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Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club: a quarterly jjournal of ornithology online

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H. Clark of this city has kindly placed at my disposal some very interest-
ing observations made by him last season relative to the perseverance dis-
played by a pair of Robins {Turdus migratorius) at nest-making under
difficulties. A pair of these birds selected for a nesting-site a place in his
garden so frequented by cats — the great enemy of town-breeding birds —
that it seemed certain the young, if not, indeed, the mother-bird, would be
destroyed by them if the birds were allowed to build in the place they had
chosen. So, in order to avoid the threatened danger to the brood, as well
as the pain of witnessing their destruction, Mr. Clark resolved to inter-
'cept their work, hoping thereby to force them to choose a safer nesting-
place. He accordingly pulled down their partly formed nest. The next
morning there was a great outcry from the birds over their loss, and
no little commotion among the other Robins of the neighborhood. To his
surprise the birds immediately set to work to rebuild the nest, aided by
several of their sympathizing neighbors, who brought materials faster than
the architect seemed able to properly bestow them, so that in a single
morning considerable progress was made with the new structure. The
next morning the birds found their nest had been again destroyed. Not a
whit discouraged, they resumed their labors, building again in the same
spot as before, but this time without help. The nest was now constnicted
with greater care, being securely fastened by strings passed round the branch
on which it rested, which were also carried up and moile fast to a limb
above. These precautions availed them nothing, for this nest shared the
fate of the others. An act begun in a spirit of kindness toward the birds
was now continued in the interest of scientific investigation. A fourth
time the persistent birds rebuilt their nest at the same spot, with to them

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104 G&netal Mies.

the same sad restilt. For the fifth time thej began to rehnild the nest ;
this was too much for mj informant's feelings to resist, and he resolved to
let them carry ont their plans. To his surprise, however, they soon began
to destroy the structure themselves, taking the materials to a branch
higher up, as if divining not only the source of their troubles, but the rea-
son that had prompted the repeated removal of their nest; but after a
morning's work the nest was abandoned, and another site for it was se-
lected some rods away in a safer position. Here again, however, they
later came to grief^ their eggs being taken by a ruthless boy, an habitual
robber of bird's-nests.

The interesting points here brought out are the tenacity with which this
pair of Robins adhered to their chosen nesting-place ; the concerted action
of their sympathizing neighbors in aiding them at first to rebuild ; the
later greater care they displayed in more firmly attaching the nest to its
resting-place ; and finally the apparently intelligent recognition of the
source and cause of their troubles, and voluntary choice of a safer location.
— J. A. Allen, Cambridge, Mctss.

Deadly Cokbat between an Albino Robin and a Mole. — The
following interesting and curious incident is quoted from a letter received
by me from Miss Maria R. Audubon, granddaughter of the celebrated
naturalist, dated Newark, N. J., February 4, 1878. — Ruthven Dsane.

** We have had a Robin of the albino type which for two years has built its
neat in the same tree» and devoured an immense number of worms from the
lawn around the house. It became quite tame, and we naturally felt a sort of
ownership in it. One morning I saw something moving or jumping on the
ground just under the tree, and on investigation it proved to be the Robin
engaged in deadly combat with a mole. I tried to drive the Robin away, and
found the mole had it firmly held by the wing. I set it free, and poked the
mole off with a stick to some distance

The Robin flew to a branch of the tree, did not seem much hurt, plumed
itself, and finally disappeared among the foliage ; the mole, too, made off in an
unknown direction. I could find no reason for this unusual battle ; no corpses
of young Robins could be seen to make feasible the suggestion that a fledgling
had fallen from the nest and been attacked by the mole, thereby bringing
down the wrath of the parent bird ; we knew the mole had not climbed the
tree, and we had never heard of a Robin eating a mole.

" Neither party was seen again that day till towards evening, when the
Robin was again on the lawn as usual. The next morning I passed the tree
about the same hour as on the previous day, and there lay the mole and the Robin,
' beautiful in death,' to use a poetic license, for they i-eally looked very unpleas-
ant. Their bodies were not cold ; the Robin very much ruffled as to plumage
and bloody about the throat and under the right wing ; the mole with his glos^
coat ' all the wrong way/ and severely pecked about the head and throat.
There was no life in either after I found them.'*

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Vol. III. JULY, 1878. No. 3.



