Neltje Blanchan.

Birds that hunt and are hunted; life histories of one hundred and seventy birds of prey, game birds and water fowls online

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we see them in the corn fields, and almost as swift on the wing as
a teal. Took, took; took, took, that answers as a love song and the
expression of whatever passing emotion the ordinarily silent birds
may voice, was likened by Nuttall to "a rattle, turned by small
jerks in the hand."

Like most other ducks of this subfamily, the shoveler is not
common in the northern Atlantic states. Salt water never
attracts it; but, on the contrary, it rejoices in lakes, sluggish
rivers and streams, isolated grass-grown ponds, and even pud-
dles made by the rain. In the sloughs and lagoons of the lower
Mississippi Valley it is still fairly common all winter, however
much it is persecuted by the gunners.

"These birds migrate across the country to the western
plains where they nest," says Chamberlain, "from North Dakota
and Manitoba northward, ranging as far as Alaska." In such
remote places, where the hand of the law rarely reaches the
nefarious pot hunter, he happily finds the ducks in the very prime
of toughness.

1 08

River and Pond Ducks


(Dafila acuta)


Length Male, 25 to 30 inches, according to development of tail.
Female, 22 inches.

Male Head and throat rich olive brown, glossed with green and
purple; blackish on back of neck; two white lines, begin-
ning at the crown, border the blackish space, and become
lost in the white of the breast and under parts. Underneath
faintly, the sides more strongly, and the back heavily marked
with waving black lines; back darkest; shoulders black;
wing coverts brownish gray, the greater ones tipped with
reddish brown; speculum or wing patch purplish green;
central tail feathers very long and greenish black. Bill and
feet slate colored.

Female Tail shorter, but with central feathers sharply pointed.
Upper parts mottled gray and yellowish and dark brown;
breast pale yellow brown freckled with dusky ; whitish be-
neath, the sides marked with black and white; only traces
of the speculum in green spots on brown area of wing; tail
with oblique bars. In nesting-plumage the drake resembles
the female except that his wing markings remain unchanged.

Range North America at large, nesting north of Illinois to the
Arctic Ocean ; winters from central part of the United States
southward to Panama and West Indies.

Season Chiefly a spring and autumn migrant, or more rarely a
winter visitor, in the northern part of the United States; a
winter resident in the south.

No one could possibly mistake the long-tailed drake in fall
plumage for any other species; but the tyro who would not
confound his dusky mate with several other obscure looking
ducks, must take note of her lead colored bill and legs, broad,
sharply pointed tail feathers, and dusky under wing coverts.
The pintails carry themselves with a stately elegance that faintly
suggests the coming swan. Their necks, which are unusually
long and slender for a duck; their well poised heads and trim,
long bodies, unlike the squat figure of some of their kindred;
their sharp wings and pointed tails, give them both dignity and
grace in the air, on the land, or in the water, for they appear
equally at home in the three elements.

But of such charms as they possess they are exceedingly

River and Pond Ducks

chary. In the wet prairie lands and grass-grown, shallow waters
which they delight in, hunters find these birds the first to take
alarm troublesomely vigilant, noisy chatterers, with a very small
bump of curiosity that discourages tolling or decoys ; nervous and
easily panicstricken. At the first crack of the gun they shoot
upward in a confused, struggling mass that gives all too good a
chance for a pot shot. If they had learned to scatter them-
selves in all directions, to dive under water or into the dense
sedges when alarmed, as some ducks do, there would be many
more pintails alive to-day ; but usually they practise none of these
protections. There are men living who recall the times, never
to return, when ducks resorted literally by the million to the
Kankakee and the Calumet regions; and pintails in countless
multitudes swelled the hordes that thronged out of the north in
the autumn migration. In spite of their enormous fertility, their
strong, rapid flight, their swimming and diving powers, their
shyness and readiness to take alarm in spite of the lavish pro-
tection that nature has given them, and of their economic value
to man there are great tracts of country where these once abun-
dant game birds have been hunted to extinction.

