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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razor-billed auks have congregated from times unknown, the
females may be seen crouching along the eggs, not across them,
in long, seriate ranks, where tier after tier of cliffs rise from
the water's edge to several hundred feet above the sea. Where
there is no attempt at a nest, and each buffy and brown speckled
egg looks just like the thousands of others lying loosely about


Auks, Murres, Puffins

in the rocky crevices, it is amazing how each bird can tell its
own. The male birds are kept busy during incubation bringing
small fish in their bills to their sitting mates or relieving them
on the eggs while the females go a-fishing. For a short time
only the young birds are fed by regurgitation ; then small fish are
laid before them for them to help themselves, and presently they
go tumbling off the jutting rocks into the sea to dive and hunt in-
dependently. Particularly at the nesting season these razor-bills
utter a peculiar grunt or groan ; but the stragglers from the great
flocks that reach our coast in winter are almost silent.


(Alle alle)


Length -8. 50 inches.

Male and Female In summer : Upper parts, including head and
neck all around, glossy black; shoulders and other wing
feathers tipped with white and forming two distinct patches.
Lower breast and underneath white. A few white touches
about eyes. Wings long for this family. Body squat,
owing to small, weak feet. Wing linings dusky. In winter:
Resembling summer plumage, except that the black upper
parts become sooty and the white of lower breast extends
upward to the bill, almost encircling the neck. Sometimes
the white parts are washed with grayish and the birds have
gray collar on nape.

Young Like adults in winter, but their upper parts are duller.

Range From the farthest north in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans,
south to Long Island, and occasionally so far as Virginia.

Season Winter visitor.

In the chapter entitled "The End by Death and by Rescue,"
in his "Three Years of Arctic Service," General Greely, after tell-
ing how the wretched men at Cape Sabine were reduced to eating
their sealskin boots and were apparently in the last extremity,
goes on to describe how Long, one of the hunters of the expedi-
tion, one awful day succeeded in shooting four of these little
dovekies, two king-ducks, and a large guillemot. But the current
swept away all the birds except one dovekie! " I ordered the


Auks, Murres, Puffins

dovekie to be issued to the hunters who can barely walk," writes
the starving commander; "but . . . one man begged with tears
for his twelfth, which was given him with everybody's contempt."
When the twelfth part of a little bird that a man can easily cover
with his hand causes a scene like this, can the imagination picture
the harrowing misery of the actual situation ?

And yet where man and nearly every other living creature
perishes, the little auk pursues its happy way, floating about in
the open water, left even in that Arctic desolation by the drifting
ice floes, and diving into its icy depths after the shrimps that
Greely's party collected at such frightful cost.

Far within the Arctic Circle great colonies nest after the
fashion of their tribe, in the jutting cliffs that overhang the sea.
One pale, bluish-white egg, laid on the bare rock, is all that nature
requires of these birds to carry on the species, whose chief pro-
tection lies in their being able to live beyond the reach of men, to
escape pursuit by diving and rapid swimming under water, and
to fly in the teeth of a gale that would mean death to a puffin.
With so many means of self-preservation at their disposal, there
is no need of a large family to keep up the balance that nature

These neat little birds, whose form alone suggests a dove,
are by no means the lackadaisical creatures their name seems to
imply. They are self-reliant, for they are chiefly solitary birds
that straggle down our coast in winter. They are wonderfully
quick of motion in their chosen element, and although they have
a peculiar fashion of splashing along the surface of the water, as
if unable to fly, they certainly are in no immediate danger of be-
coming extinct from the loss of wings through disuse, like the
great auk. A little sea dove that once flew across the bow of
an ocean steamer in the North Atlantic in an instant became a
mere speck in the bleak wintry sky, and the next second van-
ished utterly.







(Order Longipennes)

Birds of this order may be recognized among the webbed-
footed birds by their long, pointed wings that reach beyond the
base of the tail, and in many instances beyond the end of it.
They do not hold themselves erect when ashore, as the grebes,
loons, and auks do, but are able to ke.ep a horizontal position be-
cause their legs are placed nearly, if not perfectly, under the centre
of equilibrium. Bills of variable forms, sharply pointed and fre-
quently hooked like a hawk's. Four toes, three of them in
front, flat and webbed; a very small rudimentary great toe
(hallux) elevated above the foot at the back.

