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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family. Neck is midway in length between that of the ducks


Plate-billed Swimmers

and of the swans. Body is not so flat as the duck's and more
elevated on the longer legs. Geese, that spend far more time on
land, walk better than ducks, and depend altogether on a vege-
table diet. When we see them tipping, with head immersed in
the water and tail in air, they are probing the bottom for roots
and seeds of plants, not for water insects or mollusks. In com-
mon with swans they resent intrusion by hissing with out-
stretched necks and by striking with the wings. When wounded
on the water, a goose dives; then, with only its bill exposed
above the surface, strikes out for land, where it evidently feels
more at home. The sexes are generally alike in plumage, which
undergoes only one moult a year; and both parents attend to the
young as no self-respecting drake would do. A wedge-shaped
flock of migrating geese, with an old gander in the lead at the
point of the V, old sportsmen say, is a familiar sight in the spring
and autumn skies, that echo with the honk, honk, or noisy cack-
lings, coming from the distended necks of the travellers.

White-fronted Goose.

Snow Goose.

Lesser Snow Goose.

Canada, or Wild Goose.


Black Brant.


(Subfamily Cygninx)

Bare skin between the eye and bill is the scientific mark of
distinction between swans and geese; many other points of dif-
ference are too well known to mention. Swans feed on small
mollusks in addition to vegetable matter which they secure by
"tipping" or by simply immersing their long, graceful necks.
They migrate in V-shaped flocks like the geese, and often utter
loud, trumpeting notes unlike the noisy gabble of both geese
and ducks. Plumage of sexes alike.

Whistling Swan.

Trumpeter Swan.



(Subfamily Mergince)

American Merganser

(Merganser americanus)


Length 23 to 27 inches.

Male Head, which is slightly crested, and upper neck, glossy
greenish black; hind neck, breast, and markings on wings,
white; underneath delicately tinted with salmon buff. Back
black, fading to ashy gray on the lower part and tail. Wings
largely white; tips of the coverts white, forming a mirror,
and banded with black. Bill toothed and red, or nearly so,
and with black hook, and nostrils near the middle.

Female and Young Smaller than male ; head and upper neck red-
dish brown ; rest of upper parts and tail ashy gray ; breast and
underneath white.

Range North America generally, nesting from Minnesota north-
ward, and wintering from New England, Illinois, and Kansas
southward to southern States.

Season Winter resident from November to April.

A surprising number of popular names have attached them-
selves to this large, handsome swimmer that studiously avoids
populated regions and the sight of man; that no sportsman
would, or, indeed could, eat; that eludes pursuit by some very
remarkable diving and swimming feats, and therefore enjoys
popularity in names alone. Its preferences are for remote water-
ways at the north, where its family life is spent, only a few nests
being reported this side of the Canadian border; but when a hard
crust of ice locks up their fish, frogs, mollusks, and other aquatic
animal food, small companies of six or eight mergansers migrate



to our lakes, rivers, and the ocean shore to hunt there until
spring. Salt and fresh water are equally enjoyed!

Feeding appears to be the chief object in life of this glutton-
ous bird that often swallows a fish too large to descend entire
into the stomach, and must remain in the distended throat until
digested piecemeal. Its saw-like bill for holding slippery prey,
and rough tongue covered with incurved projections like a cat's,
doubtless help speed the process of digestion, which is so rapid
as to keep the bird in a constant state of hunger, and drive it to
desperate rashness to secure its dinner. It will plunge beneath a
rushing torrent after a fish, or dive to great depths to secure it,
swimming under water with long and splendidly powerful, dex-
terous strokes that soon overtake the fish in its own element.
These feats, with the sudden dropping out of sight practiced so
artfully by the loons, make a merganser an exceedingly difficult
mark for the sportsman to hit; and its muscular, tough, rank
flesh offers no reward for his efforts. Usually these birds depend
upon the water to escape danger; but when disturbed in a shallow
fishing ground, a flock seems to run along the water for a few
yards, patting it with their strongly webbed feet, then rising to
windward, they head off in straight, strong, and rapid flight,
toward distant shelter.