From the west and the north sportsmen follow the ducks
into the lower Mississippi Valley region and our southern sea-
board states, where the majority winter. Widgeons and black
ducks often associate with them there. The canvasback, the
redhead, the black duck, the teals, and the mallard, while
counted greater delicacies, by no means attract the exclusive
attention of the pot hunter when pintails are in sight. Given a
good cook and a young, fat, tender duck, even Macaulay's school-
boy could tell the result.

It is an amusing sight to see a flock of drakes feeding in
autumn, when they chiefly live apart by themselves. Tipping
the fore part of their bodies downward while, with their long
necks distended, they probe the muddy bottoms of the lake for
the vegetable matter and low animal forms they feed upon, their
long tails stand erect above the surface, like so many bulrushes
growing in the water. They seem able to stand on their
heads in this fashion indefinitely; a spasmodic working of their
feet in the air from time to time testifying only to the difficulty a
bird may be having to loosen some much desired root.

From eight to twelve yellowish olive or pale greenish white

River and Pond Ducks

eggs are laid near the water, but in dry, grassy land, where the
mother, who bears all the family cares, forms a slight depression
in the soil, under some protecting bush, if may be, and lines it
with feathers from her breast.

Wood Duck

(Aix sponsa)


Length 17 to 19 inches.

Male Crown of head, elongated crest, and cheeks golden, metal-
lic green, with purple iridescence; a white line from base
of bill over the eye, and another behind it, reach to the end
of crest; throat, and a band from it up sides of head, white;
breast rich reddish chestnut spotted with white; white un-
derneath, shading into yellowish gray on the sides, which are
finely marked with waving lines of black; strong black and
white markings on long feathers at back of the flanks on the
sides. Upper parts dark, iridescent and purplish, greenish
brown; a white crescent and a black one in front of wings,
which are glossed with purple and green and tipped with
white; wing patch purplish blue edged with white; spot at
either side of base of tail, chestnut purple. Bill pinkish, red
at the base, black underneath and on ridge and tip. Legs

Female Smaller. Crest and wing markings more restricted;
head dusky with purplish crown ; throat, patch around eye,
and line backward, white; breast and sides grayish brown,
streaked with buff; underneath white; back olive brown
glossed with greenish and purple. Young drake resembles
the female.

Range "North America at large, but chiefly in the United States,
breeding throughout its range, wintering chiefly in the
south." (Coues.)

Season Summer resident.

This most beautiful of all our ducks, if not of all American
birds, in the opinion of many, that Linnaeus named the bride
(sponsa), although it is the groom that is particularly festive in
rich apparel and flowing, veil-like crest, confines itself to this
continent exclusively ; neither has it a counterpart in Europe or
Asia as most of our other ducks have. It is an independent little

River and Pond Ducks

creature with a set way of doing things quite apart, many of them,
from family traditions. For instance, it nests in trees rather than
on the ground and walks about the limbs like any song bird; it
never quacks, but has a musical call all its own ; the lovers do
not cease to be such after the incubation begins to nam.e only a
few of the wood duck's peculiarities.

Arriving from the south, already mated, in April, a couple
prepare to spend the summer with us by selecting a home im-
mediately; an abandoned hole where an owl, a woodpecker, a
squirrel, or a blackbird has once nested, answers admirably;
or, if such a one be not available, the twigs, grasses, leaves, and
feathers that would have lined an excavation are woven into a
loose, bulky nest placed among the branches. Deep woods near
water, or belted waterways far away from the sea coast, are
preferred localities.

How the plump, squat, little mother can work her way in
and out through the small entrance to the hole where, for four
weary weeks, she sits on from eight to fourteen ivory eggs, is
a mystery. It is usually far too narrow for her, one would think,
and yet she evidently has no desire to make it larger, as she easily
might do by pecking at the soft, decayed wood. The handsome
drake on guard in a tree near by calls peet, peet, o-eek, o-eek to
encourage her or warn her of any threatened danger, to which
a faint, musical response, like the pewee's plaint, comes from the
hole where she sits brooding. Many endearments pass between
the couple, but there is no division of labor, for no self respecting
drake would possibly allow his affection to overrule his dis-
inclination for work. The duck attends to all household duties,
evidently flattered and content with the vocal expressions of her
lord's regard and his standing around and looking handsome,
which cost him nothing. The constant moving of his tail from
side to side, when perching, is his most energetic effort.

