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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"We saw one that had met with a very hard mussel," he
writes, ' ' take it up three times in succession before it succeeded in
breaking it ; and I was much pleased to see the bird let it fall
each succeeding time from a greater height than before."

Again, one may see a flock of herring gulls "bedded" on
the water floating about to rest. All manner of boats pass close
beside such a tired company in New York harbor without dis-
turbing it; for these gulls, unlike the glaucous and black-backed
species, show little fear of man or his inventions.

But it is high in air, sailing on motionless wings in the wake
of an ocean steamer, that one mentally pictures the herring gull.
Apparently the loose flock, floating idly about, have no thought
beyond the pure sport. Suddenly one bird drops like a shot
to the water's surface, spatters about with much wing-flap-
ping and struggle of feet, then, rising again with a small fish or
morsel of refuse in its grasp, leads off from a greedy horde of
envious companions in hot pursuit that likely as not will over-
haul him and rob him of his dinner. Dining abundantly and
often, rather than flying about for idle pleasure, is the gull's real
business of life.

With all their exquisite poetry of motion, it must be owned
that these birds have also numerous prosaic qualities, exercised
in their capacity of scavengers. Rapacious feeders; tyrannical
to smaller birds that they can rob of their prey, and possessed of
insatiable appetites for any food, whether fresh or putrid, that
comes in their reach, the gulls alternately fascinate by their grace
and animation in the marine picture, and repel by the coarseness
of their instincts. . However, it is churlish to find fault with the
scavengers that help so largely in keeping our beaches free from
putrifying rubbish. Doubtless the birds themselves, as their
name implies, would prefer herrings were they always available.

Unlike the other gulls, this one, where it has been persist-
ently robbed, sometimes nests in trees, and, adapting its archi-
tecture to the exigencies of the situation, constructs a compactly
built and bulky home, often fifty feet from the ground, and
preferably in a fir or other evergreen. Ordinarily a coarse, loose
mat of moss, grasses, and seaweed is laid directly on the ground
or on a rocky cliff near the sea. Two or three grayish olive





brown, sometimes whitish, eggs, spotted, blotched, and scrawled
with brown, are laid in June. In the nesting grounds the her-
ring gulls are shy of men and fierce in defending their mates and
young, to whom they are especially devoted. Akak, kakak they
scream or bark at the intruder, making a din that is fairly deaf-

Before the summer is ended the baby gulls will have learned
to breast a gale, sleep with head tucked under wing when
rocked on the cradle of the deep, and follow a ship for the ref-
use thrown overboard, like any veteran. They are the grayish
brown birds which one can readily pick out in a flock of adults
when they migrate to our coasts in winter.

Ring-billed Gull

(Larus delawarensis)

Length 18.50 to 19.75 inches.

Male and Female Mantle over back and wings light pearl color,
rest of plumage white except in winter, when the head and
nape are spotted, not streaked, with grayish brown. Wings
have "first primary black, with a white spot near the tip,
the base of the inner half of the inner web pearl gray ; on the
third to sixth primaries the black decreases rapidly and each
one is tipped with white." (Chapman.) Bill light greenish

Sallow, chrome at the tip, and encircled with a broad band of
ack. Legs and feet dusky bluish green. Immature birds
are mottled white and dusky, the dark tint varied with pale
buff prevailing on the upper parts, the white below. Tail
is dusky, tipped with white and pale gray at the base.

Range Distributed over North America, nests from Great
Lakes and New England northward, especially in the St.
Lawrence region, the Bay of Fundy, and Newfoundland;
more common in the interior than on the seacoast; winters
south of New England to Cuba and Central America.

Season Common winter visitor.

" On the whole the commonest species, both coastwise and
in the interior," says Dr. Elliott Coues. Certainly around the
salt lakes of the plains and in limited areas elsewhere in the
west it is most abundant, and at many points along the Atlantic
coast ; but off the shores of the Middle and the Southern, if not
also of the New England States, it is the herring gull that



seems to predominate, except here and there, as at Washing-
ton, for example, where the ring-billed species is locally very
common indeed. From Illinois to the Mexican Gulf is also a
favorite winter resort.