DISCOVERY of this notable Swallow, commonly attributed to Say,
was made long before Long's expedition to the Rocky Mountains,
though the species was first named in the book which treats of that
interesting journey. The bird may have been discovered by the
celebrated John Reinhold Forster ; at any rate, the earliest note I
have in* hand respecting the Cliff Swallow is Forster's, dating 1772,
when this naturalist published in the Philosophical Transactions
'* An Account of the Birds sent from Hudson's Bay ; with Observa-
tions relative to their Natural History ; and Latin Descriptions of
some of the most Uncommon," — a rather noted paper, in which
seven new species, viz., Falco spadiceuSf Strix nebulosa, Emheriza
[i. e. Zonotrichia^ leucophrys, FringUla [i. e. Junco\ hudsonias, Mus-
cicapa [i. e. JDendrcecd] striata, Partes hndsonictis, and Scolopax [i. e.
Numenias] borealis, are described, with references to various other
new birds by number, such as " Tardus No. 22," which is Scoleco-
phagus ferrugineus, and " Hirundo No. 35," which is Petrochelidon
lunifrons. The next observer — in fact, a rediscoverer — was,
perhaps, Audubon, who says that he saw Republican or Cliff Swal-
lows for the first time in 1815 at Henderson, on the Ohio ; that he
drew up a description at the time, naming the species Hirundo re-
pMicana \sic\ ; and that he again saw the same bird in 1819 at
Newport, Ky., where they usually appeared about the 10th of

* By permission, from advance sheets of the " Birds of the Colorado Valley,"
Vol. I.


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106 CouES on the Have, Cliff, or Crescent Swallow,

April, and had that year finished about ^^ nests by the 20th of
the same month. The next year, namely, 1820, Major Long and
Sir John Franklin found these birds again, in widely remote re-
gions, — the first named during his expedition to the Rocky Moun-
tains, and the latter on the journey from Cumberland House to
Fort Enterprise, and on the banks of Point Lake, in latitude 65®,
where its earliest arrival wasTtioted the following year on the 12th
of June. Dr. Richardson says that their clustered nests are of
frequent occurrence on the fooes of diffir of the Barren Grounds, and
not uncommon throughout the course of the Slave and Mackenzie's
Rivers ; and that their first appearance at Fort Chipewyan was on
the 25th of June, 1825. Major Long's discovery was named
Hirundo luni/roM by Say in 1823 ; and the following year Audu-
bon published his hitherto MS. name retpuhlicana in the Annals of
the New York Lyceum of Natural History, with some remarks on
the species, in connection with some observations of Governor De
Witt Clinton, who called the bird Eirundo opifex. Meanwhile,
VieiUot had described the West Indian conspecies as Hinindo
fulva ; and the future Prince Bonaparte adopted this name for our
species in 1825. Thus in the short space of two years, 1823 - 25,
the interesting Anonyma, " No. 35," before known only by num-
ber, like the striped inmates of some of our penal establishments,
suddenly became quite a lion, with titles galore in the binomial
haul ton-. But it was not till 1850 that it was actually raised to
the sublime degree of Petrochelidony though it had- long been taken
and held to be a master-mason.

The Cliff Swallow has been supposed by some to be an immigrant
of comparatively recent date in the Eastern United States ; but it
does not appear that any broad theory of a general progressive
eastward extension is fairly deducible from the evidence we possess.
On the contrary, much of the testimony is merely indicative of the
dates, when, in .various parts of the country, the birds began to
build under eaves, and so established colonies where none existed
before ; and some of the evidence opposes the view just mentioned.
The Swallows, as a rule, are birds of lodd distribution in the breed-
ing season, notwithstanding their pre-eminent migratory abilities ;
they tend to settle in particular places, and return year after year ;
and nothing is better known than that one town may be full of
Swallows of several kinds unknown in another town hard by. I
suppose the real, meaning of the record is ''only this and nothing

