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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their favorite lakes and marshes under cover of darkness for
they are exceedingly shy and wary to feed upon the seeds of
sedges, corn in the farmer's fields, the roots and foliage of aquatic
plants, and other vegetable diet, which is responsible for the
delicious quality of their flesh, so eagerly sought after.

Brush-houses thatched with sedges, that are set up in the
duck's feeding-grounds by hunters, may not be distinguished
from the growing plants in the twilight or early dawn ; wooden
decoys easily deceive the inquisitive birds ; live domestic ducks
tied by the leg to the shore, though apparently free to swim at
large, lure the wild ones near the gunners in ambush, and numer-
ous other devices, long in vogue among men who spare them-
selves the fatigue of walking through the sedges to flush their


River and Pond Ducks

victims, help pile the poultry stalls of our city markets just as
soon as the law allows in autumn. In the early spring, when
the law is still "open" and should be closed, housekeepers find
eggs already well formed in this and other game birds brought to
their kitchens. Of all the wild fowl that enter the United States,
this duck, it is said, possesses the greatest economic value, which
should be a sufficient reason, if no higher motive prompted, to
give it the fullest protection. While the nesting season is from
the last of April to the early part of June, the birds have mated
many weeks before. They are the spring laws that need serious
going over by our legislators.

So closely resembling the mallard in habits that an account
of them need not be repeated here, the black duck is not so com-
mon in the interior nor in the south, for it was the Florida duck
that early ornithologists confounded with this species, which,
they claimed, had the phenomenal nesting range extending from
Labrador to the Gulf. Illinois and New Jersey are as far south as
its nests have been found. The black duck, that seems to have
a more hardy constitution than many of its kin, stays around our
larger ponds long after the ice has formed, and where springs
keep open pools, it is not infrequently met with all through a
mild winter.


(Anas strepera)

Called also: GRAY DUCK

Length 20 to 22 inches.

Male Upper parts have general appearance of brownish gray,
waved and marked with crescent-shaped white and blackish
bars. Top of head streaked with black or reddish brown ;
sides of head and neck pale buff brown, mottled with
darker; lower neck and breast black or very dark gray, each
feather marked with white and resembling scales ; grayish
and white underneath, minutely lined with gray waves;
lower back dusky, changing to black on tail coverts; space
under tail black. Wings chestnut brown, gray, and black,
with white patch framed in velvety black and chestnut.
Wing-linings white. Bill lead color. Feet orange.

Female Smaller than male and darker. Head and throat like
male's; back dark grayish brown, the feathers edged with

River and Pond Ducks

buff; breast and sides buff, thickly spotted with black,
but the female throughout lacks the beautiful waves, scales,
and crescent-shaped marks that adorn her mate. Under-
neath, including under tail-coverts and wing-linings, white.
Little or no chestnut on wings ; speculum or wing-patch
white and gray. Bill dusky, blotched with orange. Imma-
ture birds resemble the mother.

Range Cosmopolitan; nests in North America, from the middle
states northward to the fur countries, but chiefly within
United States limits. Most abundant in Mississippi Valley
region and west ; also northward to the Saskatchewan.

Season Winter resident south of Virginia and southern Illinois ;
winter visitor, most abundant in spring and autumn migra-
tions, north of Washington.

This beautiful species, first discovered by Wilson, on the
shores of Seneca Lake, New York, keeps close by fresh water,
showing no liking whatever for the sea as the black duck does.
In the Atlantic states the gadwall is rare, except as a migratory
visitor inland, while in the sloughs of the Mississippi Valley,
Florida, and the Gulf states, it is abundant in favored spots that
other ducks frequent when the wild rice and field-corn ripen, and
that local sportsmen also revel in. The gadwall's flesh is par-
ticularly fine; its mixed diet of grain and small aquatic animal
food imparting a gamy flavor to it that epicures appreciate.

As this duck is very shy and full of fear, it dozes most of its
time away when the sun is high, securely hidden in the tall
sedges that line the marshy lake or quiet stream ; and emerging
at twilight to feed, to disport itself with its companions, to lift
up its voice in happy bubblings and quacks, to fly from lake to
lake in wedge-shaped companies, it pursues, under cover of par-
tial or even total darkness, the round of pleasures and duties cus-
tomary among all the duck tribe. In nesting and other habits as
well, the gadwall so closely resembles the mallard that a de-
scription of them would be merely a repetition. Even its voice
is very like the mallard's, although the quack is more frequently
repeated; but Gesner must have discovered some unusually
shrill, high-pitched notes in it when he added strepera to the
bird's name.

