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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hens as a trysting place, the male puffs out his feathers until,
like a turkey cock, he looks twice his natural size, ruffs his neck
frills, raises his crest, spreads and elevates his tail, droops his
trailing wings beside him, and, with head drawn backward, struts
along the surface with the most affected jerking, dandified gait.
Suddenly he halts, distends his head and neck, and beats the air
with his wings, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until there
is simply a blur where wings should be, so marvelously fast do
they go. Because they vibrate at a speed at which the human
eye can scarcely follow, the method of drumming is a vexed
question among the most reliable observers. Thoreau was ready
to swear that he had seen the ruffed grouse strike its wings to-
gether behind its back to produce the sound, Audubon to the
contrary notwithstanding. Most woodsmen will tell you either
that the male strikes the log on which he is standing, or the sides
of his body; but the strongest scientific judgment now favors
the abundant testimony that the bird beats nothing but the air;
its wings neither meet behind the back, nor do they touch its
sides, nor strike against any substance whatsoever. The drum-
ming may occur at any season, most frequently and vigorously
at nesting time, of course; but besides being a love "song," it is
doubtless also a challenge to rival cocks, that fight like gamesters
until blood and feathers strew the ground; or it may be simply
an outlet to the bird's inordinate vanity and vigorous animal
spirits. In a lesser degree the sound is precisely the same as
when the grouse begins its flight.

Quite ignored by her lover when maternal duties approach,
the female scratches a slight hollow in some secluded place, usu-


Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

ally at the foot of an old stump or log or rock, often near a
stream among the underbrush ; but many nests in unprotected
open stretches are recorded. A few wisps of dry grass, dead
leaves, pine needles, or any convenient material, line the hollow
in which a full set of eggs from ten to fifteen rich buff, dotted
with different sized spots of pale chestnut brown has been found
as early as April first, a full month earlier than the regular time.
Since the markings can be easily rubbed off a fresh laid egg, one
sometimes hears that the grouse's egg is plain buff. Only one
brood is raised in a season, the exceptions to the rule being very
rare. For nearly four weeks the hen closely confines herself,
and, like the sitting Bob White, relies upon her plumage's perfect
mimicry of her surroundings to protect her from notice. The
coloring of a ruffed grouse tells of a long ancestry passed under
deciduous trees. Seated among last year's leaves she looks all
of a piece with the carpeting of the woods, and neither stirs a
feather nor winks an eye, though you stand within two feet of
her, to lead you to think otherwise. Mr. D. G. Elliot, among
others, believes she hides her nest from the male as well as from
all her other enemies. The fox, weasel, squirrel, hawk, owl,
and above all the breech-loader, are the grouse's deadliest foes;
and a species of woodtick that inserts its triangular head beneath
the skin, sometimes destroying entire broods. Bird lice, and a
botworm that resembles a maggot and penetrates the flesh, like-
wise prove fatal, particularly to chicks. The dust baths commonly
indulged in are taken to rid themselves of vermin. Heavy rains
that drench the fledgelings not infrequently kill them, too, until
one wonders there are any ruffed grouse left. The precocious,
downy brown balls, that run at once from the shell, are managed
precisely as a domestic hen cares for her brood, even to the
clucking, hen-like call that summons them beneath her wings,
where they sleep until old enough to roost in trees like adults.
The mother grouse when suddenly startled gives a shrill squeal,
apparently the signal for the covey to scatter and hide among the
leaves and tangle, while, by feigning lameness and other hack-
neyed devices for diverting an intruder's attention from the chicks
to herself, she remains in their neighborhood, they motionless in
their hiding places, until the reassuring cluck calls the happy
family together again. When the young need no further care in
autumn, the males selfishly join the covey, rarely consisting of


Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

more than six or eight birds; for, unlike the pinnated grouse,
this species does not pack.

"The ruffed grouse, by reason of its sudden bursts from cover,
its bold, strong, swift flight, the rugged nature of its favorite
cover, its proud, erect carriage, its handsome garb and its wide
distribution is easily the king of American game birds," says Mr.
G. O. Shields, "and has therefore been chosen as the emblem
of the League of American Sportsmen."