The adult male in his nuptial dress is a conspicuously beauti-
ful fellow, with his dark, glossy green head, rich salmon-col-
ored breast, and black and white wings, set off by a black back.
But this attire is not worn until maturity, in the second year; and
in the intervening time, as well as after the nesting season is over,
he looks much like his mate and their young. Birds whose upper
parts show the grayish brown that predominates when we see
them in winter are called "dun divers" in many sections. It is
the male bird in spring plumage that the taxidermist mounts to
decorate the walls of dining-rooms and shooting lodges.

Mergansers build a nest of leaves, grasses, and moss, lined
with down from their breasts, in a hole of a tree or cliff, where
from six to ten creamy-buff eggs are laid in June, and tended
exclusively by the mother, even after they have evolved into
fluffy ducklings. At this time the drake is undergoing a thorough


Red-breasted Merganser

(Merganser Serrator)


Length 22 to 24 inches.

Male Head and throat greenish black; more greenish above, and
with long, pointed crest over top of head and nape; white
collar around neck; sides of lower neck and the upper breast
cinnamon red, with black streaks; lower breast, underneath,
and the greater part of wings white ; other feathers black.
Back black; lower back and sides finely barred with black and
white; a white patch of feathers, with black border, in front
of wings, and two black bars across them. Bill long, saw-
toothed, red, curved at end, and with nostrils near the base;
eyes red ; legs and toes reddish orange.

female and Young Similar to the American merganser. Head,
neck, and crest dull, rusty brown; dark ashy on back and tail;
throat and under parts white, shaded with gray along sides;
white of wing restricted to a patch (mirror or speculum) ; no
peculiar feathers in front of wing.

Range United States generally; nests from Illinois and Maine
northward to Arctic regions; winters south of its nesting
limits to Cuba.

Season Winter resident and visitor ; October to April.

Swift currents of water, deep pools where the fish hide,
and foaming cataracts where they leap, invite the red-breasted
merganser, as they do its larger American relative; for both birds
have insatiable appetites, happily united with marvelous swim-
ming and diving powers that must be constantly exercised in
pursuit of their finny prey. Fish they must and will have, in
addition to frogs, little lizards, mollusks, and small shell fish; and
for such a diet this fishing duck forsakes its northern nesting
grounds in winter, when ice locks its larder, to hunt in the open
waters, salt or fresh, of the United States. Cold has no terror
for these hardy creatures ; they swim as nimbly in the icy water
of the St. Lawrence as in the rivers of Cuba, and disappear
under an ice cake with no less readiness than they do under lily-
pads. Food is their chief desire; and rather than let a six-inch
fish go, any merganser would choke in its efforts to bolt it.


Their appetite is so voracious that often some of their food must
be disgorged from their distended crops before the birds are able
to rise from the water. An almost exclusive fish diet, with the
constant exercise they must keep up to secure it, makes their
flesh so rank and tough that no sportsman thinks of shooting
the mergansers for food ; and by sudden, skilful dives the birds
are as difficult to kill as the true "water witches." Only the
youngest, most inexperienced housekeeper thinks of buying any
saw-billed duck in market; the serrated edges indicating that
the bill is used as a fish chopper, and fish food never makes flesh
that is acceptable to a fastidious palate.

In the United States, at least, the red-breasted mergansers
are far more abundant than the preceding species, which they
very closely resemble after the nuptial dress has been laid aside
for the brown and gray winter plumage. Males may be distin-
guished by the color of their breasts at any time; but the females
and young of both species are most bewilderingly similar at a
little distance. The position of the nostril, near the centre of the
American merganser's bill, and near the base of the red-breasted
species, is the positive clew to identity. The latter bird's croak is
another aid. All mergansers look as if they needed to have their
hair brushed.

While the construction of the nest of these sometimes con-
fused relatives is the same, the red-breasted merganser makes its
cradle directly on the ground, among rocks or bushes, but never
far from water. It is the female that bears all the burden of
hatching the creamy buff eggs six to twelve and of feeding
and training the young brood; her gorgeous, selfish mate dis-
creetly withdrawing from her neighborhood when nursery duties
commence. But the long-suffering mother bird is a perfect pat-
tern of all the domestic virtues. "I paddled after a brood one
hot summer's day," says Chamberlain, "and though several
times they were almost within reach of my landing net, they
eluded every effort to capture them. Throughout the chase the
mother kept close to the young birds, and several times swam
across the bow of the canoe in her efforts to draw my attention
from the brood and to offer herself as a sacrifice for their escape."

