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The Appeal Of Bird Study

( Originally Published 1910 )

I'VE got the Wood Duck, I've got the Wood Duck, I've got him, I've got him!" This excited yelling brought me through the thicket in a hurry, out to the margin of the boggy pond. I arrived just in time to see my fifteen-year-old enthusiast capering like a jumping-jack, and catch a glimpse of a flying duck disappearing like a meteor.

Got him, have you?" I said. "Produce him, then! Spread him out and let's look him over. Then we'll have roast duck!"

"He's just gone out there through those trees," cried Ned, indicating the course of the recent meteorite, and I'm dead sure it's a Wood Duck, positive! That makes number 149 on my year's list, and I know there's a brood of Black Ducks in here, too; I heard one quacking. If I see them, that will make 150. Oh, it just makes me. crazy!"

"Yes, that was a Wood Duck all right. I saw it go," I replied, "and you've certainly got him to your credit, but you mustn't get so excited this hot August weather, or you'll have a sunstroke."

"Hang the sunstroke," exclaimed Ned, "I'm awful glad you brought me in here. You said I'd get the Wood Duck, but I'd tried so many times I was afraid I'd miss it again. This is certainly a dandy place, and I'm coming here every day for awhile. But when is the best time of day for ducks? I want to see the whole flock of Wood Ducks, and of course the Black Ducks, though I saw some of those fellows last year."

"You would be liable to start them up at any time, while they are resting and sunning themselves in the swamp," I told him, "but at dusk they begin to fly around to feed, and dawn is another good time, too. But it would be hard for you to get here so early, and the grass would be drenching wet."

"Hard!" he cried. "You're a great man to talk so, for I've heard you tell of your getting up at two and driving twenty miles before light to shoot ducks in the fall. Don't you think I've got some sporting blood as well as yourself, even if I don't murder them the way you used to?"

"Well, now, you're getting on to a rather delicate subject," I replied. "I know you're an early bird, and I'm glad you are an enthusiast, and that we both know how to find more fun with the birds than by killing them. Of course there's nothing wrong in shooting lawful game in moderation, but it's simply this, that the new way is so much better than the old that we don't care for shooting. Gunners can hunt only in the fall, but our hunting lasts the whole year. Their game, too, is limited to a few kinds, while we have every sort of bird that flies."

So we talked along till we came to the village, agreeing to go to the pond next day at dusk and try to "get" the Black Duck.

While Ned is gone, it is a good chance to talk behind his back and tell a little about him.

A great many people nowadays are interested in birds, and many schools have taken it up as a study and recreation combined. This is the case in the school which Ned attends. They have colored pictures of native birds pinned up on the walls, and charts which explain in an easy way the classification of birds, the groups into which they are divided, and which kinds, or species, of birds are likely to be found in that locality, and at what seasons. The teachers take parties of their pupils out on excursions or " bird walks," noticing the flowers and trees as well, or any other interesting objects, and grand good times they have. Several members of a party have field or opera glasses to see the shier birds more plainly, and so tell what they are. These boys or girls soon come to recognize all the common birds about as far off as they can see them, and are able to give them their right names. At school they keep a list of the birds seen and identified during the year, and each scholar is given credit for the ones he is the first to find, so that competition becomes very keen.

One day I went out to the athletic field to see the boys play a game of baseball. It was the fifth of May, and just across the road which bordered the field I saw and heard two male Bobolinks, the first arrivals in that locality. I wondered whether the boys would notice them, but they did, and after the game there was a grand race to report the Bobolink for the list.

Out of school hours some of the boys, on their own hook, scour the fields and woods for miles around, and Ned is one of these. Young as he is, he has already come to know the birds wonderfully well, and he seldom meets one he cannot recognize, if only he has a good glance at it. There is keen rivalry among these boys as to who can see and identify the largest number of kinds of birds each year. This sends them actively scouring around outdoors in all sorts of places, and at all times, too, winter as well as summer. It is splendid exercise, especially the climbing of the steep wooded hills, up over the rocks, scrambling through thickets of mountain laurel. There is genuine sport in this in itself, yet an incentive, such as an old Hoot Owl some-where in those wild, secluded woods up near the summit, makes it doubly exciting. There are plenty of Ruffed Grouse in these fastnesses which can be pursued, either with the gun in the fall, or without the gun at any time—to find their nests, to watch the mother lead her brood, to learn where they stay at different hours of the day, where they go when flushed, how many times one can put up the same bird, and so on.

