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How To Study Birds

( Originally Published 1910 )



One auspicious day in June 1 discovered a hummingbird's nest. I was a small boy, and lived in a suburb of Boston called Roxbury, near the edge of Brookline, on a fine old colonial estate, where the new Harvard Medical School buildings now stand. There were six acres of lawn, garden, shrubbery, and orchard, overarched by great elms and other shade trees. On one side of the house was a row of alternate Norway spruce and larch trees. A tiny hummingbird had been visiting the flowers about the house, and one day I saw her fly to her nest out near the end of one of the lower branches of the first larch tree. There were young in it at this particular time, but within a few days they had departed, and I brought a stepladder and took down the nest. Never can I forget my feelings of wonder and admiration as I gazed upon the exquisite little cup built of silky fibers, coated with lichens. It was a revelation of loveliness which laid strong hold upon my sensibilities, giving me a distinct impetus from which I never recovered. This is the earliest incident about a bird outdoors of which I have any recollection:

By another process I was being prepared to entertain such interests. In our home we were so fortunate as to have a set of that great work, Audubon's " Birds of America," the original octavo edition, in seven volumes, with a colored plate of each species of bird. These pictures absolutely fascinated me with a peculiar witchery which I cannot describe, but which was simply irresistible. In time I came to have the feeling that I must find these birds for myself. And when I found one or another which I had been studying from the book, and for the first time was actually face to face with it in real life, there came over me a feeling of unutterable rapture.

At the age of twelve there began another development. I went that summer on a visit to a family in the country in which there was a boy of thirteen who had begun to collect and " stuff " birds. His process was one of " curing." He removed the " insides," filled the cavity, throat, and mouth with arsenic and cotton, and mounted the bird with wires thrust through its anatomy. The array of shriveled mummies looked sorry enough, yet I took to it like a duck to the water. When I returned home there was no peace until I had a small single-barreled shotgun.

During the first week I came within an ace of blowing off my brother's feet, and narrow escapes followed in rapid succession. It is wonderful that I an alive to tell the tale.

Before long I learned how to skin birds, and so gave up the mummy process. The first specimen I tackled had no feathers on it when I got through, but I persevered. My parents, however, were averse to the use of arsenic, so I bought a certain naturalist's " dermal preservative," and in time built up quite a collection. One day I noticed that a specimen looked somewhat awry and undertook to smooth it. The result was that almost every feather dropped off at the first touch. The dermestes larvae had been busy and had riddled every skin " preserved" with the " insect-food." The older and less skilled creations which had been treated with arsenic were intact.

The question is often asked whether interest in birds can be aroused and maintained without killing and collecting. The best answer is simply one of fact, that to-day there are thousands of bird-students, true enthusiasts, who never kill a bird or rob a nest. In these days there are very many interesting, inspiring books about birds, with good illustrations, numerous collections of birds in museums, and many fellow bird-lovers with whom to associate. Hunting with the camera satisfies the natural desire for possessing and acquiring, upon which the almost universal collecting instinct is based.

Had these things been in my boyhood as they are now, I am sure that I could have learned the birds and enjoyed myself just as much by the modern methods which I shall describe. While it is true that the science of ornithology could not have existed with-out the collecting of specimens by naturalists, it does not require killing by all or many who engage in it, for otherwise women and girls would be largely de-barred, and it would be wrong to popularize birds as is now being done, for it would simply mean their extermination. Let a few scientists attend to the technical side of ornithology, and the museums prepare the necessary specimens, while the great mass of bird-lovers reap the fruit of their labors.

To give an idea of how intense was the fascination of birds over me in those early days, suggesting as well how others feel, I will mention a few incidents of that period. I recall one morning in May, rising very early indeed and walking some five miles out into the country, reaching my beloved haunts when it was so dark that I sat on a fence waiting for the birds to awaken and for light to make it possible to see them. Another time I gave up my Thanksgiving dinner to spend the whole day tramping the beaches at Scituate, watching the seabirds, particularly the loons and marine ducks diving through the breakers. My Thanksgiving feast consisted of two sandwiches, and the birds.

