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

flanks, marked with black U or V shaped lines. In habits there
appears to be little or no difference between this variety and its
prototypes ; therefore the account of the prairie sharp-tail need
not be repeated. As its name implies, the region about the Co-
lumbia River is this grouse's chosen habitat; but the northwest-
ern part of the United States, including northeastern California,
northern Nevada, and Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Wash-
ington, and from west of the Rocky Mountains northward
through British Columbia to central Alaska, is the area over
which it is distributed. As man, whom it shuns (unlike the
pinnated grouse), appears on its territory, it recedes before him
into wilder, remote districts, until plains where coveys were
abundant only five years ago now know them no more.

The Sharp-tailed Grouse (Pedioccetes phasianellus), a bird
that never shows its dark, rich plumage within the United States,
however commonly the paler, yellower prairie, and the grayer
Columbian varieties of this handsome grouse are called by its
name, ranges over the interior of British America to Fort Simp-
son, and is comparatively little known. Reversing the usual rule,


Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

the plumage of this one species grows gradually darker as the
birds range northward, until the true sharp-tail has black for its
prevailing color.

Sage Grouse

(Centrocercus uropbasianus)


Length 20 to 32 inches ; largest of the grouse.

Male Upper parts ashy gray barred with brown, black, and
darker gray ; some white streaks on wings ; tail of twenty
stiff feathers graduated to a threadlike point, the central ones
like back, the outer ones black and partly barred with buff;
top of head and neck grayish buff. (" Neck susceptible of
enormous distention by means of air sacs covered with naked,
livid skin, not regularly hemispherical and lateral like those
of the pinnated grouse, but forming a great protuberance in
front of irregular contour ; surmounted by a fringe of hairlike
filaments several inches long, springing from a mass of erect,
white feathers; covered below with a solid set of sharp,
white, horny feathers like fish scales. The affair ... is
constantly changing with the wear of the feathers." Dr.
Elliott Coues). This neck decoration is fully displayed only
at the pairing season. Fore neck black speckled with grayish ;
breast gray; flanks broadly barred with blackish brown and
pale buff, or sometimes mottled with black; underneath
black; wing linings white.

Female One-third smaller than male; chin and throat white; no
neck decoration ; a softer, shorter tail.

Range Sage covered and sterile plains of British Columbia,
Assiniboia, the two Dakotas, Nebraska, Colorado, southward
to New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada; west to California,
Oregon, and Washington.

Season Permanent resident, or partly migatory at some points.

Several peculiarities make this species noteworthy; next to
the turkey it is the largest game bird in the United States, as it
is the largest of the grouse clan, a full grown male weighing
often eight pounds, while his smaller mate may be only a little
over half that weight, the size of sage fowls differing greatly.
Another distinction it possesses in being the only one of the gal-
linaceous or scratching birds without a gizzard, what answers for
one being merely a soft, membraneous bag; hence gravel, prairie
rose seeds, and other hard substances are never swallowed. Be-


Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

cause sage grouse are commonly found in regions where the bush
that lends them its name abounds, there is a popular impression
that its leaves are their sole diet; but while they certainly form its
staple in winter, at least, immense numbers of grasshoppers,
crickets, berries, grain, seeds of grasses, and leguminous plants so
change the character of the bird's flesh, ordinarily bitter and
astringent, as to make it truly palatable to the fastidious in many
sections where only the sharpest appetite could relish it under
the sage circumstances. But even then a young bird should be
drawn immediately after death.

