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

the estuaries of our northern rivers, is as briny as they care to
taste; and although so commonly met with near the sea, they are
still more common in the rivers, lakes, and ponds inland, where
tall reeds and sedges line the shores and form their ideal hunting
and nesting grounds. The grebes and loons are not edible, nor
are they classed as game birds by true sportsmen ; nevertheless
this bird is often hunted, although the sportsman finds it a wary
victim, for there is no bird in the world more difficult to shoot
than a "water-witch." One instant it will be swimming
around the lake apparently unconcerned about the intruder;
the next instant, and before aim can be taken, it will have
dropped to unknown depths, but presumably to the infernal re-
gions, the sportsman thinks, as he rests meditatively upon his
gun, waiting for the grebe to reappear in the neighborhood, which
it never dreams of doing. It will swim swiftly under water to a
safe distance from danger; then, by keeping only its nostrils ex-
posed to the air, will float along just under the surface and leave
its would-be assassin completely mystified as to its whereabouts
a trick the very fledglings practice. It is amazing how long a
grebe can remain submerged. In pursuing fish, which form its
staple diet; in diving to escape danger, to feed, to loosen water-
weeds for the construction of its nest, among its other concerns
below the surface, it has been missed under water for five minutes,
and not at all short of breath on its return above at the end of that
time. Fresh-water mollusks, newts, winged insects, vegetable
matter, including seeds of wild grain and some grasses, vary the
bird's fish diet.

Ungainly and ill at ease on land, in fact, almost helpless
there, a grebe rarely ventures out of the water either to sleep or to
nest. The young rest on their mother's back after their first swim-
ming lessons that are begun the hour they are hatched ; but they
quickly become wonderfully expert and independent of every-
thing except water: that is their proper element. Nevertheless
they can fly with speed and grace, though with much working



Grebes

of their short wings and stretching of their short bodies, from
which their heads project as far as may be at one end and their
great lobed feet at the other.

The nest of all grebes is an odd affair, one of the curiosities
of bird architecture. A few blades of "saw grass " may or may
not serve as anchor to the floating mass of water-weeds pulled
from the bottom of the lake and held together by mud and moss.
The structure resembles nothing so much as a mud pancake ris-
ing two or three inches above the water, though, like an iceberg,
only about one-eighth of it shows above the surface. A grebe's
nest is often two or three feet in depth. In a shallow depression,
from fourtoten, though usually five, soiled, brownish-white eggs
are laid, and concealed by a mass of wet muck whenever the
mother leaves her incubating duties. At night she sits on the
nest, and for some hours each day ; but at other times the water-
soaked, muck-covered cradle, with the help of the sun, steams
the contents into life.



THE LOONS

(Family urinatoridce )

Loon

(Urinator imber)

Called also: GREAT NORTHERN DIVER; COMMON LOON;
LOOM

Length 31 to 36 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Upper parts glossy black, showing
iridescent violet and green tints. Back and wings spotted
and barred with white; white spaces on the neck marking off
black bands, and sides of breast streaked with white. Breast
and underneath white. Bill stout, straight, sharply pointed,
and yellowish green. Legs, which are placed at rear of body,
are short, buried and feathered to heel joint. Tail short,
but well formed. Feet black and webbed. In winter and
immature specimens: Upper parts blackish and feathers
margined with grayish, not spotted with white. Under-
neath white ; throat sometimes has grayish wash.

Range Northern part of northern hemisphere. In North
America breeds from the Northern United States to Arctic
Circle, and winters from the southern limit of its breeding
range to the Gulf of Mexico.

Season A wandering winter resident. Most common in the mi-
grations from September to May.

This largest and handsomest of the diving birds, as it is the
most disagreeably voiced, comes down to our latitude in winter,
when its favorite inland lakes at the north begin to freeze
over and the fish to fail, and wanders about far from the haunts
of men along the seacoast or by the fresh waterways. Cau-
tious, shy, fond of solitude, it shifts about from place to place
discouraging our acquaintance. By the time it reaches the United
States for the majority nest farther north it has exchanged its
rich, velvety black and white wedding garment for a more dingy
suit, in which the immature specimens are also dressed. With