The wild places also contain birds which are rare, or not so well known, and there is always a feeling of expectancy and excitement, because at any moment something may turn up. This is particularly true of the seasons of migration, in spring and fall. Spring is inspiring, with its soft breezes and opening flowers, the fragrant odors of earth and woods, the procession of the birds in their choicest plumages, full of song and joy. Autumn is energizing with its snappy air, bidding one be active, the falling of the nuts, the whirring flight of game birds, the restless activity of passing migrant„ hordes whose song is now dissolved into motion. As the leaves shower down, how fine it is to see through the woods again, and to get the grand views from the hillsides.

Best of all, perhaps, is the nesting season. Ned does not collect eggs, because there are museums available, and there is nothing worth while to be learned from the mere possession of eggshells of his own. Indeed, he is a member of the Audubon Society, whose motto is ‘'A bird in the bush is worth two in the hand," and prefers to have plenty of birds to see and enjoy rather than to join in the robbing and killing which is stripping this country of its beautiful wild life. In nesting time the birds are more familiar and intimate. Find a nest, and one can then visit the bird at will, watch the pretty creatures at close range, learn their habits, how the young are fed and eared for, and also secure photographs from life. Besides, one learns the haunts of the various birds, the times each season when the different species breed, how they build their nests, and any number of other interesting things.

The boys, however, do not have this fun all to themselves. It appeals just exactly as much to strong, active men. I began when I was a young boy, and now, after thirty years of the sport, I like it just as well as ever. And there are thousands, increasing thou-sands, of men who have the same feeling. The sport has in it the elements of adventure and activity, just the thing to alternate with the strain and confinement of professional or business life, a means of health and strength, of keeping enthusiasm and youthful freshness. Of course any outdoor sport is useful in this direction, yet the quest of the study of Nature, in some of its departments, has special advantages for providing refreshing resource for the mind, as well as for the body. Bird study has a peculiar inducement in that it is seasonable the year round, and deals with living subjects, which are beautiful and of special fascination because of their power of flight. The gunner and the fisherman at the close of their short season-all too brief it seems—put away their implements of the chase with regret, for it will be many long months before it will be time again to start out. But the ornithologist may go whenever his time permits, when the longing for the wild floods his soul.

If there were any question of the right of bird study to rank as a sport, and a leading one at that, a certain discovery, made not many years ago, banishes all possible doubt. This was the discovery that photography could be employed in bird study with splendid success. At once this gave to the bird student a weapon, an implement, putting him in the class of sportsmen. Nearly everyone now knows about this new thing which is, indeed, a sport by itself, "hunting with the camera." This is not confined to any one department of natural history, but is the capture upon a photographic plate of the image of any wild living creature--mammal, bird, fish, or even insect. Birds offer special inducements for this pursuit, as they are far more numerous than the wild mammals. Moreover, fish can seldom be photographed save in captivity, and insects are small and not popular.

Studying bird and animal life with the camera certainly is a splendid sport. It destroys no life, yet yields results far superior to those of gun and flesh-pot in our stage of civilization where we need not shoot to eat. How often nowadays one reads the admission of some hunter who comes close upon some fine game, that he wished he had had a camera instead of his gun. To shoot successfully with the camera requires far more skill, nerve, patience, brain-power, than with the gun, and yet is not hard enough to be impracticable. In the highest essentials of sport, to my mind, the camera stands far ahead of the gun.

My boy friend, of course, has caught the fever, and has a lightly-built long-focus camera, using a 4x5 inch 7 plate, the very thing to begin with. I have one much like his except that mine has rather longer bellows, so as to allow the use of the single members of the doublet lens, and a larger size of lens at that, one intended for the next larger size of camera. This gives a larger image of a bird at a given distance, and is very useful with shy birds, or when one has to climb and photo-graph from tree to tree, or from branch to branch, and cannot get as near as is desirable to one's subject. Later Ned will probably get one like mine, and, if he succeeds well enough to warrant the outlay, a reflecting camera for photographing birds on the wing. These are costly and require a rapid and expensive lens. A 4x5 size, long-focus, is best for the purposes of most people, though a 5x7, if not of too heavy a make, has longer bellows, and admits of a larger lens.