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COUES on the Have, Cliff, or Otstotiit Swallow, ' 107

more.'* Nevertheless^ these accounts are interesting, and all have
their bearing on the natural history of this remarkable bird. It
was unknown to Wilson. In 181 7, between Audubon's times of
obeeryation in Kentucky, Clinton says he first saw Eave Swallows
at Whitehall, New York, at the southern end of Lake Champlain.
Zadock Thompson found them at Randolph, Yt., about the same
time. Mr. G. A. Boardman tells me that they were no novelty at
St. Stephens, New Brunswick, in 1828. Dr. Brewer received their
eggs from Coventry, Vt., in 1837, when they were new to him ;
but the date of their appearance there was not determined. They
are said by the same writer to have appeared at Jaffrey, N. H., in
1838 ; at Carlisle, Pa., in 1841 ; and the appearance of a large
colony which he observed at Attleborough, Mass., in 1842, in-
dicated that they had been there for several years. During the
last-mentioned year they were present, apparently for the first
time, in Boston and neighboring metastatic foci of the globe. The
record also teaches that these birds do not necessarily change from
"aiff" to "Eave" Swallows in the East, for in 1861 Professor
Verrill discovered a large colony breeding on limestone cliffs of An-
ticosti, remote from man, and in their primitive fashion. That the
settlement of the country has conduced to the general dispersion
of the birds during the breeding season in places that knew him
not before, is undoubted ; but that any general eastward migration
ever occurred, or that there has been in recent times a progressive
spread of the birds across successive meridians, is less than doubt-
ful, — is almost disproven. Birds that can fly like Swallows, and
go from South America to the Arctic Ocean, are not likely to cut
around vid the Mississippi or the Rocky Mountains, houses or no
houses. Moreover, the scarcity or apparent absence of these birds
in the Southern States, or most portions thereof, may be simply
due to the ineligibility of the country, and only true for a part of
the year. It* cannot be that the breeding birds of Pennsylvania,
New York, and New England come and go by other than a direct
route ; and if not detected in the Southern States, it must be be-
cause they fly over the country in their migrations, and do not stop
to breed. It is authenticated that they nest at least as far south
as Washington, D. C, where Drs. Coues and Prentiss found them
some twenty years ago to be summer residents, arriving late in
April and remaining until the middle of September, though they
were not as abundant as some of the other swallows.

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108 CouES on the Have, Cliff, or Crescent Swallow.

It may be remembered in this connection that a happj conjunc-
tion of circumstances is required to satisfy these birds. Not only
are cliffs or their substitutes necessary, but these must be situated
where clayey mud, possessing some degree of adhesiveness and plas-
ticity, can be procured. The indication is met at large in the West,
along unnumbered streams, where the birds most do congregate ;
and their very general dispersion in the West, as compared with
their rather sporadic distribution in the £ast, is thus readily
explained. The great veins of the West, — the Missouri, the Co-
lumbia, and the Colorado, — and most of their venous tributaries,
returning the humors fi*om the clouds to their home in the sea, are
supplied in profusion with animated congregations of the Swallows,
often vastly moi'e extensive than those gatherings of the feathered
Sons of Temperance beneath our eaves, where the sign of the order
— a bottle, neck downward — is set for our edification.

All are familiar, doubtless, with the architecture of these masons;
if any be not, the books will remove their ignorance. But there
are many interesting details, perhaps insiifficiently elucidated in our
standard treatises. It is generally understood that the most per-
fect nest, that is, a nest fully finished and furnished with a neck,
resembling a decanter tilted over, — that such a " bottle-nosed "
or ** retort-shaped ** nest is the typical one, indicating the primitive
fashion of building. But I am by no means satisfied of this. Re-
membering that the Swallows are all natural hole-breeders, we may
infer that their early order of architecture was a wall, rampart, or
breastwork, which defended and, perhaps, enlarged a natural cavity
on the face of a cliff. Traces of such work are still evident enough
in those frequent instances in which they take a hole in a wall,
such as one left by a missing brick, and cover it in, either with a
regular domed vestibule or a mere cup-like rim of mud. It was
probably not until they had served a long apprenticeship that they
acquired the sufficient skill to stick a nest against a perfectly smooth,
vertical support. Some kind of domed nest was still requisite, to
carry out the idea of hole-breeding, a trait so thoroughly ingrained
in Hirundine nature, and implying perfect covering for the eggs ;
and the indication is fully met in one of the very commonest forms
of nest, namely, a hemispherical affair, quite a "breastwork" in
fact, with a hole at the most protuberant part, or just below it.
The running on of a neck to the nest, as seen in those nests we con-
sider the most elaborate, seems to merely represent a surplusage of

