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 14 of 29)
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 14 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

it is a fish, frog, mouse, or reptile. This terrible weapon makes
cowards of the crane's foes, small and large, yet it is the bearer
of the spear that is the greatest coward of all.

In addition to animal food, cranes eat quantities of cereals,
and when vegetable fed, as they are apt to be in autumn, sports-
men hunt them eagerly, but not too successfully, for no other
game bird, unless it is the whooping crane or the wild turkey, so
taxes their skill. It is impossible to steal upon them on the open
prairie; and in the grass-grown sloughs approach is hardly less
difficult. After each bending of the long neck, up rises the head
for another reconnoitre. If any unusual sight come within range,
the bird stands motionless and tense; then convinced of real dan-
ger, "he bends his muscular thighs, spreads his ample wings and
springs heavily into the air, croaking dismally in warning to all
his kind within the far-reaching sound of his voice," to quote Dr.
Coues. In spite of its heavy body the crane rises with slow cir-
clings to a great height until, large as it is, it becomes a mere
speck against the clouds. The long neck and stilt-like legs are
stretched out on a line with its body, in the attitude made so
familiar by the Japanese decorators of our screens and fans. Dur-


ing the migrations a flock proceeds single file under the leadership
of a wary and hoarse-voiced veteran, whose orders, implicitly
followed by each, must first be repeated down the line that winds
across the sky like a great serpent.

The Whooping, or White Crane (Grus americana), the larg-
est bird we have, measuring as it does over four feet in length,
rarely comes east of the Mississippi, although its migrations extend
from South America to the Arctic Circle. Apparently the habits
of the two cranes are almost identical, and it is even claimed by
some that one alleged third species, the little brown crane, is sim-
ply an immature whooper, in which case every feather it owns
must be shed before it appears in the glistening white plumage of
its parents. Both the whooping and sandhill cranes build nests
of roots, rushes, and weed-stalks in some marshy place, and the
two eggs of each, which are four inches long, are olive gray, in-
distinctly spotted and blotched with cinnamon brown.



(Family Rallidce)

Clapper Rail

(Rallus longirostris crepitans)


Length 14 to 16 inches.

Male and Female Upper parts pale olive varied with gray, each
feather having a wide gray margin ; more grayish brown on
wings and tail, and cinnamon brown on wing coverts.
Line above eye and the throat white, merging into the gray-
ish buff neck and breast ; sides and underneath brownish
gray barred with white. Body much compressed. Bill
longer than head, and yellowish brown, the same color as
legs. Young fledgelings black.

Range Atlantic and Gulf coasts of United States, nesting from
Connecticut southward, and resident south of the Potomac.

Season April to October, north of Washington.

Salt marshes, mangrove swamps, and grassy fields along the
seacoast contain more of these little gray skulkers than the keen-
est eye suspects ; and were it not for their incessant chattering,
who would ever know they had come up from the south to
spend the summer? At the nesting season there can be no
noisier birds anywhere than these; the marshes echo with their
" long, rolling cry," that is taken up and repeated by each mem-
ber of the community, until the chorus attracts every gunner to
the place. Immense numbers of the compressed, thin bodies,
that often measure no more than an inch and a quarter through
the breast, find their way to the city markets from the New
Jersey salt meadows, after they have taken on a little fat in the
wild oat fields. " As thin as a rail " is a suggestive saying, indeed,
to the cook who has picked one.


Rails, Gallinules, Coots

To get a good look at these birds in their grassy retreats is
no easy matter. Row a scow over the submerged grass at high
tide as far as it will go, listen for the skulking clatterers, and if
near by, plunge from the bow into the muddy meadow, and you
may have the good fortune to flush a bird or two that rises flut-
tering just above the sedges, flies a few yards trailing its legs
behind it, and drops into the grasses again before you can press
the button of your camera. A rarer sight still is to see a clapper
rail running, with head tilted downward and tail upward, in a
ludicrous gait, threading in and out of the grassy maze. Stand-
ing on one leg, with the toes of the other foot curled in, is a
favorite posture ; or one may be detected climbing up the reeds
to pick off the seeds at the top, clasping the stem with the help
of its low, short, hind toes. A rail's feet are wide spread because
of long toes in front, that prevent the bird from sinking into the
mud and scum it so lightly runs over. It can swim fairly well,
but not fast. As might be expected in birds so shy, these be-
come more active toward dusk, their favorite feeding hour, and
certainly more noisy.