River and Pond Ducks

Bald pate

(Anas americana)


Length 18 to 20 inches.

Male Crown of head white or buff; sides of head, from the eye
to the nape, have broad band of glossy green, more or
less sprinkled with black; cheeks and throat buff, marked
with fine lines and bars of black; upper breast and sides light
reddish, violet brown (vinaceous), each feather with grayish
edge forming bars across breast. More grayish sides are
finely waved with black; lower parts and wing-linings
white; black under tail. Back grayish brown, more or less
tinged with the same color as breast, and finely marked with
black. Wings have glossy green patch bordered by velvety
black. Bill grayish blue with black tip. Feet and legs

Female Smaller. Head and throat white or cream ; finely barred
with black and without green bands; darker above; upper
breast and sides pale violet, t reddish brown washed with
grayish, interrupted with whitish or gray bars. W. ; like
male's, though the speculum may be indistinct and giay re-
place the white; back grayish brown, the feathers barred
with buff.

Range North America; nests regularly from Minnesota north-
ward, and casually as far as Texas, but not on the Atlantic
coast. Winters in the United States, from southern states
to the Gulf; also in Guatemala, Cuba, and northern South

Season Spring and autumn visitor, and winter resident, October
to April.

The baldpates, keeping just in advance of the teeth of winter
with the large army of other ducks that come flying out of the
north in wedge-shaped battalions when the first ice begins to
form, break their long journey to the Gulf states and the tropics
by a prolonged feast in the wild rice, sedges, and celery in north-
ern waters, both inland and along the coast. A warm reception
of hot shot usually awaits them all along the line, for when celery-
fed or fattened on rice their flesh can scarcely be distinguished
from that of the canvasback duck, and sportsmen and pot-hunters
exhaust all known devices to lure them within gun-range. The
gentleman hidden behind "blinds" on the "duck-shores" of

River and Pond Ducks

Maryland and the sloughs of the interior, and with a flock
of wooden decoys floating near by; or the nefarious market-
gunner in his "sink boat," and with a dazzling reflector behind
the naphtha lamp on the front of his scow, bag by fair means
and foul immense numbers of baldpates every season; yet so
prolific is the bird, and so widely distributed over this continent,
that there still remain widgeons to shoot. That is the fact one
must marvel at when one gazes on the results of a single
night's slaughtering in the Chesapeake country. The pot hunter
who uses a reflector to fascinate the flocks of ducks that, bedded
for the night, swim blindly up to the sides of the boat, moving
silently among them, often kills from twenty to thirty at a shot.
True sportsmen must soon awaken to the necessity for stopping
this wholesale murdering of our finest game birds.

Wbew, whew, whew "a shrilly feeble whistle, precisely such
as the young puddle duck of the barnyard makes in his earliest
vocal efforts " announces the coming of a flock of baldpates
high overhead. Audubon heard them say "sweet, sweet," as if
piped by a flute or hautboy. In spite of their marvelously swift
flight, estimated from one hundred to one hundred and twenty
miles an hour, their stiffened wings constantly beating the air
that whistles by them, they are, nevertheless, often overtaken on
the wing by the duck hawk, their worst enemy next to man.
Diving and swimming under water are their only resorts when
this villain attacks them.

But when living an undisturbed life, the widgeons greatly
prefer that other ducks, notably the canvasbacks, should do their
diving for them. Around the Chesapeake, where great flocks of
wild ducks congregate to feed on the wild celery, the wid-
geons show a not disinterested sociability, for they kindly permit
their friends to make the plunges down into the celery beds,
loosen the tender roots, and bring a succulent dinner to the
surface; then rob them immediately on their reappearance.
Such piracy keeps the ducks in a state of restless excitement,
which is further induced by the whistling of the widgeons' wings
in their confused manner of flight in and around the feeding-
grounds. Here they wheel about in the air; splash and splutter
the water; stand up in it and work their wings; half run, half fly
along the surface, and in many disturbing ways make themselves
a nuisance to the hunter in ambush. They seem especially