In the brisk, golden days of autumn the sportsman finds
sport indeed in hunting the wily, clever grouse, "educated " by
much persecution from an almost tame denizen of the mountain
farm into a woodland recluse that constantly challenges admira-
tion for its cunning. It will seldom lie well to a dog, but sneaks
away so swiftly through the underbrush that either the dog or
its master usually gets left. By flying low, then dropping to run
again, the strong scent is broken.

Bob Whites, that have a power of withholding their scent
by tightly compressing their feathers a trick not known to the
grouse apparently do not escape detection any better than they.
Many skilled sportsmen, armed with the most approved breech-
loaders, and aided by the best trained dogs that bushwhack a
region where grouse are known to be abundant, return home
with light bags. No bird that flies, unless it is the Jack snipe, is
so seldom hit. A tremendous whir-r-r-r of rapidly beaten wings
startles the tyro out of a good aim. Unusually strong chest
muscles for concentrated but limited exertion, and especially stiff
wings, enable the grouse to hurl themselves into the air with a
thunderous velocity ; but, like all their allies, they can steal away
as silently as Arabs, if necessary. Darting away directly opposite
from the sportsman, a well " educated " bird quickly places a tree
between itself and the shooter, threading a tortuous maze in
and out through the woods, higher and higher, until, having
cleared the tree tops, it is off to freedom. Fear, not a natural, but
an acquired state of mind, has not yet blasted the peace of grouse
in regions where they have never been molested; and knowing
no worse enemy there than a fox, from which they are safe when
roosting in a tree, and mistaking the sportsman's dog for one,
they have been sometimes credited with stupidity because by
remaining on the perch they allow a man to rake the covey.
But such assault and battery is happily rare. Certain hawks and


Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

owls do awful execution. Snares of silk and horsehair, poacher's
traps, and "twitch-ups" of young saplings bent by the farmer's
boy, do much to spoil the sport, that becomes shockingly rarer
year by year. To escape pursuit a grouse will often dive into
the snow; and although dense feathers cover its body and legs,
it will make a similar plunge to keep warm in extremely cold
weather, a solitary shiverer, unlike the Bob Whites, that bury
themselves in cosy, snug family parties; but, like them, it, too,
sometimes gets imprisoned by an impenetrable ice crust, and so
perishes miserably.

The Canadian Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus togata), to be
distinguished from the preceding by the prevailing gray, instead
of chestnut, of its upper parts, its grayer tail, and its more dis-
tinctly barred under parts, almost as clear on the breast and
underneath as on the sides, is doubtless simply a climatic varia-
tion, only the systematists seeing a sufficient difference in the
two birds to justify their separation into two distinct species.
Their habits and eggs are identical. Often no difference can be
detected by sportsmen who bring home both species in their
game bags. The spruce forests of northern New York and New
England and the British provinces, westward to Northern Ore-
gon, Idaho, and Washington to British Columbia, north to James
Bay, is the Canadian ruffed grouse's range.

The Gray Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus umbelloides), a
still paler variation, in which the gray tints predominate, ranges
from the Rocky Mountain region of the United States and British
America north to Alaska and east to Manitoba. Considering the
altitudes of from seven to ten thousand feet at which it usually
lives, the lonely cations it frequents, and its rare persecution at
the hands of men, it is surprisingly shy, according to Captain
Bendire. Otherwise it has no trait, apparently, not already
touched upon in the life history of the ruffed grouse.

The Oregon, or Red Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus sabint),
the darkest, handsomest variation of the ruffed grouse anywhere
found, roams over the coast mountains of Northern California,
Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, reaching Alaska and
many of the Pacific Coast islands, and occasionally straying into


Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

Colorado, Dakota, Montana, and Idaho. Where the Canadian
variety encroaches its territory, however, little or no difference
in the plumage may be detected. The account of the ruffed
grouse's habits, nest, etc., should be read to avoid repetition,
since the Oregon bird is simply a climatic variation of the eastern

Prairie Chicken

(Tympanuchus americanus)


Length About 16 to 18 inches.

