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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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 15 of 29)
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in width is amply made up in length, the fact that makes the

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Rails, Gallinules, Coots

bird so expert in the water and correspondingly awkward when
it runs over the land, where, however, it spends very little time.
It is the horny frontal plate, taken with the general resemblance
in structure to the gallinules, that places the coot in their class.

A lake or quiet river surrounded by large marshy tracts
where sluggish streams meander, bringing down into deeper
water wild grain and seeds, the larvae of insects, fish spawn,
snails, worms, and vegetable matter, makes the ideal home of
this duck-like bird. " I come from the haunts of coot and hern,"
the song of Tennyson's brook, calls up a picture of the home
that needs no enlarging. The coot dives for food to great depths,
sometimes sinking grebe fashion, and disappearing to parts
unknown by a long swim under water with the help of both
wings and feet. Swimming on the surface, the bird has a funny
habit of bobbing its head in unison with the strokes given in the
stern by its twin screws.

A large amount of gravel seems necessary to help digest the
quantity of grain swallowed, and for this a flock of coots must
sometimes leave the muddy region of the lake. Rising from the
surface, they flutter just above it, pattering along for a distance,
their distended feet striking the water constantly, until sufficient
momentum is gained to spring into the air and trust to wing
power alone. This pattering noise and splashing, often heard
when the coots cannot be seen for the tall sedges that screen
them, is characteristic of several of the ducks also, and suggests
the notion that the trick may have been learned from them ; for in
southern waters, at least, coots and ducks often resort to the
same lakes ; that is, when the latter refuse to be driven off. .. At
no time of the year silent birds, often incessant chatterers,
it is during the nesting season that the coots break out into
shrill, high-pitched, noisy cacklings, which the slightest dis-
turbance calls forth. Jealous, unwilling to permit alien swim-
mers in their neighborhood, sociable, but without any great love
of kin or kind to mellow their dispositions or their voices, they
make their neighborhood lively. But coots are shy of men, albeit
the young and old alike have flesh no one not starving could
eat; and they usually live in some inaccessible pond or swamp,
especially at the nesting season. As night approaches, they
lose much of the timidity which keeps them concealed and
silent the greater part of the day.


Rails, Gallinules, Coots

In May a nest has been built by first trampling down the
rushes and weed stalks, then more of the same material is used
for an exterior and finer grasses for a lining of the crib which
toward the end of the month contains from eight to fifteen
yellowish white eggs sprinkled over with brownish spots,
chiefly around the larger end. Let no other bird dare show its
head in the immediate neighborhood of a pair of nesting coots.
They will tolerate no neighbors then, gregarious as they are at
other seasons. After three weeks of close confinement the
mother bird leads her large brood to water, where the chicks
swim and dive almost from the beginning, although keeping
close enough to their patient teacher to hide under her wings on
the first shrill alarm cry from the father, ever on guard. Hawks
from above and pickerel and turtles from below find no fault, as
men do, with the flavor of young coots. But soon the fledge-
lings become quite independent, leaving the parents free to
devote their attention to another brood. Usually the flock of
migrating coots that we see in autumn is only a large family












Oyster Catcher




(Order Limicolce)

Birds of the open field, marshy bogs and thickets, or shores
close by the water's edge, finding their food on the surface of the
ground, in the mud, or among the shallows of the beach,
averaging smaller than birds of any other group included in this
book, they usually have long slender legs for wading, and long
slender bills for probing the mud after food, which increase their
apparent size. Unlike the compressed figures of rails and their
allies, the bodies of these birds are depressed or well rounded ;
their wings are long and pointed; their tails, which are short, are
very full feathered. As compared with the large footed herons,
rails, and gallinules, these birds have short toes, the hinder one
very short, elevated, or absent ; but certain species find their toes
long enough to tread out worms and small shell fish from the
mud flats, and some, partly webbed, are well adapted for swim-
ming. The nests of birds of this very large order are mere
depressions in the ground, not always lined with grass, and
their young, fully clothed with down when hatched, are able to
run about immediately.