14



*MI i




Loons

strong, direct flight small companies of loons may be seen high
overhead migrating southward to escape the ice that locks up
their food; or a solitary bird, some fine morning in September,
may cause us to look up to where a long-drawn, melancholy,
uncanny scream seems to rend the very clouds. Nuttall speaks
of the "sad and wolfish call which like a dismal echo seems
slowly to invade the ear, and rising as it proceeds, dies away in
the air. This boding sound to mariners, supposed to be indica-
tive of a storm, may be heard sometimes two or three miles
when the bird itself is invisible, or reduced almost to a speck in
the distance." But the loon has also a soft and rather pleasing
cry, to which doubtless Longfellow referred in his " Birds of Pas-
sage," when he wrote of



. . . " The loon that laughs and flies
Down to those reflected skies."



Not so aquatic as the grebes, perhaps the loons are quite
as remarkable divers and swimmers. The cartridge of the
modern breech-loader gives no warning of a coming shot, as
the old-fashioned flint-lock did ; nevertheless, the loon, which
is therefore literally quicker than a flash at diving, disappears
nine times out of ten before the shot reaches the spot where
the bird had been floating with apparent unconcern only a
second before. As its flesh is dark, tough, and unpalatable, the
sportsman loses nothing of value except his temper. Sometimes
young loons are eaten in camps where better meat is scarce, and
are even offered in large city markets where it isn't.

In spring when the ice has broken up, a pair of loons retire to
the shores of some lonely inland lake or river, and here on the
ground they build a rude nest in a slight depression near enough
to the water to glide off into it without touching their feet to the
sand. In June two grayish olive-brown eggs, spotted with um-
ber brown, are hatched. The young are frequently seen on land
as they go waddling about from pond to pond. After the nesting
season the parents separate and undergo a moult which some-
times leaves so few feathers on their bodies that they are unable
to rise in the air. When on land they are at any time almost
helpless and exceedingly awkward, using their wings and bill to
assist their clumsy feet.

15



Loons

The Black-throated Loon (Urinator arcticus), a more north-
ern species than the preceding, reaches only the Canadian border
of the United States in winter. It may be distinguished from the
common loon by its smaller size, twenty-seven inches, and by
its gray feathers on the top of the head and the nape of the neck,
though in winter plumage even this slight difference of feathers
is lacking.

Red-throated Loon

(Urinator lumme)

Calledalso: SPRAT LOON; RED-THROATED DIVER;
COBBLE

Length 25 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Crown and upper parts dull brown-
ish black, with a greenish wash and profusely marked with
white oval spots and streaks. Underneath white. Bluish
gray on forehead, chin, upper throat, and sides of head. A
triangular mark of chestnut red on fore neck. Bill black.
Tail narrowly tipped with white. In winter and immature
specimens: Similar to the common loon in winter, except
that the back is spotted with white.

Range Throughout northern parts of northern hemisphere ; mi-
grating southward in winter nearly across the United States.

Season Winter visitor or resident.

It is not an easy matter at a little distance to distinguish this
loon from the great northern diver, for the young of the year,
which are most abundant migrants in the United States, lack the
chestnut-red triangle on the throat, which is the bird's chief mark
of identification. Its smaller size is apparent only at close range.
In habits these loons are almost identical; and although their
name, used metaphorically, has come to imply a simpleton or
crazy fellow, no one who has studied them, and certainly no one
who has ever tried to shoot one, can call them stupid. It is only
on land, where they are almost never seen, that they even
look so.

Audubon found the red-throated loons nesting on the coast
of Labrador, near small fresh-water lakes, in June. The young
are able to fly by August, and in September can join the older mi-
grants in their southern flight. In England these loons follow the

16



Loons



movements of the sprats, on which they feed; hence one of their
common names by which our Canadian cousins often call them.
Fishermen sometimes bring one of these divers that has been
gorging on the imprisoned fish, to shore in their nets. For a
fuller account of the bird's habits, see the common loon.



AUKS, MURRES, PUFFINS

(Family Alcidce)

Puffin

(Fratercula arctica)

Called aho: SEA PARROT; COULTERNEB; MASKING
PUFFIN

Length 13 inches.

Male and Female Upper parts blackish; browner on the head
and front of neck. Sides of the head and throat white; some-
times grayish. Nape of neck has narrow grayish collar.
Breast and underneath white. Feet less broadly webbed
than a loon's. Bill heavy and resembling a parrot's. In
nesting season bill assumes odd shapes, showing ridges and
furrows, an outgrowth of soft parts that have hardened and
taken on bright tints. A horny spine over eye. Colored
rosette at corner of mouth.

