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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transfix a victim with its beak. But as yet this is only an inter-
esting theory that has still to be Droved.

Great Blue Heron

(Ardea berodias)

Called also: BLUE CRANE; (erroneously) SANDHILL CRANE

Length 42 to 50 inches. Stands about 4 feet high.

Male and Female Crown and throat white, with a long black
crest beginning at base of bill, running through eye, and
hanging over the neck, the two longest feathers of which
are lacking in autumn. Very long neck, light brownish
gray, the whitish feathers on lower neck much lengthened
and hanging over the dusky and chestnut breast. Upper
parts ashy blue ; darker on wings, which are ornamented
with long plumes, similar to those on breast, in nesting
plumage only. Bend of wing and thighs rusty red.
Under parts dusky, tipped with white and rufous. Long
legs and feet, black. Bill, longer than head, stout, sharp,
and yellow.

Range North America at large, from Labrador, Hudson Bay,
and Alaska; nesting locally through range, and wintering in
our southern states, the West Indies, and Central and South

Season Summer resident at the north, April to October, often to
December; elsewhere resident all the year.

The Japanese artists, "on many a screen and jar, on many
a plaque and fan, "have taught some of us the aesthetic value
of the heron and its allies birds whose outstretched necks, long,
dangling legs, slender bodies, and broad expanse of wing give
a picturesque animation to our own marshes. But American
artists seek them out more rarely than shooters, and a useless
mass of flesh and feathers lies decomposing in many a morass
where the law does not penetrate and the rifle ball does. Long-
fellow, in "The Herons of Elm wood," paints a word picture of
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Herons and Bitterns

this stately bird, full of appreciation of its beauty and the mystery
of the marsh. Surely no one enjoyed

" The cry of the herons winging their way

O'er the poet's house in the elmwood thickets "

more than Lowell himself.

" Sing him the song of the green morass,

And the tides that water the reeds and rushes ;

Sing of the air and the wild delight
Of wings that uplift and winds that uphold you,

The joy of freedom, the rapture of flight

Through the drift of the floating mists that infold you."

Hern, an obsolete form of heron, was perhaps last used by
Tennyson when he wrote of "The Brook" that comes "from
the haunts of coot and hern." The old adage, "not to know a
hawk from a handsaw," lacks its meaning if we do not recall
how heronsewe, a heron (not heronshaw, as is often writ-
ten), was corrupted in England long ago, when hawking was a
favorite sport there, into hernser, in turn corrupted into handsaw.
Tradition says that the soul of Herodias became incarnate in the
heron, the favorite bird of Herod, but in that case the common
heron of Europe (Ardea cinerea of Linnaeus) should bear her
hated name, and not this distinctly American species.

Patience, an easy virtue of the tropics, from whence the
great blue heron comes, characterizes its habits when we observe
them at the north. Standing motionless in shallow water, the
Sphinx-like bird waits silently, solemnly, hour after hour, for
fish, frogs, small reptiles, and large insects to come within
range; then, striking suddenly with its strong, sharp bill, it snaps
up its victim or impales it, gives it a knock or two to kill it if
the thrust has not been sufficient, tosses it in the air if the prey
is a fish, and, in order to avoid the scratching fins, swallows
it head downward. Hunters pretend to excuse their wanton
slaughter by saying herons eat too many fish ; but possibly these
were created as much for the herons' good as our own, and no
thanks are offered for the reptiles and mice they destroy.

Wild, shy, solitary, and suspicious birds, it is next to im-
possible to approach them, even after one has penetrated to the
forbidding retreats where they hide. Near sunset is the hour


1 5 Life-size.