Male and Female Upper parts brown, barred with black, chest-
nut, ochre, and whitish, the latter chiefly on wings ; sides of
the neck tufted with ten or more narrow, stiff feathers,
rounded at end, which may be erected like conventional
Cupid's wings above the head. Their color black, with buff
centres, frequently chestnut on inner webs; bare, yellow,
loose skin below these feathers may be inflated at will; the
dusky, brown, white tipped tail rounded, the inner feathers
somewhat mottled with buff; chin and throat buff; breast
and underneath whitish, evenly barred with black. Head
slightly crested; legs scantily feathered in front only. Fe-
male smaller, the neck tufts much restricted, no inflated
sacs below them; the tail feathers with numerous distinct
buff bars.

Range "Prairies of the Mississippi Valley; south to Louisiana
and Texas; east to Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and
Ontario; west through eastern portions of North Dakota,
South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and the Indian Territory;
north to Manitoba ; general tendency to extension of range
westward and contraction eastward; migration north and
south in Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri." A. O. U.

Season Permanent resident; only locally a migrant at northern
limit of range.

Westward the prairie chicken, like the course of empire,
takes its way ; for although it may increase at the pioneer stage of
civilization, it halts at the introduction of the steam plough and
railroad, to disappear forever where villages run together into cities.
Doubtless its range was once far east just how far is not certain,
since the early writers confused it with the heath hen, once


Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

enormously abundant, but now confined to Martha's Vineyard,
where in 1890 there were about one hundred of the birds left, and
now, for the want of sufficient protection, even this pitiful rem-
nant has diminished to very near the extinction point. So it
will be inevitably with the prairie chicken. Modern farming
machines destroy thousands of eggs and young annually as they
steam over the prairies ; in the small, new settlements there is
little respect paid to game laws when a dull monotony of salt
pork sets up a craving for fresh meat; and since the prairie
chicken has strong preferences for certain habitats, and will not or
cannot live in others, evidently the day is not far distant when
either missionary effort on behalf of this and many other birds
must be vigorously applied, or they will certainly perish from
the face of the earth. Since the coyote, or prairie wolf, which
has preyed on this grouse, is being killed off, and sportsmen are
endeavoring to enforce the law against trapping the birds in
winter, and to induce farmers to burn off their fields in autumn
instead of in May, there is still hope that its extinction may be at
least postponed.

Early in the morning in spring the booming of males assem-
bled on the " scratching ground " some slight elevation of the
prairie summons the hens from that territory to witness their
extraordinary performances until the whole region reechoes
with the soft though powerful sound, like deep tones from a
church organ harmonious, penetrating, more impressive to the
human listener than to the apparently indifferent females. Inflat-
ing the loose yellow sacs on the sides of their head, that stand out
like two oranges; erecting and throwing forward their Cupid-
like feathers at the back of the neck ; ruffling the plumage until it
stands out straight; drooping the wings and spreading the erect
tails, the males present an imposing picture of pompous display
and magnificence that melts not the flinty hearts of the coquetting
spectators. Now the proud cock, incited to nobler deeds by the
indifference of his chosen sweetheart, rushes madly forward,
letting the air out of his cheek sacs as he goes, to produce the
booming noise, repeating the rush toward her and the boom until
she gives some sign that his mad endeavors to win her awaken
some response in her cold little heart. Toward the end of court-
ship she moves about quickly among the performers, then stands
perfectly still for a time, evidently taking note of the fine points


Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

of the numerous lovers that embarrass her choice. Shortly after
the sun rises, the circus and concert end for the day, to be
repeated the next morning, and the next, for a week or longer, at
the end of which time the inflamed cocks usually fall to fighting,
clawing at each other as they leap into the air and scatter blood
and feathers. To the victor belongs the sweetheart. The note
of the male bird is closely imitated by many farmers' boys. It
may be written, uck-ah-umb-boo-oo-oo-oo.