Not even to nest will a clapper rail go much beyond tide
water. From six to twelve cream white eggs spotted with
reddish brown are laid in a rude platform of reeds and finer
grasses on the ground, where they must always be damp if not
wet; yet who ever finds a mother rail keeping the eggs warm ?

The King Rail, the Red Breasted Rail, or Fresh Water Marsh
Hen (Rallus elegans) differs from its more abundant salt water
prototype chiefly in being larger and more brightly colored, and
possessing a more musical voice. Olive brown, varied with
black above; rich chestnut on the wing coverts; reddish cinnamon
on breast that fades to white on the throat; sides and underneath
dusky, barred with white, are features to be noted in distinguish-
ing it from the grayish clapper. A marsh overgrown with sedges
and drained by a sluggish fresh water stream makes the ideal
feeding and nesting ground of the king rail from the southern
and middle states northward to Ontario. In habits these two
rails are closely related. Mr. Frank Chapman describes the king
rail's call as "a loud, startling bup, bup, bup, bup, bup, uttered
with increasing rapidity until the syllables were barely dis-
tinguishable, then ending somewhat as it began. The whole


Rails, Gallinules, Coots

performance occupied about five seconds." Of all impossible
clews to the identification of a bird, that of its notes as written
down differently in every book you pick up is the most hopeless
to the novice without field practice. Nearly all the rails have
a sort of tree toad rattle in addition to some other notes, which
in the king rail's case have a metallic, ringing quality, and that are
perhaps most intelligibly written " ke-linh-kink; kink-hinh-hink."

Virginia Rail

(Rallus virginianus)


Length 8.50 to IO inches.

Male and Female Like small king rails; streaked with dark
brown and yellowish olive above; reddish chestnut wing
coverts; plain brown on top of head and back of neck; a
white eyebrow; throat white; breast and sides bright rufous;
flanks, wing linings, and under tail coverts broadly barred
with dark brown and white; eyes red.

Range From British Provinces to Guatemala and Cuba; nests
from New York, Ohio, and Illinois northward; winters from
near the southern limit of its nesting range southward.

Season Summer resident, April to October, north of Washington.

When the original grant of Queen Elizabeth included nearly
all the territory east of the Mississippi that the Massachusetts
Bay Colony did not take in, the Virginia rail's name would have
been more appropriate than it is to-day ; for it is by no means a
local bird, as its name might imply, and neither on the coast nor
in the interior, north and south, is it rare. Short of wing, with a
feeble, fluttering flight when flushed from the marsh, into which
it quickly drops again, as if incapable of going farther, this small
land lover can nevertheless migrate immense distances. One
straggler from a flock going southward recently fell exhausted on
the deck of a vessel off the Long Island coast nearly a hundred
miles at sea. The ornithologist must frequently smile at the
mysteries and superstitions associated with the nesting and
migrating habits of this and other rails by the unintelligent.

Doubtless there are many more of all species of rails in the
United States than even one who scoured the marshes would


Rails, Gallinules, Coots

suppose. It is only at high tide along the coast that a boat may
enter their marshy retreats far enough to flush any birds. The
rest, secure in the tall sedges, run in and out of the tall grass on
well beaten paths and through aisles of their own making without
giving a hint as to their whereabouts. This bird, like the king
rail, is frequently called a fresh water, marsh, or mud hen; not
because it eschews salt water, but because, even near the sea, it
is apt to find out those spots in the bay where fresh water springs
bubble up rather than the brackish. Only the bobolinks and red-
winged blackbirds, feeding with them on wild oats or rice, the
swamp sparrows, marsh wrens, and other companions of the
morass, know how many rails are hidden among the bulrushes,
sedges, and bushes.