9 o


Hooded Merganser

(Lophodytes cucullatus)


Length 17 to 19 inches.

Male Handsome semicircular black crest with fan shaped patch
of white on each side of greenish black head; upper parts
black, changing to brown on lower back; lower fore neck,
wing linings, and underneath white, finely waved with
brownish red, and dusky on sides. Two crescent shaped
bands of black on sides of breast. A white speculum or
mirror on wing, crossed by two black bars. Bill bluish
black, with nostrils in basal half; eyes yellow.

Female Smaller ; dark ashy brown above, minutely barred with
black; more restricted and reddish brown crest, lacking the
white fan; under parts white; sides grayish brown.

Young Similar to female, but without crest ; no black and white
bars before wing; wings scarcely showing the white mirror.

Range North America; nests throughout its range; winters in
southern United States, also in Cuba and Mexico.

Season Chiefly a winter resident and visitor south of the Great
Lakes and New England.

Unlike the two larger mergansers that delight in rushing
torrents and in making daring plunges beneath them, this
strikingly beautiful ''water pheasant," as it is sometimes called,
chooses still waters, quiet lakes and mill-ponds for a more leisurely
hunt after small fish, mollusks, and water insects, adding to this
menu roots of aquatic plants, seeds, and grain. It is claimed that
this variation in the fish diet, and the consequent lack of harden-
ing of the muscles, make the merganser's flesh edible; and in spite
of its saw-toothed bill, the certain index of rank, fishy flesh, epi-
cures insist that this is an excellent table duck; but in just what
state of rawness it is most delicious, who but an epicure may say ?

"It seems an undue strain on the imagination, not to say
palate, to claim that any of the fish-eating ducks are edible," says
Mr. Shields. ' ' Men who kill everything they can find in the woods,
in the fields, or on the water, say all mergansers, coots and grebes
are good if properly cooked. When asked what this proper
method of cooking is, they say the birds should first be par-

9 1


boiled through two or three waters; that they should then be
well baked, stewed, fricassed, or broiled, and flavored with
rashers of bacon and onions, potatoes, etc. This means, then,
that the bird should be so treated as to rob it of all its original
quality, and to reduce it to a condition simply of meat. A
hawk, an owl, a cayote, a catfish, a German carp, or even a
dogfish may be made edible by such treatment. If a bird or
a fish is not fit to eat without all this manipulation and seasoning,
it is not an edible animal in the first place. Then why kill it ? "

Like the wood duck, golden-eye, bufflehead, and its imme-
diate kin, the hooded merganser goes into a hollow tree or stump
to build a nest of grasses, leaves, and moss, lined with down from
the mother's breast, and lays from eight to ten buffy white eggs.
Now is the time that the handsome male disports himself at
leisure, and at a distance, while the patient little mother keeps
the eggs warm, feeds the yellowish nestlings, carries them to the
lake one by one in her bill, as a cat carries its kittens ; teaches
them to swim, dive, and gather their own food, and to fly by
midsummer; defends them with her life, if need be; and wel-
comes home the lazy, cavalier father when the drudgeries are
ended and the young are fully able to join the migrating flocks
that begin to gather in the Hudson Bay region in September. It
is she who ought to wear the white halo around her head instead
of the drake.

Sportsmen often find small companies of hooded mergan-
zers in the same lake with mallard, black, wood, and other ducks
that, like them, delight in woody, well-watered interior districts.
Mr. Frank Chapman found them in small ponds in the hum-
mocks of Florida; and the author first made their acquaintance on
a poultry stand in the French market in New Orleans.


(Subfamily Anatince)

Mallard Duck

(Anas boscbas)


Length 23 inches.

Male Head and neck glossy green with white ring like a collar
defining the dividing line from the rich chestnut breast; un-
derneath grayish white, finely marked with waving black
lines ; back dark grayish brown, shading to black on lower
back and tail. Four black upper feathers of tail curve back-
ward; rest of tail white, black below. Speculum or wing-
bar rich purple with green reflections and bordered by black
and white. Bill greenish yellow with gutters on the side.

