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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in a depression of the ground. Great numbers of nests are made
on the south Atlantic coast and also on the prairies of the north-
west, a strange division of habitat indeed for young chicks.

Whimbrel, Striped-head, and Crooked-bill, the Hudsonian
Short-billed or Jack Curlew (Numenius hudsonicus), with a bill
only three or four inches long to bring the entire length of the
bird to sixteen or eighteen inches, has blackish brown upper
parts mottled with buff, most conspicuous on wing coverts; the


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

crown dusky brown, with a buff central stripe; the rest of head,
neck, and under parts light buff; a brownish streak running
through the eye, and the neck and breast spotted with brown.
Flying up the Atlantic coast from Patagonia, the southern limits
of its winter quarters, the Jack curlew sometimes loiters awhile in
May on our mud flats and marshes before continuing in V-shaped
flocks up to the south shore of the St. Lawrence (but not across
it), then due north to Hudson Bay, where the nests are built.
Evidently nesting duties are soon ended, for returning migrants
commonly reach Long Island from July to October. No one has
a good reason to give for shooting these birds, yet it is certain
that whereas they were once abundant they are now almost rare.

The Eskimo Curlew, Fute, Doe or Dough Bird, Short-billed
or Little Curlew (Numenius borealis); about thirteen inches long,
its short, decurved bill measuring less than two and a half inches,
has blackish brown upper parts spotted with buff; the crown
streaked, but without the distinct central line that marks the
head of the Jack curlew; the under parts buffy or whitish, the
breast streaked ; the sides and under wing coverts barred with
black. En route from the Arctic regions, where it nests, to
Patagonia, where it winters, this is a very common species at
times. The prairie lands adjacent to the Mississippi, its favorite
highway, hold "immense flocks" in August and later, it is
said ; but very few stragglers reach the Atlantic shores. Just as
the Jack curlew scrapes acquaintance with the willet, godwit,
and other sandpipers on our beaches, so this curlew associates
with the upland "plover," the golden plover, and other birds of
the interior in this country and on the pampas covered plains of
the Argentine Republic. In the Barren Grounds and across the
continent from Greenland to Behring Straits, the Eskimo curlew
nests. Its whistle is less harsh and loud than its long-billed
cousin's, but in their habits generally these three curlews are



(Family Cbaradriidce)

Black-breasted Plover

(Charadrius squatarola)


Length 1 1 to 12 inches.

Male and Female In summer : Mottled black and white ; the up-
per parts black bordered with white; tail white barred with
black; sides of head and neck and under parts black, except
lower abdomen and under tail coverts, which are white; axil-
lars (feathers growing from armpits) black. Short bill and
the feet and legs black; a small hind toe. In winter : Simi-
lar, except that upper parts are brownish gray lightly edged
with white, and under parts are mixed black and white; but
numerous intermediate stages occur, and the plumage is most
variable. Immature birds have black upper parts, the head
and neck streaked and the back spotted with buffer yellow
brown ; the breast and sides streaked with brownish gray.

Range Almost cosmopolitan ; nests in Arctic regions, and win-
ters from southern United States to the West Indies and

Season Spring and autumn migrant; May, June; August to Oc-
tober; more abundant in autumn.

Crescent shaped flocks of black-breasted plover, launched on
a journey from one end of our continent to the other, come out of
the south in May ; and following routes through the interior, as well
as along the coasts, make short stops only on the way to nest
in the Arctic regions. They are now restless, as most birds are in
spring. Large and stout for plovers, distinctly black and white
while the nesting plumage is worn, there is less danger of con-



fusing them now than in the autumn migration, when immature
birds, especially, so closely resemble the golden plover that it is
only by noting this bird's small hind toe, which no other plover
owns, and the black axillars, or feathers of its armpits, so to
speak, where the golden plover is smoky gray, that the sports-
man can positively tell which bird he has bagged. It has been
said that these plovers migrate in wedge shaped ranks and lines
like ducks and geese, which may often be the case, but not al-
ways or usual, we think. A cresent shaped flock, the horns point-
ing sometimes forward, sometimes backward, seems to be the
preferred form of flight. Long, perfect wings, a full, slow wing
stroke, and a light body are a combination well calculated to
discount distance.