It is not an easy matter to tell one of these two commonest
species from the other, unless they are seen together, when the
larger size of the herring gull and the black band around the
bill of the ring-billed gull are at once apparent. These birds
fraternize as readily as they bully and rob their smaller relations
or each other when hunger makes them desperate. One rarely
sees a gull alone: usually a loose flock soars and floats high in
the air, apparently idle, but in reality keeping their marvelously
sharp eyes on the constant lookout for a morsel of food in the
waters below. In the nesting grounds countless numbers oc-
cupy the same cliffs, and large companies keep well together
during the migrations.

Inasmuch as most of the characteristics of the ring-billed
gull belong also to the herring gull, the reader is referred to the
longer account of the latter bird to save repetition. When liv-
ing inland the ring-billed gull, beside eating everything that its
larger kin devour with such rapacity, catches insects both on the
ground and on the wing. A trick at which it is past-master is
to follow a school of fish up the river, then, when a fish leaps
from the water after a passing insect, swoop down like a flash
and bear away fish, bug, and all.

Laughing Gull

(Larus atricilla)


Length 16 to 17 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Head covered with a dark slate
brown, almost black, hood, extending farther on throat than
on nape, which is pure white like the breast, tail, and under
parts. Mantle over back and wings dark, pearl gray.
Wings have long feathers, black, the inner primaries with
small white tips. Bill dark reddish, brighter at the end.
Eyelids red on edge. Legs and feet dusky red. Breast some-
times suffused with delicate blush pink. In winter : Similar
to summer plumage, except that the head has lost its hood,


being white mixed with blackish. Under parts white with-
out a tinge of rose. Bill and feet duller.

Young Light ashy brown feathers, margined with whitish on
the upper parts ; forehead and under parts white, sometimes
clouded with dark gray ; tail dark pearl gray with broad
band of blackish brown across end ; primaries black.

Range "Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, north
to Maine and Nova Scotia ; south in winter through West
Indies, Mexico (both coasts), Central America, and northern
South America (Atlantic side), to the Lower Amazon."
A. O. U.

Season Summer resident, and visitor throughout the year.

No bird that must lift up its voice to drown the howlings of
the gale and the pounding, dashing surf in an ocean storm
might be expected to have a soft, musical call; and the gulls, that
pass the greater part of their lives at sea, must therefore depend
upon squalls, screams, barks, and shrill, high notes that carry
long distances, to report news back and forth to members of the
loose flocks that hunt together above the crest of the waves. The
laughing gull, however, utters a coarse scream in a clear, high
tone, like the syllables oh-hah-hah-ah-ah-hah-hah-h-a-a-a-a-ah,
long drawn out toward the end and particularly at the last meas-
ure, that differs from every other bird note, "sounding like the
odd and excited laughter of an Indian squaw," says Langille, " and
giving marked propriety to the name of the bird." All gulls chat-
ter among themselves, the noise rising sometimes to a deafening
clamor when they are disturbed in their nesting grounds; but
the laughing gull, in addition to its long-drawn, clear note on a
high key, " sounding not unlike the more excited call-note of the
domestic goose," suddenly bursts out, to the ears of superstitious
sailors, into the laugh that seems malign and uncanny.

A more southern species than any commonly seen off our
shores, the laughing gull nests from Texas and Florida to
Maine, though it is not a bird of the interior, as the ring-billed
species is, nor so pelagic as the herring gull. It delights in reedy,
bush-grown salt marshes that yield a rich menu of small mol-
lusks, spawn of the king crab and other crustaceans, insects,
worms, and refuse cast up by the tide. In such a place it also
nests in large colonies, forming with its body a slight depression
in the sand that is scantily lined with grasses and weeds from
the beach, and concealed by a tussock of grasses. Three to five



eggs, varying from olive to greenish gray or dull white, pro-
fusely marked with chocolate brown, are not so rare a find for
the collector as the eggs of most other gulls that nest in the ex-
treme north, where only the hardy explorers in search of the
North Pole count themselves more fortunate sometimes to find a
square meal of gulls' eggs.

