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

in the south, where the female frequently begins to lay again
when her first brood is but a few weeks old, it is the father,
a pattern of all domestic virtues, that then assumes its full
care. When the second brood leaves the shell, one large happy
family, known in sportsman's parlance as a bevy or covey, makes
as charming a picture as one is likely to meet in a year's tramp.
Southern sportsmen, especially, sometimes express surprise at
finding birds still in pin feathers and unable to fly in November,
when part of the brood, at least, may not be distinguished from
adults ; but these most prolific of all game birds not infrequently
devote six months to nursery duties. Bob Whites are eminently
affectionate, and a covey never willingly disperses until the spring
pairing season.

" It is a glorious day : come, let us kill something ! " says
London Punch's famous sportsman ; and when the splendor of
autumn glorifies our fields and woods, domed by a sky of clear-
est, most intense blue, and the keen, frosty, sparkling air invigo-
rates both mind and body, the American sportsman likewise takes
down his light, short gun and some shells loaded with No. 8 shot,
whistles up his dog, which nearly twists himself inside out with
happiness, and at sunrise is off. Now the coveys are feedingtin
the field of buckwheat a favorite resort or in the stubble of the
corn, rye, or oat fields, or along the ditches and clearings fringed
with undergrowth, or in the vineyard or orchard just where it
is the dog's business, not the author's, to disclose. The seed of
the locust, wild pease, tick, trefoil, sunflower, smartweed, par-
tridge berry, wintergreen and nanny berries, acorns, and beech-
nuts do not complete the Bob Whites' menu. Late in the fore-
noon, the hearty breakfast having at length ended, a bevy of
birds will first slake their thirst before huddling together to
preen and dust their feathers and enjoy a midday siesta on a
sunny slope. They keep near water during droughts ; but after
long rains, Ic -k for them on the dry uplands and along the sun-
niest coverts, not too early on a frosty morning, when they are
likely to remain huddled together late to keep warm until the
hoar frost melts in the sunshine. These birds have a unique
manner of sleeping : forming a circle on the ground, in a sheltered

264



Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

open, beyond thickets where prowling fox and weasel lurk, they
squat close together as they can huddle to save heat, and with
their tails toward the centre, and their heads pointing outward to
detect danger from every possible direction, rest secure through
the night and sometimes part of cold and stormy days, the male
parent usually remaining outside the ring to act as sentinel. As
winter approaches, they leave the open, cultivated fields to with-
draw into sheltered thickets and bottom lands, sometimes to alder
swamps. Now, when hunger often pinches cruelly, the food
scattered for barnyard fowls is fearlessly picked up ; indeed, these
birds haunt the outskirts of farms at all seasons, following the
pioneer and railroad westward, and ever going more than half
way in establishing friendly relations between themselves and
mankind. While all efforts to domesticate them have ended in
runaways when the nesting season came around and wild birds
whistled enticing notes of happiness and freedom, protection
from the shooters, and a few handfuls of buckwheat scattered
about for them in the bitter weather are all the encouragement
these appreciative little neighbors need to keep them about the
farm. Like the ruffed grouse they will allow the snow to bury
them, or voluntarily bury themselves in it to escape extreme
cold ; but an ice crust forming over a sleeping covey often im-
prisons it, alas ! and not until a thaw is the tragedy revealed in a
circle of feathered skeletons.

A loud ivhir-r-r-r-r-r-r , as a flushed flock rises to wing,
indicates something of the speed at which the Bob Whites rush
through the air. They are not migratory, usually remaining
resident wherever found, although from the northern boundary
of their range coveys seen travelling afoot in autumn certainly
appear to be going toward warmer winter quarters. Rising at a
considerable angle from the ground, on stiff, set, short wings, after
a flushing, the birds, heading for a wooded cover, are off in a
strung out line that only the tyro imagines makes an easy target.
Suddenly dropping all at once and not far from each other,
squatting close, in the confidence inspired by the perfect mimicry
of their plumage with their surroundings, each bird must be
almost trodden upon before it will rise to wing. Very rarely they
take refuge in trees. It has been said a Bob White can retain its
odor voluntarily, since the best of pointers often fails to find it even
when within a few feet. When lying close, the wings are pressed