(Family Pbalaropodidce)

A small, select family of three, two of whose species keep
so far out at sea during their migrations from the Arctic regions
to the south that we rarely see them, Wilson's phalarope, alone,
being anywhere a common bird in the United States. Strangely
enough, it is far more abundant in the interior than on the coast.


Shore Birds

The bodies of these small sea snipe, as they are often called, are
depressed, covered with thick plumage to resist water that they
spend much time upon, for their feet are furnished with nar-
row lobes that enable them to swim well. They are smaller
than the robin. The curious characteristic of this family is
that it contains the most advanced female among all the feath-
ered tribes; this strong minded creature wearing the gay colors,
doing the wooing, and gayly disporting herself, while the male
incubates the eggs and attends to nursery drudgeries.

Wilson's Phalarope

Northern Phalarope

Avocets and Stilts
(Family Recuroirostridce)

Usually one sees a small flock of these waders, very long
of legs, slender and depressed of body, and with a long, sharp
bill, curved upward like an upholsterer's needle or a shoemaker's
awl. This bill, which is of extreme sensitiveness, probes the
mud in the shallows where the birds wade about for food.
Sometimes called wading snipe, they swim, when necessary, as
easily and gracefully as they walk. Their plumage may differ
with the season, but the sexes and young are alike.

American Avocet

Black-necked Stilt

Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

(Family Scolopacidce)

Generally the sensitive bill is long and straight, often several
times longer than the head, and frequently curved slightly up-
ward or downward. With this tool these birds probe the sand
or mud for food, feeling for what they want, and using the bill
also as a forceps. Often the upper prong may be bent at will for
hooking the earthworms out. Birds of this numerous family
have four toes instead of three ; but, in most instances, the struc-
ture is very like that of the plovers. Plumage, which is plain
colored, varies with the season, but little with the sexes or with
age. Usually the female is the larger. These birds average


Shore Birds

small, the least sandpiper being the smallest of our water fowl.
With few exceptions they keep near the water's edge or wherever
the ground is soft enough to be easily probed, whether by the
sea and rivers or in inland bogs, moist meadows, and thickets.
Exclusive when nesting, but not often solitary at other seasons,
they are generally gregarious, strongly attached to their compan-
ions, and migrate in large flocks. "The voice is a mellow pipe,
a sharp bleat, or a harsh scream, according to the species,"
says Dr. Coues. "Few birds surpass the snipe in sapid quality
of flesh, and many kinds rank high in the estimation of the
sportsman and epicure."


Wilson's or Jack Snipe


Long-billed Dowitcher

Stilt Sandpiper

Knot or Robin Snipe

Pectoral Sandpiper

White Rumped Sandpiper

Baird's Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

Red-backed Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Western Semipalmated Sandpiper

Sanderling or Surf Snipe

Marbled Godwit or Brown Marlin

Greater Yellowlegs


Solitary Sandpiper or Tatler


Bartramian Sandpiper or Upland "Plover"

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Long-billed Curlew

Jack Curlew

Eskimo Curlew or Doe Bird


Shore Birds


(Family Charadriidce)

Resembling the snipe in structure, plovers may be distin-
guished by their moderate or small size, averaging that of the
thrush, by their short bills (not longer and generally shorter than
the head), which are shaped somewhat like a pigeon's ; by their
three toes not an infallible guide, however, since our black-
breasted species and two others have four toes; in having
rounded scales on the tarsi ; by their plump bodies, short, thick
necks, long wings, reaching to the tip of the tail or beyond, and,
in some instances, by spurs on the wings. In habits, too, there
is a similarity to the preceding group ; but the plovers pick their
food, which is largely of an animal nature, from the surface of
the ground, instead of probing for it, as their shorter bills indi-
cate. They also more frequently visit dry fields and uplands.
Rapid runners and fliers, mellow whistlers, gregarious, except
at the nesting season, and not shy, plovers are among the best
known of our common birds.

Black-breasted Plover or Beetle-head

Golden Plover


Semipalmated or Ring-necked Plover

Piping Plover

Belted Piping Plover

Wilson's Plover

Surf Birds and Turnstones

(Family Ap~hri^idce)

One member only of this maritime family of four species
visits the outer bars and beaches of our sea coast, to turn over
shells and pebbles looking for the small animal life it preys upon.
Its head and bill resemble a plover's; its wings are long and
sharply pointed for sea roaming.