During May, when a nest of grasses is built on the ground,
in a tussock that screens from six to twelve pale buff, brown
spotted eggs; and in June, when a brood of downy black chicks
comes out of the shell, the penetrating voice of the Virginia rail
incessantly calls out cut, cutta-cutta-cutta to his mate. " When
heard at a distance of only a few yards," says Brewster, " it has
a vibrating, almost unearthly quality, and seems to issue from
the ground directly beneath one's feet. The female, when
anxious about her eggs or young, calls ki-ki-ki in low tones, and
kiu much like a flicker. The young of both sexes in autumn
give, when startled, a short, explosive hep or kik, closely similar
to that of the Carolina rail." Still another sound is a succession
of pig-like grunts, made early in the morning, late in the after-
noon, or in cloudy weather. Confusing as are the notes of the
different rails, they must be learned if one is to know the shy
skulkers, that, unlike a good child, are so much more often heard
than seen.


(Por^ana Carolina)


Length 8 to 9. 50 inches.

Male and Female "Above, olive brown varied with black and
gray; front of head, stripe on crown, and line on throat,
black; side of head and breast ashy gray or slate; sides of
1 80

Rails, Gallinules, Coots

breast spotted with white; flanks barred slate and white;
belly white." (Nuttall.) Bill stout and short (.75 of an inch
long). Immature birds have brown breast, no black on head,
and a white throat.

Range Temperate North America; more abundant on the Atlantic
than the Pacific slope. Nests from Kansas, Illinois, and New
York northward to Hudson Bay; winters from our southern
states to West Indies and northern South America.

Season Common summer resident at the north; winter resident
south of North Carolina; sometimes in sheltered marshes
farther north.

Where flocks of bobolinks (transformed by a heavy moult into
the streaked brown reed birds of the south) congregate to feed
upon the wild rice or oats in early autumn, sportsmen bag the
soras also by tens of thousands annually, both of these misnamed
"ortolans" coming into market in September and October, by
which time the sora's pitifully small, thin body has acquired the
only fat it ever boasts. "As thin as a rail " at every other season,
however, is a most significant expression, yet many people think
it is a fence rail that the adage refers to.

The strongly compressed heads and bodies of all the rail tribe,
enabling these birds to thread the maze of aisles among the sedges
without causing a blade to quiver and tell the tale of their where-
abouts, is almost ludicrous when exposed to view a rare sight.
After one has punted a skiff over the partly submerged grass of
their retreats and has waited silent and motionless for endless
moments, a dingy little brown, black, and gray bird may walk
gingerly out of the reeds, placing one long foot timidly before
the other, curling the toes of each foot as it is raised, while
with head thrust forward and downward, and with the elevation
of the rear end of the body emphasized by the pointed tail that
jerks nervously at every step taken, an incarnation of fear moves
before you. One old shooter declares he has seen rails swoon and
go into fits from fright.

Food gathered from the surface of the ground is picked off
with sharp pecks, but all the rails run up the rushes also, clinging
with the help of their hind toes to the swaying stem within reach
of the grain hanging in tassels at the top. The long front toes,
flattened but scarcely lobed, enable them to swim across a ditch
or inlet, and all the rails are good divers. Rather than expose
themselves as a target for the gunner, they will cling to submerged


Rails, Gallinules, Coots

stalks, with their bills only above water, and allow a skiff to pass
over them, without stirring. When thoroughly frightened by the
dogs' constant flushing, and the shooting of their masters in the
marsh, or, more particularly, when wounded, many never rise

It is always the sportsman's hope to flush the rails, whose
strong legs and skulking habits sufficiently protect them in the
sedges, but whose slow, short flight keeps them within range of
the veriest tyro. The 'prentice hand is tried on rails. Trailing
their legs after them, and feebly fluttering their wings as they rise
just above the tops of the rushes, they soon drop down into them
again as if exhausted ; yet these are the very birds that migrate
from the West Indies to Hudson Bay. Their flight is by no means
so feeble as it appears. Darky " pushers " enfold the goings and
comings, the nesting and incubation of the rails, with all manner
of absurd superstitions.

Were it not for the incessant squeaking, "like young pup-
pies," that is kept up in the haunts of soras, especially at dusk,
morning or evening, or at the nesting season, or when startled by
a sudden noise, we should never suspect there were birds living
in the marshes. Pushers in the reedy lakes of Illinois and Michi-
gan, and along the low shores of the James and other quiet rivers,
sweetly whistle and call ker-wee, ker-wee, peep, peep, and kuk,
'kuk, kuk, k, 'k,'k, 'kuk, until scores of throats reply, and slaughter
soon commences. What little tender flesh there is on the rails'
poor bodies, rather flavorless and sapid at the best, is filled with
shot for the gourmands to grit their teeth against. As Mrs. Wright
says of the bobolinks, so it may be said of the broiled or skewered
soras, that they only serve "to lengthen some weary dinner
where a collection of animal and vegetable bric-a-brac takes the
place of satisfactory nourishment."

