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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smaller than gulls, though larger than pigeons, flying close over
the waves, in a direct course, with strong wing beats, then float-
ing often half a mile with no perceptible motion of the wings.
The stronger the gale blows, the more does the shearwater seem
to revel in it; for as the waves are lifted high enough to curl over
in a thin sheet, allowing the light to strike through, the tiny fish
are plainly revealed, and quick as thought the bird dives through
the combing crest to snap up its prey. Any small particles of
animal food cast up by the troubled waters are snatched at with
spirit, while with uninterrupted flight the shearwater sweeps


Shearwaters and Petrels

over the waves in wide curves, now deep in the trough, now
high above the great swells breaking into foam ; but always with
"its long, narrow wings set stiffly at right angles with the
body," to quote Brewster. Sir T. Browne, who was the first to
speak of this bird or its immediate kin, wrote a quaint account
of it which is still preserved in the British Museum. "It
is a Sea-fowl," he says, "which fishermen observe to resort to
their vessels in some numbers, swimming (sic) swiftly too and
fro, backward, forward and about them, and doth, as it were,
radere aquam, shear the water, from whence, perhaps, it had its
name." No doubt the venerable ornithologist meant to say skim-
ming instead of swimming, for the shearwater almost never
rests on the water, except, as is supposed, after dark, to sleep.
So characteristic is this constant roving on the wing, that the
Turks around the Bosphorus, where these birds have penetrated,
think they must be animated by condemned human souls; hence
the name Ames damnees given the poor innocents by the French.
Indeed, all we know about these birds is from hasty glances as they
sweep by us at sea; for, although common immediately off our
coast in winter, they are never seen to alight on it ; and as for
either the bird's nest, eggs, and fledglings, they are still abso-
lutely unknown to scientists. A species that is abundant off
Australia burrows a hole in the ground near the shore and
deposits one pure white egg at the end of the tunnel, just as
many petrels do; and it is reasonable to suppose the greater
shearwater makes a similar nest. Some white eggs received
from Greenland are thought to belong to this species.

Wilson's Stormy Petrel

(Oceanites oceancius)


Length 7 inches. Very long wings, with an extent of 16 inches,
give appearance of greater size.

Male and Female Upper parts, wings, and tail sooty black; paler
underneath, and grayish on wing coverts. The upper tail
coverts and frequently the sides of rump and base of tail,
white. Bill and feet black. Legs very long, and webs of
toes mostly yellow. Tail square and even.

Range Atlantic Ocean, North and South America, nesting in


im col. Chi. Acad. Sciences

-4 Life-size.

Shearwaters and Petrels

southern seas (Kerguelen Island) in February; afterward
migrating northward.

Season Common summer visitor off the coast of the United

This is the little petrel most commonly seen off the coast of
the United States in summer, silently flitting hither and thither
with a company of its fellows like a lot of butterflies in their
airy, hovering flight. Owing to the spread of their long wings
they appear much larger than they really are, for in actual size the
birds are only a trifle longer than the English sparrow, and look
like the barn swallow; yet these tiny atoms of the air spend their
"life on the ocean wave," and have "their home on the rolling

11 O'er the deep ! o'er the deep !

Where the whale and the shark and the swordfish sleep

Outflyingthe blast and the driving rain,"

like the stormy petrel of the east Atlantic (Procellaria pela-
gica), an even smaller species, which doubtless was the bird
" Barry Cornwall " had in mind when he wrote his famous verses.

Those who go down to the sea in ships are familiar with the
petrels that gather in flocks in the wake of the vessel, coursing
over the waves, now down in the trough, now up above the crest
that threatens to break over their tiny heads; half leaping along
a wave, half flying as their distended feet strike the water, and
they bound upward again ; darting swallow-fashion and skim-
ming along the surface, or flitting like a butterfly above the
refuse thrown overboard from the ship's galley. " But the most
singular peculiarity of this bird," to quote Wilson, for whom it
was named, "is its faculty of standing, and even running, on the
surface of the water, which it performs with apparent facility.
When any greasy matter is thrown overboard, these birds instantly
collect around it, and face to windward, with their long wings
expanded, and their webbed feet patting the water, which the '
lightness of their bodies and the action of the wind on their wings
enable them to do with ease. In calm weather they perform the
same manoeuvre by keeping their wings just so much in action
as to prevent their feet from sinking below the surface." It is
this appearance of walking on the waves, like the Apostle Peter,
that has caused his name to be applied to them.

