between October and
April, flying at the rate of one hundred miles an hour, it is


estimated. Like many of their smaller relatives, they fly in
wedge shaped flocks, with an experienced, clarion voiced veteran
in the lead. Dr. Sharpless, who was the first to point out this
species as distinct from the whooping or whistling swan of
Europe, with which our early ornithologists confused it, says :
"Their notes are extremely varied, some closely resembling the
deepest bass of the common tin horn, while others run through
every modulation of false note of the French horn or clarionet."
The age of the bird is supposed to account for the difference in
the voice. No one can mistake the notes for the product of any
musical instrument, however. One unkind man in the south,
who was wakened in the depth of night by the noisy trumpet-
ings of a flock feeding in a lagoon near his home, was heard to
remark that if the swan did not really sing just before its death,
it really ought to die just after making that noise! The poets,
from Homer to Tennyson, and not the scientists, are responsible
for the story of the swan's chanting its own dirge. These
swans are particularly noisy when dressing their feathers, when
feeding, and when flying, especially just after mounting from the
water into the air, when they make loud demands each for its
proper place in the V-shaped column. The Indians say that the
swans follow in the wake of a flock of geese. Perhaps the
Hudson Bay Fur Company, which has bought thousands of pounds
of swan's down from the Indians, best knows why there are so
few flocks of swans left to follow the geese to-day.

Around the shores of lakes and islands in the Hudson Bay
region, these swans return to nest in May; and gathering a mass
of sticks and aquatic plants, pile them to a height of two feet
or more, this down-lined nest being sometimes six feet across.
In the labor of making it the male helps, for he is a far
better mate and father than either a drake or a gander. From
two to six rough, grayish eggs, over four inches long and nearly
three inches wide, are laid in June, and not until after five
weeks of close confinement on the nest can the proud mother
lead her brood to water. At first the fledgelings are covered with
a grayish brown down, which gradually changes into the white
plumage that it takes twelve months to perfect. Young cygnets
are counted a great delicacy by the epicures of Europe.

Had the prehistoric swans been content to nibble herbage on
the banks of streams, instead of immersing their necks to probe



the bottoms for mollusks, worms, and roots, doubtless their
necks would have reached no abnormal length. One rarely sees
a swan tipping after the manner of the river ducks, and never
diving. To escape pursuit the swan, which is really very shy, will
quickly distance a strong rower by swimming, yet with an ease
and majesty of movement that suggests neither fright nor haste.

The Trumpeter Swan (Olor buccinator), an even larger
species than the preceding, with no yellow on the fore part of its
head, though elsewhere identical in plumage with the whistler,
has a more western range, being rarely found east of the
Mississippi. In habits the two great birds appear to be much the
same, but the voice of the well-named trumpeter resounds with
a power equalled only by the French horns blown by red-faced
Germans at a Wagner opera.








(Order Herodiones)

Spoonbills, herons, storks, bitterns, ibises, flamingoes, egrets,
or white herons, and their kindred compose an order remark-
able for the large average size of its members, all of whom have
either long legs or necks, or both. Most of these birds belong
to the tropics; and while many of them formerly reached our
southern states in great numbers, the greed of the plume hunter,
incited by the thoughtless vanity of women, has nearly exter-
minated a number of the most beautiful species. The majority
of these birds are either local or have now become too rare to be
included in this book.


(Family Mdidce)

Slender, picturesque birds, long of neck, bill, legs, and wings,
and very short tailed. A bare space around eye; claws almost
like human nails. Silent birds, always living in flocks, chiefly
on shores of smaller bodies of water or on bars and lower
beaches on which the outgoing tide leaves a harvest of small
crustaceans, which with frogs, lizards, small fish, etc., form
their food. Sexes alike ; young different.

White Ibis, or Spanish Curlew.

Storks and Wood Ibises

(Family Ciconiidce)

Unhappily these storks still retain the name "ibis," which
no amount of scientific protest seems possible to shake off.
General form as in preceding group ; but bill, which is as broad
as the face at base, has tip curved downward. Four long toes,

Herons and their Allies

the hind one about on the level with the front ones, enabling
the birds to rake the muddy bottoms of shallow lagoons with
their feet. Claws less nail-like than in true ibises. Strong,
graceful fliers.