Herons and Bitterns

they prefer to feed. In Florida one meets herons constantly,
fishing boldly on the beach, wading in the lagoons, perching on
stumps, and walking with stately tread and slow through the
sedges by the river side, their long necks towering above the
tallest grasses. The cypress swamps all through the south con-
tain herons of every kind ; but at the north the sight of this lone
fisherman is rare enough to be memorable. Nine times out of
ten he will be standing with his head drawn in to rest between
his shoulders, and motionless as a statue. As he generally
chooses to fish under the shadow of a tree by the water, or
among the rushes that grow out into the sluggish stream, his
quiet plumage and stillness protect him from all but the sharpest
eyes. Disturb him, and with a harsh rasping squawk he spreads
his long wings, flaps them softly and solemnly, and slowly flies
deeper into the marsh. At close range he looks a comical mass
of angles; but as he soars away and circles majestically above,
his great shadow moving over the marsh like a cloud, no bird
but the eagle is so impressively grand, and even it is not so

Herons are by no means hermits always. Colonies of ten or
fifteen pairs return year after year at the nesting season to ances-
tral rookeries, each couple simply relining with fresh twigs the
platform of sticks in a tree top that has served a previous brood
or generation as a nest. The three or four dull bluish green eggs
that are a little larger than a hen's very rarely tumble out of the
rickety lattice, however. Both the crudeness of the nest and the
elliptical form of the egg indicate, among other signs, that
the heron is one of the low forms of bird life, not far re-
moved, as scientists reckon space, from the reptiles. Sometimes
nests are found directly on the ground or on the tops of rocks;
but even then the fledgelings, that sit on their haunches in a state
of helplessness, make no attempt to run about for two or three

The Little Blue Heron, or Blue Egret (Ardea ccerulea), less
than half the size of its great cousin, casually wanders north-
ward and beyond the Canadian border when its nesting duties
are over in southern rookeries. Its home is also a platform of
sticks, but it is placed, with a dozen or more like it, in bushes
over the watery hunting ground, and not in the tops of tall


Herons and Bitterns

cypresses or other trees. Such colonies are still found as far north
as Pennsylvania and southern Illinois. A rich maroon brown
head and neck set off its bluish slate plumage, which is adorned
with lengthened pointed feathers on the breast and shoulders.
Immature birds are more confusing. At first they are white, or
white washed with slaty gray, the tips of the primaries always
remaining bluish slate, however, which enables one to tell them,
with the help of their greenish yellow legs, from the snowy herons
or egrets so often confused with them. Happily, the little blue
herons wear no aigrettes, or they would share the tragic fate of
the beauty of their family.

" What does it cost, this garniture of death ?

It costs the life which God alone can give ;
It costs dull silence where was music's breath ;

It costs dead joy that foolish pride may live ;
Ah, life and joy and song, depend upon it,
Are costly trimmings for a woman's bonnet ! "

Only a generation ago the Snowy Heron (Ardea candidissima)
was so abundant the southern marshes fairly glistened with flocks,
as if piled with snow; but all the trace of this exquisite bird now
left is in the aigrettes that, once worn as its wedding dress, to-day
wave above the unthinking brows of foolish women. In some
states there is a penalty attached to the shooting of this heron ;
but the plume hunters evade the law by cutting the flesh contain-
ing the aigrettes from the back of the living bird, that is left to die
in agony. Countless thousands of the particularly helpless fledge-
lings, suddenly orphaned, have slowly starved to death, and so
rapidly hastened the day when the extinction of the species must
end the sinful folly.

Little Green Heron

(Ardea virescens)


Length 16 to 1 8 inches; smallest of the herons.
Male and Female Lengthened crest and crown of head dark
green ; rest of receding head and neck chestnut red, shading

Herons and Bitterns

into yellow; brownish ash under parts; throat white, with
line of dark spots widening on breast; back, with pointed
lengthened feathers between shoulders, is green, or washed
with grayish ; wings and tail dark green, the coverts of the
former outlined with white. Bill long and greenish black.
Rather short legs, greenish yellow. Immature birds lack the
lengthened feathers on back, are less brilliant, their crests
are smaller, and they have black streaks on their under parts.

Range Tropical and temperate America; nests throughout the
United States and far into the British possessions; winters
from Gulf states southward.

Season Summer resident, April to October.

This smallest, most abundant, and most northern heron
comes up from the south in lustrous green plumage that gradu-
ally loses its iridescence as nesting duties tell upon the physique;
but as it is a solitary, shy bird, very few get a close look at its
feathers at any time. Delighting in quagmires, where no rubber
boot stays on the foot of the pursuer, the little green heron goes
deeper and deeper into the swamp, and keeps well concealed
among the rushes by day, coming out to the shores of wooded
streams and sedgy ponds toward dusk, when often as not the
motionless little figure is mistaken for a snag and passed by.