Since the sage bush (Artemisia) grows to a height of only
two or three feet, a partial migration of a winter pack sometimes
becomes necessary when the plant is hopelessly buried under
snow, however willing this as well as other grouse may be to
plunge into shallow drifts. Intense cold, common to the high
altitudes, and intense heat to the alkali regions it inhabits, bliz-
zards or scorching winds, apparently do not affect this hardy
bird. The food supply is its first consideration ; after that a drink
morning and evening from some clear mountain stream. At the
approach of winter, coveys of seven or eight birds begin to pack
into flocks, sometimes numbering a hundred, whose strong, clan-
nish feeling leads them to live much as the Bob Whites do, though
the males are no such models of the domestic virtues. Forming
in a circle, the grouse squat and huddle for mutual warmth and
protection, tails toward the centre of the ring, heads pointing
outward to detect danger that may come from any direction.
Yet they are not suspicious birds, or wild ; they generally walk
quietly away from an intruder, or run and hide among the sage
bushes, where, owing to the mimicry of their plumage, it is diffi-
cult indeed to detect them. Their nature is terrestrial. Flying,
at the outset a laborious performance, will not be resorted to
except as a last expedient. The sage cock with effort lifts his
heavy body from the ground by much wing flapping; his balance
is unsteady until fairly launched ; but once off, on he goes, alter-
nately flapping with five or six quick strokes, then smoothly
sailing, cackling his alarm as he flies, until far beyond sight.
Wheat found in the crop of a bird killed early in the morning
eight miles from a cultivated field, proves to what a distance this
grouse is willing to fly for a good breakfast. Mr. D. G. Elliot
says it requires a heavy blow to bring a bird down, large shot


Bob Whites, Grouse, etc.

being necessary to kill one ; for it is capable, even if severely
wounded, of carrying away large quantities of lead, and will fly
a long distance, probably not dropping until life is extinct. Like
the prairie hen and the sharp-tailed grouse, only one bird will
flush at a time, the others lying close in concealment.

Like these birds, too, the sage cock goes through some
amusing pre-nuptial performances early in spring. Inflating his
large saffron colored air sacs until they rise above his head and
all but conceal it, the spring feathers along the edges standing
straight out, his pheasant-shaped tail spread like a great, pointed
fan, the wings trailing beside him, his breast rubbing the ground
until often the feathers are worn threadbare, he moves around
the object of his affections with mincing, gingerly steps, while
the air escaping from the sacs produces a guttural, purring sound
that seems to voice his entire satisfaction with himself. Notwith-
standing his protestations of devotion, he leaves his mate to
scratch out a nest under some sage bush or in a grass tussock,
and here she confines herself very closely for she is a model
mother for three weeks or more. Knowing how perfectly her
feathers conceal her from the sharpest eyes, she remains on the
nest until sometimes almost stepped on, and shows the marvel-
ously clever tricks of protecting her chicks common to all this
highly intelligent clan. It is the coyote that is her deadliest
enemy. When the brood is fully able to take care of itself, the
neglectful father, that has passed the early summer with other
cocks as selfishly indolent as he, for the first time becomes
acquainted with his children.



(Family Phasianidce)

Wild Turkey

(Meleagris gallopavo)

Length About four feet ; largest of the game birds.

Male Head and upper neck naked ; plumage with metallic
bronze, copper, and green reflections, the feathers tipped
with black; secondaries green barred with whitish, the
primaries black barred with white. (The wild turkey to be
distinguished from the domestic bird chiefly by the chestnut,
instead of white, tips to the tail and upper tail coverts.) A
long bunch of bristles hangs from centre of breast; bill red,
like the head ; legs red and spurred.

Female Smaller, dull of plumage, and without the breast bristles.

Range United States, from the Chesapeake to the Gulf coast,
and westward to the Plains.

Season Permanent resident.

Once abundant so far north as Maine, Ontario, and Dakota,
this noble game bird, now hunted to very near the extinction
point, has had its range so restricted by the advance of civiliza-
tion, for which it has a well grounded antipathy, that the most
inaccessible mountains or swampy bottom lands, the borders
of woodland streams that have never echoed to the whistle
of a steamboat, are not too remote a habitation. Originally no
more suspicious and wild than a heath hen, according to the
testimony of early New Englanders, much persecution has finally
made it the most cunning and wary, the most unapproachable
bird to be found ; but what possible chance of escape has any
wild creature once man, with the manifold aids of civilization at
his disposal, determines to possess it ? It cannot be long at the
present rate of shrinkage before the turkey, in spite of its marvel-
ous cleverness, will follow the great auk to extinction.

1 1


Vt, Life-size.