Wood Ibis

Herons and Bitterns

(Family Ardeidce)

Birds of this family, that contains about seventy-five species,
mostly confined to the tropics, have certain peculiar feathers
or "powder-down tracts" which, when worn in pairs of
two or three, are a fair but superficial mark of the clan. The
herons wear three pairs; one on the back, over the hips; one
underneath the hips, on the abdomen; and another on the breast.
Bitterns lack the pair underneath. Their purpose is not yet
known, but some scientists contend that these tracts are phos-
phorescent, and that fish are lured by them at night. The plu-
mage is generally loose, adorned with lengthened feathers, some
species having beautiful crests and plumes on the back, that are
worn in the nesting season. The legs are long and un-
feathered, for wading; the four toes, all on the same level, are
long and slender, for perching. The bill, which is always longer
than the elongated, narrow head, appears to run directly into the
eyes. Usually herons nest and roost in flocks, in favorable locali-
ties, numbering thousands; but when feeding on the shores of
lagoons, rivers, and lakes, solitary birds are seen. Other species,
on the contrary, live singly or in pairs all the time.

American Bittern, or Marsh Hen.

Least Bittern.

Great Blue Heron, or Blue Crane.

Little Blue Heron, or Blue Egret.

Snowy Heron, or White Egret.

Green Heron, or Poke.

Black-crowned Night Heron, or Quawk.



(Family Ibididce)

White Ibis

(Guara alba)


Length 25 inches.

Male and Female Plumage white, except the tips of four outer
wing feathers, which are black. Bare space on head; most
of bill and the long legs orange red. Long decurved bill
tipped with dusky. Immature birds dull brown, except
lower back and under parts, which are white.

Range Warmer parts of United States, nesting as far north as
Indiana, Illinois, and South Carolina; straying northward
annually to Long Island, and casually to Connecticut and
South Dakota; winters in West Indies, Central, and northern
South America.

Season Summer resident or visitor.

Flocks of these stately, picturesque birds, flying in close
squadrons, their plumage glistening in the glare of a tropical sun,
their legs trailing after them, are not so familiar a sight even in
the Gulf states as once they were. Their destruction can be set
down to nothing but wanton cruelty, for their flesh is totally
unfit for food, and their usefulness is nil if it does not consist in
enlivening waste places with their beauty.

Morning and evening the close ranks fly to and from the
feeding grounds on the shores of lagoons and lakes, or to their
favorite roosts, where their ancestors likely as not slept before
them. Standing on one leg, with head and bill drawn in to rest
between the shoulders and on the breast, the body in a perpen-
dicular position, an ibis can remain motionless for hours, a
picture of tropical indolence. The bill, which so closely resem-
bles the curlew's that this ibis is frequently called Spanish cur-


lew, enables the bird to drag out the crayfish from its shell and
pinch the last piece of flesh from soft-shelled crustaceans. Small
fish, frogs, lizards, and other aquatic animal food never seem to
fatten this slender bird, that is a ravenous feeder none the less.

Colonies of ibises build nests in ancestral nurseries, which
may be in reedy marshes, or in low trees and bushes not far from
good feeding grounds. Three to five pale greenish eggs marked
with chocolate are found in the coarse, bulky nest of reeds and
weed stalks.



(Family Ciconiidce)

Wood Ibis

(Tantalus loculator)


Length 40 inches.

Male and Female Head and neck bare, and bluish or yellowish ;
plumage white, except the primaries and secondaries of
wings and the tail, which are greenish black. Legs blue,
blackish toward the toes; long, thick, decurved bill, dingy
yellow. Immature birds have head covered with down;
plumage dark gray, with blackish wings and tail, but soon

Range "Southern United States, from the Ohio Valley, Colo-
rado, Utah, southeastern California, etc., south to Argentine
Republic; casuallv northward to Pennsylvania and New
York." A. O. U."

Season Resident, or summer visitor.

Like the turkey buzzards, this wood stork has the fascinating
grace of flight that one never tires of watching, as the birds, first
mounting upward with strong wing beats, go sailing away over-
head in great spirals, floating on motionless, wide wings, wheel-
ing, gyrating, rising, falling, skimming in and out of the pathless
maze that a flock follows as if its members were playing a sedate
game of cross tag. With necks distended and legs trailing on a
horizontal with their bodies, their length is extreme. As these
birds are gluttonous feeders, it has been suggested that their
flights, like the buzzard's, are taken for exercise to quicken their

There is a tradition to the effect that the wood ibis is a
solitary misanthrope, but Audubon mentions thousands in a
flock; and while the day of such sights has passed forever in this
land of bird butchers, one rarely sees a lone fisherman in the south

Storks and Wood Ibises

to-day, and where one meets the bird at all, it is likely to be in
the company of at least a score of its kind, with possibly a few
buzzards sailing in their midst. "The great abundance of the
wood ibis on the Colorado, especially the lower portions of the
river," says Dr. Coues, " has not been generally recognized until
of late years, . . . but the swampy tracts and bayous of Louisi-
ana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are . . . their favorite