Not a muscle does the bird move while patiently waiting
for fish, frogs, and newts to come within striking distance of its
sharp bill. With head drawn down between its shoulders, it
will stand motionless for more hours than the most zealous bird
student cares to spend watching it. Where food is exceedingly
abundant, one may sometimes be seen wading around the edge
of the pond with slow, well calculated steps, snapping up the
little water animals that also become more active as evening

Startle the lone fisherman, and with a hollow, guttural
squawk it springs into the air, but does not flap its wings long
before dropping on some old stump or distended branch to learn
whether further flight is necessary. There is a certain laziness
or languor about all the herons that they have brought from the
tropics with them. When perched on a stump, its receding head
thrust forward like a stupid, its apology for a tail twitching ner-
vously, one sees the fitness of many of this heron's popular names.
But why is this inoffensive wader held in such general contempt ?

It has been stated by some scientists that, unlike many of its

Herons and Bitterns

kin, the green heron is always a hermit, rarely seen in couples,
and never found in colonies, even at the nesting season; but
surely there are enough exceptions to prove the rule. From all
points of its large nesting range come accounts of heronries
where not only green herons have built their rickety platforms of
sticks in the low branches of trees or bushes in communities, but
have associated there with different relatives, particularly with
the night heron. They begin to build nests, or reline what the
winter storms have left of their old ones, about the middle of
April. These birds become attached to their nesting sites that
they return to generation after generation, and a roost often be-
comes equally dear. There are certain favorite trees in localities
where the green heron is abundant that one rarely misses finding
a bird perched upon.

Why it is that the eggs pale dull blue, from three to six
and the helpless fledgeling do not fall out or through their ram-
shackle nursery is a mystery. Indolence characterizes these birds
from infancy; for they remain sitting on their haunches in a
state of inertia, roused only by visits of their enslaved parents
bringing them food, until they are perfectly able to fly, some
weeks after hatching.

Black-crowned Night Heron

(Nycticorax nycticorax ncevius)

Called also: QUAWK; QUA BIRD

Length 23 to 26 inches. Stands fully 2 feet high.

Male and Female Three long white feathers, often twisted into
apparently but one, at the back of head, worn only at the
nesting season. Crown and back greenish or dull black;
wings, tail, and sides of neck pearl gray with a lilac tint;
forehead, throat, and underneath white. Legs and feet yel-
low; eyes red; bill stout and black. Immature birds very
different: grayish brown, streaked or spotted with buff or
white on upper parts; under parts white streaked with
blackish ; some reddish brown feathers in wings.

Range United States and British provinces, nesting from Mani-
toba and New Brunswick southward to South America.
Winters in Gulf states and beyond.

Season Summer resident, or spring and autumn migrant north
of the southern states. Resident all the year at the south.
1 66

Herons and Bitterns

To say that this is the most sociable member of a family that
contains many misanthropic hermits, gives little idea of the night
heron's fondness for society. Colonies of hundreds of pairs are still
to be found, thanks to the bird's secluded and nocturnal habits.
Some heronries contain these birds living among the blue, the
great blue, or the green species, but in no very advanced state of
socialism, however, for the gossiping and noisy quawking over
petty quarrels that constantly arise make the place a pande-
monium. Wilson, who usually pays only the kindest, most
appreciative compliments to birds, likens the noise made by
these to that of two or three hundred Indians choking each other!

Not because the flesh of this bird is good for food, or its
plumage is desired for hats, but because it is a nuisance in the
neighborhood where civilization creeps upon the ancient eyries,
is the night heron hunted. Flocks become so attached to the
home of their ancestors, that only the harshest persecution drives
them away, and then often no further than a few hundred rods.
A sickening stench pervades the air blowing off a heronry;
decomposed portions of fish, frogs, mice, and other animal food
lie about on the ground, that is white with the birds' excrements.
At Roslyn, Long Island, almost within sight of New York, a
large colony of night herons that were driven from a populated
portion of the town, where they had nested and roosted for
many years, finally settled in a well wooded swamp not far off
only after disgraceful persecution. One man boasts of having
shot three hundred. Nevertheless there must be a thousand
birds there still. For their protection, it should be added that
there are few less inviting places to visit on a summer's day
than this heronry. Certainly there is as much sport in shooting
at the broad side of a barn as in hitting one of these large birds
that, dazed by the sunlight, sits motionless on a distended branch,
where any tyro could hit it blindfolded.

