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Birds - Strange Bedfellows

( Originally Published 1910 )

Cuckoos and Kingfishers

I CAN'T see for the life of me," said Ned one day, as we were driving home after photographing a Black-billed Cuckoo on her nest, "why in the world the scientists have put the cuckoos and the kingfishers together in the same group in their classification. Why, anyone can see that they are as different as day is from night. They both wear feathers and fly, and that is about all the likeness I can see!"

"We mustn't be hard on the poor scientists," I replied. "They have a hard nut to crack. There are a number of groups of species which are so different that they do not know what to do with them. Formerly they just gave it up and dumped them all into one miscellaneous rag bag—Picarian or woodpecker-like birds they called them, nicknaming them after the largest of the groups. Now, however, they have found a better home for each of the poor orphans, all except the unfortunate cuckoos and kingfishers and some foreign tribes, so they fixed up a smaller catch-all and named it after the cuckoos —Coccyges, the Greek for cuckoos."

"Well," said Ned, "I should think that such strange bed-fellows would get to fighting, but I suppose that they don't realize that they are in such close quarters."

This scientific discourse grew so absorbing that, as we approached the railroad track I forgot to "look out for the engine," as the old signs used to say. Just as we were about to cross, I saw the evening express train swiftly rushing down upon us, only a few rods away. I had to think quickly what to do. If I stopped right there, the horse would certainly shy down the embankment, though, of course, we could jump out. But I thought we could get across barely in time, so I plied the whip, and with a leap we went flying over, having just a few yards to spare as the train thundered past. We were so much excited that we forgot all about the Coccyges and set to berating the engineer for not having blown the whistle on approaching the grade crossing. But birds are very fascinating, and ornithology was not knocked out of us for very long, though we resolved to put prudence ahead of it in future when crossing the railroad track. And now that we are safely escaped we will return to the cuckoos.

The nest which I had just found was in a dense thicket of bushes, a few rods back from the road which passed near the pond, and about opposite the latter. It was the seventh of June, and we were tramping about in a large tract of scrub and briers, searching for birds' nests For some time we had had no especial luck, until, as I poked my head into this particular thicket, there right before me I saw a flimsy nest of twigs and stems. On it sat a Black-billed Cuckoo, gazing at me in alarm with her large hazel eyes which were bordered by red eyelids. When Ned came up I made signs to him to keep very quiet, so he looked on while I set up the small, long-focus camera on the tripod, with the eighteen-inch lens. Fortunately there was a small opening through the bushes to the nest, with nothing much to obstruct the view, and, after taking one small picture of the bird from where I was, to make sure of something, I pushed the tripod and camera nearer and nearer. At each halt I made another exposure and secured a larger image of the bird on the plate. Of course I was very careful not to rustle the leaves or step on a dry twig or make any sudden motion. The bird actually let me photograph her within four feet before she slipped off the nest and disappeared in the shrubbery. No wonder she was tame, for it was just hatching time. There was one pipped egg in the nest, and one newly hatched young one. When it had crawled out of the shell, it had taken with it the rounded end, which it wore on its head as a close-fitting blue skull-cap, and it certainly looked very comical. While I was at work with the camera, Ned's sharp eyes spied out a Wood Thrush sitting on her nest in a low sapling just outside the brier thicket, not more than twelve feet from the cuckoo's nest.

A few days later we visited Mrs. Cuckoo again, and found her brooding. She was in a better position, with the whole of her long tail showing, so I took some more pictures of her, as before. When she left, I photographed the two youngsters in their rude, hard cradle. Ugly brats they were at this stage, with great ungainly beaks, all out of proportion to their size, and bristling with pin feathers. The nest, as usual, was almost flat on top, and somewhat tilted over besides. It always seems a wonder if the young cuckoos succeed in hanging on to the nest. That they sometimes do not, I know for a fact, for soon afterward I found this nest deserted, and a few years before I had watched another nest of this species in the same locality, down by the pond in a bushy swamp.

This nest also had two small young, which, after a severe thunder shower and wind, disappeared. Their home was a most unusual one. It was in an ordinary situation, six or eight feet up a sapling. But near by in the swamp was a willow bush which was just getting past its flowering by the middle of May, when the cuckoos began to build. Instead of picking up sticks and making a platform so frail that one could see the eggs through it from below, these birds had constructed a big, soft, nest, very deep, though flat on top, almost entirely out of willow catkins and down. They deserved better fortune than to have their young blown out of such a palatial nursery-for a cuckoo!—and drowned. But this is the lot of many a young bird, even from the best of bird homes.

We have two kinds of cuckoos—Black-billed and Yellow-billed, which are hard to tell apart, unless one gets very near them, which is not easy to do. They are shy, retiring birds, and keep mostly in the thick foliage. Bird students seldom have a better chance to examine a cuckoo in life and see how useful a tribe these birds are than did a certain company of young ladies. I was giving a bird lecture at Bradford Academy, Mass., and the next morning took an early bird walk with a party of the girls and a teacher. Beside the path was a wild cherry tree which was stripped bare of foliage and contained the nest of the despoilers, some sort of canker worm or caterpillar. Perched beside this was a Black-billed Cuckoo, breakfasting. We were all within twenty feet of it, and watched it for some minutes eat worm after worm, which it took from the nest. If we could only raise cuckoos enough, we might conquer the gypsy moth, that most expensive pest.

Were it not for the loud, harsh "cow-cow" notes of the cuckoos, we certainly should think them much rarer than they are.. But they are both all too scarce, and generally the Yellow-billed kind has seemed to me the rarer of the two. When I have hunted for their nests I usually have had no success. But now and then I have happened upon a nest of either kind when I was least expecting it. Though I have found more nests of the Yellow-billed in old, retired orchards, I have also found the Black-billed breeding in such places, and I am not sure that they differ materially in the sorts of places which they frequent.

