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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imitate the speckled sand, one is apt to step on them unawares.
Only the slightest depression, lined with a wisp of grass or bit
of seaweed, is made in pretense of a nest; and as the gay moth-
ers leave the work of incubating chiefly to the sun, confining
themselves only at night or during storms, the visitor may be for-
given if the sound of a crushed shell under foot is his first intima-
tion of a nest among the dried seaweed or beach grass among the
rocks. It was Audubon who said there were never more than
three eggs in a nest ; but Mr. Parkhurst, at least, has found four.

Should the visitor reach the island in July, he will find great
numbers of downy young chicks running about, but quite depend-
ent on their parents for grasshoppers, beetles, small fish, and
smaller insects that are the approved diet for young terns. The
young are tame as chickens; but the old birds at this time are
especially bold and resentful of intrusion. Darting down to a
clamoring chick, a parent thrusts a morsel down its throat with-
out alighting, and is off again for more, and still more. Later
the food is simply dropped for the fledglings to help themselves.
Still later, little broods are led to the ocean's edge, sand shoals, or
the marshes, to hunt on their own account; and by September,
old and young congregate in great groups to follow the move-
ment of the blue fish, that pursue the very small fish, "shiners,"
that they also feed on.

But whether flirting, nesting, hunting, or flying at leisure,
there is a refreshing joyousness about the tern that makes it a
delight to watch. In the very excess of good spirits one will
plunge beneath the water after a little fish, then mounting into
the air again, it will deliberately drop it from its bill for another
tern to dash after, and the new possessor will toss it to still
another member of the jolly flock, and so keep up the game until
the fish is finally swallowed. It has been suggested that terns go
through this performance to kill the fish, as a cat plays with a
mouse; but it is only occasionally they play the game of catch
and toss, and when all the company seem to be in the mood for
the fun.

Another beautiful sight is the pose of a tern just before
alighting, when, with long, pointed wings held for a moment
high above its back, they flutter like the wings of a butterfly.
But then it would be difficult to name a posture of this graceful


bird that is not beautiful, unless we except the act of scratching
its head with one foot while on the wing; and this is, perhaps,
more amusing than lovely. This sea swallow also has the
accomplishment of opening and shutting its tail like a fan, so that
one moment it will look like a single pointed feather, and the
next it may be narrowly forked or widely stretched into an open
triangle. While flying, the birds are exceedingly watchful, jerk-
ing their heads now this way, now that, with nervous quickness,
all the time keeping their "bill pointing straight downward,
which makes them look curiously like colossal mosquitoes," to
quote Dr. Coues's famous comparison. By the middle of Octo-
ber the terns migrate southward from the New England and
Long Island waters to enjoy the perpetual summer, of which
they seem to be a natural exponent.

Roseate Tern

(Sterna dougalli)

Called also: PARADISE TERN

Length 14.5010 1 5. 50 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Mantle over back and wings deli-
cate pearl color, lighter and fading to white on the tail, which
is exceedingly long and deeply forked. Feathers on crown,
which reaches to the eyes and the back of neck, are black and
long. Under parts white, tinted with rose color. Long, slen-
der black bill, reddish at the base and yellow at the tip.
Feet and legs yellowish red. In winter: Under parts pure
white, having lost the rose tint; forehead and cheeks white.
Crown becomes brownish black, mixed with white; some
brownish feathers on wings ; pearl gray tail, without extreme
elongation or forking.

Range Temperate and warm parts of Atlantic coast, nesting
as far north as New England; most abundant, however,
south of New Jersey. Winters south of United States.

Season Comparatively rare summer resident at the north, but

Closely associated with the common tern in their nesting
colonies on Gull and Muskegat Islands, described in the preced-
ing biography, this most exquisite member of all the family may
be distinguished from its companions by the very long and



sharply pointed tail feathers, and the lovely rose-colored flush
it wears on its breast as a sort of wedding garment. . This tint
is all too transitory, however; family cares fade it to white;
death utterly destroys it, though it sometimes changes to a sal-
mon shade as the lifeless body cools, before disappearing forever.
Comparatively short of wing, the roseate tern cannot be said to
lose any of the buoyancy and grace of flight, the dash and ecstasy
that give to the movements of all the tribe their peculiar fasci-

It has been said that these birds' eggs are paler than those
of the common terns, which are very variable, ranging from
olive gray or olive brownish gray to (more rarely) whitish or
buff, heavily marked with chocolate; but though they may aver-
age paler, many are identical with those just described; and as
the birds nest in precisely the same manner, on the same beach,
not even an expert could correctly name the egg every time with-
out seeing the adult bird that laid it identify its own.