Particles of animal matter, particularly anything fat or oily,

Shearwaters and Petrels

are what the petrels are searching for when they follow a ship ;
and seeing any such they quickly settle down to enjoy it, then
rising again, soon overtake a vessel under steam. Their wing
power is marvellous, yet when a gale is blowing in full blast
at sea, these little birds are often blown far inland; the capped
petrel, for example, that has its proper home in Guadeloupe, in
the West Indies, having been found in the interior of New York
state after a prolonged "sou'easter." The petrels swim little, if
any, though their webbed feet are so admirably adapted for swim-
ming, which might be a greater protection to them than flying
when the storms blow. The lighthouses attract many to their
death on the stern New England coast.

As night approaches the birds show signs of weariness from
the perpetual exercise; for not only have they kept pace with a
steamer through the day, but they have made innumerable ex-
cursions far from the ship, and played from side to side with a
flock of companions at hide-and-go-seek or cross-tag until the
eye tires of watching them. But by the time it is dark the last
one of the merry little hunters has settled down upon the waves,
with head tucked under wing, to rest until dawn while " rocked
in the cradle of the deep " ; yet it is apparently the very same
flock of birds that are busily looking for breakfast the next morn-
ing in the wake of the ship, which they must have overtaken
with the wings of Mercury.

It would seem these innocent sea-rovers might escape
persecution at the hands of man; but an English globe-trotter
tells of seeing not only sailors, but passengers, too, who ordi-
narily feel only camaraderie for other fellow travellers on a
lonely vessel, shoot these tiny waifs hovering about the ship,
to break the tediousness of a long voyage. With the guilty con-
sciences such sailors must have, it is small wonder the petrel is a
bird of ill omen to them. They claim it is a harbinger of storms,
like its large relative the albatross ; and it might easily be, for it
delights in rough weather that brings an abundance of food to the
surface. All the gruesome superstitions which sailors have clus-
tered around the birds of this entire family, in fact, were woven
by Coleridge into his " Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

According to Briinnich, the Faro Islanders draw a wick
through the body of the petrel, that is oily from the eating of
much fat, and burn the poor thing as a lamp.


Shearwaters and Petrels

Among the many senseless stories sailors tell of the petrel is
that it never goes ashore to nest, but carries its solitary egg under
its wing until hatched. But the members of the Transit of Venus
expedition in the Southern Ocean, several years ago, discovered
a large colony of these birds nesting on Kergulen Island. Here-
tofore, ornithologists, misled by Audubon, had confounded the
nest of Wilson's with that of Leach's petrel. Nests containing
one white egg each were found in the crevices of rock during
January and February. In the latter month the author has seen
the birds in great numbers off the Azores, but, unhappily, not on
them, for the steamer did not stop there; however, it is not un-
likely they nest on these islands, which would seem a convenient
rallying place for the birds from the African coast and those that
course along the Western Atlantic from Labrador to Patagonia.
The young birds are fed by that disgusting process known as
regurgitation, that is, raising the food from the stomachs by the
parents, which Nuttall says sounds like the cluttering of frogs.
Baskett writes in his "Story of the Birds" : "The baby petrel
revels in the delights of a cod-liver-oil diet from the start."

Ordinarily quite silent birds, these petrels sometimes call out
weet, iveet, or a low twittering chirp that might be written pe-
up. But it is near its nest that a bird is most noisy ; and until
very recently the home life of this common petrel was absolutely

Leach's, the White-rumped, or the Forked-tailed Petrel, as it is
variously known (Oceandroma leucorhoa) was the bird carefully
studied by Audubon, but confused by him with Wilson's petrel,
in which mistake many ornithologists followed him. In size and
plumage the birds are almost identical, but the forked tail of
Leach's petrel is its distinguishing mark. The outer tail feathers
are fully a half inch longer than the middle pair, making the bird
look more swallow-like even than Wilson's.