Turnstone or Calico-back


Shore Birds

Oyster Catchers

(Family Hcematopodidce)

The brightly colored bill, twice as long as the head, com-
pressed like a knife blade toward the end, is the chief distin-
guishing mark of birds of this small family. This tool is used to
pry open the shells of mussels, oysters, clams, and other shell-
fish ; hence Dr. Coues suggests oyster-opener as a better name
for these birds, since oysters don't run fast! Rather large birds,
dark colored and white in masses; the plumage of the sexes
similar; the legs stout and rough; no hind toe; the wings long
and pointed for long sea flights.

American Oyster Catcher



(Family Pbalaropodidce)

Wilson's Phalarope

(Phalaropus tricolor)


Length 8.25 to 9 inches. Smaller than a robin ; female the larger.

Female: In summer "Top of the head and middle of the back
pearl gray, nape white; a black streak passes through the
eye to the side of the neck, and, changing to rufous chest-
nut, continues down the sides of the back and on the scap-
ulars; neck and upper breast washed with pale, brownish
rufous; rest of the under parts and upper tail coverts, white.

Male: In summer Upper parts fuscous brown, bordered with
grayish brown ; upper tail coverts, nape, and a line over the
eye white or whitish; sides of the neck and breast washed
with rufous; rest of the under parts white.

Adults: In winter Upper parts gray, margined with white;
upper tail coverts white ; wings fuscous, their coverts mar-
gined with buffy; under parts white." (Chapman.)

Range Temperate North America, most abundant in the inte-
rior; nesting from northern Illinois and Utah northward, and
wintering southward to Brazil and Patagonia.

Season Chiefly a migrant in the United States ; more rarely a
summer resident.

Without the help of the woman's college, club, or bicycle,
the female phalarope has emancipated herself from most of
the bondages of her sex, showing a fine scorn for its con-
ventional proprieties. It is she who, wearing the handsome
feathers and boasting a larger size than the male although
neither bird is so large as a robin, undertakes to woo her
coy sweetheart by bold advances. Possibly a brazen rival adds



to his miseries. The at first reluctant lover may run away, but,
quickly overtaken, he soon falls a victim to the wiles of the most
persistent wooer, to continue the most hen-pecked of mates
ever after.

On him fall all the domestic drudgeries, except the laying
of the eggs the one feminine accomplishment of his almost
unsexed boss. He chooses the site for their nursery in a tuft of
grass in a wet meadow or soft earth, usually near water; and,
having scratched a slight depression in the soil and lined it with
grass, she actually condescends to lay three or four cream colored
eggs, heavily blotched with chocolate brown, about the first of
June. Sometimes a second and smaller set of eggs is found late
in the season. Many male birds, as we all know, relieve their
brooding mates, but is there another instance where the male
does all the incubating, while the female enjoys life at ease?
What must a totally enslaved mother duck think of such eman-
cipation ? And what compassion must not a dandified, care-free
drake feel for the male phalarope confined on the eggs day after
day, and scarcely permitted twenty minutes for refreshments ?

To secure their food, phalaropes run along the marshes and
beaches exactly like sandpipers, picking up snails and other small
animal forms, and nodding their heads as they go; or wading
knee deep into the ponds, thrust them below the shallow water.
"Swimming Sandpipers" they certainly are, though they swim
rarely, never for long at a time, or in deep water. Every
movement, whether afloat or ashore, is full of daintiness and
grace. In flight they sometimes cover short distances in a zig-
zag, as if uncertain of their direction ; but once launched on a
long migration, they fly with directness and power.

The Northern Phalarope (Pbalaropus lobatus), a very small,
slaty gray, chestnut red, buff and white bird, the smallest of all
the swimmers, passes along the coasts of the United States, from
its nesting grounds in the Arctic regions, to winter in the tropics.
Great flocks, bedded or swimming in the ocean, are often met
by coastwise steamers in spring and from August to November.



(Family Recurvirostridce)

American Avocet

( Recurvirostra americana)


Length 16 to 20 inches.