Jaegers and Skuas

(Family Stercorariidce)

End of upper half of bill is more or less swollen and rounded
over the tip of lower mandible. Upper parts of plumage, and
sometimes all, sooty, brownish black, frequently with irregular
bars. Middle feathers of square tail are longest. The name
jaeger, meaning hunter, might be freely translated into pirate; for
these creatures of spirited, vigorous flight delight in pursuing
smaller gulls and terns to rob them of their fish, like the marine
birds of prey that they are. Jaegers and skuas are birds of the
seacoast or large bodies of inland water, and wander extensively
except at the nesting season in the far North.

Parasitic Jaeger.

Pomarine Jaeger.

Long-tailed Jaeger.

Long-winged Swimmers

Gulls and Terns

(Family Laridce)

The Gulls

(Subfamily Larince)

Bills of moderate length, the upper mandible not swollen at
the tip like the jaegers, but curved over the end of the lower
mandible. Wings long, broad, strong and pointed, though their
flight is less graceful than a tern's. Tail feathers usually of about
equal length. Sexes alike, but the plumage, in which white,
brown, black, and pearl-blue predominate, varies greatly with
age and season. In flight the bill points forward, not downward
like a tern's. Gulls pick their food from the surface of the sea
or shore, whereas terns plunge for theirs. Gulls are the better
swimmers, and pass the greater part of their lives at sea, coming
to shore chiefly to nest in large colonies.

Kittiwake Gull.

Glaucous Gull, or Burgomaster.

Iceland Gull.

Great Black-backed Gull.

Herring Gull.

Ring-billed Gull.

Laughing Gull.

Bonaparte's Gull.


(Subfamily Sterince)

Small birds of the coast rather than the open sea. Bill
straight, not hooked, and sharply pointed. Outer tail feathers
longer than the middle ones; tails usually very deeply forked.
Legs placed farther back than a gull's, and form of body more
slender and trim. Great length and sharpness of wing give a
dash to their flight that the gull's lacks. Bill held point down-
ward, like a mosquito's, when tern is searching for food. Plu-
mage scarcely differs in the sexes, but it varies greatly with the
season and age. Usually the top of head is black; in the rest of
the plumage pearl grays, browns, and white predominate. Tails


Long-winged Swimmers

generally long and forked, so that in aspect, as in flight, the birds
suggest their name of sea swallow.

Marsh Tern.

Royal Tern.

Wilson's Tern, or Common Tern.

Roseate Tern.

Arctic Tern.

Least Tern.

Black Tern.


(Family Ryncbopidce)

Only one species of skimmer inhabits the Western Hemi-
sphere. These birds have extraordinary bills, thin, and resembling
the blade of a knife, with lower half much longer than the upper
mandible, and used to skim food from the surface of the water
and to open shells. Wings exceedingly long; flight more meas-
ured and sweeping than a tern's.

Black Skimmer, or Scissor Bill.


(Family Stercorariidce)

Parasitic Jaeger

(Stercorarius parasiticus)


Length 17.20 inches.

Male and Female Light stage: Top of head and cheeks brown,
nearly black; back, wings, and tail slaty brown, which be-
comes reddish brown on sides )f breast and flanks. Sides
of head, back of neck, and sometimes entire neck and throat
yellowish. Under parts white. Wings moderately long,
strong and pointed. Middle feathers of tail longest. Black
tip of upper half of slate-colored bill is swollen and rounded
over end of lower mandible like a hawk's. Feet black.
Dark stage : Plumage dark slaty brown, darker on top of
head, very slightly lighter on under parts. Immature speci-
mens, which seem to be most abundant off our coasts,
show sooty slate plumage; bordered, tipped, or barred
with buffy, rufous, or brownish black, giving the bird a mot-
tled appearance. Plumage extremely variable with age and

Range Nests in Barren Grounds, Greenland, and other high
northern districts; migrates southward along the Atlantic
and Pacific coasts and through the Great Lakes, wintering
from New York, California, and the Middle States to Brazil.

Season October to June. Winter visitor.