Speaking of a hunting trip on the Myakka River in west
Florida, in 1879, Mr. G. O. Shields writes: "As we walked
quietly around a bend in the river, just out of sight of our camp,
and came to an open glade or meadow of perhaps an acre, a sight
met our eyes that might have inspired the soul of a poet or have
awakened in the mind of the prosiest human being visions of
Paradise. There sat great flocks of richly colored birds, the backs
of which were nearly white, the wings and breast a rich and
varied pink, changing in some of the males to almost scarlet.
These were the roseate spoonbills [now nearly extinct]. In an-
other part of the glade was a large flock of the stately wood ibis,
with body of pure white, and wings a glossy radiant purple and
black. In still another part, a flock of snowy white egrets,
and here and there a blue or gray heron, or other tropical bird.
Alarmed at our approach they all arose, but, as if aware their
matchless beauty was a safeguard against the destroying hand of
man, they soared around over our heads for several minutes
before flying away. As they thus hovered over us we stood and
contemplated the scene in silent awe and admiration. Our guns
were at a parade rest. We had no desire to stain a single one of
the exquisite plumes with blood."

Indolent as creatures of the tropics are wont to be, the wood
stork goes to no further effort to secure a dinner than dancing
about in the shallow edges of the lagoon, to stir up the mud,
which brings the fish to the top. A sharp stroke from its
heavy bill leaves the fish floating about dead to serve as bait.
With head drawn in between its shoulders, a pensive, sedate
figure, the stork now calmly waits for other fish, frogs, lizards,
or other reptiles to approach the bait, when, quick as thought, it
strikes right and left, helping itself to the choicest food, and
leaving the rest for the buzzards and alligators. A sun bath after
such a gorge completes its happiness.



(Family Ardeidce)

American Bittern

(Botaurus lentiginosus)


Length Varies from 24 to 34 inches.

Male and Female Subcrested ; upper parts freckled with shades
of brown, blackish, buff, and whitish ; top of head and back
of neck slate color, with a yellow-brown wash; a black
streak on sides of neck; chin and throat white, with a few
brown streaks; under parts pale buff, striped with brown;
head flat. Bill yellow, and rather stout, and sharply pointed ;
tail small and rounded; legs long and olive colored.

Range Temperate North America; nests usually north of Vir-
ginia, and winters from that state southward to the West

Season Summer resident, or visitor from May to October; per-
manent in the south.

The booming bittern, whose " barbaric yawp " echoes from
lonely marshes, grassy meadows, and swamps through the sum-
mer, enjoys greater popularity in name than in deed; for he is a
hermit, a shy, solitary wanderer, that even Thoreau, no less
secluded than he, knew by his voice chiefly. " Many have
heard the stake driver," says Hamilton Gibson, "but who shall
locate the stake?" The same bird whose voice sounds like
a stake being driven into a bog, or, again, "like the working
of an old-fashioned wooden pump, "or like the hoarse crowing
of a raven when it flies at night, has for its love song the most
dismal, hollow bellow, that comes booming from the marshes at
evening, a mile away, with a gruesome solemnity. One of these

Herons and Bitterns

calls has been written pump-er-lunk, pump-er-lunk, pump-er-
lunk; but a better rendering, perhaps, is Dr. Abbott's puck-la-
grook, which has been verified again and again.

After the sedges in the marshes have grown tall, it is next to
impossible to find the bird; but on its arrival in spring, when it
pumps most vociferously in the fens, the paddler up some lonely
creek follows the sound until he sees this freckled fellow stand-
ing perfectly still in the low grass, its head held erect and pointed
upward. Not a muscle moves while the bird remains in ignor-
ance of the watcher. An hour passes, and it might be a dead
stump standing there in the twilight. It looks particularly
like a stump if it has assumed another favorite position, of draw-
ing in its head until it touches its back. Suddenly a succession
of snappings and gulpings, to fill its lungs with air, convulses the
creature, and then three booming bellowings come forth with
gestures that suggest horrible nausea. One who did not see the
bird in the act of making these noises would imagine from their
quality that they came from below the water, and there are
many stories in circulation among people who do not go to the
pains to verify them, that water is actually swallowed and
ejected by bitterns to assist their voices; but it is not.

Come upon the hermit suddenly, and it seems paralyzed by
fright. When danger actually threatens, up go the long head
feathers, leaving the neck bare and making the bird look formid-
able indeed. The plumage is ruffled, the wings are extended,
and if the adversary comes too near, a violent slap from the strong
wing and a thrust from the very sharp beak makes him wish his
zeal for bird lore had been tempered with discretion. A little
water spaniel was actually stabbed to death as a result of its
master's inquisitiveness.