Range Coasts and islands of the North Atlantic, nesting on the
North American coast from the Bay of Fundy northward.
South in winter to Long Island, and casually beyond.

Season Winter visitor.

Few Americans have seen this curious-looking bird outside
the glass cases of museums; nevertheless numbers of them strag-
gle down the Atlantic coast as far as Long Island every winter,
from the countless myriads that nest in the rocky cliffs around the
Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy. Unlike either grebes
or loons, puffins are gregarious, especially at the nesting season.
In April great numbers begin to assemble in localities to which
they return year after year, and select crevices in the rocks or bur-
row deep holes like a rabbit, to receive the solitary egg that is the
object of so much solicitude two months later. Both male and
female work at excavating the tunnel and at feeding their one
offspring, which has an appetite for fish and other sea-food large
enough for a more numerous family. By the end of August the

18



Auks, Murres, Puffins

entire colony breaks up and follows the exodus of fish, completely
deserting their nesting grounds, where any young ones that may
be hatched late are left to be preyed upon by hawks and ravens.
"Notwithstanding this apparent neglect of their young at this
time, when every other instinct is merged in the desire and neces-
sity of migration," wrote Nuttall, "no bird is more attentive to
them in general, since they will suffer themselves to be taken by
the hand and use every endeavor to save and screen their young,
biting not only their antagonist, but, when laid hold of by the
wings, inflicting bites on themselves, as if actuated by the agonies
of despair; and when released, instead of flying away, they
hurry again into the burrow." A hand thrust in after one may
drag the angry parent, that has fastened its beak upon a finger, to
the mouth of the tunnel; but a certain fisherman off the coast of
Nova Scotia, who lost a piece of solid flesh in this experiment,
now gives advice freely against it.

The beak that is able to inflict so serious an injury is this
bird's chief characteristic. It looks as if it had been bought at a
toyshop for some reveller in masquerade ; but the puffin wears it
only when engaged in the most serious business of life, for it is
the wedding garment donned by both contracting parties. It
is about as long as the head, as high as it is long, having flat
sides that show numerous ridges or furrows from the fact that
each represents new growth of soft matter that finally hardens
into horn as the nesting season approaches, only to disappear bit
by bit until nine pieces have been moulted or shed, very much as
a deer casts its antlers. The white pelican drops its "centre-
board " in a similar manner. In the puffins there is also a moult
of the excrescenses upon the eyelids, and a shrivelling of the col-
ored rosette at the corner of the mouth, peculiarities first scientif-
ically noted by L. Bereau about twenty years ago. The change
of plumage after moult is scarcely perceptible.

On land the bird walks upright, awkwardly shuffling along
on the full length of its legs and feet. It is an accomplished
swimmer and diver, like the grebes and loons, although, unlike
them, it uses its wings under water. When a strong gale is
blowing off the coast, the puffins seek shelter in the crevices of
the rocks or their tunnels in the sand ; but some that were over-
taken by it on the open sea, unable to weather it, are sometimes
found washed ashore dead after a violent storm. Mr. Brewster,

'9



Auks, Murres, Puffins

who made a special study of these birds in the Gulf of St. Law-
rence, writes: "The first report of our guns brought dozens
tumbling from their nests. Their manner of descending from
the higher portions of the cliff was peculiar. Launching into the
air with heads depressed and wings held stiffly at a sharp angle
above their backs, they would shoot down like meteors, check-
ing their speed by an upward turn just before reaching the water.
In a few minutes scores had collected about us. They were per-
fectly silent and very tame, passing and repassing over and by us,
often coming within ten or fifteen yards. On such occasions
their flight has a curious resemblance to that of a woodcock, but
when coming in from the fishing grounds they skim close to the
waves and the wings are moved more in the manner of those of
a duck."

Black Guillemot

(Cepphus grylle)

Called also: SEA PIGEON

Length 13 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Prevailing color sooty black, with
greenish tints above and lighter below. Large white patch on
upper wings, and white ends of wing feathers, leave a black
bar across the wings, sometimes apparently, though not
really, absent; wing linings white. Bill and claws black;
mouth and feet vermilion or pinkish. In winter : Wings
and tail black, with white patch on wings; back, hind neck,
and head black or gray variegated with white. Under parts
white.