On another occasion, in early May, to watch the migration of the shore-birds, being unable to secure a companion, I betook myself to the Marshfield salt marshes, and slept alone in a Humane Society shanty back of the beach. I had no covering, and was so told that I was driven out on the beach at I A.M. to collect, by moonlight, not owls, but fire-wood. One Saturday, in winter, I was booked for an all-day's tramp. I had been feeling unwell and strangely inactive, and when I started it seemed wonderfully hard to walk, but I thought the lethargy would be forgot-ten when I saw the birds. Finally, about eight miles from home, I laid down on a snow-bank almost exhausted. It was off from any line of transportation, so somehow or other I managed to drag myself home. The doctor was at once summoned and found it a severe case of measles. It was weeks before I saw the birds again.

This is the sort of spirit which is animating thousands of people in these days who are interested, or becoming interested, in birds; not because bird-study is a fad, but because they find real pleasure in it. There is no question but that the birds as a class have peculiar elements of popularity. They are living and animated, beautiful in form and color, with powers of flight and song, not dangerous, of convenient size, and, as yet, sufficiently numerous to be found without too great difficulty.

The last statement is not true, in most sections of the country, with mammals. There are but few species to be found, and nearly all of these are scarce, shy, and mostly nocturnal, so that to specialize in their study would be too discouraging to be popular. Most people cannot enjoy insects and reptiles, and fish are more easily hooked than studied. Botany and geology are delightful, and many bird-lovers are versed in these also, yet there is nothing so interesting as life. I do not wonder that I was fascinated by the birds, and that it has become the most popular branch of nature-study.

Indeed those who acquire this taste and interest are to be congratulated. One misses a great deal who does not have some outdoor interest as a means to health, vigor, and relaxation. It is well not only to dabble a little with birds, but to gain sufficient grip on the subject to make it a matter of life-long interest. Even if unable to keep up active field-work, as the cares of life increase, one can always dip into it at any time again, during vacations and holidays. I have seen this illustrated many a time by busy men who were interested in birds during boyhood and have never completely lost their interest.

The beginning of bird-study is a critical time, the period of greatest " mortality," as with all infancy. A good many try it a little, become discouraged over the difficulties, and drop out. But if one can only persevere through the early stages, there is a wealth of enjoyment ahead. In most cases, as it was in my own, the awakening of interest in birds is a gradual process. One is impressed with some incident in bird-life and begins to notice things which never be-fore had won attention. Some friend, fond of birds, inveigles one into an occasional jaunt afield. The first thing the beginner knows, he or she has caught the fever and becomes a devotee of the delightful pastime-study.

The present widespread interest in birds has aroused strong demand for their adequate protection and produced such organized efforts as the Bureau of Biological Survey, the Audubon Society, game protective associations, and a flood of splendid literature. It has become distinctly unpopular to kill wild birds, except edible birds for food, and that in great moderation. A multitude of people enjoy the live bird in the open for its own sake, for its esthetic value, and demand that there shall be birds to enjoy.

I heard this aspect of the subject forcibly presented at a legislative hearing by a high school principal. He told how his pupils, many of them, found great delight through the birds. In winter they enjoyed the gulls and ducks about the docks and bays, and spring brought a panorama of new wonders. They watched birds, laughed over their amusing ways, and made them a live topic of thought and conversation. The gunners were trying to repeal the " Model Law," so as to get a longer season for killing.

" Gentlemen," exclaimed the teacher, " I want you to realize that we bird-lovers claim just as much right to the birds as the gunners. There are more of us, and we get as much profit and pleasure from the birds in our way as the hunters do in theirs. We insist upon our right to have and enjoy wild birds about us, and we shall feel wronged and outraged if our rights are not respected."

There may be some ignorant persons who sneer at such a thing as esthetic value, yet it is very real. The price that a house will bring depends a good deal upon how it is painted, and the effect of the bird upon the character and achievement of the young may be very great. Pleasure is an asset that must be reckoned with, and the birds give pleasure to a large number of people. They are a diversion, a solace, a rest, an antidote for the strain and stress of life, besides being of absolute necessity to agriculture, and thus essential to the very existence of the human race on earth. We do well to demand their adequate protection and to go out ourselves into the open to study them and to add species after species to the list of our circle of friends.



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