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CouES on the Eave, Cliff, or Crescent Swallow. 109

building energy, like that which induces a House Wren, for example,
to accumulate a preposterous quantity of trash in its cubby-holes.
Such architecture reminds me of the Irishman's notion of how cannon
are made, — by taking a hole and pouring the melted metal around
it. It is the rule, when the nest is built in any exposed situation.
But since the Swallows have taken to building under eaves, or other
projections affording a degree of shelter, the bottle-necked, even the
simply globular nests seem to be going out of fashion ; and thou-
sands of nests are now built as open as those of the Bam Swallow,
being simply half-cups attached to the wall, and in fact chiefly dis-
tinguished from those of Bam Swallows by containing little or no
hay. I suppose this to be a piece of atavism, — a reversion to prim-
itive ways. The Bam and Eave Swallows are our only kinds that
do not go into a hole or its equivalent ; and the indication of shelter
or covering, in all cases indispensable, being secured by the roof
itself beneath which they nestle, the special roofing of each nest •
becomes superfluous. Hence the open cups these Swallows now

Considering how sedulously most birds strive to hide their nests,
and screen themselves during incubation, it becomes a matter of
curious speculation why these Swallows should ever build beneath
our eaves, in the most conspicuoiis manner, and literally fly in the
face of danger. Richardson comments on this singular and exces-
sive confidence in man, too often betrayed, and which cannot, on
the whole, be conducive to the best interests of their tribe. He
speaks of a colony that persisted in nesting just over a frequented
promenade, where they had actually to graze people's heads in pass-
ing to and from their nests, and were exposed^ to the curiosity and
depredations of the children ; yet they stuck to their first choice,
even though there were equally eligible and far safer locations just
at hand. Sir John wonders what cause could have thus suddenly
called into action such confidence in the human race, and queries
what peculiarity of economy leads some birds to put their offspring
in the most exposed situation they can find. We have all seen the
same thing, and noted the pertinacity with which these and other
Swallows will cling to their caprices, though subjected to every an-
noyance, aud repeatedly ejected from the premises by destruction
of their nests. I have two notable cases in mind. At Fort Pem-
bina, Dakota, a colony insisted on building beneath the low portico
of the soldiers' barracks, almost within arm's reach. Being noisy

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110 CotTBS on the Eave, Cliff, or Crescent Swallow.

and untidj, they were voted a nuisance, to be abated ; but it was
" no use " ; tbej stuck, and so did their nests. In the adjoining
British province of Manitoba, at one of the trading-posts I visited,
it was the same thing over again ; their nests were repeatedly de-
molished, on account of the racket and clutter they made, till the
irate lord of the manor found it cheaper in the end to let the birds
alone, and take his chances of the morning nap. I think such ob-
stinacy is due to the bird's reluctance to give up the much-needed
shelter which the eaves provide against the weather, — indeed, this
may have had something to do with the change of habit in the be-
ginning. The CliflF Swallow's nest is built entirely of mud, which,
when sun-baked into " adobe," is secure enough in dry weather, but
liable to be loosened or washed away during a storm. In fact, this
accident is of continual occurrence, just as it is in the cases of the
Chimney-Swifts. The birds' instinct, — whatever that may mean ;
' I despise the word as a label of our ignorance and conceit, — say,
rather, their reason, teaches them to come in out of the rain. This
may also have something to do with the clustering of nests, commonly
observed when the birds build on the faces of cliffs ; for obviously
such a mass would withstand the weather better than a single

It is pleasant to watch the establishment and progress of a colony
of these birds. Suddenly they appear, — quite animated and enthu-
siastic, but undecided as yet ; an impromptu debating society on
the fly, with a good deal of sawing the air to accomplish before final
resolutions are passed. The plot thickens ; some Swallows are seen
clinging to the slightest inequalities beneath the eaves, others are
couriers to and from the nearest mud-puddle ; others again alight
like feathers by the water's side, and all are in a twitter of excite-
ment. Watching closely these curious sons and daughters of Israel
at their ingenious trade of making bricks, we may chance to see a
circle of them gathered around the margin of the pool, insecurely
balanced on their tiny feet, tilting their tails and ducking their
heads to pick up little f gobs " of mud. These are rolled round in
their mouths till tempered, and made like a quid into globular form,
with a curious working of their jaws ; then off go the birds, and
stick the pellet against the wall, as carefully as ever a sailor, about
to spin a yam, deposited his chew on the mantel-piece. The birds
work indefatigably ; they are busy as bees, and a steady stream
flows back and forth for several hours a day, with intervals for rest