265



Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

against the side, every feather clings tightly with a tension pro-
duced by fear, in all probability, rather than by any voluntary
act ; but the result is that by flying upward, rather than running
and giving the scent to the dogs, and by compressing its feathers on
dropping to the ground again, brave little Bob White often gives
the sportsman a lively chase for his game. After much shooting,
birds become " educated." Wonderfully clever they are in match-
ing the sportsman's tricks with better ones. They school the wing
shots finely until the crack marksman confesses his chagrin.
The best trained dog may bushwhack an entire slope, where they
are known to be scattered, without flushing one ; for vainly does
the dog draw now. His usefulness was greatest in standing a
covey before the reports from the gun gave fair warning that no
one-sided sport had begun.

Once the firing ceases, sweet minor scatter calls quoi-hee,
quoi-hee reunite the diminished members of a flock. A soli-
tary survivor has been known to wander about the country
through an entire winter, calling mournfully and almost inces-
santly for the missing brothers and sisters, until a farmer, whose
family had feasted on their delicate white flesh, unable to listen
to the cry that sounded to him like the voice of an accusing con-
science, again picked up his gun and put the mourner out of
misery.

Among the thousands upon thousands of "quail" shot
annually, some sportsman finds either an albino or some other
freak wearing plumage that he is certain belongs to a distinct
species; but the Texan and the Florida birds alone are true, but
merely climatic, variations of our own Bob White. The former is
distinguished by its paler, more grayish tone of the upper parts,
that are marked with tawny, while the Florida bird has darker,
richer coloring, with heavier black markings, and a longer, jet
black bill.

Several allied "quail" (partridges) are of too local a distribu-
tion on the Pacific slope and in the southwest to be included in a
book that avowedly excludes "local and rare birds." Wherever
the prolific Bob Whites have been introduced and protected in the
west, they have so quickly spread as to encourage the hope that
since true sportsmen everywhere are taking active measures to
stay the hand of bird butchers, our national game bird may some
day regain the vast numbers brutally destroyed.

266



Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.



Dusky Grouse

(Dendragapus obscurus)

Called also: BLUE, GRAY, MOUNTAIN, PINE, AND FOOL
GROUSE; PINE HEN

Length 20 to 24 inches ; length variable.

Male Upper parts blackish brown, finely zigzagged with
slatey gray mixed with lighter brown, and sometimes
coarsely mottled with gray, especially on wings; forehead
dull reddish brown; back of head blackish, the feathers
tipped with rusty; sides of head black; shoulders streaked
with white; long feathers on sides have white ends and
shaft stripes; throat white, finely speckled with black; under
parts bluish gray or slate, varied with white on flanks and
underneath. Tail rounded, the twenty broad feathers black-
ish-brown, marbled with gray, and broadly banded across
end with slate gray; legs covered to toes with pale brown
feathers; a comb over eye; bill horn color.

Female Smaller, lighter, more mottled, or blotched with blackish
and tawny or buff, the feathers generally edged with white;
slate gray under parts, and tail broadly banded with same;
the flanks tipped with white and mottled with black and
buff.

Range Rocky and other mountain ranges in western United
States.

Season Permanent resident.

Two variations of the dusky grouse, known as Richardson's
grouse and the sooty grouse constantly confused in reports
make it somewhat difficult to define the exact habitat of this
splendid game bird, so well known in one form or another by
sportsmen throughout the western half of the United States, from
New Mexico to Alaska and British Columbia. The habits of all
three birds being practically the same, their plumage differing
chiefly in degrees of duskiness, and their boundary lines con-
stantly overlapping, it is small wonder the untrained observer
confuses both their names and ranges. The Rocky Mountains,
from central Montana and southeastern Idaho to New Mexico
and Arizona, eastward to the Black Hills, South Dakota, and
westward to East Humboldt Mountains, Nevada, is the range set
down for the dusky grouse by the A. O. U., and a more westerly

267



Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

district, including California, for the sooty grouse ; while Richard-
son's bird confines itself chiefly to the eastern slope of the
Rockies. The latter is to be distinguished by its rather longer,
square tail, with broader feathers, only slightly banded with gray,
if at all, and its blacker throat. The sooty grouse, even darker
still, and with a broad band on its tail, is minutely freckled with
gray and rusty on its upper parts and very dark lead color below;
the hen being particularly richly marked with rusty red and chest-
nut brown.