A single harsh note, cack, rises above the din made by the
common terns, and at once identifies the voice of the roseate
species. It would be unfair to attribute the melancholy, unpleas-
ing quality of the terns' voices to their dispositions, which we
have every reason to suppose are particularly joyous and amia-
ble. This bird also appears less excitable ; but in all other par-
ticulars than those already noted the common and the roseate terns
share the characteristics described in the preceding account, to
which the reader is referred. It is a gratification to know that at
the close of the first season, when the tern colony had been pro-
tected at Gull Island, Mr. Dutcher could report an increase of
from one thousand to fifteen hundred birds, virtually an increase
of one half the total number in one year.

With the four species of tern that nest in the neighborhood
of New York and New England, the Arctic Tern (Sterna para-
discea) has nearly all characteristics in common, and the few pe-
culiarities that differentiate it from the common tern are quickly
learned. While these birds are similar in color, the Arctic tern
"differs in having less gray on the shaft part of the inner web of
the outer primaries, in having the tail somewhat longer, the tarsi
and bill shorter; while the latter, in the adult, is generally without a
black tip." (Chapman.) Its voice is shriller, with a rising inflec-



tion at the end, and resembling the squeal of a pig; but it also
has a short, harsh note that can scarcely be distinguished from
the roseate tern's cry.

In habits the Arctic tern is said to have the doubtful peculiarity
of being more bold in defense of its young than any of its kin ;
first in war, most fierce in attack, and the last to leave an intruder.
At Muskegat Island, where great colonies of terns regularly nest
and are protected under the wing of the law (see page 50) it is
usually the Arctic tern that dashes frantically downward into the
very face of the visitor who dares to inspect its eggs. These are of
a darker ground and more heavily marked than those of the com-
mon tern. Mr. Chamberlain says these terns "may be seen sit-
ting on a rock or stump, watching for their prey in kingfisher
fashion. They float buoyantly on the surface, but rarely dive be-
neath the water." Their nesting range is from Massachusetts
to the Arctic regions ; and they winter southward only to Vir-
ginia and California.

Least Tern

(Sterna antillarum)


Length 9 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Glossy greenish black cap on head,
with narrow white crescent on forehead, and extending over
the eyes. Cheeks black. Mantle over back, wings, and tail,
pearl gray. A few outer wing feathers, black. Under parts
satiny white. Bill, about as long as head, is yellow, tipped
with black. Feet and legs, orange. Tail moderately forked.
In winter: Top of head white, with black shaft lines on
feathers. Mantle darker than in summer; a band of grayish
black along upper wing, and most of the primaries black.
Feet paler; bill black.

Range Northern parts of South America, up the Pacific coast to
California, and the Atlantic to Labrador; also on the larger
bodies of water inland. Nests locally throughout its range.
Winters south of United States.

Season Irregular migrant and summer visitor.

Any of the thirteen species of terns that we may call ours is
easily the superior of this little bird in size; but in grace and



buoyancy of flight, in dash and impetuosity, it certainly owns
no master among its own accomplished kin, and suggests the
movements of the swallow alone among the land birds. Skim-
ming just above the marshes near the sea or inland waters,
as any swallow might, to feed upon the dragon-flies and other
winged insects that dart in and out of the sedges, this little tern
flashes its silvery breast in the sunlight, swallow fashion, and
appears to have the "sandals of lightning on its feet" and "soft
wings swift as thought " sung of by Shelley.