This dusky pirate, strong of wing and marvelously skilful
and alert in its flight, uses its superior powers chiefly to harass
and prey upon smaller birds. Lashing the air with its long tail,
and with wide wing stretchings and powerful strokes, the
jaeger comes bearing down on a kittiwake gull that holds a



dripping fish ready for a contemplated dinner. To dart away
from its tormentor, that darts, too, even more suddenly; to outrace
the jaeger, although freighted with the fish, are tried resorts that
the little gull must finally despair of when the inevitable moment
arrives that the coveted fish has to be dropped for the pirate to
snatch up and bear away in triumph.

Other gulls than the kittiwake suffer from this ocean prowler;
their young and eggs are eaten, their food is taken out of their
very mouths. As they live so largely on the results of other
birds' efforts, the jaegers deserve to be branded as parasites,
which all the group are. Indeed, these birds that the English call
skuas, differ very little, if any, in habits. While all spend the
summer far north, the parasitic jaeger has really less claim to the
title of Arctic jaeger than either the pomarine or the long-tailed
species, which go within the Arctic Circle to nest. On an open
moor or tundra, in a slight depression of the ground, a rude nest
is scantily lined with grass, moss, or leaves. Sometimes this nest
is near the margin of the sea or lake, sometimes on an ocean
island and laid among the rocks. It contains from two to four
usually two light olive-brown eggs that are frequently tinged
with greenish and scrawled over with chocolate markings most
plentiful at the larger end, where they may run together and form
a blotch.

By the end of September the jaegers begin their southerly
migration, reaching Long Island in October, regularly, and quite
as regularly leaving early in June. During the winter they play
the role of sea scavengers when they are not robbing the gulls,
that will actually disgorge a meal already safely stowed away
rather than submit to the harassing, petty tortures of these pirates.
Jaegers constantly pick up carrion and other rubbish cast up by
the sea or thrown overboard from a passing ship, for nothing in
the line of food, however putrid it may be, seems to miss the
mark of their rapacious appetites, as their Latin name, stercora-
rius, a scavenger, indicates. On land they always seek choicer
food, garnered by their own effort berries, insects, eggs, little
birds, and mammals.

The best trait the jaegers have is their uncommon cour-
age. Nothing that attacks their home or young is too large or
fierce for them to dash at fearlessly ; and by persistent teasing
and harassing, for the want of formidable weapons of defense,



they will eventually get the better of their antagonist, though it
be a sea eagle.

The Pomarine Jaeger a contraction of pomatorhine, mean-
ing flap-nosed ( ' Stercorarius pomarinus) may be distinguished
from the parasitic jaeger by its larger size, twenty-two inches;
by the rounded ends of its central tail feathers, which project about
three inches beyond the others; and finally by its darker, almost
black, upper parts, although the plumage during the dark and
the light phases of these birds is so nearly the same that when
seen on the wing it is impossible to tell one species from another.
Professor Newton, of Cambridge University, has noted that the
long, central tail feathers of the pomarine jaeger have their shafts
twisted toward the tip, so that in flight the lower surfaces of their
webs are pressed together vertically, giving the bird the appear-
ance of having a disk attached to its tail. This species is also
called the pomarine hawk-gull.

It is not known whether the Long-tailed Jaeger, or Buffon's
Skua, as they call it in England (Stercorarius longicaudus),
undergoes the remarkable changes of plumage that its relatives in-
dulge in or not, for its range is more northerly than that of any of
the jaegers, and when it migrates south of the Arctic Circle, to our
coasts, it is wearing feathers most confusingly like those of the
parasitic jaeger in its light phase. Indeed, the young of these
two species cannot be distinguished except by measuring their
bills, when it is found that the long-tailed jaeger has the shorter

The distinguishing mark of the adults of this species is the
length of the central tail feathers, narrow and pointed, that pro-
ject about seven inches beyond the others; but immature speci-
mens lack even this mark. The description of the habits of the
parasitic jaeger applies equally well to all of the three freebooters



(Family Laridce)


(Subfamily Larince)


(Rissa tridactyla)

Length 1 6 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Deep pearl gray mantle over back
and wings. Head, neck, tail, and under parts pure white.
Ends of outer wing feathers primaries black, tipped with
white. Tips of tail quills black. Hind toe very small, a
mere knob, and without a claw. Bill light yellow. Feet
webbed and black. In "winter: Similar to summer plumage,
but that the mantle is a darker gray and extends to back of
neck. Dark spot about the eye.