River and Pond Ducks

alert and lively. Neither are they so shy as many of their com-
panions ; for when come upon suddenly in the coves of the lake,
they usually row boldly out toward the centre, out of gun range,
and take to wing, if need be, rather than spend their whole day
dozing in the tall grasses on the shores as many others do. Not
that they may never be caught napping on the sand flats or in the
sedges when the sun is high, for all ducks show decided noctur-
nal preferences ; only widgeons are perhaps the boldest of their
associates. Open rivers, lakes, estuaries of large streams, and
bays of the smaller bodies of salt water attract them rather than
the sluggish, choked-up sloughs that shyer birds delight to hide in.
Instead of nesting close beside the water in the sedges, after
the approved duck method, the widgeons commonly go to high,
dry ground to lay from seven to twelve buff-white eggs in a
mere depression among the leaves that the mother lines with
down from her breast. Nests are frequently found half a mile or
more from water. It is supposed, but not as yet proved, that the
mother carries in her bill each tiny duckling to the water, where
it is at home long before it feels so on land or in the air. At
various stages of the bird's development the plumage undergoes
many changes; but aside from those of age and sex, the baldpates
show unusual variability. However, Dr. Coues consoles the
novice with the assurance that "the bird cannot be mistaken
under any conditions; the extensive white of the under parts and
wings is recognizable at gunshot range."

The European Widgeon (Anas penelope) has found its way
across the Atlantic and our continent, for it nests in the Aleutian
Islands as well as in the northern parts of our eastern coast. It
is occasionally met with in the eastern United States; and, al-
though it has a bald pate also, its blackish throat and the reddish
brown on the rest of the head and neck easily distinguish it from
its American prototype.

River and Pond Ducks

Green-winged Teal

(Anas carolinensis)

Length 14 inches. One of the smallest ducks.

Male Head and neck rich chestnut, with a broad band of glossy

freen running from eyes to nape of neck; chin black;
reast light pinkish-brown, spotted with black; upper back
and sides finely marked with waving black and white lines;
lower back dark grayish brown, underneath white. A white
crescent in front of the bend of the wing; wings dull gray,
tipped with buff and with patch or speculum half purplish
black and half rich green. Head slightly subcrested. Bill
black. Feet bluish gray.

Female Less green on wings; no crest; throat white; head and
neck streaked with light reddish brown on dark-brown
ground; mottled brownish and buff above; lower parts
whitish changing to buff on breast and lower neck, which
are clouded with dusky spots.

Range North America at large; nests in Montana, Minnesota,
and other northern states, but chiefly north of the United
States; winters from Virginia and Kansas, south to Cuba,
Honduras, and Mexico.

Season Spring and autumn migratory visitor north of Washing-
ton and Kansas ; more abundant in the interior than on the

Next to the wood duck, this diminutive, exquisitely marked
and colored kinsman is perhaps the handsomest member of its
tribe ; and, next to the merganser, it is said to be the most fleet
of wing as it is of foot, unlike many of its waddling relations;
but epicures declare its delicious flesh is the one characteristic
worth expending superlatives upon. When the teal has fed on
wild oats in the west, or on soaked rice in the fields of Georgia
and Carolina, Audubon declared it is much superior to the glori-
fied canvasback. Nothing about its rankness of flavor when it
has gorged on putrid salmon lying in the creeks in the north-
west, or the maggots they contain, ever creeps into the books;
and yet this dainty little exquisite of the southern rice fields has
a voracious appetite worthy of the mallard, around the salmon
canneries of British Columbia, where the stench from a flock of
teals passing overhead betrays, a taste for high living, no other
gourmand can approve. When clean fed, however, there is no
better table-duck than a teal.


River and Pond Ducks

Among the earliest arrivals from the horde of water-fowl
that follow the food supply from the far north into the United
States every autumn, the green-wings are exceedingly abundant
in the fresh water lakes and ponds of the interior, and less so on
the salt water lagoons and creeks of the coast until frost locks up
the celery, sedges, wild rice, berries, seeds of grasses, tadpoles,
and the various kinds of insects on which they commonly feed.
Then the teals go into winter quarters, and as they pass in small,
densely packed companies overhead, the peculiar reed-like whis-
tling of their swift wings may be plainly heard. Old sportsmen
tell of clouds of ducks, numbering countless thousands, but
they best know why such flights are gone forever from the
United States.