Leach's petrels, while quite as common on the Pacific coast
as on the Atlantic, have their chief nesting sites in the Bay of
Fundy, while a few nest off the coast of Maine; for it is a more
northern species than Wilson's, Virginia and California being its
southern boundaries. Nevertheless it is by no means so com-
mon off the coast of New England and the Middle States, except
around the lighthouses, as Wilson's petrel, that must migrate


Shearwaters and Petrels

thousands of miles from the Southern Ocean to pass its summer
with us.

Audubon noted that these petrels were seldom seen about
their nesting sites during the day, but seemed to have some
nocturnal proclivities ; for they approached the shore after dark,
and flew around like so many bats in the twilight, all the while
uttering a wild, plaintive cry. But Chamberlain claims that one of
the birds, usually the male, sits on its egg all day while its mate
is out foraging at sea. " When handled," he says, " these birds
emit from mouth and nostrils a small quantity of oil-like fluid of
a reddish color and pungent, musk-like odor. The air at the
nesting site is strongly impregnated with this odor, and it guides
a searcher to the nest." Sailors have dubbed them with numer-
ous vile names on account of this peculiar means of defense.

A few bits of sticks and grasses laid at the end of a tunnel
burrowed in the ground, at the top of an ocean cliff, very much
as the bank swallow constructs its nest, make the only home
these sea-rovers know. Such a tunnel contains one egg, about
an inch to an inch and a half long, and marked, chiefly around the
larger end, with small reddish-brown spots. In most respects
Leach's petrel is identical with Wilson's, and the reader is there-
fore referred to the fuller account of that bird.





(Order Steganapodes)

Birds of this order belong chiefly to tropical or sub-tropical
countries, and include the tropic birds, gannets, darters, cor-
morants, pelicans, and man-o'-war birds, representatives of each
of these seven families at least touching our southern coast line,
although only the cormorant is common enough north of the
southern states to come within the scope of this book. The
characteristic that separates these birds into a distinct order is the
complete webbing of all the toes; the hallux, or great toe, which
in many water-birds is either rudimentary, elevated, or discon-
nected from the other webbed toes, is in these species flat and
fully webbed like the rest, a characteristic no other birds have.


(Family Pbalacrocoracidce)

More than half of all the birds of the order of fully webbed
swimmers are cormorants; found in all parts of the world; but of
these we have only one, commonly found in the United States
around bodies of fresh water inland as well as off the Atlantic
coast. Cormorants nest in great colonies and are gregarious at
all times. The Chinese have turned their abnormal appetite for
fish to good account, by partly domesticating their common
species, putting a tight collar around the bird's throat to prevent
it from swallowing its prey, and then sending it forth to hunt for
its master.

Birds of this family are strong fliers, and although they keep
rather close to the water when fishing, often pursuing their game
below the surface, they fly high in serried ranks, a few birds deep,
but in a long line, during the migrations.


Totipalmate, or Fully Webbed Swimmers

The hooked bill that helps hold a slippery fish secure; the
iridescent black and brown plumage, which is the same in both
sexes; and certain special featherings of a temporary character
that are worn during the nesting season only, are among the
most noticeable characteristics of this family.
Double-crested Cormorant.


(Family Phalacrocoracidce)

Double-Crested Cormorant

( ' Phalacrocorax dilophus)

Called also : SHAG

Length 30 to 32 inches.

Male and Female Head, neck, lower back, and under parts glossy,
iridescent black, with greenish reflections; back and wings
light grayish brown, each feather edged with black. A tuft
of long, thin black feathers either side of the head, extending
from above the eyes to the nape of neck. Birds of the
interior show some white feathers among the black ones,
while Pacific coast specimens, it is said by Chamberlain,
wear wholly white wedding plumes. Wedge-shaped black
tail, six inches long, is composed of twelve stiff feathers.
Bill longer than head, and hooked at end. Naked space
around the eye; base of bill and under throat orange. Legs
and feet black ; all four toes connected by webs. Winter
birds lack the plumes on sides of head, and show more
brownish tints in plumage.

Range North America, nesting from the Great Lakes, Minne-
sota, Dakota, and Nova Scotia northward ; wintering in our
southern States south of Illinois and Virginia.

Season Chiefly a spring and autumn migrant, except where
noted above.