Taking the place in the western sportsman's heart of the
ruffed grouse cherished in New England and the middle states,
the dusky grouse, very like it in some habits and tastes, is a
much larger bird, covered with a dense suit of feathers to
resist the extreme cold of high altitudes, and weighing between
three and four pounds. Next to the sage cock, this is the largest
grouse in the United States. Possibly because it is so cumbrous,
but more likely because its haunts are far removed from men,
keeping it in ignorance, far from blissful, of his passion for hunt-
ing birds, this long-suffering recluse appears stupid to many.
"Until almost fully grown," says a Colorado observer, "they
are very foolish ; flushed, they will tree at once, in the silly
belief that they are out of danger, and will quietly suffer them-
selves to be pelted with clubs and stones until they are struck
down one after another. With a shot gun, of course, the whole
covey is bagged without much trouble; and as they are, in my
opinion, the most delicious of all grouse for the table, they are
gathered up unsparingly." When carnage like this masquerades
under the title of "sport," evidently the extinction of the blue
grouse, like that of many another choice game bird, is imminent.
From an altitude of about seven thousand feet to timber line,
coming down to the side hills and lower gulches, where food is
more abundant for young broods in summer, the dusky grouse
usually haunts rough slopes covered with dense forests of spruce
and pine, and neither migrates nor strays far from its birthplace,
though constantly roving. Solitary for part of the year, or found
in small parties of three or four adults at most, it is chiefly while
the young are partly dependent on the mother for the male is
an indifferent father that one meets a covey of from seven to
ten feeding on bearberries, raspberries, and other wild fruits,
insects, especially grasshoppers, tender leaves, and leaf buds,

268



Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

reserving the buds of the pine and the scales or seeds of its cones
for winter fare, when nearly all other food is buried under snow.
Heavy snowfalls send the grouse to roost in the evergreens, their
dusky plumage, that blends perfectly with the sombre coloring
of the pines as they squat on the limbs, making them all but
invisible. Only early in the summer, when the young are unable
to fly into the branches, do these tree-loving mountaineers roost
on the ground. Approach a covey suddenly, and the beautiful,
downy, nimble-footed chicks, that are by no means fools, scatter
and hide among the bushes and under leaves, while the mother,
flying in an opposite direction, alights in a tree, quite as if she
had no family to be looked for; so why waste time in the search
when she is in evidence? Moving her head from side to side, and
looking at the disturber of her peace with first one eye, then the
other, she will remain squatting on the limb just overhead with
apparent apathy, or what passes for stupidity, but what may be
the most intelligent self-sacrifice for her brood. Molest her, and
she flies away very rapidly with a loud cackle of alarm. It is she
that forms a depression in the ground, near an old log, in the
underbrush, or in the stubble of an open field just as likely, but
never far from water, after pressing down some fine grass, pine
needles, or leaves to line the rude cradle. A clutch consists of
from eight to ten creamy, buff eggs, dotted, spotted, and some-
times blotched with brown. Confining herself very closely for
three weeks or longer, she at length leads forth a brood in June to
call it by clucks and otherwise care for it precisely as the do-
mestic hen looks after her chicks. The nesting begins about the
middle of May, though dates differ with the severity of the season
and the altitude. Only one brood is raised in a year.

While there is anything like work connected with raising a
young family the father absents himself, to rejoin it only when
the covey has agreeable society to offer and makes no demands.
Yet this is the cock that in the mating season gave himself the
airs of a turkey gobbler as he strutted along the mountain road in
front of your wagon, tail spread to its fullest, wings dropped
until they trailed over the ground a picture of self-importance.
This is the season when he woos his mate with booming thunder
on a small scale, which passes for a love song. A small sac of
loose, orange-colored skin, surrounded by a white frill of feathers
edged with dusky, at either side of the neck, may now be

269



Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

inflated at will ; and as the air escapes, a strange grumbling,
groaning sound comes forth, seemingly from quite a distance,
when perhaps very near, or, at least, from just the direction
that it seems not to come from. This sound, that has been aptly
likened to the distant laboring of a "small mountain sawmill
wrestling in agony with some cross-grained log," may be uttered
from a stump or rock, or in the air as the cock flies about from
limb to limb of the evergreens. When disturbed, he has the habit
of erecting the feathers on the back of his neck, a feeble showing
as compared with the imposing black frill of the ruffed grouse.