The selfish, dandified drakes, that have spent their summer
putting on an extra suit of handsome feathers and living an idle
life of pleasure while their mates attended to all the nursery duties,
leave them to find their way south as best they may, while they
pursue a separate course. In the spring the teals are, perhaps, the
easiest ducks to decoy. To watch the gallantries and antics of
the drake in the spring, when he proudly swims round and round
his coy little sweetheart, uttering his soft whistle of endearment,
no one would accuse him of total indifference to her later.
Happily, she is self reliant, dutiful to her young, courageous, re-
sourceful. As a brood may consist of from six to sixteen duck-
lings, the mother does not lack company during the autumn
migration, though she must often pay heavy toll to the gunners
in every state she passes through. Were she not among the
most prolific of birds, doubtless the species would be extinct
to-day. Happily this duck is a mark for experts only ; for, with
a spring from the water, it is at once launched in the air on a
flight so rapid that few sportsmen reckon it correctly in taking
aim. When wounded, the teal plunges below the water, or
when pursued by a hawk ; but it rarely, if ever, dives for food,
the "tipping-up" process of securing roots of water plants in
shallow waters answering the purpose. Occasionally one sees
a flock of teals sunning themselves on sandy flats and bogs,
preening their feathers, or dozing in the heat of noon ; then the
hunter picks them off by the dozen at a time; but ordinarily
these birds keep well screened in the grasses at the edges of the
waters until twilight. While, like most other ducks, they are


River and Pond Ducks

particularly active toward night and at dawn, they are not
so shy as many. Farmers often see them picking up corn
thrown about the barnyard; and Mr. Arnold tells in the "Nid-
ologist " of finding nests of the green-winged teals built in tufts
of grass on the sun baked banks along the railroad tracks in
Manitoba, where the workmen constantly passed the brooding
females intent only on keeping warm their large nestful of cream-
white eggs. Nests have been found elsewhere, quite a distance
from water, which would seem scarcely intelligent were not the
teals very good walkers from the first, and less dependent than
others on the food water supplies. In the west one some-
times surprises a brood and its devoted little mother poking about
in the undergrowth for acorns, or for grapes, corn, wheat, and
oats that lie about the cultivated lands at harvest time. Green-
wings are early nesters, and have full fledged young in July, when
the blue-wings and cinnamon teal are still sitting.

Blue-winged Teal

(Anas discors]

Length 15 to 1 6 inches.

Male Head and neck deep gray or lead color with purplish
reflections; black on top; a broad white crescent bordered by
black in front of head ; breast and underneath pale reddish
buff, spotted with dusky gray on the former and barred on
the flanks. Back reddish brown, marked with black and
buff crescents, more greenish near the tail. Shoulders dull
sky blue; wing patch green bordered with white. Bill gray-
ish black. Feet yellowish with dusky webs.

Female Dusky brown marked with buff, with an indistinct white
patch on chin ; sides of the head and neck whitish, finely
marked with black spots except on throat; breast and under-
neath paler than male in winter; wings similar but with less
white. In summer plumage males and females closely re-
semble each other.

Range North America from Alaska and the British fur countries
to Lower California, the West Indies, and South America;
nests from Kansas northward ; winters from Virginia and the
lower Mississippi Valley southward. Most abundant east
of the Rocky Mountains.


River and Pond Ducks

Season More common in the autumn migrations, August, Sep-
tember, and October, along the Atlantic coast states than in
the spring, and always more plentiful in the Mississippi
region than near salt water.

Similar in most of its habits to the green-winged teal, the
blue-winged species appears a trifle less hardy, and is there-
fore, perhaps, the very first duck to come into the United States
in the early autumn and to hurry southward when the first frost
pinches. Tropical winters suit it perfectly, but many birds re-
main in our southern states until spring. Here they forget family
traditions of shyness, when the sun shines brightly, and sit
crowded together basking in its rays on the mud flats and shal-
low lagoons, delighting in the tropical warmth. It is when they
are enjoying such a sun bath that the pot hunter, who has stolen
silently upon them, discharges an ounce of shot in their midst, and
bags more ducks at a time than one who knows how scarce this
fine game bird is, where once it was exceedingly abundant, cares
to contemplate. The old "figure four " traps, to which ducks are
decoyed with rice, still find favor with the market hunter, who
is looking for large returns for his efforts, rather than for sport.
Decoys are all but useless in autumn when the drakes show no
attention to even their mates.