In the sedges that shelter and feed them, the rails also build
their matted grassy nest, never far from the water, and indeed
often lifted into a tussock of grasses washed by it. The eggs,
more drab than buff, but spotted and marked with reddish brown
like the Virginia rail's, may number as many as fifteen ; and the
glossy black chicks run about on strong legs, but with the creep-
ing timidity of mice, from the hour of hatching.

The Yellow, or New York, or Yellow-breasted Rail (Por^ana

Rails, Gallinules, Coots

noveboracensis), an even more skulking, timid species than the
sora, has a reputation for rarity that doubtless the blackbirds,
bobolinks, and marsh wrens, which alone can penetrate into the
mysteries of the sedges, would express differently were they able
to retail secrets. This small rail, that measures only seven inches
in length, has more wisdom than its larger kin, and refuses to be
flushed except in extreme cases, for the gunners to hit during its
feeble, fluttering flight. Dogs must be sent into the marshes
after the panic stricken birds running through aisles of grasses
until about to be overtaken, when they escape by rising from the
frying pan of the dogs' jaws only to fall into the fire of shot from
the rifles. Ordinarily they keep so closely concealed among the
grasses, that were it not for their croaking call, suggesting the
voice of the tree toad, no one would suspect their presence. All
rails are more or less nocturnal in their habits, and the yellow-
breasted species, more full of fears than any, rarely lifts up its
voice, that Nuttall described as an "abrupt and cackling cry
'krek, 'krek, 'krek, krek, kuk, k 'uk," after daylight or before
sunset. The description of the sora's habits, which are almost
identical with this rail's, should be read to avoid repetition. In
plumage, however, these two birds are quite different, the
yellow-breasted rail having black upper parts streaked with
brownish yellow and marked with white bars, the buff of the
breast growing paler underneath, the dusky flanks barred with
white, and the under coverts varied with black, white, and rufous.
Its wing linings are white, but these the bird takes good care not
to show.

The Little Black Rail, or Crake (Por^ana jamaicensis), the
smallest of the family, exhibits all the family shyness and fear,
which, taken with its obscure coloration and its extreme unwill-
ingness to rise on the wing, keep it almost unknown, although
its range extends from Massachusetts, Illinois, and Oregon to
Louisiana, the West Indies, and Central America. As its name
implies, it is common in Jamaica. Mr. Marsh of that island writes
its call ' ' chi-chi-cro-croo-croo, several times repeated in sharp high
notes so as to be audible to a considerable distance." Guided by
this call, one may count oneself rarely fortunate to discover the
little mouse-like bird that makes it, running swiftly in and out of
the sedges. Its head, breast, and under parts are slate color; its


Rails, Gallinules, Coots

fore back and nape are rich brown ; its lower back, wings, and
tail are brownish black spotted with white, and the flanks and
dusky under parts are barred with white.

Common Gallinule

(Gallinula galeata)


Length 12 to 14 inches.

Male and Female A bare, bright red shield on forehead, same
color as bill; plumage uniform dark bluish or grayish black,
darkest on head and neck; washed with olive brown on
back and shoulders, and fading to whitish underneath; flanks
conspicuously streaked with white; space under tail white;
legs greenish yellow, reddish at joint.

Range Temperate and tropical America, nesting from Ontario
and New England to Brazil and Chili, and wintering from
our southern states southward.

Season Summer resident or transient summer visitor, from May
to October, north of the southern states.

There is a popular impression, for which the early ornitholo-
gists are doubtless responsible, that all gallinules are birds of the
tropics; but this so-called Florida species crosses the Canadian
borders in no small numbers every summer, and nests are also
constantly reported in our northern and middle states. The
truth probably is that the range of the Florida gallinule has not
extended, but that within the last half century a hundred bird
students scour our woods, meadows, and marshes for every
enthusiast that tramped over them fifty years ago; and we are
just becoming thoroughly acquainted with many of our birds
when the gunners, milliners, cats, and other fatal accompaniments
of a civilization that in many respects is still barbaric, threaten to
exterminate the sadly decreased numbers left us to enjoy.