Young Upper parts like adults in winter, except that the under
parts are mottled with black. Nestlings are covered with
blackish-brown down. Feet and legs blackish.

Range Breeds from Maine to Newfoundland and beyond ; mi-
grates south in winter, regularly to Cape Cod, more rarely to
Long Island, and casually as far as Philadelphia.

Small companies of sea pigeons, made up of two or three
pairs that keep well together, may be seen almost grazing along
the surface of the sea off our northern States and the Canadian
coast, following a straight line at the base of the cliffs while
keeping a sharp lookout for the small fish, shrimps, baby crabs,
and marine insects they pick up on the way. Suddenly one of



Auks, Murres, Puffins

the birds dives after a fish, pursues, overtakes, and swallows it,
then rejoins its mate with little loss of time; for these sea pigeons
use their wings under water as well as above it, and so are able to
reappear above the surface at surprising distances from the point
where they went down. They are truly marine birds; never
met with inland, and rarely on the shore itself, except at the
nesting season. Large companies nest in the crevices and fis-
sures of cliffs and rocky promontories, heaping up little piles of
pebbles that act as drains for rainwater or melting snow under
the eggs. Incubation takes place in June or July, according to
the latitude. Two or three sea-green or whitish eggs, irregu-
larly spotted and blotched with blackish brown, and with pur-
plish shell-markings, make up a clutch.

In the diary kept on the Jeannette, De Long recorded meeting
with black guillemots in latitude 73, swimming about in the open
spaces between the ice-floes early in May ; and Greely ate their
eggs off the shores of Northern Greenland in July. Both explor-
ers mentioned the presence of fox tracks in the neighborhood of
the guillemots, proving that this arch enemy pursues them even
into the desolation of the Arctic Circle. One of the first lessons
taught the young birds is to hurl themselves from the jutting
rocks to escape the fox that is forever threatening their lives in
the eyries, and to dive into the sea that protects and feeds them.

BrUnnich's Murre

(Una lomvia)

Calledalso: BRUNNICH'S GUILLEMOT; ARRIE; EGG BIRD;
PENGUIN; FOOLISH GUILLEMOT

Length 16.50 inches.

Male and Female Sooty black above, brownest on front of neck.
Breast and underneath, white. White tips to secondaries
form an obscure band. Greenish base to the upper half of
bill, which is rounded outward over the lower half. Bill
short, stout, wide, and deep.

Range Coasts and islands of the North Atlantic and eastern Arc-
tic Oceans. South to the lakes of Northern New York and
the coast of New Jersey. Nests from the Gulf of St. Law-
rence northward.

Season Winter visitor in United States.

21



Auks, Murres, Puffins

" The bird cliffs on Arveprins Island (Northern Greenland)
deserve a passing notice, not for Arctic travellers, but for the gen-
eral reader," writes General Greely in "Three Years of Arctic
Service."

" For over a thousand feet out of the sea these cliffs rise per-
pendicularly, Broken only by narrow ledges, in general inaccessi-
ble to man or other enemy, which afford certain kinds of sea
fowl secure and convenient breeding places. On the face of
these sea-ledges of Arveprins Island, Briinnich's guillemots, or
loons, (sic] gather in the breeding season, not by thousands, but
by tens of thousands. Each lays but a single gray egg, speckled
with brown ; yet so numerous are the birds, that every available
spot is covered with eggs. The surprising part is that each bird
knows its own egg, although there is no nest and it rests 'on the
bare rock. Occasional quarrels over an egg generally result in a
score of others being rolled into the sea.

"The clumsy, short- winged birds fall an easy prey to the
sportsman, provided the cliffs are not too high, but many fall on
lower inaccessible ledges, and so uselessly perish. A single shot
brings out thousands on the wing, and the unpleasant cackling,
which is continuous when undisturbed, becomes a deafening
clamor when they are hunted.

"The eggs are very palatable. The flesh is excellent to
my taste the best flavored of any Arctic sea fowl; but, to avoid
the slightly train-oil taste, it is necessary to keep the bird to ripen,
and to carefully skin it before cooking." Later on, the starving
survivors in the camp near Cape Sabine owed the prolonging of
their wretched existence from day to day largely to these very
birds.