Off the shores of the low, sandy islands on the extreme
southeastern coast of Massachusetts, where these terns nest regu-
larly, though in sadly decreased numbers, they may be seen in
company with the common tern, the roseate and the Arctic
species, that also make their summer home there, as the joyous
birds hunt in loose flocks together above the waves. There can
be no difficulty in picking out the dainty, elegant little figure
that floats and skims in mid-air, with bill pointing downward
as if it were a lance to spear some tiny fish swimming in the ocean

Hovering for an instant on widely outstretched wings, like
a miniature hawk, the next instant it has suddenly plunged after
its prey, to reappear with it in its bill, since its feet are too
webbed and weak to carry anything; and, if the season be mid-
summer, it will doubtless head straight for its nest on the sand,
to drop its spoils in the midst of a brood of three or four very
tame young fledglings. In Minnesota, Dakota, and other inland
states, both old and young birds feed almost entirely on insects.

All terns keep so closely within the lines of family traditions
that a description of one member answers for each, with a few
minor changes ; and the reader is referred to the life history of
the common tern for fuller particulars of the least species, to
avoid constant repetition. Although this little bird nests directly
on the sand, leaving the greater part of its incubating duties to
the sun, as other terns do, its eggs may be easily distinguished,
which is not true of the others, because of their smaller size and
buffy white, brittle shells that are often wreathed with chocolate
markings around the larger end, the rest of the egg being plain.

Some one has described the bird's voice as "a sharp squeak,
much like the cry of a very young pig."



Black Tern

(HydrocMidon nigra surinamensis)


Length, 9.50 to io inches.

Male and Female In summer: Head, neck all around, and under
parts jet black, except the under tail coverts, which are
white. Back, wings, and tail slate color. In winter: Very
different: forehead, sides of head, nape, and under parts
white; under wing coverts only, ashy gray; back of the
head mixed black and white; mantle over back, wings, and
tail, deep pearl gray. Many feathers with white edges. In
the process of molt, head and under parts show black and
white patches. Immature specimens resemble the winter
birds, except that their upper parts are more or less mixed
with brownish, and their sides washed with grayish.

Range North America at large, in the interior and along the
coasts, but most abundant inland; nests from Kansas and
Illinois northward, but not on the Atlantic coast.

Season Irregular migrant on the Atlantic coast from Prince
Edward's Island southward. Common summer resident
inland. May to August or September.

Although eastern people rarely see this dusky member of
a tribe they are wont to think of as having particularly deli-
cate pearl and white plumage, it is the most abundant species in
the west, and indeed the only one of the entire order of long-
winged swimmers that commonly nests far away from the sea
in the United States. Early in May it arrives in large flocks that
have gathered on the way from Brazil and Chile to nest in the
Middle States, west of the Allegha'nies, and northward. A large
colony takes up its residence in the fresh-water marshes and
reedy sloughs so abundant in southern Illinois and elsewhere in
the middle west; and although the birds have apparently mated
during the migration, if not before, there are many flirtations
and petty jealousies exhibited before family cares banish all non-
sense in June. Not that the bird makes any effort to construct a
nest, in which case it could hardly be a tern at all, so easy-going
are all the family in this respect; nor that it is depressed by long,
patient sittings on the eggs, for the incubating is, for the most
part, left to the sun, when it shines ; but all terns are devoted



parents, however emancipated they are from much of the par-
ental drudgery. Sometimes the eggs are laid directly on the wet,
boggy ground; others in a saucer-shaped structure of decayed
reeds and other vegetation, often wet and floating about in the
slough ; and again they have been found in better constructed,
more compact cradles, resting on the flat foundation of the
home of the water rat. The eggs are two or three, grayish
olive brown, sometimes very pale and clean, marked with spots
and splashes of many sizes, but chiefly large and bold masses
that have a tendency to encircle the larger end.

To visit a marsh when several hundred of these aquatic
nests keep the cloud of dusky little parents in a state of panic, is
to become deaf and dazed by the terrific din of harsh, screaming
cries uttered by the little black birds that encircle one's head,
menacing, darting, yet doing nothing worse than needlessly tor-
menting themselves. Retreat to a good point of vantage to
watch the colony, and it quickly regains its lost confidence to the
point of ignoring your presence; and the jolly company skim,
soar, hover on outstretched wings, then dart in and out in a path-
less maze that fascinates the sight. The flight is exquisite, swift,
graceful, buoyant, and apparently without the slightest effort.
Occasionally a bird will descend from the aerial game, and, check-
ing its flight above its nest, poise for an instant on quivering
wings, held high above its back, as if it spurned the earth.