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COUES on the Have, Cliff, or Crescent Swallow, 111

and refreshment, when the Swallows swarm about promiscuously
a flj-catching. In an incredibly short time the basement of the
nest is laid, and the whole form becomes clearly outlined ; the mud
dries quickly, and there is a standing-place. This is soon occupied
by one of the pair, probably the female, who now stays at home to
welcome her mate with redoubled cries of joy and ecstatic quivering
of the wings, as he brings fresh pellets, which the pair in the closest
consultation dispose to their entire satisfaction. In three or four
days, perhaps, the deed is done ; the house is built, and nothing
remains but to furnish it. The poultry-yard is visited, and laid
under contribution of feathers ; hay, leaves, rags, paper, string —
Swallows are not very particular — may be added ; and then the
female does the rest of the " furnishing " by her own particular self.
Not impossibly, just at this period, a man comes with a pole, and
demolishes the whole affair ; or the enfant terrible of the premises
appears, and removes the eggs to enrich his sanded tray of like
treasures ; or a tom-cat reaches for his supper. But more probably
matters are so propitious that in due season the nest decants a full
brood of Swallows, — and I wish that nothing more harmful ever
came out of the bottle.

Seeing how ^theee birds work the mud in their mouths, some
have supposed that the nests are agglutinated, to some extent at
least, by the saliva of the birds. It is far from an unreasonable
idea, — the Chimney-Swift sticks her bits of twigs together, and
glues the frail cup to the wall with viscid saliva; and some of the
Old World Swifts build nests of gummy spittle, which cakes on dry-
ing, not unlike gelatine. Undoubtedly some saliva is mingled with
the natural moisture of the mud ; but the readiness with which
these Swallows' nests crumble on drying shows that saliva enters
slightly into their composition, — practically not at all, — and that
this fluid possesses no special viscosity. Much more probably, the
moisture of the birds' moiiths helps to soften and temper the pellets,
rather than to agglutinate the dried edifice itself.

In various parts of the West, especially along the Missouri and
the Colorado, where I have never failed to find clustering nests of
the Cliff Swallow, I have occasionally witnessed some curious asso-
ciates of these birds. In some of the navigable canons of the Colo-
rado I have seen the bulky nests of the Great Blue Heron on flat
ledges of rock, the faces of which were stuccoed with Swallow-nests.
How these frolicsome creatures must have swarmed around the

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112 Hknshaw on the Nest and Eggs of the Blue Crow,

sedate and imperturbable Herodias, when she folded up her legs
and closed her eyes, and went off into the dreamland of incubation,
undisturbed in a very Babel! Again, I have found a colony of
Swallows in what would seem to be a very dangerous neighborhood,
— all about the nest of a Falcon, no other than the valiant and
merciless Falco polyagrus, on the very minarets and buttresses of
whose awe-inspiring castle, on the scowling face of a precipice, a
colony of Swallows was established in apparent security. The big
birds seemed to be very comfortable ogres, with whom the multi-
tude of hop-o'-my-thumbs had evidently some sort of understanding,
perhaps like that which the Purple Grackles may be supposed to have
with the Fish-Hawks when they set up housekeeping in the cellar
of King Pandion's palace. If it had only been a Fish-Hawk in this
case instead of Falco polyagruSy we could understand such amicable
relations better, — for Cliff Swallows are cousins of Purple Martins,
and, if half we hear be true, Progne was Pandion's daughter.



The Blue Crow, or Maximilian's Jay, is one of the most notable
and characteristic of the birds inhabiting the Interior Region, to
which it is very closely confined, and of the limits of which its pres-
ence may be accepted as an almost certain indication. Notwith-
standing the fact that upon the Pacific slope are found in greatest
abundance the same trees from which the bird derives the main
part of its subsistence, the yellow pine, pinon, and juniper, it

Online LibraryNuttall Ornithological ClubBulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club: a quarterly jjournal of ornithology → online text (page 38 of 50)