Arctic travellers have brought back clutches of three or four
pointed eggs that vary greatly in color, ranging between light
yellowish olive or dark to shades of brown spotted and speckled
with rufous. They have also brought back a " yarn " or is it a
fact ? about the males sitting on the nest and doing all the incu-
bating, while the females enjoy fin de stecle emancipation.
Fluffy, precocious chicks hatched in June become expert flyers
by July, and in August arrive in the United States with parents
and friends in motley flocks, often no two birds of which are
wearing precisely the same feathers. Having fed chiefly on ber-
ries and grasshoppers at the north, autumn birds are counted good
eating; but as they have a decided preference for tide water flats
and marshes where shrimps and other small marine creatures
form their diet, the flesh soon becomes sedgy and unpalatable
once they reach the coast. A quick strike at a particle of food
about to be picked up makes these plovers appear greedy ; how-
ever, all their motions are quick and sudden. In running, espe-
cially, are they nimble: a sprint of a few yards, a sudden halt to
reconnoitre with upstretched heads, another quick run, then a
pause, are characteristic movements of most plovers, just as squat-
ting to conceal themselves is.

Because so many young innocents which have no knowledge
of men make up the autumn flocks, these respond quickly to de-
coys and to an imitation of their clear, mellow whistle, that pene-
trates to surprising distances from where the birds are circling high
in air. Down they sail on motionless wings, apparently glad for
any diversion in their aimless, roving life. Soft notes of content-



ment uttered as they drift with decurved wings and dangling
legs toward the decoys are soon silenced forever by a deadly
report. Twenty years ago the black-breasted and the golden
plovers were abundant on the Iowa and Illinois prairies in spring
and fall, but they were pursued by sportsmen so relentlessly that
now a flock is seldom seen in either state. The few birds that
remain seem to have chosen some other route for their migra-
tions, in order to escape the fusilades to which they were there

American Golden Plover

(Charadrius dominicus)


Length 10.50 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Mottled upper parts black, green-
ish, golden yellow, and a little white, the yellow in excess ;
tail brownish gray indistinctly barred with whitish ; sides of
breast white; other under parts and sides of head black; un-
der wing coverts ashy gray. Bill and feet black. In winter :
Upper parts and tail dusky, spotted or barred with yellow or
whitish, the colors not so pure as in summer; under parts
grayish white, purest on chin and abdomen ; the throat and
sides of head streaked ; the breast and sides of neck and
body mottled with dusky grayish brown ; legs dusky.
Immature birds resemble winter adults; also like black-
breasted plovers ; but the grayish axillars and the lack of a
fourth toe sufficiently distinguish this species from the pre-
ceding, however variable the plumage may be at different

Range North America at large ; nests in Arctic regions ; winters
from Florida to Patagonia.

Season Spring and autumn migrant; May; August to Novem-

Golden grain, golden rod, golden maple leaves, and golden
plover all come together; the birds not so yellow, it is true, as
they were in the spring, when they gave us only a passing
glimpse of their clearer, more intense speckled plumage, but still
yellow enough to be in harmony with nature's autumnal color



scheme. Indeed, they blend so well with their surroundings as to
be all but invisible. Usually the under parts of birds are light col-
ored to help make them inconspicuous on the wing; but the black
markings on this and the preceding plovers are notable excep-
tions. High above the corn and buckwheat, the stubble, the
burned and ploughed fields of the interior, or the level stretches
of grass far back of the beaches, the sandy dunes, and flats bared
at low tide along the coast, come the plovers in crescent-shaped
flocks, now massed, now scattered, now rising, now dipping, the
wings tremulous with speed, and swinging round in a circle at
sight of a feeding ground to their liking. With soft, trilled
mellow whistles rippling from their throats, the birds drift down-
ward on set, decurved wings, and skim low before alighting.
For an instant, as their dangling legs touch the ground, they raise
their wings high above their backs until they meet, then slowly fold
them against their sides. Now they scatter, and running nimbly
and gracefully hither and thither, check themselves suddenly
from time to time, raise their heads and look about to reconnoitre.
Every motion is quick; they strike at a particle of food as if
about to take a dive loon fashion, then run lightly on again, soon
returning to the same spot if driven off. A hasty run must be
taken, even when frightened, before the plovers spring into the
air. A flock has a curious way of standing stock still at an
alarming noise, before starting to run. When they squat and
hide behind tufts of beach grass, it takes sharp eyes to detect
birds from sand.