Pheasants and Turkeys

It is the Mexican turkey, introduced into Europe early in the
sixteenth century, that still abundantly flourishes in poultry yards
everywhere, and furnishes our Thanksgiving feasts. Another
bird of the southwest, the Rio Grande turkey, that ranges over
northeastern Mexico and southeastern Texas, and a fourth and
smaller variety, confined to southern Florida, show constant, if
slight variations in plumage, but little in nature, which awakens
the hope that if American sportsmen were to introduce the
southern races where the present species has been killed off, and
protect the birds, magnificent sport might be indefinitely pre-

Beginning at early dawn in spring, and before leaving his
perch, the male turkey gobbles a shrill, clear love song, quite
different at this season, before fat chokes his utterance, from the
coarse gobble of the domestic turkey. The females now roost
apart, but in the same vicinity. By imitating the hoot of the
barred owl, and by skilful counterfeits of the female's plaintive
yelp, produced by old sportsmen with the aid of a turkey wing-
bone, or a vibrating leaf placed on the lips, among other devices,
the turkey may be lured within gun range, if his education has
not gone far. Sailing to the ground from his perch, in the hope
of having attracted some hen to his breakfast ground, the cock,
at sight of one, displays every charm he possesses : his widely
spread tail, his dewlap and warty neck charged with bright red
blood ; and drooping his wings as he struts before her, he sucks
air into his windbag, only to discharge it with a pulmonic puff,
that he evidently considers irresistibly fascinating. Dandified,
overwhelmingly conceited, ruffled up with self-importance, he
struts and puffs, until suddenly an infuriated rival rushing at him
gives battle at once; spurs, claws, beaks, make blood and feathers
fly, and the vanquished sultan retires discomfited, leaving the foe
in possession of the harem. The turkey is ever a sad polygamist.
Once the nesting season, lasting about three months, is over, the
male stops gobbling, and not until the young need no care does
he rejoin the females and see his well grown offspring for the
first time, having enjoyed an idle club life with other selfish
males while there was any real work to do.

The turkey-hen, happy in his exile, even takes pains to hide
herself and nest from his lordship, for he becomes frightfully
jealous of anything that distracts her attention from him, and will
19 289

Pheasants and Turkeys

destroy eggs or chicks in a fit of passion. Evidently jealousy is
unknown to her, however, for many nests or the area of ground
that answers as such have been reported where two hens de-
posited their cream colored eggs, finely and evenly speckled with
brown, thus doubling the ordinary clutch into one of two dozen
eggs or over. It is thought that, in such cases, the good-natured
incubators relieve each other. Snakes, hawks, and other enemies
in search of so toothsome a morsel as a turkey chick, and heavy
rains that chill the delicate, downy fledgelings, decimate a brood,
however faithfully tended by a devoted mother. It is not until
they are able to fly into high roosts that her mind is relieved of
many anxieties ; and only when some dire calamity sweeps away
her entire family does she attempt to raise a second brood.
Insects, especially grasshoppers, appear to be the approved diet
for all young gallinaceous fowl ; the more extensive bill of fare
of fruits, grain, nuts, seeds, and leaf buds comes later, when a
toughened gizzard may receive the quantities of gravel necessary
to grind the grain. Quit, quit, call the feeding birds, though,
like domestic fowls, to quit is the last thing they seem ready to do.
Where food is abundant they may wander far, but never from a
chosen region, for they are not migratory ; nevertheless the pointer
that scents a small flock in autumn, when the innocence of young
birds makes shooting a possibility to the expert, leads his master
a rough and wearisome chase before a shot is offered at this
peerless game bird.






(Order Columbce)

Pigeons and Doves

(Family Columbidce)

Of three hundred birds of this order known to scientists,
over one hundred are confined to the Malay Archipelago, yet
there are only twenty-eight in India, fewer still in Australia, only
twelve species in the whole of North America, and of that num-
ber but two pigeons and one dove now stray far enough beyond
the Florida Keys and southern borders to come within the scope
of this book.

Passenger, or Wild Pigeon.

Band-tailed Pigeon.

Mourning Dove.



(Family Columbidce)

Passenger Pigeon

(Ectopistes migratorius)

Called also : WILD PIGEON

Length 16 to 25 inches.

Male Upper parts bluish slate shaded with olive gray on back
and shoulders, and with metallic violet, gold, and greenish
reflections on back and sides of head; the wing coverts with
velvety black spots; throat bluish slate, quickly shading into
a rich reddish buff on breast, and paling into white under-
neath ; two middle tail feathers blackish ; others fading from
pearl to white. Eyes red, like the feet; bill black.