The night herons arrive from the south about the middle
of April, and at once repair what is left of the rickety platforms
of sticks used a previous season, or build new ones. The
wonder is they can weave any sort of a lattice out of such stiff,
unyielding material. These nests are generally in the tops of tall
trees, especially the cypresses, swamp oaks, and maples and
evergreens near or growing out of a swamp; but there are also
records of nests in bushes, or even on the ground. Often fluffy,


Herons and Bitterns

helpless fledgelings are found climbing about the nest while
there are still some dull, pale blue eggs unhatched in June, which
suggests the possibility of the extension of socialism into the
nurseries ; but who knows whether the rightful parents rear only
their own young ?

Toward sunset all the eyries in the swamps are emptied,
and although, while the broods are young and incapable of mak-
ing any effort whatever, the old birds must go a-fishing by day
as well as at dusk, it is at twilight and later in the night that
these herons choose to disperse among the ditches, shores of
ponds and streams, the bogs and marshy meadows, to gorge
upon the teeming animal life there. Next to this bird's fondness
for an old, colonial homestead, its insatiable appetite is perhaps
its most prominent characteristic. Evidently the digestion of a
young heron keeps in a state of perpetual motion. The old birds,
slender as they always are, grow perceptibly thinner while rais-
ing their two broods a year. A choking noise, like the painful
effort to bring up a fish that has taken a wrong course down the
bird's long throat, but which is only an attempt to sing or con-
verse, that old and young alike are constantly making, keeps
a heronry well advertised, much to the profit of the hawks.

Standing motionless, with head drawn in between its shoul-
ders, as it waits at the margin of a pond at evening for the food
to come within striking range, the heron can scarcely be distin-
guished from a crooked stick. However deficient its sight may
be, especially by day, an extraordinary keenness of ear detects
the first creak of an intruder's foot, and with a quawk, quawh,
the bird rises and is off, trailing its legs behind, after the manner
of storks that Japanese artists have made so familiar.

Have birds a color sense? A night heron that was seen
perching among the gray branches of a native beech tree must
have known how perfectly its coat blended with its surroundings,
where it was all but invisible to the passers by.







(Order Paludicolce)

Birds of the plains and marshes, the two families comprising
this order have certain resemblances of structure that unite them
into a distinct order, however the large cranes, with their long
necks and legs, seem to approach more nearly the herons and
their allies than they do the small rails, or marsh hens, and their
congeners. Cranes, rails, gallinules, and coots, unlike the altricial
heron tribe, are precocial ; that is, they run at once from the nest,
well clothed with down when hatched. These birds have four
toes, the three front ones long, to enable the birds to run lightly
over the oozy ground ; the hallux, or great toe, may be elevated
at the back, or, as in the case of gallinules and coots, on the level
with the front ones, which in several species are lobate, but not
flattened also, or palmate, as the grebes' toes are. Five large,
strong muscles give the thighs of birds of this order special
prominence, and influence the scientific classification. Shy, suspi-
cious skulkers, more fleet of foot than of wing, these birds escape
danger by running and hiding rather than by flying.


(Family Gruidce)

The cranes, as a family, are birds of largest size, seventeen
vertebrae being the usual number in their long necks, and their
stilt-like legs elevate their compactly feathered bodies to a con-
spicuous height. Usually the head is partly bare, or covered
with hairlike feathers. Bill is long, straight, slender, and strong.
Plumage either white or gray. Solitary wanderers over the


Marsh Birds

plains and marshes, the cranes associate in flocks only at the
migrations, although sometimes not averse to feeding in company
with other birds, like the geese, for example, as suspicious as
they. Field mice, snakes, lizards, frogs, berries, and cereals, all
are swallowed by these rapacious feeders. Their voice is harsh,
croaking, and resonant, and is frequently heard at night.

Sandhill, or Brown Crane.

Whooping Crane.