Formerly these teals were very common indeed in New Eng-
land, the middle Atlantic and the middle states, whereas for many
seasons past the same old story is heard there from the sports-
men: "There is a very poor flight this year." It is likely to
grow poorer and poorer in future unless the ducks are given
better protection. We must now go to the inaccessible sloughs,
grown with wild rice, in Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and west-
ward, or to the lagoons of the lower Mississippi Valley to find the
two commoner species of teals in abundance. In such luxuriant
feeding-grounds, where they associate closely, long, wedge-
shaped strings of ducks rise from the sedges at any slight alarm,
and shoot through the air overhead on whistling wings. We
are accustomed to seeing small, densely massed flocks in the east
when the birds are migrating southward. The blue-winged
teals, after their small size is noted, can always be distinguished
by the white crescent between the bill and eyes, conspicuous at
a good distance. "When they alight, they drop down suddenly
among the reeds in the manner of the snipe or woodcock," says

1 06

River and Pond Ducks

Nuttall, instead of hovering suspiciously over the spot for awhile,
like the mallards. They are silent birds, and, though not always
actually so, their low, feeble quack, rapidly repeated, is so dim-
inutive that they get little credit for a vocal performance.


(Spatula clypeata)


Length 18 to 20 inches.

Male Head and neck dusky, glossy bluish green; back brown,
paler on the edges of the feathers, and black on lower back
and tail ; patches on sides of base of tail, lower neck, upper
breast, and some wing feathers white; lower breast and
underneath reddish chestnut; shoulders grayish blue; wing
patch green. Bill longer than head, twice as wide at end
as at base, and rounded over like a spoon; teeth at the sides
in long, slender plates. Tail short, consisting of fourteen
sharply pointed feathers. Feet small and red.

Female Smaller, darker, and duller than male. Head and neck
streaked with buff, brown, and black; throat yellowish
white; back dark olive brown, the feathers lighter on the
edges ; underparts yellowish brown indistinctly barred with
dusky ; wings much like male's, only less vivid. Immature
birds have plumage intermediate between their parents';
their shoulders are slaty gray and the wing patch shows
little or no green.

Range "Northern hemisphere; in America more common in the
interior; breeds regularly from Minnesota northward and
locally as far south as Texas; not known to breed in the
Atlantic States ; winters from southern Illinois and Virginia
southward to northern South America." (Chapman.)

Season Winter visitor in the south ; spring and autumn migrant
north of Washington ; more abundant in autumn migrations
in the east.

However variable the plumage of this duck may be in the
sexes and at different seasons, its strangely shaped bill at once
identifies it, no other representatives of the spoonbill genus of
ducks having found their way to North American waters. Ap-
parently the shoveler is guided by touch rather than sight, as it
pokes about on the muddy shores of ponds or tips up to probe in
the shallow waters for the small shellfish, insects, roots of aquatic


River and Pond Ducks

plants, and small fish it feeds on. It is not a strict vegetarian,
however delicate and delicious its flesh may be at the proper
season. There are many sportsmen who would not pass a
shoveler to shoot a canvasback.

North of the United States, where these ducks chiefly have
their summer home, we hear of the jaunty, parti-colored drake,
gayly decked out for the nesting season, when he is truly beau-
tiful to behold, and charmingly attentive to his more sombre
mate. By the time the autumn migration has brought them
over our borders, however, he has cast off many of his fine feath-
ers, together with his gallant manners, and closely resembles the
duck in all but character. He is ever a selfish idler, while she
attends to all the drudgery of making the nest in the marshy bor-
der of the lake; of incubating from six to fourteen pale greenish
buff eggs during four weeks of the closest confinement ; of caring
for the large brood and teaching the ducklings all the family arts.

Shovelers are expert swimmers and divers, though they "tip
up" rather than dive for food; they are good walkers also, when

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 8 of 29)