Range Arctic regions, south in eastern North America in winter
to the Great Lakes and the coast of Virginia. Breeds from
Magdalen Islands northward.

Season Autumn and winter visitor in the Middle States. Com-
mon north of them all winter.

It is the larger herring gull that we see in such numbers in
our harbors and following in the path of vessels along our coast;
but the watchful eye may often pick out a few kittiwakes in the
loose flocks, and north of Rhode Island meet with a company of
them apart from others of their kin. Skimming gracefully along
the surface of the water, soaring, floating in mid-air, swooping
for a morsel in the trough of the waves, then with a few strong
wing strokes rejoining their fellows as they play at cross-tag
in the sky, the gulls fascinate the eyes and beguile many a
weary hour at sea.

Along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, on the craggy cliffs of
Greenland, and beyond, large colonies of kittiwakes nest on the



ledges of rock barely scattered over with grass, moss, and sea-
weed to form a rude nest, or else directly on the sand in the midst
of a little heap of "drift" cast high up on the beach. Three or
four eggs, varying from buffy to grayish brown, and marked with
chocolate, are often taken from a nest by the natives, who, with
the jaegers and the sea eagles that also devour the young, are the
kittiwakes' worst enemies. Fearlessly breasting a gale on the open
ocean, sleeping with head under wing while riding the waves,
the gull is far more at home at sea than ashore, and soon leaves
the nest to begin its roving life at sea.

Their service to man, aside from the gulls' aesthetic value, is in
devouring refuse that would otherwise wash ashore and pollute
the air. This is the gull that the jaegers, those dusky pirates of the
high seas, most persecute by taking away its fish and other
food to save themselves the trouble of hunting in the legitimate

Glaucous Gull

(Larus glaucus)


Length 2% to 32 inches.

Male and Female In summer : Mantle over wings and back,
light pearl gray ; all other parts pure white. Large, strong,
wide bill which is chrome yellow, with orange red spot at
the angle. Legs and feet pale pink or yellowish pink.
In winter: Light streaks of pale brownish gray on head and
back of neck ; otherwise plumage same as summer. Im-
mature birds are wholly white, with flesh-colored bills hav-
ing black tips. Females are smaller than males.

Range Northern and Arctic Oceans around the world ; in North
America from Long Island and the Great Lakes in winter, to
Labrador and northward in the nesting season.

Season Irregular winter visitor.

This very large gull, whose protective coloring indicates that
the snow and ice of the circum-polar regions are its habitual
surroundings, occasionally struggles down our coasts and to the
Great Lakes in loose flocks in winter, but leaves none too good
a character behind it on its departure in the early spring. General
Greely met enormous numbers of burgomasters in the dreary
desolation of ice at the far north ; and Frederick Schwatka tells



of great nesting colonies in the cliffs overhanging the upper
waters of the Yukon, where the sound of the rushing torrent was
drowned by their harsh uproar as they wheeled about in dense
clouds high above his head. The nest, which is a very slight
affair of seaweed, moss, or grass, contains two or three stone-
colored eggs, although sometimes pale olive-brown ones are
found, spotted and marked with chocolate and ashy gray.
Many nests are also made directly on the ground.

What is reprehensible in this bird's habits is its tyranny
over smaller, weaker gulls and other birds that it hunts down
like a pirate to rob of their food while they carry it across the
waves or to their nest, where the villain still pursues them and
devours their young. Quite in keeping with such unholiness
is the burgomaster's harsh cry, variously written huk-lak' and
cut-leek' , that it raises incessantly when hungry, and that therefore
must be particularly unpleasant to the kittiwakes, guillemots, and
other conspicuous victims of its rapacious appetite. When its
hunger is appeased, however, by fish, small birds, crow-berries,
carrion, and morsels floating on the sea, this gull is said to be
inactive and silent; and certainly the starving hunters in the
Greely expedition found it sadly shy.

The Iceland Gull (Larus leucopterus) looks like a small
edition of the burgomaster, its length being about twenty-five
inches ; but its plumage is identical with that of the larger bird.

Great Black-backed Gull

(Larus marinus)


Length 29 to 30 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Mantle over back and wings
dark slaty brown, almost black ; wing feathers tipped
with white; rest of plumage white. Bill yellow, red at
the angle. Feet and legs pinkish. In winter: Similar to
summer dress except that the white head and neck are
streaked with grayish. Immature birds are mottled brown
and white, the perfect plumage described above not being
attained until the fourth year.