But even without apparent alarm, the scattered birds often rise
as if summoned by some invisible and inaudible captain, and
fly close along the ground, wheeling and dashing and skimming
in beautiful and intricate evolutions. Such a flock offers all too
easy a side shot. In "the good old days" of carnage that are
responsible for the scarcity of this fine game bird to-day, it often
rained plover when the gunners were abroad. This latter phrase
suggests the query : What connection of ideas is there between
pluvia (rain) and plover derived from that word ? An early
French writer, Belon (1555), speaking of the European species, of
course, says "Pourcequ'on le prend mieux en temps plurieux
qu'en nulle autre saison ;" but with us the birds are, if any-
thing, wilder and less approachable in rainy weather than when
it is fine. Is it that their backs look as if they had been sprinkled



with rain drops ; or that they whistle more before storms, as
their German name (Regempfeifer) would imply ; or that the east
wind that brings rain, blows flocks of these migrants in from sea ?

Golden plovers, once so plentiful and confiding that they came
near enough to the plough for the farmer's boy to strike and kill
with his whip, were sold in the Chicago streets for fifty cents a
hundred within the memory of many, and those not the oldest
inhabitants. Dead birds propped up with sticks when the
wooden decoys from city shops were not available ; a dried pea
rattling about in a hollow reed to imitate the mellow coodle, coodle,
coodle of the plover's melodious call, allured the birds within easy
range of every farm hand's antediluvian musket.

Plovers' visits depend much on weather, a clear, fine day
inviting a long, unbroken flight far out at sea during the autumn
migration ; whereas lowering weather, especially an easterly
storm, drives the birds to the coast, where, flying low, a warm
reception of hot shot usually awaits them from behind blinds.
Grassy level stretches and pasture lands back of the beaches,
rather than sandy places, attract them, since land insects, grass-
hoppers particularly, and worms are what they are ever seeking.
In the autumn migration, at least, the great majority of plovers
follow the coast, sometimes closely, sometimes far at sea, so far
that many flocks on their way to South America pass to the east
of Bermuda. Long, perfect wings and light bodies enable them
to cover immense distances without resting. While no fixed
route appears to be followed in spring, possibly the birds show
a preference then for the freshly-ploughed inland fields where
food, winged, crawling, and in the larval state, abounds.

Among all the gaily dressed, tuneful lovers that visit us in
May, few are handsomer and more charming in voice and man-
ner than this melodious whistler. Further north he breaks into
a long serenade, sung chiefly in the short Arctic night : tee-lee-lee,
tu-lee-lee wit, wit wit, wee-u-wit, chee-lee-u-too-lee-ee, as described
by Wilson, who followed these plovers to Behring Sea until he
found their nest, that so few know. A depression among the
grass or moss, lined with fine grasses and dried leaves, usu-
ally cradles four yellowish eggs covered over with dark red-
dish brown spots ; but in the eggs, as in the plumage of the
plovers, there is great variation. Birds that lay pointed eggs, as
plovers do, arrange the narrow ends toward the centre of the



nest that they may be the better covered ; and rumor says these
emancipated females leave all the incubating to the males.


(/Egialitis vocifera)


Length 9.50 to 10.50 inches. About the size of the robin.

Male and Female Grayish brown washed with olive above; the
forehead, spot behind eyes, throat, a ring around the neck,
a patch on wing, a band across breast, and underneath, white ;
front of crown, cheeks, a ring around neck, and a band across
breast, black; lower back and base of tail chestnut; inner
tail feathers like upper parts; outer feathers chestnut and
white, all with subterminal band of black tipped with white.
Bill black; legs light; eyelids red.

Range Temperate North America to Newfoundland and Mani-
toba; nests throughout range; winters usually south of New
England to Bermuda, the West Indies, Central and South

Season Resident, March to November, or later ; most abundant
in spring and autumn migrations.