Rails, Gallinules, Coots

(Family Rallidce)

The exceedingly shy, skulking rails, or marsh hens, spend
their lives hidden among the sedges of marshes, where they run
very lightly over the oozy ground, picking up their food from the
surface rather than treading it out of the mud with their long
toes. Like the gallinules, they associate with their kin where
food is abundant rather than from pure sociability. In spite of
their short, rounded wings, they cover immense distances in their
migrations; but when flushed in the marshes, where they might
remain unsuspected did not their voices betray them, they rise a
few feet above the sedges, and, dragging their legs after them,
quickly drop down among the grasses they are ever loth to leave.
All manner of absurd fables about the rails being blown in from
sea, and not hatched from eggs, and certain alleged mysteries of
their nests, that human eye, it is said, has never looked upon, are
palmed off upon the credulous, not only by the superstitious
darkies in southern marshes, but by white people of intelligence,
also. Rails are birds of medium or small size; their plumage
differs little in the sexes or with age or season ; the body is com-
pressed to a point in front, but broad and blunt behind, this
wedge shaped figure enabling the bird to squeeze through the
mazes of aquatic undergrowth where it finds its constant home.
"As thin as a rail" is a truly significant term. Gallinules and
coots have a bare, horny plate on the forehead; some of the
former are superbly colored. They keep more to the muddy
shores of lagoons and ponds and less hidden among the sedges
than the rails. Graceful walkers, they are good swimmers also,


Marsh Birds

though their toes lack the lobes that enable the coots to pass
much of their lives on the water. Coots live in flocks.

Clapper Rail.

King Rail, or Marsh Hen.

Virginia Rail.

Sora, or Carolina Rail.

Yellow Rail.

Little Black Rail.

Common, or Florida Gallinule.

Purple Gallinule.

American Coot, or Mud Hen.



(Family Gruidce)

Sandhill Crane

(Grus mexicana)

Called also.- BROWN CRANE

Length 40 to 48 inches.

Male and female Entire plumage leaden gray, more brownish on
the back and wings. Upper half of head has dull reddish,
warty skin covered with short, black, hairy feathers. Long,
acute bill. Very long, stilt-like, dark legs, the tarsus alone
being 10 inches long. Tail coverts plumed. Immature birds
have heads feathered and more rusty brown in their plumage.

Range Most abundant in the interior, on the Pacific slope, and the
southwest; nests from the Gulf states northward through
the Mississippi valley to Manitoba; winters in the Gulf states
and Mexico.

Season Summer resident only north of Florida, Louisiana, and

Many people confuse this bird with the great blue heron, that
is more often called by the crane's name than its own ; but beyond
a certain resemblance of long legs and necks, these two birds
have little or nothing in common.

Immediately on their arrival in the spring the cranes go
through clownish performances, as if they were trying to be awk-
ward for the sake of being ridiculous; far from their real inten-
tion, however, for it is by these antics that mates are wooed and
won. They bow and leap " high in the air," says Colonel Goss,
"hopping, skipping and circling about with drooping wings and
croaking whoop, an almost indescribable dance and din in which
the females (an exception to the rule) join, all working themselves
up into a fever of excitement equaled only by an Indian war dance,
and like the same, it stops only when the last one is exhausted:"



strange performances indeed for birds preeminently pompous
and circumspect! Certain of the owls and plovers and the flicker
also go through laughable antics to win their coy brides, but such
boldness of wooing by the female cranes presages the arrival of a
"coming woman" among birds, still more nearly approached by
the female phalarope, that, without encouragement, does all the

One may more easily hope to find a weasel asleep than to
steal upon a crane unawares. Before settling down to a feeding
ground, it will describe great spirals in the air to reconnoitre, the
ponderous body moving with slow wing beats, while the keen eyes
scrutinize every inch of the region lest danger lurk in ambush.
Grrrrrrrrrrroo, a harsh, penetrating tremolo calls out to learn if the
coast is clear, and grrrrrrrrrooo come back the raucous cries from
sentinels far and near. Hidden in the grasses, cramped, motion-
less, breathless, one may be finally rewarded by the alighting
of the great stately bird that finally comes drifting downward and
stalks over the meadow, alert and suspicious. Not a sound
escapes its sharp ears, nor a skulking mouse its even sharper
eyes. It will thrust its beak unopened through its prey, whether

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 13 of 29)