Which of the cormorants it was that the Greeks called phala-
crocorax, or bald raven, and is responsible for the unpronounce-
able name borne by the family to this day, is not now certain ; but
of the thirty species named by scientists, we are at least sure it
was not the double-crested cormorant which is peculiar to
America. Some of the Latin peoples, thinking the bird sug-
gests by its plumage and its voracious appetite a marine crow
(corvus marinus), have given it various titles from which the



English tongue has corrupted first corvorant, then cormorant,
whose significance we do not always remember.

Long, serried ranks of double-crested cormorants come fly-
ing northward from the Gulf states in April, and pass along the
Atlantic shores so high overhead that the amateur observer
guesses they are large ducks from their habit of flight, not being
able to distinguish their plumage. In the interior of the United
States, as well as on the coast, they make frequent breaks in the
long migration to their northern nesting grounds, when, if we
are fortunate enough, we may watch their interesting hunting
habits. Flying low, or just above the surface of the water,
the cormorant, suddenly catching sight of a fish, dives straight
after it; darts under water like a flash; pursues and captures the
victim, though to do it, it must sometimes stay for a long time
submerged; then reappears with the fish held tightly in its
hooked beak, from which there is no escape. Before the prize is
swallowed it is first tossed in the air, then as it descends head
downward it lands in the sack or dilatable skin of the cormo-
rant's throat, there to remain in evidence from without until,
partly digested, it passes on to the lower part of the bird's
stomach. After its voracious appetite has been appeased, the
cormorant appears moody and glum.

On the shores of inland waters, particularly, the cormorant
often seeks a distended branch of some tree overhanging the lake
or river, to sit there, a sombre, meditative figure, only intent on
the fish below. In "Paradise Lost," after likening Satan to a wolf
preying upon lambs in the sheepfold, Milton continues with
another simile :

" Thence up he flew, and on the tree of life,
The middle tree, and highest there that grew,
Sat like a cormorant : yet not true life
Thereby regained, but sat devising death
To them who lived."

In Milton's day it was royal sport to go a-fishing with half-
domesticated, trained cormorants. A strap was fastened around
the bird's throat tight enough to keep it from swallowing its
legitimate prey, but loose enough for it to take a full breath.
Then it was released to furnish amusement for the royal company
assembled on the shore as it darted like an arrow through the
clear waters, hunted the fish out of their holes, pursued, cap-



tured them, and brought them squirming to its master's feet.
A few English noblemen still divert themselves with this medi-
aeval pastime, according to Professor Alfred Newton of Cam-
bridge University; and it is still in vogue among the Chinese
fishermen, who find the skill of the cormorants more profitable
than their own. Happily these birds are well cushioned with air
spaces just under the skin to break the shock when they dive
from a height and strike the water. The gluttony of a cormorant
has passed into a proverb. It will continue to hunt every fish in
sight, day after day, for its equally greedy masters, that only whet
the bird's ravenous appetite from time to time, by removing its
collar and allowing it to swallow an unenvied prize.

In some parts of the United States, but chiefly in the Bay of
Fundy and beyond, the double-crested cormorants retire to nest
in large companies on the ledges of cliffs along the sea, or in low
bushes or bushy trees inland. The nest consists of a mass of
sticks and sea-weed, and both it and its vicinity look as if they
had been spattered over with whitewash, owing to the bird's
unclean habits. When the four or six eggs are first laid, they
are covered over with a rough, chalky deposit that is easily rubbed
off, showing a bluish-green shell beneath. The young, that are
hatched blind, have not even down to cover their inky-black
skin. It takes fully two years to perfect the beautiful iridescent
black plumage worn by adults. For a time the nestlings are
fed with food brought up from their parents' stomachs ; and so
active is the cormorant's digestion that a fish caught by one is
said to have reached a stage fit for baby food between the time the
bird catches it in the water and transports it in its stomach to its
adjacent nest. On shore these birds rest in an almost upright
position, because their legs are set far back on their bodies, which
also necessitates using the stiff tail as a prop. Doubtless this
tail, that is used also as a rudder or paddle, adds to the cormo-
rant's extraordinary facility in swimming under water.


