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Citizen Bird Scenes from Bird-Life in Plain English for Beginners online

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seed-vessels, fine shavings, and sometimes bits of colored paper and
worsted, and half hang from the crotch of a small branch with a nice
little umbrella of leaves to cover Madam's head. There she sits peeping
out, not a bit shy if she feels that your intentions toward her are
kindly. I have often found these nests in the orchard, on branches only
a few feet from the ground, and I have also found them high up in the
maples by the attic window.

"The Vireo does not stop work at noon when the field hands lie under the
apple trees, with their dinner pails beside them. No, he only works and
talks faster, keeping one eye on the home branch, and this is what he
says, stopping between every sentence: 'I know it - I made it - Would you
think it? - Mustn't touch it - Shouldn't like it - If you do it - I'll know
it - You'll rue it!'"

"He was talking exactly like that this morning," said Dodo. "Will the
nests last after they are empty, Uncle Roy, so we can find some?"

"Yes, surely; these nests are very strong and firm, often lasting a
whole year."

"I know it - I made it! - Would you think it?" called a musical voice from
the wood.

"Why, he is at it yet," said Rap; "I think 'The Talker' would be a fine
name for him." "So it would - and more polite than 'The Preacher,' as
some call him who think he is a trifle too prosy in his remarks. One of
his brothers, whose eyes are white instead of red, and who lives in the
bushes instead of high woods, is called 'The Politician' from his
fondness for newspapers - not that he can read them, of course, but he
likes to paper his nest with clippings from them, which is his way of
making a scrap-book."

The Red-eyed Vireo

Length about six inches.

Upper parts olive-green, with a white line over the eye, and gray cap
with a black border.

Under parts white, shaded with greenish on the sides.

A Summer Citizen of North America east of the Pacific States, and a
hard-working member of the guild of Tree Trappers.



"I thought you would tell about my beautiful red bird next," interrupted
Dodo. "Why do we want to hear about this bird if he lives so far north?"

"Your bird will come later on, little girl. Nat and Rap must each have
their turn before it comes to you again; besides, this Shrike is a sort
of cousin to the Vireos by right of his hooked beak, and you know I am
trying to place our birds somewhat in their regular family order."

Poor Dodo felt ashamed to have seemed selfish and interrupted

"Some winter or early spring day, when the woods are bare and birds are
very scarce, you will look into a small tree and wonder what that gray
and black bird, who is sitting there so motionless, can be. He is too
small for a Hawk, though there is something hawk-like about his head. He
is altogether too large for a Chickadee; not the right shape for a
Woodpecker; and after thus thinking over the most familiar winter birds,
you will find that you only know what he is _not_.

[Illustration: Northern Shrike.]

"Suddenly he spreads his wings and swoops down, seizing something on or
near the ground - a mouse perhaps, or a small bird - let us hope one of
the detestable English Sparrows. Or else you may see this same bird, in
the gray and black uniform, peep cautiously out of a bush and then skim
along close above the ground, to secure the field-mouse he has been
watching; for the guild of Wise Watchers catch their prey in both of
these ways, and most of them are cannibal birds."

"What is a cannibal bird?" asked Dodo. "I forget. I know that real
cannibals are people that eat other people. Do these birds eat people?"

"They eat birds and other small animals," said Rap. "Don't you

"Why, of course I do," said Dodo. "But if Shrikes eat birds, aren't they
very bad Citizens?"

"I do not wonder that you think so, my lassie; and so they would be if
they ate birds only; but the Shrike earns his right to be thought a good
Citizen by devouring mice and many kinds of insects, like beetles, which
injure orchards and gardens. The comparatively few birds that he
destroys are mostly seed-eaters - not the most valuable kinds to the

"In fact, the Shrike is especially useful in helping us to drive out the
greedy, quarrelsome English Sparrow. This disreputable tramp not only
does no work for his taxes - he hates honest work, like all vagrants
- but destroys the buds of trees and plants, devours our grain crops,
and drives away the industrious native birds who are good Citizens; so
the Wise Men, who have tried the Sparrow's case, say that he is a very
bad bird, who ought to suffer the extreme penalty of the law.