Female Similar, but upper parts washed with more olive brown ;
less iridescence; breast pale grayish brown fading to white

Range Eastern North America, nesting chiefly north of or along
the northern borders of United States as far west as the
Dakotas and Manitoba, and north to Hudson Bay.

Season Chiefly a transient visitor in the United States of late years.

The wild pigeon barely survives to refute the adage, "In
union there is strength." No birds have shown greater gregari-
ousness, the flocks once numbering not hundreds nor thousands
but millions of birds; Wilson in 1808 mentioning a flock seen
by him near Frankfort, Kentucky, which he conservatively esti-
mated at over two billion, and Audubon told of flights so dense
that they darkened the sky, and streamed across it like mighty
rivers. So late as our Centennial year one nesting ground in
Michigan extended over an area twenty-eight miles in length by
three or four in width. The modern mind, accustomed to deal
only with pitiful remnants of feathered races, can scarcely grasp
the vast numbers that once made our land the sportsman's para-


Pigeons and Doves

disc. Union for once has been fatal. Unlimited netting, even
during the entire nesting season, has resulted in sending over one
million pigeons to market from a single roost in one year, leaving
perhaps as many more wounded birds and starving, helpless,
naked squabs behind, until the poultry stalls became so glutted
with pigeons that the low price per barrel scarcely paid for their
transportation, and they were fed to the hogs. This abominable
practice of netting pigeons, discontinued only because there are
no flocks left to capture, has driven the birds either to nest north
of the United States, or, when within its borders, to change their
habits and live in couples chiefly. Captain Bendire, than whom
no writer ever expressed an opinion out of fuller knowledge, said
in 1892: "The extermination of the passenger pigeon has pro-
gressed so rapidly during the past twenty years that it looks now
as if their (sic) total extermination might be accomplished within
the present century." Already they are scarce as the great auk in
the Atlantic states.

One, or at most two white eggs, laid on a rickety platform of
sticks in a tree, where they are visible from below, would scarcely
account for the myriads of pigeons once seen, were not frequent
nestings common throughout the summer; and it is said the birds
lay again on their return south. Both of the devoted mates take
regular turns at incubating, the female between two o'clock in
the afternoon and nine or ten the next morning, daily, leaving the
male only four or five hours sitting, according to Mr. William
Brewster. "The males feed twice each day," he says, "namely,
from daylight to about eight A.M., and again late in the afternoon.
The females feed only in the forenoon. The change is made
with great regularity as to time, all the males being on the nest
by ten o'clock A.M. . . . The sitting bird does not leave the
nest until the bill of its incoming mate nearly touches its tail, the
former slipping off as the latter takes its place. . . . Five
weeks are consumed by a single nesting. . . . Usually the
male pushes the young off the nest by force. The latter struggles
and squeals precisely like a tame squab, but is finally crowded
out along the branch, and after further feeble resistance flutters
down to the ground. Three or four days elapse before it is able
to fly well. Upon leaving the nest it is often fatter and heavier
than the old birds; but it quickly becomes thinner and lighter,
despite the enormous quantity of food it consumes." Before it


Pigeons and Doves

leaves the nest it is nourished with food brought up from the
parents' crops, where, mixed with a peculiar whitish fluid, it
passes among the credulous as "pigeon's milk." Is not this
the nearest approach among birds to the mammals' method of
feeding their young?

Patterns of all the domestic virtues, proverbially loving,
gentle birds, anatomists tell us their blandness is due not to
the cultivation of their moral nature, but to the absence of the

The Band-tailed, or White-collared Pigeon (Columba fasci-
ata), a large, stout species distributed over the western United
States and from British Columbia to Mexico, inhabits chiefly those
mountainous regions where acorns, its favorite food, can be
secured. The male has head, neck, and under parts purplish
wine red, fading below ; a distinct white half collar, with some
exquisite metallic scales on it ; his lower back, sides of body, and
wing linings slaty blue ; the back and shoulders lustrous dark
greenish brown ; yellow feet and bill; a red ring around eye; and
the bluish ash tail crossed at the middle with a black bar. The
female either lacks the white collar or it is obscure, and her gen-
eral coloring is much duller. Like the passenger pigeon, this
bird sometimes lives in flocks of vast extent, its habits generally
according with those previously described.