Mergansers, or Fishing Ducks
River and Pond Ducks
Sea and Bay Ducks



(Order Anseres)


(Family Anatidce)

Five subfamilies, numbering about two hundred species,
constitute this large family of water fowl that in itself forms a
well-defined order. They are the mergansers, river ducks, sea
ducks, geese, and swans. All these birds have the margins of
the beak (rostrum) furnished with lamels, or plates, tooth-like
projections, fluted ridges or gutters along its sides; but the sub-
families are so well defined that their peculiarities would best be
noted separately.

Mergansers, or Fishing Ducks

(Subfamily Mergince)

Let the young housekeeper avoid any ducks with long, nar-
row, rounded, hooked, and saw-toothed bills ; for the shelldrakes,
or sawbills, as the mergansers are also called, have rank, unpala-
table flesh, owing to their diet of fish, which are pursued and
captured under water in the manner practiced by loons, cormo-
rants, and other birds low in the evolutionary scale. Mergan-
sers live in fresh as well as salt water.

American Merganser or Goosander.

Red-breasted Merganser.

Hooded Merganser.

Plate-billed Swimmers

River and Pond Ducks

(Subfamily Anatince)

The hind toe of these ducks is without a flap, or lobe, and
the front of the foot is furnished with transverse scales, which
are the two features of these birds which have led scientists to
separate them into a distinct subfamily. But to even the un-
trained eye other peculiarities are also noticeable. The feet of these
ducks are smaller than those of the sea-ducks, the toes and their
webs naturally not being so highly developed, owing to the calmer
waters on which they live; although some few species do associ-
ate with their sea-loving kin. They do not dive to pursue food like
the mergansers and sea ducks, but nibble at the aquatic plants they
live among, and dabble with their bills on the surface of the water
for particles of animal matter; or, with head immersed and tail in
air, probe the bottom of shallow waters for small mollusks, crus-
taceans, and roots of plants. Their bill acts as a sieve or strainer.
From the more dainty character of their food, their flesh is superior.
These drakes undergo a double moult; generally the sexes are
distinct in color; the young resemble the female ; but the wing-
markings, in which a brilliant speculum is usually conspicuous,
are the same in both sexes. When the males are not polyga-
mous, they devote themselves to one mate, leaving the entire
care of the young, however, to her. The speed of these ducks
on the wing has been estimated anywhere from one hundred to
a hundred and sixty miles an hour.

Mallard Duck.

Black or Dusky Duck.

Gadwall, or Gray Duck.

Baldpate, or Widgeon.

Green-winged Teal.

Blue-winged Teal.



Wood Duck.

Sea and Bay Ducks

(Subfamily Fuligulince)

The lobe, or web, hanging free on the hind toe is the charac-
teristic looked for by scientists to separate these birds from the


Plate-billed Swimmers

preceding group, the transverse scales on the front of the foot
being common to both subfamilies. The toes and webs of these
sea ducks are noticeably larger than those of the river ducks,
owing to their greater exercise; and the feet are also placed a
little farther back, which increases their facility in diving and
swimming. Several of the species associate with the river
ducks in still waters, the subfamily not being so exclusively
maritime as its name would imply. Indeed, there seem to be
notable exceptions to almost every general rule that might be
applied to it except the one that relates to the formation of the toes.
It is often said that the flesh of sea ducks, that feed more on
mollusks, crustaceans, and other marine food, although not on
fish, and less upon grain and other vegetable matter, is coarser,
less palatable, and even sometimes inedible; but what of the can-
vasback duck, that peerless delicacy of the epicure ?

Red-headed Duck.


Greater Scaup Duck, or Broadbill.

Lesser Scaup, or Creek Broadbill.

Ring-necked Duck.

Golden-eye, or Whistler.

Barrow's Golden-eye.

Buffle-head, or Butter-ball.

Old Squaw, or South Southerly.

Harlequin Duck.

American Eider Duck.

King Eider.

American Scoter, or Black Coot.

White-winged Scoter.

Surf Scoter.

Ruddy Duck.


(Subfamily Anserince)

Cheeks, or lores, completely feathered where the swans are
naked; tarsus, or lower part of leg, generally longer than the
middle toe without the nail; scales on its front rounded: these
are the purely scientific distinctions of the birds of this sub-

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 6 of 29)