Formerly these laughing gulls were exceedingly abundant
all along our coasts. Nantucket was a favorite nesting resort,
so were the marshes of Long Island and New Jersey; but unhap-
pily a fashion for wearing gulls' wings in women's hats arose,
and though only the wings were used, as one woman naively
protested when charged with complicity in their slaughter, the
birds have been all but exterminated at the north. In southern
waters they are, happily, common still, and will be again at the
north when the beneficent bird laws shall have had time to

Bonaparte's Gull

(Larus Philadelphia)

Called also: ROSY GULL

Length 14 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Head and throat deep sooty slate,
the hood not extending over nape or sides of neck, which
are white like the under parts and tail. Mantle over back
and wings pearl gray. Wings white and pearl gray. Pri-
maries of wings marked with black and white. Bill black.
Legs and feet coral red. In nesting plumage only, the white
under parts are suffused with rosy pink. In winter: Similar,
except that the birds lack the dark hood, only the back and
sides of the head washed with grayish ; white on top.

Young Grayish washings on top of head, nape, and ears ; mantle
over back and wings varying from brownish gray to pearl
gray; upper half of wings grayish brown; secondaries
pearly gray ; primaries, or longest feathers, at the end much
marked with black; white tail has black band a short
distance from end, leaving a white edge showing. Under-
neath, white.

Range From the Gulf of Mexico to Manitoba and beyond in the
interior; Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Nests north of United

Season Common spring and autumn migrant. A few winter



This exquisite little gull, whose darting, skimming flight sug-
gests that of the sea swallow, flies swallow-fashion over the
ploughed fields of the interior to gather larvae and insects, as well
as over the ocean to pick up bits of animal food, either fresh or
putrid, that float within range of its keen, nervous glance. Jerking
its head now this way and now that, suddenly it turns in its
graceful flight to swoop backward upon some particle passed
a second before. Nothing it craves for food seems to escape
either the eyes or the bill of this tireless little scavenger. In
sudden freaks of flight, in agility and lightness of motion, it is
conspicuous in a family noted for grace on the wing.

A front view of Bonaparte's gull, as it approaches with its
long pointed wings outspread, would give one the impression
that it is a black-headed white bird, until, darting suddenly, its
pearly mantle is revealed. It is peculiarly dainty whichever way
you look at it.

In the author's note book are constant memoranda of seeing
these little gulls hunting in couples through the surf on the
Florida coast one March. Mr. Bradford Torrey records the same
observation, but adds, "that may have been nothing more than
a coincidence." Is it not probable that these gulls, like all their
kin, in their devotion to their mates, were already paired and
migrating toward their nesting grounds far to the north ? While
the birds hunted along the Florida shore they kept up a plaintive,
shrill, but rather feeble cry, that was almost a whistle, to each
other; and if one was delayed a moment by dipping into the
trough of the wave for some floating morsel, it would nervously
hurry after its mate as if unwilling to lose a second of its com-
pany. In the autumn migrations, however, these "surf gulls,"
as Mr. Torrey calls them, are seen in large flocks along our coasts,
and inland, too, where there is no surf for a thousand miles.

The nest, which is built north of the United States, is placed
sometimes in trees, sometimes in stumps, or in bushes, the rude
cradle of sticks, lined with grasses, containing three or four
grayish olive eggs, spotted with brown, chiefly at the larger end.
Such a clutch is a rare find for the collector, few scientists, even,
having seen the Bonaparte gulls at home. Charles Bonaparte,
Prince of Canino, might have left us a complete life history of
his namesake, had not European politics cut short his happy and
profitable visit in America.



(Subfamily Sternince)

Marsh Tern

(GelocMidon nilotica)


Length 13 to 15 inches.

Male and Female Top and back of head glossy, greenish black ;
neck all around, and under parts, white; mantle over back
and wings, pearl gray; bill and feet black, the former rather
short and stout for this family ; wings exceedingly long and
sharp, each primary surpassing the next fully an inch in
length. Tail white, grayish in the centre, and only slightly
forked. In winter plumage similar to the above, except that
the top of head is white, only a blackish space in front of
eyes ; grayish about the ears.

Range "Nearly cosmopolitan ; in North America chiefly along the
Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, breeding north
to southern New Jersey, and wandering casually to Long
Island and Massachusetts; in winter both coasts of Mexico
and Central America, and south to Brazil." A. O. U.