It must be owned these birds show no great intelligence in
the selection of nesting sites, large numbers of homes placed in the
short grass of dry localities being destroyed by prairie fires annu-
ally, others on cultivated lands are crushed by mowing machines,
and those built along the marshes or sloughs are often inundated
in a wet season. A slight excavation, sometimes thickly, but
more often sparsely, lined with grasses and feathers plucked from
the mother's body, receives from ten to twenty eggs, ranging
from cream to pale brown, regularly marked with fine red-
dish brown dots, the coloring and spotting differing, however,
on almost every egg in a clutch. It is the female that bears the
entire burden of incubation, lasting from twenty-three days to
four weeks. So perfectly does her plumage mimic her surround-
ings that one may almost step on a nest without seeing her.
Like all her tribe, she is a model mother, she alone caring for
the downy chicks, leading them where grasshoppers and other
insect fare abounds, and protecting them with courageous and
artful tactics.

The young are marvelously cunning in hiding in the grass.
Now they lie very close to a dog, and since their flesh is white
and toothsome, whereas that of old birds is dark and less
esteemed, they fill the game bags after the fifteenth of August.
Toward the end of summer, when there is no nursery work left
to do, the selfish father joins his family; other families join his,
or pack, until in regions where the birds have not been perse-
cuted several scores roam over the prairie together to feed in the
grain fields and on small berries and seeds. Now the grouse
become wilder, and, except when gorged to indolence, will fly a
mile or more, perhaps, so that little sport can be had with them
over dogs.

"The true manner of shooting prairie fowl," says Mr.
Charles E. Whitehead in "Sport with Rod and Gun," "is to


Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

drive over the prairie in a light wagon, letting the dogs range far
and wide on either side. . . . When one scents the birds he
will come to a point suddenly . . . as if he saw a ghost. The
wagon drives near him, the other dogs coming up and backing
him. The sportsmen then alight and take their shots. Rarely the
whole covey is flushed together, and frequently the old birds lie
until the last, and while the sportsman is loading his gun will
dash away uttering their quick-repeated cry of cluk-cluk-cluk-
cluk, and looking back over their wings at the sportsman
who marks them down half a mile away. As one goes to retrieve
the dead bird, still another and another will rise, and it is only
until one has been carefully over the field that he feels secure
that all the birds are up."

Unlike the rest of their kin, the prairie chickens can fly long
distances, though not with such concentrated power as to pro-
duce the thunder-like roar of the ruffed grouse, for example.
Their flight may not be so swift, for it is accomplished with less
flapping and more easy, graceful sailing. They migrate regularly,
or, at least, the females do, leaving the hardier males to brave the
intense cold at the northern limit of their range. In November
and December flocks descend from northern Iowa and Minnesota
to settle for the winter in southern Iowa and northern Missouri,
the size of the south bound flocks being influenced by the severity
of the cold, just as the return of the migrants in March and April
depends upon the warmth of spring. Most of the pinnated
grouse's life is passed on the fertile open prairies, sleety storms,
high winds, and deep snow alone driving a pack to shelter in
timbered lands.

Prairie Sharp-tailed Grouse

(Pedioccetes phasianelltes campestris)


Length 17.50 to 20 inches.

Male and Female Upper parts yellowish buff, irregularly barred
and blotched with black; the shoulders streaked and the tips
of wing coverts conspicuously spotted with white; crown

Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

and back of neck more finely barred than the back; no neck
tufts; head of male slightly crested, and his neck has con-
cealed reddish distensible skin ; space in front of and below
eye buff, like the throat; breast has V-shaped brownish
marks; sides irregularly barred or spotted with blackish
or buff ; underneath, including wing linings, white. Tail
barred with black and buff, the central feathers longest, but
shorter in female than in male; legs full feathered to the first
joint of toes; bill horn color. Female smaller.

Range Plains and prairies east of the Rocky Mountains, north to
Manitoba, east to Wisconsin and Illinois, and south to New

Season Permanent resident, or partially migratory in cold

Three variations of one species of sharp-tailed grouse greatly
extend its range until in one form or another it has come to be
among the best known of our western game birds ; the Columbian,
the true sharp-tail, and the prairie varieties not being generally
separated by sportsmen either in the United States or Canada,
as they are by the systematists.