Range Coasts of North Atlantic. Nests from Nova Scotia north-



ward. Migrates in winter sometimes to South Carolina and
Virginia, but regularly to Long Island and the Great Lakes.
Season September to April.

The black-back shares the distinction with the burgomaster
of being not only one of the largest, most powerful representa-
tives of its family, but one of the most tyrannical and greedy.
So optimistic a bird-lover as Audubon said that it is as much the
tyrant of the sea fowl as the eagle is of the land birds. Like the
eagle again, it is exceedingly shy of men and inaccessible. " By
far the wariest bird that I have ever met," writes Brewster. This
same careful observer reports that he noted four distinct cries :
"a braying Ha-ha-ha, a deep keow, keow, a short barking note,
and a long-drawn groan, very loud and decidedly impressive,"
when he studied it in the island of Anticosti.

Soaring high in the air in great spirals, with majestic grace
and power, the saddle-back still keeps a watchful eye on what
is passing in the world below, and, quick as a hawk, will come
swooping down to pounce upon some smaller gull or other bird
that has just secured a fish by patient toil, to suck the eggs in a
nest left for the moment unguarded, or eat the young eider-ducks
and willow grouse for which it seems to have a special fondness;
though nothing either young and tender, old and tough, fresh or
carrion, goes amiss of its rapacious maw. It is a sea scavenger
of more than ordinary capacity, and when faithfully playing in
this role it lays us under obligation to speak well of it. Certainly
the gulls and other sea fowl that eat refuse contribute much to
the healthfulness of our coasts.

Before the onslaughts of this black-backed freebooter almost
all the tribe of sea fowl quail ; and yet, like every other tyrant, it
is itself most cowardly, for it will desert even its own young
rather than be approached by man, who visits the sins of the
father upon the children by pickling them for food when they are
not taken in the egg for boiling.

Usually the nest is built with hundreds or even thousands of
others on some inaccessible cliff overhanging the sea; or it may
be on an island, or on the dunes near the beach, in which latter
case it is the merest depression in the turf, lined with grass and
seaweed. Two or three usually three clay-colored or buff eggs,
rather evenly and boldly spotted with chocolate brown, make a



clutch. After the nesting season these gulls migrate farther south-
ward than the glaucous gulls, not because they are incapable of
withstanding the most intense cold, but because the fish supply
is of course greater in the open waters of our coast. With ma-
jestic grace they skim along the waves, revealing the dark slate-
colored mantle covering their backs like a pall, for which they
must bear the gruesome name of "Coffin Carrier."

American Herring Gull

(Larus argentatus smitbsonianus)

Called also.- WINTER GULL

Length 24 to 25 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Mantle over back and wings
deep pearl gray, also known as " gull blue ; " head, tail, and
under parts white. Outer feathers of wings chiefly black,
with rounded white spots near the tips. Bill bright yellow.
Feet and legs flesh-colored. In winter : Similar to summer
plumage, but with grayish streaks or blotches about the head
and neck. Bill less bright.

Young Upper parts dull ashy brown ; head and neck marked
with buff, and back and wings margined and marked with
the same color ; outer feathers of wings brownish black,
lacking round white spots ; black or brownish tail feathers
gradually fade to white.

Range Nests from Minnesota and New England northward,
especially about the St. Lawrence, Nova Scotia, Newfound-
land, and Labrador. Winters from Bay of Fundy to West
Indies and Lower California.

Season Winter resident. Common from November until March.

As the English sparrow is to the land birds, so is the herring
gull to the sea fowl overwhelmingly predominant during the
winter in the Great Lakes and larger waterways of the interior,
just as it is about the docks of our harbors, along our coasts, and
very far out at sea ; for trustworthy captains declare the same
birds follow their ships from port to port across the ocean.

Occasionally at low tide one may meet with a few herring
gulls on the sand flats of the beach, feeding on the smaller shell
fish half buried there. It is Audubon, the unimpeachable, who
relates how these birds, that he so carefully studied in Labrador



one summer, break open the shells to extract the mollusks, by
carrying them up in the air, then dropping them on the rocks.

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 3 of 29)