Season Summer visitor. Summer resident south of Delaware.

A very common species, indeed, off the coasts of our south-
ern States, this tern, which one can distinguish from its relatives
by its heavy black bill and harsh voice, appears at least as far
north as Long Island every summer, and occasionally a straggler
reaches Maine. While allied very closely to the gulls, that come
out of the far north in the winter to visit us, the terns reverse
the order and come out of the south in summer.

All manner of beautiful curves and evolutions, sudden darts
and dives distinguish the flight of terns, which in grace and airi-
ness of motion no bird can surpass ; but this gull-billed tern is
particularly alert and swallow-like, owing to its fondness for



insects which must be pursued and caught in mid-air. Fish it
by no means despises, only it depends almost never for food
upon diving through the water to capture them, as others of its
kin do, and almost entirely upon aerial plunges after insects. For
this reason it haunts marsh lands and darts and skims above the
tall reeds and sedges, also the home of winged bettles, moths,
spiders, and aquatic insects, dividing its time between the wav-
ing plants and the water waves that comb the beach. It is never
found far out at sea, as the gulls are, though rarely far from it.

Like the black tern, it is not a beach-nester, but resorts in
companies to its hunting grounds in the marshes, and breaks
down some of the reeds and grasses to form what by courtesy
only could be termed a nest. Three to five buffy white eggs,
marked with umber brown and blackish, especially around the
larger end, are usual ; but all terns' eggs are exceedingly varia-
ble. Once Anglica was the specific name of the gull-billed
tern ; but because our English cousins liked the eggs for food,
and used the wings for millinery purposes, the bird is now de-
plorably rare in England.

"It utters a variety of notes," says Mr. Chamberlain, "the
most common being represented by the syllables kay-wek, kay-
ivek. One note is described as a laugh, and is said to sound
like hay, hay, hay."

Royal Tern

(Sterna maxima)


Length 18 to 20 inches.

Male and Female Top and back of head glossy, greenish black,
the feathers lengthened into a crest; mantle over back and
wings light pearl color; back of neck, tail, and under parts
white; inner part of long wing feathers (except at tip)
white ; outer part of primaries and tip, slate color. Feet black.
Bill, which is long and pointed, is coral or orange red. Tail
long and forked. After the nesting season and in winter,
the top of head is simply streaked with black and white,
and the bill grows paler.

Range Warmer parts of North America on east and west coasts,
rarely so far north as New England and the Great Lakes.

Season Summer visitor. Resident in Virginia, and southward.



It is the larger Caspian tern, measuring from twenty to
twenty-three inches, and not the royal tern, that deserves to be
called maxima, however imposing the size of the latter bird may
be, thanks to its elongated tail; but unless these two birds may
be compared side by side- in life a dim possibility it is quite
hopeless for the novice to try to tell which tern is before him.

Off the Gulf shore, especially in Texas, Louisiana, and
Florida, where great numbers live, this handsome bird exer-
cises its royal prerogative by robbing the fish out of the
pouch of the pelican, that is no match, in its slow flight,
for this dashing monarch of the air. But if sometimes
tyrannical, or perhaps only mischievous, it is also an indus-
trious hunter; and with its sharp eyes fastened on the water,
and its bill pointed downward, mosquito fashion, it skims
along above the waves, making sudden evolutions upward,
then even more sudden, reckless dashes directly downward,
and under the water, to clutch its finny prey. With much flap-
ping of its long, pointed wings as it reappears in an instant
above the surface, it mounts with labored effort into the air
again, and is off on its eager, buoyant flight. There is great
joyousness about the terns a- wing; dashing, rollicking, aerial
sprites they are, that the Florida tourists may sometimes see
tossing a fish into the air just for the fun of catching it again, or
dropping it for another member of the happy company to catch
and toss again in genuine play. It would even seem that they
must have a sense of humor, a very late appearing gift in the
evolution of every race, scientists teach ; and so this lower form
of birds certainly cannot possess it, however much they may
appear to.

While the terns take life easily at all times, nursery duties
rest with special lightness. The royal species makes no attempt
to form a nest, but drops from one to four rather small, grayish
white eggs marked with chocolate, directly on the sand of the
beach, or at the edge or a marshy lagoon. As the sun's rays
furnish most of the heat necessary for incubation, the mother
bird confines her sitting chiefly to her natural bedtime.