Female Plumage generally dark brown varied with buff; breast
and underneath buff, mottled with grayish brown; wings
marked like male's.

Range Nests rarely from Indiana and Iowa and chiefly from
Labrador northward; winters from Chesapeake Bay and
Kansas southward to Central America. Rare in New Eng-

Season Winter resident in southern states; a transient visitor
or migrant, during the winter months, at the north.

Small, grassy ponds, slow-moving streams, sloughs, and
the labyrinths of lakes and rivers that are thickly grown
with wild rice and rushes, such as abound in the interior
of the United States and Canada, make the ideal resort of the
mallards, or, indeed, of most ducks dear to the sportsman's heart.
Here large companies gather in August and September when the
ripened grain invites them to the feast they most enjoy, flying at
dusk or by night in wedge-shaped battalions from their resting-
grounds at the far north, to remain until the ice locks up their
food and they must shift their home farther south. In Illinois,


River and Pond Ducks

Minnesota, Iowa, and Indiana, they are among the first ducks to
arrive and the last to leave with the hardy scaups or bluebills.
And in sheltered localities a few sometimes winter, just as a few
break through traditions and nest in secluded spots in the same
states ; but from Kansas and the Chesapeake country southward,
they may be positively relied upon until the time arrives for the
spring migration, however more abundant they may be in the
interior than along our coast. Let no one imagine that because
some ducks are classified in the books as " river and pond," and
others as "sea and bay ducks," they are not often found in the
same places. It is the lobed hind toe of the latter group that
really differentiates them, and not always their habitats.

Well concealed in the tall sedges that literally drop food into
their gaping mouths, the mallards feed silently upon the ripe
grain and seeds, dabbling on the surface of the water or, suddenly
tipping tail upward and stretching head downward in the shallow
waters, probe the muddy bottom for the small mollusks, fish,
worms, rootlets, and vegetable matter they delight in. When a
good mouthful has been taken in the bill is closed tight, thus
forcing out through the gutters along the sides, that act as strainers,
the mud and water that were taken in with the food. Ripe corn
that has dropped in the fields is a favorite cereal. Fish and ani-
mal substances form a small fraction of the mallards' diet; they
are very near to being vegetarians, the fact that makes their flesh
so delicious.

" In the spring and fall the Kankakee region of Illinois and
Indiana is one of the finest grounds for mallards, teal, wood-
duck and geese, to be found in the United States," says Maurice
Thompson. " I need not say to the sportsman that the mallard
is the king's own duck for the table. The canvasback does not
surpass it. I have shot corn-fed mallards whose flesh was as
sweet as that of a young quail, and at the same time as choice as
that of the woodcock."

Instead of becoming indolent and moody after a plentiful
dinner, these ducks are uncommonly lively. They jabber among
themselves, spatter the water freely, half fly, half run along the
surface of the lake, and are positively playful so long as the leader
of the sport, that is on the constant lookout, gives no sign of
warning. One might think they were mad, but often their frantic
antics indicate that insects are troubling them, and all their splut-


River and Pond Ducks

tering and diving is done to get rid of the pests. Mallards dive
and swim under water also to escape danger, but rarely to
collect food. During the day they make many bold excursions
to the centre of the lake and explore the inlets and indentations
of the shore. On the first quack of alarm, however, up bounds
the entire flock and, rising obliquely to a good height, their stif-
fened wings whistling through the wind, off they fly at a speed
no locomotive can match. Perhaps the reason for most misses
of the amateur hunter is his inability to conceive the rate at
which ducks move, and so to hold far enough ahead of the
bird he has selected. Mallards waste no time sailing, but after
climbing the sky on throbbing wings they continue to flap them
constantly. Before alighting it is their habit to wheel round and
round a feeding-ground to assure themselves no danger lurks
in ambush. They are conspicuous sufferers from the duck-
hawk, whose marvelous flight so far excels even theirs that es-
cape is hopeless in a long race unless the duck should be flying
over water, into which a sudden plunge and a long swim under
the surface to a sheltered corner in the sedges, frees it from the
persecutor that lives by tearing the flesh from the breasts of hun-
dreds of such victims every year.