Canada Grouse

(Dendragapus canadensis)

Called also: SPRUCE, WOOD, AND SPOTTED GROUSE;
BLACK, SWAMP, AND SPRUCE PARTRIDGE ; BLACK-
SPOTTED HEATH COCK.

Length 14 to 15 inches.

Male Upper parts ashy waved with black, gray, and grayish-
brown. A few white streaks on shoulders ; tail black, slightly
rounded, and tipped with orange-brown ; under parts black
and white, the black throat divided from the black breast by
a mottled black and white and ashy circular band; flanks
pale brown, mottled or lined across with black ; legs feath-
ered to toes; bill black; a yellow or reddish comb over eye.

Female Upper parts barred with black, gray, and buff, or pale
rufous, the black predominating, except on grayish lower
back; tail black, mottled and more narrowly tipped with
orange brown than male's; under parts tawny barred with
black; sides mottled with black and tawny; below black,
the feathers broadly tipped with white.

Range From northern New England, New York, Michigan,
and Minnesota, westward to Alaska, and north so far as
trees grow.

Season Permanent resident ; not a migrant, although a rover.

Only along the northern boundary of the United States may
one hope to meet this small, hardy grouse walking about with
the nimble steps of a Bob White, over the mossy bogs, in groves
of evergreens and thickets of hackmatack everywhere its favorite
haunt; but in Canada it becomes increasingly abundant, and the

270



Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

habitants and voyageurs who penetrate the dark, swampy forests
far to the north know it with that degree of intimacy which per-
haps because it furnishes the most interesting stories, that are at
once the admiration and the despair of city-bred ornithologists
is discredited by them as "unscientific." There is a French
Canadian, a native of the Laurentian Mountains, whose fleet
ponies take many Americans to the Grand Discharge for the oua
naniche fishing, who will lead his patrons to a nest beside a
fallen log, show them the "drumming trees" where the cocks
fly down and captivate their mates with a noise resembling dis-
tant thunder, point out a dusky figure in the sombre evergreens
that no untrained eye could find as the buckboard rattles swiftly
over the corduroy road, and at the camp-fire needs little persuasion
to tell more about the Canada grouse than can be learned in the
books.

Very early in spring the cocks begin to strut and give them-
selves grand airs. At this season especially, although the birds
are never shy, the male exposes himself before an admiring ob-
server with amusing abandon. With tail well up, and contracted
and expanded at each step until the quills rustle like silk; with
drooped wings, head erect, the black and white breast feathers
standing out in regular rows, and those in the back of the neck
correspondingly depressed; the combs over each eye enlarged at
will and glowing red a miniature impersonation of self-conceit
struts through the forest, across one's path, flies into a low limb
to attract more attention to his handsome body, and has been
known to alight on a man's shoulder and thump his collar!
Ordinarily he thumps any hard substance with his bill. Some-
times, with plumage arranged as above described, he will sit with
his breast almost touching the earth and make peculiar nodding,
circular motions of the head. To drum, he chooses some favorite
tree inclined away from the perpendicular, and, commencing at
the base, flutters slowly upward, very rapidly beating his wings
to make the rumbling noise. Then, having ascended fifteen or
twenty feet, he glides quietly to the ground, struts, and repeats the
noisy ascent. A good "drumming tree," well known to woods-
men, often has its bark worn by the small thunderers. Apparently
there are many more cocks than hens in every tamarack swamp.

Mr. Watson Bishop, of Nova Scotia, who succeeded in
domesticating this grouse, tells many interesting fresh facts