The very opposite in temperament is the Belted King-fisher, our only species of this interesting sub-order. No bird is more conspicuous than this most royal fisherman of all our small land birds, sounding its loud rattle as it flies over land or stream, or perching on some conspicuous stub by the shore from which it can watch for the small fish to rise to the surface. Suddenly it plunges headlong into the water with a loud splash, and, emerging, flies off -with a triumphant announcement, like the hen, which tries to publish world-wide the glorious fact that she has laid an egg.

Sometimes, though rarely, the kingfishers are seen in the land of ice and snow during the winter, but at any rate they come back early, toward the end of March or in early April. Before long they get to work digging their nesting burrows in some gravel bank not far from water, though not necessarily right by the ' shore. Often they choose a cut in a road or railway, or a spot where a farmer has excavated for sand or gravel. They are great diggers and go in as much as six feet, with turns in the tunnel, too, to avoid rocks. At the end there is a wider chamber or pocket where six or seven good-sized white eggs are laid on the earth, surrounded by an ever-increasing pile of fish bones, the remains of the regular fish dinners.

In years past I had seen various kingfishers' holes, and had dug one out to examine the nest and young, but I had no photographs. So, when I realized that a certain chapter must be written and needed kingfisher adornments, I had to hustle to get some pictures, before it was too late in the season. Ned was a good fellow to consult on such important business, and he remembered two places where he had seen kingfisher burrows, so we rounded them up at once. The first was in a pasture, where road makers had dug out gravel, and left a steep bank. There was no burrow there this year, though later in the season I saw where the pair had nested, in a bank about half a mile further on, by the roadside. The other location was near the pond, where the railroad had been cut through. It did not take long to discover two round clear-cut holes of just the right size—kingfishers' work without a doubt. One did not go in very far, as the birds had struck rock. So they had tried again a few feet away, and this one was evidently complete, for it went in further than I could reach. No birds were in sight, yet I felt sure it was a new burrow.

It was so late in the season that I feared the young had already flown. So the next day, the twenty-sixth of June, as I was about to drive by this spot with my wife and baby girl, I took along a shovel, and hitched the horse by the roadside at the nearest point to the burrow, telling my wife—with some misgivings-that it would only take me a few minutes to dig in far enough to find out whether the nest was occupied, and if it was I would take the photographs later. I took the camera along, though, to photograph the site before I disfigured it. After taking the picture, I started to dig, when suddenly a kingfisher popped out its head and was just preparing to fly away, when I grabbed it. "Aha!" thought I, "here is the mother bird, and I'll have her picture too!" Just then another bird came out of the burrow, almost like a cannon ball, and flew off before I could try to stop it. So the father bird was in there also? Then, to my astonishment out went another, and then another tried it, but this one I caught, putting both into my camera case. A regular eruption of kingfishers was in progress, a miniature Vesuvius in action. Really I cannot tell how many kingfishers came out; I lost count in the excitement; but I think it was eight, possibly only seven. Of course I knew now that this was the brood of young ones, fully grown and fledged, in beautiful plumage. I had caught four; the others flew over to the pond, all but one which alighted on the railroad track. Fearing that a train would come along and kill it, I tried to drive it off, but it kept flying along the rail and alighting on it, and I had to chase it a quarter of a mile before it flew off to one side.

Here was a pretty quandary. A heavy thunder shower was fast approaching, the wife and baby were there in the woods, but if I left the young kingfishers, it would probably be all up with my kingfisher photographs for this chapter. So I thought I would get a few, any way, and hurried to focus the camera on the entrance to the burrow, after which I put one of the young back into the hole. Immediately it tried to get out again, but the lens caught it, and then my hand, this operation being repeated several times. Then I put two of the lively youngsters up on an overturned tree stump and roots, which the workmen had dug out when they straightened the railroad. Like most young birds, they acted in an exasperated manner, delaying me while the shower came nearer and nearer. I was determined, now, to get this picture at almost any cost, knowing that with a top buggy my family would not be quite drowned. Finally I made my last of several exposures just as the first of the big drops began to fall. Under the rubber cloth I packed away my camera. Then I put the young birds back into the burrow, waiting a moment to drive them back as they tried to come out. Then, gathering up my things, I raced for the buggy in the increasing downpour. The family were not there. In alarm at the approach of the tempest they had put for the next farmhouse, where I found them when the storm had nearly spent itself. They were none the worse for it, nor was I, though wet and plastered with mud. But I am glad that I did it, because I have the pictures to show for my pains.

This episode amused Ned very much. He wished he had been present to see it all, and I certainly had earnestly wished that he was there to help me manage those contrary young birds. I could have finished then before it rained. Sometimes, in photographing birds it is best to be alone, but again an assistant is an exceedingly great convenience. But Ned had his innings before very long, and had the fun all to himself at that. He was fishing on the river bank, sitting among some nettles. A very small fish got hooked, and before taking it off he allowed it to stay in the water and watched it as it tried to get away. But other sharp eyes were watching, too. A kingfisher had been flying about, catching a fish now and then. It spied the fish that was hooked and became so interested that it forgot Ned. What should it do, before deciding to pounce on the fish, but alight on the fish-pole which Ned was holding, out near the end. Ned was so surprised that he almost dropped the pole, but, recovering his presence of mind, hung on and enjoyed the strange proceeding. The bird looked big and felt very heavy, so much so that after about a minute, which seemed like quite a long time, Ned could hot help dropping the pole a little, and the eager fisher, which was about to dive after the fish, became alarmed and flew away. I showed Ned a stuffed kingfisher, but he says that his kingfisher was larger and handsomer, better in every way.

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