During the day, the bittern, being extremely timid, keeps
well hidden in the marshes; but it is not a nocturnal bird, by any
means, however well it likes to migrate by night. To some
it may appear sluggish and indolent as it stands motionless for
hours, but it is simply intelligently waiting for frogs, lizards,
snakes, large winged insects, meadow mice, etc., to come
within striking distance, when, quick as thought, the prey is
transfixed. A slow, meditative step also gives an impression of
indolence, but the bittern is often only treading mollusks out of
the mud with its toes.


Herons and Bitterns

In the air the bittern still moves slowly, and with a tropical
languor flaps its large, broad wings, and trails its legs behind,
to act as a rudder as it flies close above the tops of the sedges.
When a longer journey than from one part of the marsh to
another must be made, the solitary traveller mounts high by
describing circles; and, secure under the cover of darkness, makes
bold and long excursions. It is only in the nesting season that
we find these birds in couples. Then neither one is ever far
away from the rude grassy nest that holds from three to five
pale olive buff eggs hidden among the sedges, on the ground, in
a marsh. There are those who assert that young bitterns are
good food.

Least Bittern

(Ardetta exilis)


Length 13 inches.

Male Subcrested ; top of head, back, and tail black, with green
reflections; back of neck and sides of head brownish red,
also wings, coverts, and edges of some quills ; throat
whitish, shading into buff on under parts; the deepest shade,
almost a yellow-brown, on sides; much buff on wings.
Bill, eyes, and feet yellow; legs long and greenish.

Female Similar to male, but chestnut above, and the darker
under parts are lightly streaked with dark brown.

Throughout temperate North America, nesting from
Maine and the British Provinces southward ; winters from
Gulf states to West Indies and Brazil ; less common west of
the Rocky Mountains, but found on the Pacific coast to north-
ern California.

Season Summer resident.

The smallest member of a family of waders noted for their
large size, the least bittern brings down their average consider-
ably ; for it is only about a foot long, a quarter the length of the
next species. Fresh-water marshes, inaccessible swamps, boggy
lands, and sedgy ponds are where these secretive little birds
hide, with rails and marsh wrens, gallinules, bobolinks, red-
winged blackbirds, and swamp song sparrows for neighbors


Herons and Bitterns

among the rushes. Living where no rubber boot may follow
them through the muck, they usually remain unknown to many
human neighbors, unless some sluggish stream running through
their territory will float a skiff and a bird student within field-
glass range. These bitterns are by no means the solitary hermits
the larger species are. Colonies of a dozen or more couples are
found nesting within the same acre.

However retiring in habits by preference, the least bitterns
show no especial shyness when approached. Mr. Chamberlain
tells of a small colony that spend the summer within a stone's
throw of a street-car track and a playground in the busiest part
of Brookline, near Boston probably the home their ancestors
were reared in ; for all the birds of this family show marked
respect and attachment for an old homestead. In Westchester
County, New York, there is a certain sluggish river whose reedy
shores contain twenty nests or more within sight of a well-worn
foot bridge. Here, looking down into the sedges, the birds are
seen running about through the jungle, with their necks out-
stretched and their heads lowered, as they hunt for food small
minnows, or young frogs and tadpoles, lizards, and bugs
winged and crawling. Disturb the birds, and they take wing at
once, with a harsh, croaking note, qua, and flapping their wings
slowly and heavily, retreat no farther than to a denser part of the
marsh, into which they drop, and are lost in the rushes.

Dr. Abbott writes of a bittern's nest that he found near
Poaetquissings Creek that mine of nature's treasures he has
opened for the delight of easy-chair naturalists. ''Such finds
make red-letter days," he says. "The nest itself was a loosely
woven mat of twigs and grass, yet strong enough to be lifted
from the tuft of bulrush upon which it rested. There were
a single dirty blue white egg and four fuzzy baby bitterns not
a week old. They were clad in pale buff down, scantily dusted
over them, and an abundance of straight white hairs as long
as their bodies. These young birds were far less awkward,
even now, than herons of the same or even greater age. As
I took one up, it thrust its opened beak at me, but, becoming
quickly reconciled, seemed to take pleasure in the warmth of my
hand. At times it uttered a peculiarly clear, fifelike cry . . . free
from every trace of harshness."

Near sunset and in the twilight of night and morning is

Herons and Bitterns

when these bitterns, like all their kin, step boldly out of their
retreats and indulge in longer flights from home. Many men of
science have thought the powder-down tracts on their bodies
glow with phosphorescent light in the dark and attract fish
to the water's edge, where the bird stands motionless, ready to