When the fluffy little ducklings finally emerge from the shell,
it is the mother who has the task of carrying the numerous brood
to water. Often the nest is in a tree overhanging a lake, a quiet
stream, or pond, in which case she has only to tumble the babies
out of their cradle into the water, where they are instantly at
home. But if the tree stands back from the water's edge, one
by one she must carry them in her bill and set them afloat,
while the father swims around them on guard, proud of them,

River and Pond Ducks

no doubt, proud of his energetic busy mate, but doubtless most
proud of himself. Wood ducks become exceedingly attached to
their home. They return year after year to the same hole to nest,
regardless of approaching civilization, the diversion of a water
course for factory purposes, the whistle of the locomotive. It is
the gunner alone who drives them to a more secluded asylum.
On the outskirts of villages these ducks often fearlessly enter the
barnyard to pick up the poultry's grain ; and there are plenty of
instances where they have been successfully domesticated.

In July the drake withdraws to moult his bridal garments,
leaving his overworked mate to lead the ducklings about on land
and water in quest of seeds of plants, wild oats or rice, roots
of aquatic vegetables, acorns, and numerous kinds of insects.
The small coleoptera that skips and flies so nimbly along the
surface of still inland waters, among the sedges and the lily pads,
is ever a favorite morsel, a fact that testifies to the expert swim-
ming of this duck. By September the drake comes out from his
exile clad in plumage resembling the duck's, but still more bril-
liant than hers, and retaining the white throat markings. As the
young birds have been gradually shedding their down through
the summer and putting on feathers like their mother's, the family
likeness in each individual is now most marked. Wood ducks,
if ever gregarious, are so in autumn, when flocks begin to assem-
ble early for the southern migration; but at the north we see
only family parties preparing for the journeys that are made at
twilight and by night, although in the south we hear of com-
panies sometimes numbering a hundred or more. Unhappily,
their sweet, tender flesh is in a demand exceeding the legitimate
supply in every state they pass through.

''The wood duck is far too beautiful a bird to be killed for
food. Its economic value is too small to be worth a moment's
consideration," says Mr. Shields. "I would as soon think of
killing and eating a Baltimore oriole or a scarlet tanager as a
wood duck, and I hope to see the day when the latter will be
protected all the year round by the laws of all the states in the
Union and of all the provinces of Canada."


(Subfamily Fuligulince)


(Ayfhyra americana)


Length 19 to 20 inches.

Male Well rounded head and throat, bright reddish chestnut,
with coppery reflection; lower neck, lower back, and fore
parts of body above and below, black; rest of the back,
sides, and shoulders waved with black and white lines of
equal width, that give the parts a silvery gray aspect. Wings
brownish gray, minutely dotted with white; wing patch
ashy, bordered with black; wing linings chiefly white like the
under parts. Bill, which is less than two inches long, dull
blue, with a black band at end. Legs and feet grayish brown.

Female Upper parts dull grayish brown; darker on lower back,
the feathers edged with buff or ashy, giving them a mottled
appearance; forehead wholly brown; line behind eye and
cheeks reddish; upper throat white; neck buff; breast and
sides grayish brown washed with buff, and shading into
white underneath ; an indistinct bluish gray band across end
of bill.

Range North America at large; nesting from California and
Minnesota northward, and wintering south of Virginia to
West Indies.

Season Spring and autumn migrant, or winter visitor.

Caterers not up in ornithology very often have this common
wild duck of the market stalls palmed off on them, at a fancy
price, for canvasbacks; and the tyro on the duck shores of the
Chesapeake and our inland lakes just as frequently confuses these
two species. Here are a few aids to identification offered in the
interest of science, and not because any sympathy need be felt for
one who is compelled to eat a redhead, the peer of any table duck.