"For this reason we must forgive the Shrike if he takes a few other
birds when he is hungry and in a hurry. He has a strange habit which has
earned for him the name of Butcher Bird. If at any time he secures more
food than he needs for his immediate use, he puts it by to keep in 'cold
storage' by hanging it on the frozen twigs of a tree or thorn bush.
Heart of Nature has doubtless taught him this habit through hard
experience. Where the Shrike spends his winters, the food-supply is
variable; it may snow for days and days, when he can find nothing to
eat; so he has learned to store up provisions when the hunting is good,
and of course such a thrifty bird may sometimes save up more than he
really needs.

"You may know this Shrike on sight without hearing him sing - and perhaps
you do not expect a cannibal bird to be a singer. But in late March and
early April, when he is about to take his homeward journey to the North,
he often warbles beautifully, and even brings in some mocking notes,
until you would think that a Catbird, Thrasher, or Mockingbird must have
wandered from the South too soon; and if you ever happen to see a Shrike
and a Mocker close together, you may mistake one for the other, they
look so much alike at a little distance."

"I never knew that there were nice birds around in winter," said Nat. "I
thought all the country was good for then, was for coasting and skating!
I wish I could stay here a whole year, Uncle Roy."

"Stranger things have happened," said the Doctor, looking at Olive with
a twinkle in his eye that the children did not see.

The Great Northern Shrike

Length about ten inches.

Upper parts bluish-gray, with a broad black stripe along the side of the
head to behind the eye. Black wings with a large white spot on each.
Black tail with white tips to the outside feathers.

Lower parts grayish-white, faintly barred with darker. A great strong
beak, hooked like a Hawk's.

Only a Winter Visitor in the United States - a Summer Citizen of the far

Belongs both to the Ground Gleaners and the Wise Watchers.



"This is the bird, Nat, that you saw in the cedar tree, where you said
it was 'sitting about doing nothing,'" continued the Doctor.

"The reason of this seeming idleness is, that he belongs to the small
group of birds who do not nest until June, and hereabouts rarely begin
their homes before the middle of that month. Waxwings are very gentle,
affectionate birds; before the nesting season, and after their families
are able to take care of themselves, they wander about in flocks of
sometimes thirty or forty, keeping close together, both when they fly
and when they take their seats. They spend most of the time in the trees
where they feed, whispering to one another in their quiet way, and you
will very seldom see them on the ground.

"Your best chance to watch them is either before the leaves are out or
after they have fallen, when a flock will sometimes sit for half an hour
in a bare tree, exchanging civilities, stroking each other's feathers,
and passing food around. This trait has given them the reputation of
being the most polite birds in all Birdland. One will find a dainty
morsel and offer it to his next neighbor, who passes it
on - hunt-the-slipper fashion - until some one makes up his mind to eat
it, or returns it to its original owner. All the while such a pleasant
lunch is going on, the amiable birds make complimentary remarks to one
another about their dress - how very handsome is one's long pointed
topknot, what a becoming yellow border another's tail has, and how
particularly fine are the coral-red bangles on the wings of a
third - which is much better than if they should pick each other to
pieces and talk about 'frumps' under their breath.

"Some people have complained that the Cedar Waxwing eats cherries, and
have given him the name of 'Cherry Bird'; but the Wise Men say that he
really eats very few cherries or other garden fruits, more than half of
his food being wild berries, such as those of the evergreen juniper we
commonly call 'cedar.'

[Illustration: Cedar Waxwing]

"He may be called one of the best of neighbors; for, besides feeding his
young on many different kinds of destructive insects, he eats cutworms
and the wicked beetles which destroy so many grand old elm trees. And
you know it is always nice to have polite neighbors."

The Cedar Waxwing.

Length about seven inches.

Upper parts quiet Quaker brown, very smooth and satiny, with a fine
long, pointed crest on the head.

Rich velvety black about the beak and in a line through the eye.

A yellow band across end of tail, and some little points like red
sealing-wax on the inner wing-feathers, from which it takes the name

A Citizen of North America from the Fur Countries southward, visiting
all but the most southern of the United States.

Belonging both to the Tree Trappers and Fruit Sowers.



"'Rap has been watching the Barn Swallows," continued the Doctor, after
the children had been over to the cedar belt to see if the flock of
polite birds were there still. "He thinks there are a great many cousins
in the Swallow family, but can't tell them apart.