This sport of bird study can be fitted to any person and any need. Pursued to the full it means adventure on land and water, hardihood, climbing trees or cliffs, danger, travel and exploration to the remotest parts of the earth, if one wish. But it can be limited to accessible local birds, the smaller birds of garden or field, in which even an invalid can take a world of comfort. A multitude of girls and women in these days are de-voted to it. Though they do not usually venture, for instance, upon climbing lofty trees to inspect hawks' nests, like their brothers, many of them have done fine work and made valuable contributions to science. The girls in the high school, not far from the one which Ned attends, carry on a keen rivalry with the boys in this bird study sport, and not infrequently bear off the laurels, as in getting the first record of the season of some species, or some new one for the list, or in the prize photographic competitions in the magazines for the best pictures of wild birds or animals from life. So there is room in the sport for all, and whole families, parents and children, may all be bird-study sportsmen !

In writing this book I have in my heart a very warm place for the boys and young men who live in the country. Some think that life in the country is dull, and long to get upon city pavements. But if I can get them to catch my spirit, they will change their minds, and country life will take on new interest and joy. Though I was born and brought up in the city, the country was where I wanted to be. On every Saturday holiday, and on many an afternoon after school, I might have been seen making tracks for woods or waters. During spring and Christmas vacations I would take the train for Cape Cod. I never can get over the peculiar thrill which I felt whenever I crossed the boundary of a "Cape" town and felt that I was actually on Cape Cod. Somehow it seemed like sacred ground, a land of bliss unspeakable. I was under a spell of excitement, of exhilaration. It was country, bird country—" God's country," as they say out West.

A country town appeals to me as a sort of gold mine. Those wooded hills are treasure houses, these swamps are more luscious than marsh mallows, those field= produce harvests of rarities. I am eager to start forth and ramble on, to seize and conquer this rich province with mind and eye, to make it mine. Nothing do I care to own it, as other men do, and pay taxes, if they will but tolerate my roamings, letting me visit, watch, study, photograph its glorious wild citizens. Really I pity the person who cannot enjoy the country, who has so few resources of mind as to need to be amused by the passing throng, who must forever get, in order to be happy, and has little or nothing to give.

I want to start out many healthy boys, girls and youth on this enticing combination of sport and study to enlarge their lives, and make them happier and more contented with their lot in life. So I shall try, with the help of my lively young enthusiast and companion, to show that ornithology, or bird study, can be made a live thing, a sport, a fine pursuit for any active person, as it has surely proved to be for a growing boy like Ned. Sometimes, to inspire and educate him, I take him off with me to some wild and distant region, to camp out and rough it, and develop his manliness and self-reliance. I shall proceed to tell what he and I, or I alone, find in quest of birds in an ordinary inland country town, not a remarkable one, but an average one, any country town, indeed, in the Eastern or Middle United States, just such a town, very likely, as the one in which you, Reader, dwell, or spend your vacation. I shall try to tell, in the main, what birds you will be likely to find in such a town, how we found them, and what fun we had in doing so. You had better have a complete text-book with descriptions of birds and keys to identify them, such as Chapman's, or Hoffmann's Handbook, and also a field or opera glass, the more powerful the better. Later you can buy a camera, if the sport appeals to you.

Most of the birds here told about are found also in other parts of the country and in Canada, and the general idea of the book will apply as well there, for the sport of bird study is not limited to any narrow boundaries.

It is a good idea for all who study birds to know something of their classification, the principal groups and families into which bird species are divided. There are not so very many of these, and they are very distinct one from another, and one can easily carry the whole scheme in mind. In coming upon an unfamiliar specimen, it is pleasant to be able, from its general appearance or habits, to recognize at once to what family it belongs. All there is to do, then, is to take the Handbook and find which of several species it is. Most of them, indeed, one will probably know already—the thrushes, warblers, swallows, finches, woodpeckers, hawks, grouse, gulls, and so on. In the chapters following I tell about the different groups of birds in their order of classification, except that the swimming and wading birds are transferred, for convenience, from first to last. It will be a good idea to learn the scheme of classification, which is given elsewhere in this book, and then, when afield, see what pleasure it gives to be able to instantly assign each bird as it appears to its proper family apartment in the big bird-house of Science. One feels that he has a grasp upon the subject and knows just about what to expect. Ned is already an expert in this.

But now here he comes running back to remind me that I forgot to return his precious jack-knife, so we must stop talking about him.

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