The bill of the canvasback is a full half inch longer than that

Sea and Bay Ducks

of the redhead. The longer, narrower head of the former slants
gradually backward from the bill, while that of the latter rises
more abruptly, giving the duck a full, round forehead. The
plumage on the head and neck of the redhead is decidedly rufous,
without any black, whereas the canvasback is rufous brown on
those parts, except on the chin and crown, which are blackish.
The white lines on the almost white back of the canvasback are
wider than those of the redhead, whose black and white waves
are of equal width, and look silvery. Usually canvasbacks are
larger, heavier birds, but not always. Finally, the females may
be distinguished by the difference in their backs, the canvas-
back duck having wavy white lines across a grayish brown
ground, while the redhead is dull mottled brown and buff
above. Unscrupulous dealers have a trick of pulling out the tell-
tale feathers, however, which leaves the housekeeper only the
shape of the duck's head and bill to guide her choice and protect
her purse. As both these species frequent the same bodies of
water, constant opportunities for comparisons are offered to that
very small minority, alas, who are more interested in the study
of the living duck than in the flavor of one roasted.

When the ice begins to form at the far north, where the red-
heads have spent the summer, great flocks come down to us,
eschewing New England with unaccountable perversity, and
taking up a temporary residence in the smaller lakes that drain
into the Great Lakes and the larger western rivers, before de-
scending to the Chesapeake shores the duck's paradise and
the lagoons of our southern states, where they pass the winter.
It must not be for a moment supposed that because this group of
birds is called sea and bay ducks they are found exclusively
around salt water. On the contrary, many are more abundant in
the interior than along the coast. The classification has reference to
the lobe, or web, of these birds' feet, which are most fully equipped
for swimming and diving. The redhead and all its immediate
kin plunge through deep water. Those that feed in the great
beds of wild celery, or vallisneria, gain a peculiar sweetness and
delicacy of flesh. In regions where this eel-grass does not grow
as in California, for example and the redhead must live upon
fish, lizards, tadpoles, and the coarser aquatic vegetables, it patronage whatever from epicures; whereas in the
Mississippi Valley and the Chesapeake, where this "celery"

Sea and Bay Ducks

grows most abundantly, gunners shoot thousands on thousands
to supply the demand.

A great troop of redheads flying in a close body along the
coast in autumn makes a roar like thunder, as their long, strong
wings beat the air in unison. Alighting on the waters above
their feeding ground, they are at first restless, alert, constantly
wheeling about in the air to reconnoitre, before settling down to
enjoy themselves with an easy mind. If they have been decoyed
to the duck shores at daybreak by gunners screened behind
blinds, or tolled within range, a volley welcomes them ; the sur-
vivors of the flock quickly outrace sight itself; the wounded es-
cape by diving; and well-trained dogs, plunging through the icy
water, bring in to shore the tax that has been levied on the
"bunch." Sink boats and reflectors, employed by market shoot-
ers who turn sport to slaughter, must soon be suppressed if
there is to be any sport left a doubtful possibility at the present
rate of decrease.

In the sloughs and shallow waters of the interior too shallow
for diving the redheads dabble about like any pond ducks, and
tip up one extremity while the other probes the muddy bottom
for food. It is in such marshy waters at the north that they
build a nest among the rank herbage close to shore. Here it
sometimes rests on the water, or else very close beside it; for
these ducks are poor walkers, and the mother chooses to glide off
the large nestful of buff eggs directly into her natural element.
As usual, the drake keeps at a distance when there is any work
to be done. Their call note is a sort of hiss, suggesting their
ancestors, the reptiles, on the one hand, and their immediate kin,
the geese, on the other.


( Ay tiny r a -vallisneria.)


Length 21 inches ; generally a little larger than the redhead.

Male Head and neck dark reddish brown, almost black on
crown and chin. A broad band of black encircles breast and
upper back; rest of the back and generally wing coverts sil-
very gray, almost white, the plumage being white, broken up
with fine wavy black lines often broken into dots across

Sea and Bay Ducks

the feathers; white underneath; sides dusky; pointed tail
feathers darkest slate. Bill, longer than head and shaped like
a goose's, from 2.50 to 3 inches in length. Eyes red; feet
bluish gray.

Female Head, neck, collar around upper back and breast, cinna-
mon or snuff brown; lighter on the throat; back and sides
grayish brown marked with waving white lines; white

Range North America at large, nesting from the Rocky Moun-
tains and the upper tier of our western states to Alaska and
the farthest British possessions, and wintering in the United
States, especially in the Chesapeake and middle Texas regions,
southward to Central America.