A most hilarious "dance" that precedes the nesting season,
as in the case of the pinnated grouse, begins early in spring, at
the gray of dawn, when the sharp-tails meet on a hillock that
very likely has been a favorite with their ancestors, too. They
behave like rational fowls until suddenly a male lowers his head,
distends the sacs on either side of his neck that look like oranges
fastened there, ruffles up his feathers to appear twice his natural
size, erects and spreads his tail, droops his wings, and, rushing
across the arena, "takes the floor." Now the ball is opened in-
deed. Out rush other dancers, stamping the ground hard as
their feet beat a quick tattoo ; the air escaping from their bright
sacs making a "sort of bubbling crow," quite different from the
deep organ tone of the pinnated grouse ; the rustling of the
vibrating wings and tail furnishing extra music. Now all join
in ; at first there is dignified decorum, but the fun grows fast
and furious, then still faster and Still more furious ; the crazy
birds twist and twirl, stamp and leap over each other in their
frenzy, every moment making more noise, until their energy
finally spent, they calm down into sane creatures again. They
move quietly about over the well worn space (a "chicken's
stamping ground," measuring from fifty to one hundred feet


Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

across, according to Mr. Ernest Seton Thompson), when, without
warning, some male has a fresh seizure that soon starts another
saturnalia. "The whole performance reminds one so strongly
of a 'Cree dance,' " says Mr. Thompson, "as to suggest the
possibility of its being the prototype of the Indian exercise. . . .
The dancing is indulged in at any time of the morning or even-
ing in May, but it is usually at its height before sunrise. Its
erotic character can hardly be questioned, but I cannot fix its
place or value in the nuptial ceremonies. The fact that I have
several times noticed the birds join for a brief ' set to ' in the late
fall merely emphasizes its parallelism to the drumming and strut-
ting of the ruffed grouse as well as the singing of small birds."

After pairing, the male, in the usual selfish fashion of his
tribe, allows his mate to seek some place of concealment, scratch
out an excavation screened by grasses, and attend to all nurs-
ery duties, while he joins a club of loafers that most scientists
consider flagrant polygamists too. From ten to sixteen eggs,
very small for so large a bird, and of a brown or buff shade with
a few dark spots, hatch, after about twenty-one days of close
sitting, into golden yellow, speckled chicks, admirably clothed, to
escape detection from prowling hawks, as they squat in the grass.
This species, too, is a conspicuous sufferer from the mowing
machine and prairie fire. If farmers would only burn all their
fields in autumn instead of in May and June, when birds are nest-
ing, thousands of grouse might be spared annually.

All young grouse feed largely on insects, especially grass-
hoppers, at first, but sharp-tails become almost dependent at any
time on the hips of the wild rose, the stony seeds that likewise
do the work of gravel being a staple every month in the year ;
willow and birch browse, various seeds, cereals, and berries en-
larging a long menu. Such dainty fare makes delicate, luscious
flesh, so tender, indeed, that young birds falling at the aim of the
sportsman's gun have been burst asunder when they reached
the ground, and their feathers loosened. With increased age the
flesh grows dark and less palatable. These grouse, hunted in
the same fashion that the pinnated grouse is, generally lie well to
a dog. A single bird rising with a cackling cry when flushed
at a point, flies swiftly straight away, now beating the wings,
now sailing with them stiffly set and decurved, still cackling as
it goes. Later in the year, when coveys unite to form a dense


Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

pack, the eyes, turned in all directions at once, on the perpet-
ual lookout, it is a skilled sportsman who can steal a march on
them before they run swiftly away and finally take to wing to flap
and sail far, far beyond reach of his gun. When cold blasts, high
winds, and deep snow drive these prairie lovers into timbered
lands and sheltered ravines, a covey spends much time roosting
in trees and walking along the branches, where the sharp-tails'
nature apparently undergoes a change; for it is said they are
almost stupidly unsuspicious now, and will sit still and look on
at the destruction of their companions. Odd that they should
shun man and his habitations ! A partial migration of females to
warmer, or at least more sheltered winter quarters, doubtless
accounts for the variation of the species.

The Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse (Pedioccetes phasianellus
campestris), also called by the various popular names by which
the prairie sharp-tail is known since few see any difference be-
tween the two varieties, has its upper parts more grayish instead
of yellowish buff, possibly with less conspicuous white spots on
its wings and shoulders, and its whitish under parts, including

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 22 of 29)