Gallinules, although wild, shy, and timid creatures, or they
would be no kin of the rails, wade more than they and swim
expertly. It is amusing to watch their heads bob in rhythm
with their feet as they rest lightly on the water. In brackish
pools rather than salt ones, and preferably around fresh water


Rails, Gallinules, Coots

lakes and meadow brooks, they keep well concealed among the
sedges while the sun is high or when danger threatens, coming
boldly out to feed on the mud flats at dusk, or when they think
themselves unobserved. Apparently they tolerate other galli-
nules' society only if they must. Quarrels arising from jealousies
over an infringement of territorial rights frequently occur.

A gallinule strides from its grassy screen with grace and
elegance, curling its toes when it lifts its large foot, as if it had
taken a course of Delsarte exercises. Wading into the shallow
pool, still curling its long toes before plunging its foot down-
ward, and tipping its tail at every step, showing the white
feathers below it, the bird strides along, close to the shore, stop-
ping from time to time to nip the grasses and seeds on the bank,
or to secure some bit of animal food on the muddy bottom of the
water. Snails and plantains are favorite morsels. When lily
pads or other flat leaved plants appear on its path, the gallinule
runs lightly over them, upheld partly by its long toes and partly
by its fluttering wings. Dr. Abbott tells of seeing a gallinule in
his favorite New Jersey creek that went through the unusual (?)
performance of throwing back its head until the occiput rested on
its shoulders, and at the same moment the wings were lifted
lightly as if the bird intended to fly.

But flying is an art this terrestrial wader practices rarely. It
depends sometimes upon swimming and diving, but almost
always on running, to escape danger, many men of science
claiming that a large part of its migrating also is done a-foot.
As the family parties escape under cover of darkness, and steal
away as silently as the Arabs, who knows positively how they
travel ? A gallinule, equally with a barnyard chicken, appears
ridiculous and out of its element in the air as it labors along a few
paces, dragging its legs after it, and drops awkwardly to the

The similarity to a chicken does not end with flight. In
appearance, as in habits, and particularly in voice, the water hens
and hens of the poultry yard have much in common. A single
pair in a swamp keep up clatter enough for a yard full of fowls,
"now loud and terror stricken like a hen whose head is just
going to be cut off," as a friend of Bradford Torrey's expressed
it; "then soft and full of content, as if the aforesaid hen had laid
an egg ten minutes before and were still felicitating herself upon


Rails, Gallinules, Coots

the achievement." When both the Florida and the purple galli-
nules build their nests, they very often simply bend down the
tops of grasses to form a platform, then place a rude, grassy
cradle on it; or the nest may be moored to the stems of the
rushes, or to a bush, where the incoming tide raises it, but can-
not loosen its anchors. But usually drier sites are chosen.

The Purple Gallinule (lonornis martinica), a common bird in
the southern states, nests so far north as southern Illinois and
Carolina, and occasionally strays northward to New England and
Wisconsin. In the Gulf states it is usually found in the same
marsh with the Florida gallinule, eating the same food, nesting
in the same manner, cackling like a chicken, in fact sharing
nearly all its cousin's habits, its gorgeous plumage alone giving
it distinction.

American Coot

(Fulica americana)


Length 14 to 1 6 inches.

Male and Female General color slate; very dark on head and
neck, lighter on under parts; edge of wing, tips of secon-
daries, and space below tail, white. Bill ivory white; two
brownish spots near tip, the same shade as the horny plate
on front of head, which is a characteristic mark of both
gallinules and coots. Legs and feet pale green, the latter
with scalloped lobes.

Range North America at large, from Greenland and Alaska to
the West Indies and Central America; .nesting throughout
range, but more rarely on Atlantic coast.

Season Resident in the south ; chiefly a spring and autumn mi-
grant at the north, April, May; September to November.

More aquatic than any of its kin, the coot delights in the
swimming and diving feats of a grebe, and appears to be the
connecting link between the swimmers, with whom it was
formerly classed, owing to its lobed toes. What these toes lack

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 14 of 29)