"There are ten species of North American Swallows, four of which are
very familiar birds in all parts of the United States. These are the
Purple Martin; Barn Swallow; Tree Swallow; and Bank Swallow.

"As a family it is easy to name the Swallows from their way of flying.
All are officers who rank high in the guild of Sky Sweepers, being
constantly in the air seizing their insect food on the wing; thus they
kill all sorts of flies, flying ants, small winged beetles, midges, and
mosquitoes. They have lithe and shapely bodies, strong, slender wings,
wide mouths, and flat, broad bills coming to a sharp point, which makes
it easy for them to secure whatever they meet in the air. So swift and
sure is their flight that they can feed their newly flown nestlings in
mid air; but their feet are small and weak, so that in perching they
usually choose something small and easy to grasp, like a telegraph wire.

"Though they nest in all parts of the country, some species going to
the Fur Countries, as far north as any trees grow, yet they all seek a
very warm climate for their winter home, because it is only in such
places that the insects of the air are found. The distance, therefore,
between the summer and winter homes of the Swallow family is very great,
and these brave little birds are wonderful travellers.

"They are so swift on the wing that they do not fear to fly in the
day-time, and so escape a great many of the accidents that overtake
birds who travel by night. They come to the middle parts of the United
States during the month of April, and start on their southward journey
during late September and early October.

"After mating they either choose separate nesting places, or keep
together in colonies. In early autumn they gather in great flocks along
the borders of rivers, ponds, and lakes, often also on sea beaches,
where they fly to and fro, as if strengthening their wings for the long
flight they intend to take. It has been recently discovered by the Wise
Men that these birds, who had been supposed to eat nothing but insects,
feed at this time upon the same bayberries of which the Yellow-rumped
Warbler is so fond; and that is one reason why they stay by the sandy
wastes where these bushes grow. But no doubt Rap could have told us
that, if we had asked him about it. Another reason for lingering near
water is, that winged insects fly about wet places later in the season
than they do in dry ones."

"But you have left out the Chimney Swallow," said Nat; "and there are
plenty of them all about everywhere." "I have not left him out. Have
you forgotten that he does not belong to the Swallow family? Though he
looks like a Swallow and flies like one, the Wise Men know that he is
not a song bird, and have put him where he belongs - with the Birds that
Croak and Call, next to the Hummingbird and Nighthawk. They call him the
Chimney Swift, because he flies so fast, and you must always give him
his right name.

"If you write very carefully in your little books the description of our
four common Swallows, you will not find it difficult to name them when
you see them. We will begin with the largest - the Purple Martin."

"Why is it called 'Martin'?" asked Rap. "Did somebody named Martin find
it, as Mr. Wilson found the Thrush they named after him?"

"No, my boy, the name comes from a Latin word, meaning 'warlike' or
'martial,' because in the Old World certain Swallows there called
Martins were considered good fighters, and very brave in driving away
Hawks and other cannibal birds. Don't you remember that Mars was the God
of War in classic mythology, and haven't you heard soldiers complimented
on their fine _martial_ appearance?"

The Purple Martin

Length seven and a half inches.

Upper parts shining blue-black, not quite so glossy on the wings and
forked tail.

Under parts the same as the upper in the male, but grayish-white in the
female and young ones.

Song rich and musical, of two or three flute-like notes. Nest made of a
few leaves or straws, in a bird-box when it is provided - otherwise in a
hollow tree. Eggs white, without any spots.

A good Summer Citizen and a favorite everywhere; but for many reasons it
is growing scarcer every year. The English Sparrow is one of its
greatest enemies, and not only drives it from its nesting-boxes, but
attacks the young birds.

A member of the guild of Sky Sweepers.

[Illustration: Purple Martin 1. Male 2. Female]

The Barn Swallow

Length six to seven inches.

Upper parts shining steel-blue, but the face buff.

Under parts rich buff, brick-red on the throat, where there is also a
steel-blue collar.

Tail very long and deeply forked, with the side-feathers narrow, and
some white spots on them.

Song a musical laugh, heard when the birds fly low over meadows and

Nest a sort of bracket, made of little mud balls and straw stuck on a
beam in a hayloft. Eggs white, with plenty of reddish-brown spots.