271



Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

about it. A sitting hen, after scratching a depression in the
ground, first lays three or four eggs before placing any nesting
material in the cavity; then she has the absurd habit of picking
up straws, leaves, etc., as she leaves the nest, and tossing them
backward over her head, to land perhaps on the nest, or perhaps
just in the opposite direction if she has faced about with head
toward the eggs to secure some inviting material. When a quan-
tity of litter has been collected, she will then sit on the eggs, reach
out to gather it in and place it about her until the cradle is very
deep and nicely bordered with grass and leaves. Jealousy, a ruling
passion with hens at the nesting season, often leads them to
steal one another's eggs. One nest should properly contain about
a dozen, more or less, the ground color buff or pale brown, the
spots and speckles reddish brown or umber ; but so great is the
variation of color and markings that some eggs have no markings
at all, while others are beautifully and clearly decorated. It is
possible to rub or wash off markings from many fresh-laid eggs.
Laying commences about the first week of June ; incubation lasts
seventeen days, and by the middle of July the precocious chicks
are able to reach the low branches of the evergreens in their first
flights and move about on them like the adults that would make
expert tight-rope walkers. Tender terminal spruce buds, hack-
matack needles, the berries of Solomon's seal, pine needles and
cones, and such fare give this grouse's flesh a dark color and a
bitter, resinous flavor that tempts only the hungriest woodsmen ;
although in the berry season, when the birds leave the evergreens
to feed on tender leaf buds and fruit, the rich reddish meat is
much sought. An immense quantity of gravel is swallowed to
aid digestion. Indians tell of following great packs of these
grouse that furnished meat to a tribe for weeks ; but a bevy of
five or six birds is the largest recorded by scientists.

Ruffed Grouse

CBonasa umbellus)

Called also. -PARTRIDGE; PHEASANT; BIRCH PARTRIDGE

Length 16 to 1 8 inches.

Male and Female Upper parts chestnut varied with grayish and
yellowish brown, white, and black ; head slightly crested ;

272



Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

yellow line over eye ; sides of neck of male with large tufts
of glossy greenish black feathers tipped with light brown,
much restricted or wanting and dull in female ; long tail,
which may be spread fan-like, yellowish brown or gray or
rusty, beautifully and finely barred with irregular bands half
buff, half black ; a broad subterminal band of black between
gray bands ; throat and breast buff, the former unmarked ;
underneath whitish, all barred with brown, strongly on
sides, less distinctly on breast and below ; legs feathered to
heel ; bill horn color.

Range Eastern United States and southern Canada west to
Minnesota, south to northern Georgia, Mississippi, and Ar-
kansas.

Season Permanent but roving resident.

Neither a " partridge " nor a " pheasant," it is by the former
name that this superb game bird is best known to the New
Englanders, and by the latter that it is commonly called in the
middle and southern states; but this most typical grouse (whose
Latin name describes two striking characteristics : Bonasus, a
bison, referring to the bellowing bull-like noise produced by the
male; and umbellus, to the umbrella-like tufts on his neck) ap-
pears in literature and the market stalls alike as a " partridge," a
misnomer shared by the Bob White, which strictly belongs to a
race of European birds of which we have no counterparts on
this side of the Atlantic. What's in a name ? That which we
call a grouse by any other name doth taste as sweet.

Partial to hill country interspersed with cultivated meadows
and dingles, or to mountains, rocky, inaccessible, thickly tim-
bered, and well watered with bush-grown streams, it is only
rarely, and then chiefly in autumn, that coveys leave high alti-
tudes to feed along the edges of milder valleys and enter the
swamps. The dainties preferred include crickets, grasshoppers,
the larvae of caterpillars, beechnuts, chestnuts, acorns of the
chestnut oak and the white oak, strawberries, blueberries, rasp-
berries, elderberries, wintergreen and partridge berries with their
foliage, cranberries, the bright fruit of the black alder and dog-
wood, sumach berries (including the poisonous varieties, which
do the grouse no injury), wild grapes, grain dropped in the stubble
of harvested fields, the foliage of many plants, and the leaf buds
of numerous shrubs and trees a varied menu indeed, responsible
alike for the bird's luscious, tender flesh and its roving disposition.

273



Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

The "drumming" of a male ruffed grouse, its most famous
characteristic, is surely as remarkable a bird call as is heard in all
nature. A thumping, rolling tattoo, like the deep, muffled beat-
ing of a drum, sonorous, crepitating, ventriloqual, admirably

written down by Mr. Ernest Seton Thompson, thump thump

thump thump, thump; thump, thump-rup, rup, rup, r-r-r-

r-r-r-r-r-r, announces the presence of a cock hopeful of attracting
the attention of some shy female hidden in the underbrush. Any
one will do, for he is a sadly erring mate, a flagrant polygamist,
in spite of much that has been said to whiten his character. On
a fallen log, a wall, or broad stump that has been used as a drum-
ming ground perhaps for many years, and well known to the