Season Autumn and spring migrant, and winter resident.

"There is little reason for squealing in barbaric joy over this
over-rated and generally underdone bird," says Dr. Coues; "not
one person in ten thousand can tell it from any other duck on the
table, and only then under the celery circumstances." Yet it is
this darling of the epicures that, with the stewed terrapin of
Maryland kitchens, has conferred on Baltimore the title of the
"gastronomic capital" of our country. There, where it is
brought to market fattened on the wild celery in the Chesapeake,
it is in its prime a tender, delicately flavored duck, but not one
whit more delicious than the canvasbacks taken in Wisconsin,
for example, where the celery beds cover hundreds of miles; or
the redheads that feed in the same place ; or, indeed, than many of
the river and pond ducks unknown to the gourmands of Mary-
land. Redheaded ducks are constantly palmed off at fancy prices
by unscrupulous dealers on uninformed caterers, who suffer only
in pocket-book by the deception ; but the novice who wishes to
get what he is paying for is referred to the preceding biography
to learn the distinguishing marks of these close associates.

After all it is the food it lives upon, and not its species, that
is responsible for any duck's flavor. Canvasbacks have an im-
mense range, and where no wild celery grows, and they must
harden their muscles in the active pursuit of fish, lizards, and
other animal diet, they become as tough and rank as a merganser,
ignored and even despised members of the duck clan these pre-
cieuses ridicules.

The wild celery, or vallisnerta spiralis, which is no celery at
all, but an eel grass growing entirely beneath the water, took its


Sea and Bay Ducks

name from Antonio Vallisneri, an Italian naturalist, and it was
passed on as a specific name to the canvasback. When fattened
upon it a brace of these ducks often weigh twelve pounds. To
secure its buds and roots, the only parts they eat, they must dive
and remain a long time under water, only to be robbed on their
return many times by the bold baldpates that snatch the celery
from their bills the instant their heads appear above water. Sev-
eral duck farms have been recently established where the common
plebeian domestic duck is fed on celery and fattened for the
market. Then this vulgar bird is served up at hotels and res-
taurants as canvasback, at from three to five dollars a plate, and
no one, not even the epicure, can tell the difference.

Exceedingly shy, wary, restless scouts, the canvasbacks are
decoyed within gun range only by the sportsman's subtlest wiles.
It is no part of the plan of this book to assist in the already rapid
extermination of our game birds by detailing the manifold schemes
devised for their capture, which when fully investigated vastly
increase our respect for a bird that can save its neck in passing
through this land of liberty. This and other diving ducks that
wear thick feathered chest protectors may fall to the water,
stunned by the sportsman's shot, but quickly revive, and escape
under water; while the retriever, nonplussed by their disappear-
ance, is blamed for his stupidity.

One would imagine our ornithologists were writing cook-
books, to read their accounts of this duck whose habits have been
little studied beyond its feeding grounds in the United States.
Its life history is still incomplete, although its nesting habits are
supposed to be identical with those of the redhead, and its buff
eggs are known to have a bluish tinge. It is in death that the
canvasback is glorified.

Greater Scaup Duck

(Aytbyra marila nearctica)


Length 17.50 to 20 inches.

Male Black on upper parts, with greenish and purplish reflec-
tions on head ; lower back and about shoulders waved with

Sea and Bay Ducks

black and white; under parts white, with black waving
bars on sides of body and near the tail; speculum, or wing
mirror, white. Bill dull blue, broad, and heavy ; dark, slate-
colored feet.

Female A white space around base of bill, but other fore parts
rusty, the rusty feathers edged with buff on the breast; back
and shoulders dusky, and the sides dark grayish brown,
finely marked with waving white lines; under parts and
speculum white.

Range North America at large; nesting inland, chiefly from
Manitoba northward; winters from Long Island to South

Season Common spring and autumn migrant, and winter resi-
dent south of New England and the Great Lakes.

If the number of popular names that get attached to a bird is
an indication of man's intimacy with it, then the American scaup
is among the most familiar game birds on the continent. It is still
a mooted question whether the word scaup refers to the broken
shell fish which this duck feeds upon when wild celery, insects,

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 9 of 29)