Doubtless the diet of insects, which must be pursued and
captured on the wing in many cases, cultivates much of the dash
and impetuosity so characteristic of this tern. Fish appear to form
no part of its bill of fare. It may " frequently be seen dashing
about in a zig-zag manner," writes Thompson in his "Birds of
Manitoba," and "so swiftly 'the eye can offer no explanation
of its motive until ... a large dragon-fly is seen hang-
ing from its bill." Beetles, grasshoppers, and aquatic insects of
many kinds encourage other extraordinary feats of flight. Mr.
Thompson tells of meeting these birds far out on the dry, open
plains, scouring the country for food at a distance of miles from
its nesting ground. John Burroughs once had brought to him, to
identify, a sooty tern, a near relative of the black species, that a
farmer had picked up exhausted and emaciated in his meadow,
fully one hundred and fifty miles from the sea, and at least two
thousand miles from the Florida Keys, the bird's chosen habitat.



It had starved to death, he says, "ruined by too much wing.
Another Icarus. Its great power of flight had made it bold and
venturesome, and had carried it so far out of its range that it
starved before it could return."

By the end of July the young black terns have sufficiently
developed to join the flocks of adults that even thus early show
the restlessness called forth by the instinct for migration. In
August migration commences in earnest; and when we see the
birds east of the Alleghanies, they are usually on their journey
south, the only time they show a preference for the Atlantic


(Family Rynchopidce)

Black Skimmer

(Rynchops nigra)


Length 16 to 20 inches.

Male and Female Crown of head, back of neck, and all upper
parts, glossy black; forehead, sides of head and neck, and
under parts white, the latter suffused with cream or pale
rose in the nuptial season. Lining of wings black. Broad
patch on wing, the tips of the secondaries, white; also the
outer tail feathers, while the inner ones are brownish.
Lower half of bill, measuring from 3. 50 to 4. 50 inches, is
about one inch larger than upper half. Basal half of bill car-
mine; the rest black. Bill rounded at the ends, and com-
pressed like the blade of a knife. Feet carmine, with black

Range " Warmer parts of America, north on the Atlantic coast to
New Jersey, and casually to the Bay of Fundy." A. O. U.

Season May to September. Summer resident so far north as
New Jersey; a transient summer visitor beyond.

Closely related as the skimmers are to both gulls and terns,
it is small wonder the three species constituting this distinct
family should be honored by a separate classification on account
of the extraordinary bill that is their chief characteristic. ' ' Among
the singular bills of birds that frequently excite our wonder," says
Dr. Coues, "that of the skimmers is one of the most anomalous.
The under mandible is much longer than the upper, compressed
like a knife-blade; its end is obtuse; its sides come abruptly
together and are completely soldered; the upper edge is as sharp
as the under, and fits a groove in the upper mandible ; the jaw-



bone, viewed apart, looks like a short-handled pitchfork. The
upper mandible is also compressed, but less so, nor is it so
obtuse at the end ; its substance is nearly hollow . . . and
it is freely movable by means of an elastic hinge at the forehead."

But curious as the bill is when one examines a museum
specimen, it becomes vastly more interesting to watch in active
use on the Atlantic. The black skimmer, the only one that visits
our continent, happily keeps close enough to shore when hunting
for the small fish, shrimps, and mollusks that high tide brings near,
for us to observe its operations. With leisurely, graceful flight,
though with frequent flapping of its very long wings, the bird
floats and balances just over the water, and as it progresses over
a promising shoal teeming with living food, suddenly the lower
half of the bladelike bill drops down just below the surface of the
water, and with increased velocity of flight the bird literally
"plows the main," as Mr. Chapman has said, and receives a
rich harvest through the gaping entrance. Thus cutting under or
grazing the surface, with the fore part of its body inclined down-
ward, the skimmer follows the plow into the likeliest feeding
grounds, which are the estuaries of rivers, sandy shoals, inlets of
creeks, the salt marshes, and around the floating "drift" of the
beaches. Though strictly maritime, it never ventures out on
mid-ocean like the gulls and petrels. From Atlantic City, Cape
May, and southward to Florida, the skimmer is an uncommon
though likely enough sight to cause a genuine sensation when
discovered at work. It is also credited with using its bill as a
sort of oyster knife to open mollusks.