Mourning Dove*

(Zenaidura macroura)


Length 12 to 13 inches.

Male Grayish brown or fawn color above, varying to bluish
gray. Crown and upper part of head greenish blue, with
green and golden metallic reflections on sides of neck. A
black spot under each ear. Forehead and breast reddish
buff; lighter underneath. (General impression of color,
bluish fawn.) Bill black, with tumid, fleshy covering; feet

* The account of the Mourning Dove, which, in a work scientifically classified,
belongs in its present position, is reprinted from the author's " Bird Neighbors," which
was written without a plan for a supplementary companion volume.


Pigeons and Doves

red; two middle tail feathers longest; all others banded with

black and tipped with ashy white. Wing coverts sparsely

spotted with black. Flanks and underneath the wings


Female Duller and without iridescent reflections on neck.
Range North America, from Quebec to Panama, and westward

to Arizona. Most common in temperate climate, east of

Rocky Mountains.
Season March to November. Common summer resident ; not

migratory south of Virginia.

The beautiful, soft colored plumage of this incessant and
rather melancholy love-maker is not on public exhibition. To see
it we must trace the a-coo-o, coo-o, coo-oo, coo-o to its source in
the thick foliage in some tree in an out-of-the-way corner of the
farm, or to an evergreen near the edge of the woods. The slow,
plaintive notes, more like a dirge than a love song, penetrate to
a surprising distance. They may not always be the same lovers
we hear from April to the end of summer, but surely the sound
seems to indicate that they are. The dove is a shy bird, attached
to its gentle and refined mate with a devotion that has passed
into a proverb, but caring little or nothing for the society of other
feathered friends, and very little for its own kind, unless after the
nesting season has passed. In this respect it differs widely from
its cousins, the wild pigeons, flocks of which, numbering many
millions, are recorded by Wilson and other early writers before
the days when netting these birds became so fatally profitable.

What the dove finds to ardently adore in the "shiftless
housewife," as Mrs. Wright calls his lady-love, must pass the
comprehension of the phoebe, which constructs such an exquisite
home, or of a bustling, energetic Jenny Wren, that " looketh well
to the ways of her household and eateth not the bread of idle-
ness." She is a flabby, spineless bundle of flesh and pretty
feathers, gentle and refined in manners, but slack and incompe-
tent in all she does. Her nest consists of a few loose sticks,
without rim or lining ; and when her two babies emerge from
the white eggs, that somehow do not fall through or roll out of
the rickety lattice, their tender little naked bodies must suffer
from many bruises. We are almost inclined to blame the incon-
siderate mother for allowing her offspring to enter the world
unclothed obviously not her fault, though she is capable of just


Pigeons and Doves

such negligence. Fortunate are the baby doves when their lazy
mother scatters her makeshift nest on top of one that a robin has
deserted, as she frequently does. It is almost excusable to take
her young birds and rear them in captivity, where they invariably
thrive, mate, and live happily, unless death comes to one, when
the other often refuses food and grieves its life away.

In the wild state, when the nesting season approaches, both
birds make curious acrobatic flights above the tree-tops ; then,
after a short sail in midair, they return to their perch. This
appears to be their only giddiness and frivolity, unless a dust-
bath in the country road might be considered a dissipation.

In the autumn a few pairs of doves show slight gregarious
tendencies, feeding amiably together in the grain fields and retir-
ing to the same roost at sundown.











(Order Raptores)

These rapacious birds, whose entire structure indicates
strength, ferocity, carnivorous appetite, and powerful flight,
have, for their diagnostic features, strong, hooked bills, covered
toward the base with a cere, or membrane, through which the
nostrils open; four long, strong toes, flexibly jointed to secure
greatest grasping power, and fitted with sharp, curved nails or
talons; long, ample wings and muscular legs, partly feathered.
The young, though not naked when hatched, as are most altri-
cial birds, remain in the nest, dependent on their parents, for a
long time.

American Vultures

(Family Catbartidce)

Two of the eight vultures found in the western hemisphere

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 23 of 29)