When these murres come down from the far north to visit
us in winter they keep so well out from land that none of our
ornithologists seem to have made a very close study of them.
Like other birds of the order to which they belong, they dive sud-
denly out of sight when approached, and by the help of wings
and feet swim under water for incredible distances.

The Common Murre or Guillemot (Uria troilej, so called, is
certainly less common in the United States than the preceding
species. Massachusetts appears to be its southern limit. In
winter, when we see it here, it can be distinguished from

22




. Chi. Acad. Sciences.



BRUNNICHS MURRE.
% Life-size.



Auks, Murres, Puffins

Briinnich's murre only by its bill, which is half an inch longer.
Some specimens show a white ring or "eye-glass" around the
eye and a white stripe behind it; but doubt exists as to whether
such specimens are not a separate species. Much study has still
to be given to this group of birds before the differences of opin-
ion held by the leading ornithologists concerning them will be
settled satisfactorily to all. The habits of the three murres men-
tioned here are identical so far as they are known. Penguin and
foolish guillemot are titles sometimes given to the common
murre; but to add to popular confusion, they are just as frequently
applied to Briinnich's murre.

The Californian murre, the Western representative of these
species, differs from them neither in plumage nor habits, it is said.
It breeds abundantly from Behring's Sea to California, and the na-
tives of Alaska depend upon its eggs for food. They were
among the first dainties sold to the Klondike miners.



Razor-billed Auk

(Alca torda)

Called also : TINKER

Length 16.50 inches.

Male and Female In summer : Upper parts sooty black ; browner
on fore neck. A conspicuous white line from eye to bill;
breast, narrow line on wing, wing-linings, and underneath,
white. Bill, which is about as long as head, and black, has
horny shield on tip and is crossed by sunken white band.
Tail upturned. In winter : Similar to summer plumage, ex-
cept that it is duller and the sides and front of neck are
white. Bill lacks horny shield. White line on bill, sometimes
lacking on winter birds and always on immature specimens.

Range "Coasts and islands of the North Atlantic; south in win-
ter on the North American coast, casually to North Carolina.
Breeding from Eastern Maine northward." A. O. U.

Season Winter visitor.

Audubon, who followed these birds to their nesting haunts
in Labrador and the Bay of Fundy, found the bodies of thousands
strewn on the shores, where, after their eggs had been taken by
boat loads for food, and the fine, warm feathers of their breasts

23



Auks, Murres, Puffins

had been torn off for clothing, they were left to decay. In Nova
Scotia he met three men who made a business of egg-hunting.
They began operations by trampling on all the eggs they found
laid, relying on the well-known habit of the auk and its relatives
that lay but a single egg, to replace it should it be destroyed.
Thus they made sure of fresh eggs only. In the course of six
weeks they had collected thirty thousand dozen, worth about two
thousand dollars. As this wholesale destruction of our gregarious
marine birds has been going on for a century at least, is it not
surprising that they are not all extinct, like the great auk ?

Without wings to help them escape from the voyagers and
fishermen who pursued them on sea and ashore, the great auks,
that in Nuttall's day were still breeding in enormous colonies in
Greenland, dwindled to a single specimen "found dead in the
vicinity of St. Augustine, Labrador, in November, 1870," which,
although in poor condition, was sold for two hundred dollars to
a European buyer. The Smithsonian Institution, the Philadelphia
Academy, Cambridge Museum, and Vassar College own one
specimen each, the only ones in this country, so far as known.

The moral from the story of the great auk that the razor-
billed species and its short-winged relatives should take to heart,
obviously, is to keep their wings from degenerating into useless
appendages, by constant exercise. They certainly are strong
flyers in their present evolutionary stage, and, by constantly flap-
ping their stiffened wings just above the level of the sea, are usually
able to escape pursuit, if not in the air then by diving through the
crest of a wave and still using their wings as a fish would its fins,
to assist their flight under water. Though they move awkwardly
on land, so awkwardly as to suggest the possible derivation of
the adverb from their name, they still move rapidly enough to es-
cape with their life in a fair race. When cornered, the hand that
attempts to seize them receives a bite that sometimes takes the
flesh from the bone such a bite as the sea parrot gives.

In the nesting grounds, where enormous numbers of these