Wary as these ducks are, they are also eminently inquisitive,
or the painted, wooden decoys of dingy little females, gay ban-
dana handkerchiefs fluttering from poles, that are used in
the south to excite their curiosity, and other time-honored tricks
of sportsmen would never have been crowned with success.
The mallards are also exceedingly shy, and feel at greatest ease
and liberty when the dusk of evening and dawn covers their
feeding-grounds and conceals their flight that is often suspected
solely by the whistling of their wings through the darkness over-
head. Their loud quack, quack, exactly like that of the domestic
duck, resounds cheerfully in the spring and autumn migrations.

To see the endearments and little gallantries the handsome
drake bestows on his mate in spring, no one would sus-
pect him of total indifference to her later. Waterton and other
writers claim that the wild mallard is not only strictly monoga-
mous, but remains paired for life. Perhaps polygamy cannot be
fairly charged against him, however suspicious his indifference
to his mate and ducklings appears. Many ornithologists claim
that he is positively unable to help his mate and young, owing


River and Pond Ducks

to the extra molt his plumage undergoes at the end of June,
when he actually loses the power of flight for a time and does
not regain his beautiful full plumage until the autumn. But cer-
tainly the character of the domesticated mallard must have sadly
deteriorated, if this is so, for in the barn-yard, at least, he is a
veritable Mormon.

In a nest lined with down from her breast, and made of hay,
leaves, or any material that can be scraped together on the ground,
near the water or in a bushy field back from it, the mother con-
fines herself for twenty-eight days. It is then her gay cavalier
goes off to his club, or its equivalent, with other like-minded
pleasure-seekers, while she bears the full burden of the house-
hold. Very seldom does she leave the pale bluish or greenish
gray eggs six to a dozen to get food and a brief swim in the
lake ; and she is careful to pull the down coverlet well over the
eggs to retain their heat during her outings. As her incubating
duties near their end, she usually does not stir from the nest at
all. There are some few records of nests made in trees. If the
nest is near the water, on the ground, the young ones instantly
make for it when they leave the shell; but being unable to walk
well at first, the overworked mother must carry them to it in her
bill, it is said, if the nest is far back on a bank. Many pathetic
stories are in circulation, showing the mother's total self-forgetful-
ness and voluntary offering of her own life to protect the downy
brood. Water-rats and large pike, that eat her babies when they
make their earliest dives, are the worst enemies she has to fear
until they are able to fly, some six weeks or more after hatching,
and the duck-hawk finds them easy prey.

The mallard is by far the most important species we have,
as it is the most plentiful, the most widely distributed, and the
best known, being the ancestor of the common domestic duck ;
and although many of its habits have undergone a change in the
poultry-yards, others may still be profitably studied there by
those unable to reach the inaccessible sloughs, bayous, and
lagoons where the wild ducks hide.

9 6

River and Pond Ducks

Black Duck

(Anas obscura)


Length 22 to 23 inches; same size as the mallard.

Male and Female Resembling the female mallard, but darker and
without white anywhere except on the wing linings; violet
blue patch or speculum on wings bordered by black a fine
white line on that of male only. General plumage dusky
brown, not black, lighter underneath than on upper parts, the
feathers edged with rusty brown. Top of head rich, dark
ashy brown, slightly streaked with buff; sides of head and
throat pale buff, thickly streaked with black. Female paler
yellow. Bill greenish. Feet red.

Range " Eastern North America, west to the Mississippi Valley,
north to Labrador, breeding southward to the northern parts
of the United States." A. O. U.

Season Resident in the United States, where it nests; also winter
resident, from September to May; most abundant in spring
and autumn migrations.

In New England and along the Atlantic States, where the
mallard is scarce, the black duck (which is not black but a
dusky brown), replaces it in the salt-creeks and marshes as well
as on the inland rivers, lakes, and ponds; and even the sea itself
is sometimes sought as an asylum from the gunners. Not all
river and pond ducks confine themselves to the habitats laid
down for them in the books. Black ducks, when persistently
hunted, frequently spend their days on the ocean, returning to

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 7 of 29)