Common Tern

(Sterna birundo)


Length 1410 15 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Whole top of head velvety black,
tinged with greenish and extending to the lower level of
the eyes and onto the nape of neck. Mantle over back
and wings pearl gray. Throat white, but breast and under-
neath a lighter shade of gray, the characteristic that chiefly
distinguishes it from Forster's tern, which is pure white on
its under parts. Inner border of inner web of outer primaries
white, except at the tip. Tail white, the outer webs of the
outer feathers pearl gray. Tail forked and moderately elon-
gated, but the folded wings reach one or two inches beyond
it. Legs and feet orange red. Bill, which is as long as head,
is bright coral about two-thirds of its length, a black space
separating it from the extreme tip, which is yellow. In
"winter: Similar to summer plumage, except that the front
part of head and under parts are pure white; also that the
bill becomes mostly black. Young birds similar to adults in
winter, but with brownish wash or mottles on the back,
with slaty shoulders and shorter tail.

Range "In North America, chiefly east of the plains, breeding
from the Arctic coast, somewhat irregularly, to Florida,
Texas, and Arizona, and wintering northward to Virginia;
also coast of Lower California." A. O. U.

Season Summer resident. May to October.

Ironically must this particularly beautiful, graceful sea swal-
low now be called the common tern, for common it scarcely has
been, except in the dry-goods stores, since its sharply pointed
wings, and often its entire body also, were thought by the milli-
ners to give style to women's hats. Great boxes full of distorted
terns, their bills at impossible angles, their wings and tails bunched
together, sicken the bird-lover who strolls through the large city
shops on "opening day." Countless thousands of these birds
must have been slaughtered to supply the demand of thoughtless
women in the last twenty years; and although the egret has had
its turn of persecution, and that in an especially cruel way, the
fashion for wearing terns, either entire or in sections, continues
4 49


with a hopeless pertinacity that no other mode of hat trimming
seems wholly to divert. Chicken feathers, arranged to imitate
them, are necessarily accepted as substitutes more and more, how-

Through the efforts of Mr. Mackay, of Nantucket, the terns
are at last protected on a number of low, sandy islands adjacent
to his home, where nesting colonies had resorted from the earliest
recollection until they were all but exterminated by the com-
panies of men and boys who sailed over from the mainland to
collect plumage and the delicately flavored eggs. Muskegat and
Penekese Islands, off the extreme southeastern end of Massachu-
setts the latter made famous by Agassiz and Gull Island, off the
Long Island coast, the only nesting grounds left these sea swal-
lows in the north, are now guarded by paid keepers, who see to
it that no unfriendly visitor sets foot on the shores until the downy
chicks are able to fly in September. It was mainly through the
efforts of Mr. William Dutcher that the terns were taken under the
protection of the A. O. U., the Linnaean Society, and the A. S. P.
C. A., at Gull Island. In May the terns begin to arrive from the
south, having apparently mated on the journey. Little or no
part of the honeymoon is spent in making a nest, as any little
accumulation of drift, or the bare sand itself, will answer the
purpose of these shiftless merry-makers that no responsibilities
can depress nor persecution harden. Lightness and grace of
flight, as well as of heart, are their certain characteristics. Before
family cares divert them, in June, how particularly lively, dashing,
impetuous, exultant, free, and full of spirit they are! A sail across
to the terns' nesting grounds is recommended to those summer
visitors who sit about on the piazzas complaining of ennui at
Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and Shelter Island.

As a boat approaches a nesting colony on one of the few
low, sandy islands where one may be still found, a canopy or
cloud of birds spreads overhead a surging mass of excited
creatures, darting, diving in a maze without plan or direction,
like a flurry of huge snowflakes through the summer sky. The
air fairly vibrates with the sharp, rasping notes of alarm uttered
in a mighty chorus of complaint, very different from the almost
musical call, half melancholy, half piping, that the birds con-
tinually utter when undisturbed. If the visit be made to the
island in June, the upper beach, above the reach of tide, will be




scattered over here and there with clutches of eggs that so closely

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 4 of 29)