A certain corn field used to be visited daily by an aspiring
ornithologist, aged nine, for a peep at four little yellowish white
eggs, spotted and scrawled with chocolate brown, that were laid
directly on the ground, without so much as a blade of grass to
cradle them. Every visit threw the old birds into a panic, which,
of course, was part of the fun anticipated in making the visit.
Kildeer, hilldeer, dee, dee, they called incessantly as they whirled
about overhead and screamed in the child's ears; but still the eggs
were relentlessly fondled, while the mother now frantically ran
about, dragging her wings beside her, pretending to be lame; now
sprang into the air and dashed about every which way, as if mad.
In spite of much handling, however, the eggs actually hatched;
and what was the child's amazement after leaving them at nine
o'clock one morning to return at ten and find eggs, birds, and even
shells had disappeared ! Later a brood of queer, top-heavy, long-
legged, striped, and downy chicks was discovered running



nimbly about the corn field, feeding; but what they did with
their eggshells ever remained a mystery.

This common plover of pastures and cultivated fields, of lake-
sides and marshes, or any broad tracts of land near water, that
seems indispensable to its happiness, is in decided evidence be-
cause of its wild, noisy cry even when we cannot see the bird ;
but the two Wack bands across its breast, its white forehead and
red eyelids easily identify it whenever met. As a rule one sees
flocks of these plovers only a-wing, for they scatter when
feeding. Sometimes the kill-dee, kill-dee sounds low and sweet,
with a plaintive strain in it; but let any one approach the bird's
haunts, and the voice rises higher and shriller until it would seem
the strident notes must soon snap the vocal cords. Cows,
horses, sheep, and the larger poultry that wander over a farm do
not alarm these birds in the least. In their presence they are
gentle and almost tame, but a man is their abhorrence in regions
where they have been persecuted; elsewhere they are not con-
spicuously wild. Yet their flesh is musky and worthless from
the point of view of the sportsman, who seldom wastes shot on
it. A startled bird will run swiftly away rather than fly at
first, stop occasionally to look back at the villain still pursuing
it, crying complainingly all the while, and perhaps flutter in
low, short flights to lure the intruder still farther away. But the
killdeer, with its long, perfect wings, is a strong, steady high-flyer,
however erratic and uncertain its flight may be when suddenly
flushed by some innocent stroller taking a short cut through the
pasture. Restless and full of fears, real or imaginary, there is
scarcely an hour of the day or the night when its voice is not
raised, until sportsmen have come to regard so keen a sentinel as
a nuisance. Dr. Livingston met with a close kinsman of the
killdeer in Africa that he described as "a most plaguey sort of
public spirited individual that follows you everywhere, flying
overhead, and is most persevering in his attempts to give fair
warning to all animals within hearing to flee from the approach
of danger."

On the ground, where the killdeer spends most of its time, it
moves about daintily, quickly, even nervously ; for it never remains
still except for the instant when it seems to gaze at an intruder
with withering contempt. Since worms, that are its favorite food,
come to the surface after sundown, this bird, like many others of



similar tastes, is partly nocturnal in habits; but grasshoppers,
crickets, and other insects take it abroad much by day. It mi-
grates chiefly at night, the killdeer, hildeer, resounding from the
very stars.

Semipalmated Plover

(^gialitis semipalmata)


Length 6.75 to 7 inches. A trifle larger than the English spar-

Male and Female Upper parts brownish gray; front of crown,
band across base of bill, sides of head below eye, and band on
breast, that almost encircles the neck, black; forehead, throat,
ring around neck, parts of outer tail feathers, and under parts
white. Brownish gray replaces the black in winter plumage.
Bill black, orange at base ; ring around eye bright orange ;
yellow toes, webbed at the base.

Range North America at large; nesting from Labrador and
Alaska northward to Arctic sea; winters from Gulf states to
Bermuda, West Indies, Peru, and Brazil.

Season Spring and autumn migrant; April, May; July, August,
September; most plentiful in late summer and early autumn.