Male and Female : In summer White, changing into cinnamon,
on neck and head; shoulders and wings brownish black,
except the middle coverts, the tips of the greater ones, and
part of the secondaries, which are white. Very long, ex-
cessively slender black bill, curved upward. Legs very
long and of a dull blue. In winter: Similar, but head and
neck ashy or pearl gray like the tail.

Range Temperate North America, nesting from- Texas north-
ward to Great Slave Lake, and wintering in Central America
and the West Indies. Rare in the eastern United States.
Irregularly common in the interior.

Season Summer resident or spring and autumn migrant.

The avocet, like the skimmer, the sea parrot, and the
curlew, possesses one of the most extraordinary bills any bird
wears. Slowly swinging it from side to side, as a farmer
moves his scythe, the eccentric looking bird wades about in
the shallows, feeling on the bottom for food that cannot be seen
through the muddy water. Often the entire head and neck
must be immersed to probe the. mud for some small shell fish
and worms that the sensitive, needle-like bill dislodges. A
leader usually directs the motions of a small flock that follows
him through thick and thin, mud and water; or, if the water
suddenly deepens, off swim the birds until their feet strike
bottom again, and the mowing motion is resumed, while the
sickle bills feel and probe and jerk as the mowers move
along deliberately and gracefully. The curlew's tool, the true


Yz Life size.

Avocets and Stilts

sickle-bill, curves downward, just the reverse of the avocet's;
neither is it used under water.

The avocet is, perhaps, the best swimmer among the
waders, owing to its webbed toes. The thick, waterproof
plumage of its under parts keeps its body dry. When about to
alight it chooses either water or land, indifferently ; but it is al-
ways especially abundant in or about the alkaline marshes of the
interior. Not at all shy of man, it pays little attention to him
unless positively pestered, when, springing into the air, and
trailing its long legs stiffly behind to balance its outstretched
neck, it flaps leisurely away to no great distance, calling back
click, click, click, a sharp and plaintive cry. A long sail on
motionless wings, and a drift downward, brings the bird to the
ground again, but tottering at first, as if it took time to regain
its equilibrium, just like a stilt. On alighting, it strikes an ex-
quisite pose, lifting its wings till they meet over its back, like
the terns and plovers, before folding them away under the
feathers on its side.

The nest is a mere depression in the ground, in a tuft
of thick grass growing in some marshy place, and it may
be lined with fine grasses, though such luxury is not cus-
tomary. Three or four pale olive or yellowish clay colored eggs,
thickly spotted with chocolate brown, are a complement. Near
such a spot, the birds become clamorous and excitable, the
entire colony resenting any liberty taken by an intruder carrying
no more alarming weapon than a field glass. Still, a male
avocet, lost in rose colored day dreams as he paces up and down
near his nest, like the willet, on sentinel duty, rarely sees any-
thing that is not directly in his way.

Black-necked Stilt

(Himantopus mexicanus)


Length About 15 inches.

Male and Female Mantle over back and wings black, also line
running up back of long neck and spreading over top and
sides of head below the eye. Tail grayish ; rest of plumage,

Avocets and Stilts

including a spot above and below the eye, white. (Long
black wings, folding over white spots on lower back, rump,
and upper tail coverts, make the entire upper parts appear
black.) Immature birds more brownish above. Long,
straight, slender, black bill. Excessively long red or pink
legs. Beautiful large crimson eyes.

Range Tropical America, nesting northward from the Gulf
states, "locally and rarely" up the Mississippi; rare on the
Atlantic coast, though specimens have been taken in Maine
and some reach Long Island annually ; most abundant in the

Season Summer resident or visitor. Permanent resident in
Gulf states.

To a query put to an Arkansas farmer as to why this bird
should be called the lawyer, immediately came another query:
"Ain't you ever noticed its long bill?"

But it is the excessive length of legs that attracts the
attention of all except punsters. So slender and stilt-like are
they, so teetering and trembling is the bird when it alights,
that one's first impulse is to rush forward and help it regain its
equilibrium before it falls. Why must the stilt always go
through this pretense of feebleness when we know it is a strong
steady walker, graceful and alert; or, does it actually lose its
balance on alighting?