A Summer Citizen in most of the United States.

A Sky Sweeper of the very first rank.

[Illustration: Barn Swallow.]

"Barney is a charming neighbor, who should be welcome in every
home - sociable, musical, and very useful in destroying the flies and
gnats that worry horses and cattle. Though it builds its first nest in
May, it often brings out its last brood in August; thus during its long
nesting season consuming a very large share of insects, and proving
itself a kind friend to the cows at a time when flies are most

The Tree Swallow.


Length six inches.

Upper parts sparkling green, with darker wings and tail, the latter but
little forked.

Under parts snow-white.

A sweet, twittering song.

Nests in the hollows of dead trees, usually in old Woodpeckers' holes,
but occasionally in bird-boxes. Eggs pure white.

[Illustration: Tree Swallow.]

A good Citizen of the United States, but more shy than the Martin and
Barn Swallow; these two often return, year after year, to some favorite
nesting place, but the Tree Swallow is not so reliable.

A Sky Sweeper.

The Bank Swallow


The smallest Swallow, only five inches long.

Upper parts dusty brown, darker on the wings, and tail forked a little,
like the Tree Swallow's. Under parts white, with a brown band across
the breast.

Song a sort of giggle - like some little girl's we know.

Nests many together in holes in a clay or loamy bank, lined with
feathers and straw. Eggs pure white.

A Citizen of most parts of the world - northerly in summer, southerly in

A Sky Sweeper

[Illustration: Bank Swallow.]

"Bankey is a sociable, useful little bird, living usually in great
colonies. I have seen a hundred of their holes in a single bank, all dug
by these industrious little Swallows with no other tools than their
feeble beaks and claws. When the young from these nests are learning to
fly the old birds are darting to and fro all day long to teach them how
to use their wings, and the bank seems like a bustling village; every
bird has something to do and say, and they always try to do both at
once. If any one asks you why House People should love and protect
Swallows, even if you have forgotten the names of many of the insects
they destroy, remember to answer - 'Swallows eat mosquitoes!'"




"That is my beautiful red bird!" cried Dodo, clapping her hands. "I
never shall forget the looks of his bright red coat with black sleeves
and tails. I saw a sort of green bird in the same tree, but it was so
different I never thought it could be his wife, till I came to
think - for the green one stayed near the nest when I came nearer and
looked up, but the red bird flew away and hid behind some leaves."

[Illustration: Scarlet Tanager]

"You are quite lucky to have seen a Scarlet Tanager in his home woods,"
said the Doctor, "for he is a shy bird who does not often venture to
show his tropical colors in open places. He knows enough not to make
himself a target for cannibal birds or House People either. Except in
his journeys to and from his winter home he lives in the shelter of the
tallest forest trees, where it is very difficult to see him, showy as he
is in his flashing colors, and even if you know by his song that he is
there. He may say, as some people think he does, 'Pshaw!
wait - wait - wait for me, wait!' but he does not wait a moment if he
thinks he is seen.

"He is very fond of water, both for bathing and drinking, and seldom
nests far from it. Whether he uses the quiet ponds and smooth streams
also for a looking-glass to comb his hair and arrange his gay coat by,
we cannot be sure, but he always looks as trig as if he had some such

"The Tanager children are curious things. Sometimes they wear coats of
many colors, like Joseph's."

"Why is that?" asked Nat.

"The reason is this. You remember I told you that young birds usually
wear plain feathers like their mothers?"

"Oh, yes," said Rap; "so that it is hard to see them until they have
sense enough to take care of themselves."

"Precisely! Now, Mother Tanager is greenish and yellow, and Father
Tanager is scarlet and black. The young ones come from the nest looking
like their mother, but as they shed their baby clothes and gain new
feathers, bits of red and black appear here and there on the little
boys, until they look as if they had on a crazy-quilt of red, yellow,
green, and black. You need not wonder that little Tommy Tanager does not
care to be seen in such patched clothes, but prefers to stay in the
deep woods or travel away until his fine red spring jacket is complete.
Father Tanager also changes his scarlet coat after the nesting. About
the time he counts his children and starts on his southward trip, he
puts on a greenish coat like his wife's gown; but he keeps his black
tail and wings, so that the children need not mistake him for their
mother. It is lucky for her that he and the boys have sense enough to
put on their own clothes, or such a very dressy family would keep her
busy looking after their toilets."