Closely associated with the friendly little sandpipers, these
small plovers likewise haunt the beaches, their plumage in autumn
being precisely the color of the wet sand they constantly run
about on in small scattered flocks. When the tide goes out,
their activities increase. Birds that have been hiding in the
marshes and sand dunes now trip a light measure over the ex-
posed sand bars and mud flats, leaving little tracks that may not
be distinguished from those of the sand ox-eye or semipalmated
sandpiper that hunts with them, although the plover has only
three half webbed toes. The small, slightly elevated fourth toe
of the ox-eye is only faintly evident at times in its tracks.

Tiny forms chase out after the receding waves, running in
just in advance of the frothing ripples that do not quite overtake
them, although the plovers almost never spring to wing as sand-
pipers do when a drenching threatens, but place all their trust in
their fleet legs. With such feet as theirs, they must be able to
swim ; but who ever sees them in deep water ? More silent, too,



than sandpipers, it is chiefly when alarmed that two plaintive,
sweet, but sometimes sharp notes escape them, whereas sand-
pipers keep up their cheerful peep, peep, under all circumstances.
Real danger summons the scattered flocks of ring-necks to wing
into a compact mass that moves as if swayed by one mind ; but like
most birds that nest too far north to become acquainted with
murderous men, these gentle, confiding little plovers suspect no
evil intentions and rarely fly away. Running to hide by squat-
ting behind tufts of beach grass stills their small fears.

In the interior, for an inland route is followed as well as a
coastwise one, the ring-neck runs about the margins of small lakes
or ponds, rivers and marshes, everywhere looking for worms,
small bits of shell fish, eggs of fish, and insects; always alert and
busy and hungry. General Greeley found these plovers still
nesting in Grinnell Land early in July; yet by the end of the
month stragglers from large flocks begin to arrive in the United
States a little journey to try the wings of fledgelings en route to
Brazil. It is said the male arranges the small pear shaped buff
eggs, spotted with chocolate, with the pointed end toward the cen-
tre of the depression in the ground that answers as nest, the bet-
ter to cover all four with his breast, for it is he who does most, if
not all, of the incubating. Greenlanders, who have a longer
opportunity to study this interesting little bird, say that it claps
its wings before a storm and becomes strangely excited; but
although it has the dainty habit of lifting its wings high above
its back till they meet, on alighting, no excited clapping of them
has been recorded here. This is the most abundant and most
widely distributed of the ring-necks.

Piping Plover

(/Egialitis meloda)

Called also : PALE RING-NECK

Length 7 inches. A trifle larger than the English sparrow.
Male and Female Upper parts very pale ash; forehead, ring

around neck, and under parts white; front of the crown

and a link of incomplete collar either side of breast, black;

inner tail feathers dusky, the outer ones becoming white.

In winter plumage the black is replaced by brownish ash.


Range North America east of the Rockies ; nesting from coast of
Virginia northward to Newfoundland; winters in West

Season Summer resident, March to September; most abundant
in autumn migrations.

Very slight differences in the habits of plovers that haunt our
beaches have been noted by the most tireless students, and were
it not for the piping plover's notes there would be nothing be-
yond a reference to its stronger maritime preferences and more
southerly nesting range to add to the account of the ring-neck.
The piper, much lighter in color, is the lightest species that visits
us. It nests among the shingle on our beaches from Virginia to
Maine and beyond, where it is next to impossible to discover the
finely speckled drab eggs that imitate the sand perfectly; and
possibly because it does not pass half its year in Arctic seclusion,
as some other plovers do, it is not quite so gentle and confiding
as they this is the sum of its peculiarities. Its pathetically small
size, scarcely larger than that of an English sparrow, should be,
but is not, a sufficient protection from the gun.

"It cannot be called a 'whistler' nor even a 'piper' in an
ordinary sense," says Mr. Langille. " Its tone has a particularly
striking and musical quality. Queep, queep, queep-o, or peep,
peep, peep-lo, each syllable being uttered with a separate, distinct,
and somewhat long drawn enunciation, may imitate its peculiar
melody, the tone of which is round, full, and sweet, reminding
one of a high key on an Italian hand-organ or the hautboy in a
church organ." The sweet, low notes, it should be added, have
an almost ventriloqual quality also, that often makes it difficult to
locate the bird by the ear alone.

Retiring to the dunes and meadows back of the beach only
to sleep or rest when the tide is high, we most frequently see
this active little sprite running nimbly along the wet sands,

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 19 of 29)