Wading about, with decided and measured steps, in shallow
pools, preferably among the salt and alkaline marshes, where the
avocets often keep them company, the stilts pick up, from first
one side, then the other, insects and larvae, small shell fish,
worms, fish fry, etc., often plunging both head and neck under
water to seize some deep swimmer. Long as their legs are,
they will wade up to their breasts to secure a good meal; but,
having no webs to their toes, swimming does not come easy, as
it does to avocets, nor is it often tried.

Strong fliers, owing to their long wings, which, when
folded, reach beyond the tail, the longshanks trail their stif-
fened legs behind them at a horizontal, after the manner of their
tribe, and continually yelp click, click, click, as the flock moves
leisurely overhead. In the nesting grounds this yelping cry is
incessant, however far the intruder keeps from the olive or
clay colored eggs or the young chicks that run about as soon
as hatched.


(Family Scolopacidce )


(Philomela minor)


Length 10 to n inches; Female n to 12 inches.

Male and Female Upper parts varied with gray, brown, black,
and buff; an indistinct black line on front of head, another
running from bill to eye; back of head black with three buff
bars. Under parts reddish buff brown. Eyes large and
placed in upper corner of triangular head. Bill long,
straight, stout. Short, thick neck and compact, rounded
body; wings and legs short.

Range Eastern North America, from the British Provinces to the
Gulf, nesting nearly throughout its range ; winters south of
Virginia and southern Illinois.

Season Resident all but the coldest months ; a few winter.

The borings of the woodcock in bogs, wet woodlands, and
fields little groups of clean cut holes made by the bird's bill in
the soft earth give the surest clue to the presence of this
luscious game bird, that has been tracked by sportsmen and
pot hunters alike, from Labrador to the Gulf, by means of these
tell-tale marks until the day cannot be far distant when there
will be no woodcock left to shoot. Since earthworms are the
bird's staple diet, these must be probed for and felt after through
the moist earth. Down goes the woodcock's bill, sunk to the
nostril; the upper half, being flexible at the tip, draws the worm
forth as one might raise a string through the neck of a jar with
one's finger. Curiously, the tip of the upper mandible works

Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

quite independently of the lower one a fact only recently dis-
covered by Mr. Gurdon Trumbull. Owing to the position of the
eyes, at the back of the head, food must be felt rather than seen;
but, so sensitive is the tip of the bill, and so far out of sight are
the worms, in any case the eyes serve a better purpose in being
placed where they widen the bird's vision and so detect an
enemy afar. It is claimed by some that, like the owls, woodcock
see best at night. Worms come to the surface after dark, which
explains this and many other birds' nocturnal habits.

In the early spring any one who takes an interest in the
woodcock, aside from its flavor, will be repaid for one's tramp
through the swale, at evening, to see the bird go through a series
of ae'rial antics and attestations of affection to his innamorata.
Standing with his bill pointing downward and his body inclined
forward, he calls out pink, pink, as much as to say: "Now
look, the performance is about to begin"; then suddenly he
springs from the ground, flies around and around in circles, his
short stiff wings whistling as he goes, higher, higher, faster,
faster, and louder and louder, as he sweeps by overhead in erratic
circles, each overlapping the other, until the end of the spiral
described must be fully three hundred feet from the ground.
Now, uttering a sharp whistle, down he comes, pitching, dart-
ing, and finally alighting very near the spot from which he set
out. Pink, pink, he again calls, to make sure his efforts are
not lost upon the object of his affection, and before he can
fairly have recovered his breath, off he goes on another series of
gyrations accompanied by wing music. Or, he may dance
jigs when in the actual presence of the loved one. Cranes,
plovers, owls, and flickers, among others, go through clownish
performances to win their mates, in some instances the females
joining in; but the woodhen, as the proper-nice people say,
remains coy and apparently coldly indifferent to the madness
of her lover. He will sometimes stand motionless, as if medi-
tating on some new method of winning her, his head drawn
in, his bill pressing against his breast. Then, with his short
tail raised and outstretched like a grouse's, and with dropped
wings trailing beside him, he will strut about with a high step
a comical picture of dignity and importance.

Little time need be taken from the honeymoon to make a

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 15 of 29)