"These Tanagers aren't very plenty about here - are they, Doctor?" asked

"Not now, my boy; their scarlet feathers are very handsome, and
thoughtless, greedy people have shot so many in the nesting season, to
sell for bonnet trimmings, that the family is growing small. But I hope
that, by making laws to protect birds and teaching children everywhere
what good neighbors and Citizens they are, these beautifully plumed
families may increase once more.

"The Scarlet Tanager is the brightest red bird that you will find in the
eastern half of the United States, but even he is not as showy as his
western cousin, the Louisiana Tanager."

The Scarlet Tanager

Length about seven inches.

Male: bright scarlet with black wings and tail.

Female: light olive-green above, dull yellow below, with dusky wings and

A good Summer Citizen of North America east of the plains and north of

Belonging to the guilds of Tree Trappers and Seed Sowers.


"Isn't this the one I saw in your glass case, Doctor?" asked Rap with
great eagerness; "I mean that one like a Scarlet Tanager, but not so
red, more of a rose-pink all over, wings and tail too."

[Illustration: LOUISIANA TANAGER.]

"No," said the Doctor pleasantly. "That is a Summer Tanager - the only
one I ever saw in this neighbourhood It is so rare here that I shot it
to make sure there was no mistake, and you probably never saw one alive,
for the Summer Tanager is a tender bird, who seldom strays so far north
as this. But see - what do you think of this - isn't it a beauty?"

So saying, the Doctor took out of his pocket a bird-skin he had provided
for the occasion, and the children could not restrain their glee at the

"Oh! oh!" exclaimed Dodo, clapping her hands as she always did when
excited; "it's all gold and ruby and jet. Where did you get it, Uncle

"A friend of mine sent it to me from Oregon," answered the Doctor; "he
thought I would like to have it for my collection, because it came from
the very region where this kind of Tanager was discovered almost a
hundred years ago."

"I thought you said it was a Louisiana Tanager," said Rap and Nat,
almost in the same breath.

"So it is, boys; but it does not live in the State of Louisiana you are
thinking about, down by the mouth of the Mississippi River. I shall have
to explain how it got its name by giving you a little lesson in the
history and geography of our country. A great many years ago there was a
King of France called Louis the Fourteenth, and during his reign all the
western parts of America that the French had discovered or acquired any
claim to were named Louisiana in his honor by one of the missionaries
who came over to convert the Indians to Christianity. After a good many
years more, about the beginning of this century, President Jefferson
bought all this immense country from Napoleon Bonaparte, and that made
it a part of the United States - every part of them that is now ours from
the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, except some that we
afterward took from Mexico. President Jefferson was a very wise man, and
as soon as he had bought all this land he wanted to know about it. So he
sent an expedition to explore it, under two brave captains named Lewis
and Clark. They were gone almost three years; and one day, - I remember
now, it was the sixth of June, 1806, - when they were camping in what is
now Idaho, near the border of Oregon, they found this lovely bird, and
wrote a description of it in their note-books - just as you did with your
Scarlet Tanager, Dodo, only theirs was the first one anybody ever
wrote. They also saved the specimen and afterward gave it to Alexander
Wilson, who painted the first picture of it, and named it the Louisiana
Tanager in his book."

"Did you ever see one alive, Uncle Roy?" asked Nat; "what does it look
like flying?"

"I can answer that question," said Olive; "don't you remember, father,
when we were in Colorado, the same year we found the Sage Thrasher and
Rock Wren, that I thought the first one we saw was a Scarlet Tanager in
one of its patch-work plumages, till you told me about it - though it did
seem to be too bright yellow, and the middle of the back was black. But
it looked the same size, and flew just the same. How beautiful it
looked, as it flashed its golden feathers through the dark-green pine
trees!" added Olive, her face lighting up at the recollection.

"Yes, I remember," answered the Doctor. "All the Tanagers of our country
have pretty much the same habits. Even if we had found the nest we might

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Online LibraryElliott CouesCitizen Bird Scenes from Bird-Life in Plain English for Beginners → online text (page 11 of 24)