Flocks of skimmers come out of the tropics in May, and,
like the terns, choose a sandy shore for their nesting colony, and,
like the terns again, construct no proper nest for the three or four
buffy white, chocolate-marked eggs that are dropped on the sand,
high up on the beach, among the drift and shells. Incubating
duties rest lightly with the skimmers, also, while the sun shines
with generating warmth, so that the natural bedtime of the
mother is all the confinement she endures unless the weather be
stormy. In September the young birds are able to migrate long
distances, although for several weeks after they are hatched they
must be fed and tended by their parents; the only use they have
for their wings during June and July, apparently, being to stretch
them while basking in the sun on the beach. The voice of the



skimmer, like that of the tern, is never so harsh and strident as
during the nesting season.

It seems odd that birds so long and strong of wing as these
should hug the coast so closely and not venture out on the open
seas, until we consider the nature of their food and the proba-
bility of starvation in deep waters.







Shearwaters and Petrels

(Order Tubinares)

The albatrosses, fulmars, shearwaters, and petrels, that com-
prise this order of water-birds, live far out on the ocean, touch-
ing land only to nest, and are unsurpassed in powers of flight,
owing to the constant exercise of their long, strong, pointed
wings. None of our American sportsmen can wail, with Cole-
ridge's Ancient Mariner, that he "shot the albatross," for the sev-
eral species that comprise its family (Diomedeidce) confine them-
selves to the southern hemisphere. The wandering albatross, the
largest of all sea birds, with a wing expanse of from twelve to
fourteen feet, and "Mother Carey's chickens," the little petrels
that travellers on the north Atlantic frequently see, represent the
two extremes of size among the pelagic birds.

The plumage of birds of this order is compact and oily,
to resist water, and differs neither in the sexes, nor at different
seasons, so far as is known. Sooty black, grays, and white
predominate. The peculiarity of nostrils, tubular in form, and
nearly always horizontal, divide the birds into a distinct order.

Shearwaters and Petrels

(Family Procellariidce)

"Mother Carey's Chickens" maybe distinguished by their
small size, slight, elegant form, and graceful, airy, flickering flight,
as contrasted with the strong, swift flying of the larger shear-
waters that often sail with no visible motion of the pinions.
Birds of the open sea, feeding on animal substances, particularly
the fatty ones, they may sometimes be noticed in flocks, picking
up the refuse thrown overboard from the ship's kitchen, on the
ocean highway, like the more common herring gull. They seem
4 65

Tube-nosed Swimmers

to be ever on the wing, though their webbed feet indicate that
they must be good swimmers when they choose. Hardly any
birds are less known than all these ocean roamers and their kin
that come to land only to nest. The nest and eggs of the com-
mon shearwater, that wanders over the whole Atlantic from
Greenland to Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, that sailors
often see in flocks of thousands, have yet to be discovered.
Petrels burrow holes in the ground like bank swallows.

Greater Shearwater.

Wilson's Stormy Petrel.

Leach's Petrel.



(Family Procellariidce)

Greater Shearwater

(Puffinus major)


Length 19 to 20 inches.

Male and Female Upper parts dark grayish brown. The feath-
ers, except when old, edged with lighter brown ; the wings
and tail darkest ; lightest shade on neck ; the white feathers
of the fore neck abruptly marked off from the dark feathers
of the crown and nape. Under parts white, shaded with
brownish gray on sides; under tail coverts ashy gray; upper
coverts mostly white. Wings long and pointed. Bill, which
is dark horn color, is about as long as head, and has a strong
hook at the end. Legs and feet yellowish pink or flesh color.

Range Over the entire Atlantic Ocean, from Cape Horn and
Cape of Good Hope to Arctic Circle.

Season Irregular visitor to our coast; abundant far off it in

Off the banks of Newfoundland and southward, passengers
on the ocean liners sometimes see immense flocks of these birds,

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 5 of 29)