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Crow Relatives

( Originally Published 1910 )

Crows, Jays, Blackbirds, Orioles, Larks

STARTING off bright and early that elegant morning, the fifteenth of May, Ned and I drove twenty miles over the roughest sort of roads through a wild hill country and explored many a fine timber tract. It was just the day for active exercise, bright, but with a cool easterly breeze. Hosts of interesting bird migrants were streaming through on their way north and kept us busy identifying them. We found five occupied hawks' nests with eggs, and it was a great day for crows' nests, too.

In the second piece of woods which we tackled, we were searching for a hawks' nest, which we found a little later, when I discovered a large platform of new sticks about thirty-five feet up a hemlock tree, with a bird's tail sticking out over the edge. At first we both thought it was the hawk, but the glass showed the plumage to be "black as a crow," and crow it was. It was no come-down either, for I especially wanted a really good photograph of a nest with a brood of young crows. The old bird was sitting like a rock and would not leave till I rapped the tree. Then I went upstairs to the nursery, after strapping on the climbers, and found three ugly, nearly naked young. They were too small to work upon successfully, so I left them to grow larger.

After this we drove up a long hill through the woods. The timber was mostly small, but we came to some that was of good size, where we hitched the horse and took a scramble up the steep hillside. In a few moments I saw a large nest high up in a large chestnut tree. A crow was brooding on this one, too, and she was as loath to depart as the other bird. The nest was so inaccessible for photographing that we did not climb, but drove on a number of miles further, devouring an ample lunch, as we proceeded, with keen appetites.

The next tract which we decided to explore was a grove of moderate-sized oak timber which proved to be smaller than I had thought, and I was at first sorry that we had bothered with it. There were several squirrels' nests, and presently I saw a nest that looked promising. It was only about twenty feet up a slender young oak, and there was a bird on it, a crow, I saw, as I came nearer. Beside her, at the edge of the nest, I could see some bright red objects which puzzled me until I made out that they were the widely opened mouths of young crows which were poking out their heads from under the brooding mother and begging for food.

The old bird left when I came very near and I saw that here was a splendid chance for just the picture I wanted. Another small oak grew close alongside the one with the nest, at just the right distance and in the right direction, on the sunny side of the nest. Ned ran to get the small camera and the tree apparatus, while I climbed the tree next to the nest and looked in. Five hungry little crows, nearly fledged, raised their heads and opened their mouths as wide as they knew how, beseeching me to appease their gnawing appetites. Pretty soon Ned came back with the camera, and, after going down to get it and climbing back, I went to work to screw it up. It took certainly a quarter of an hour to make everything ready. By this time the youngsters had settled sleepily down into the nest and wild not rouse up to beg for food, till I bethought myself to cut a switch and stir them up. No sooner done than, presto, up popped five black heads, with five red-flannel mouths stretched agape, from which were issuing excited caws, because they thought that mother had arrived. Instantly I squeezed the bulb and had them just as I wanted them. I barely had time to finish the work when it clouded over darkly, so we drove off.

I planned to photograph these youngsters again when they were about to leave the nests, so I drove back there alone some days afterward. But I had waited just too long. My subjects were there, but they had left the nest and could fly from tree to tree, so that it would have required the help of a gun to capture them. On the way home I visited the other two nests, but the young had left the one in the tall chestnut, and in the hemlock nest all that was left was about half of one of the young ones. My friend the hawk had been finding the gentle art of eating crow not as disagreeable as some suppose. This was proper enough, in all justice, to avenge the pillaging of many a small bird's nest by the black rascals.

The only way that I knew of at this late day to get young crows to photograph, was to hustle and find some. Truly I worked hard, but I had no success till I came across a friend who recently, while resting in some woods, had seen a crow fly to a nest in a low fork of a big chestnut tree. One may be sure I lost no time in having him show me the nest, the only delay being to examine the nest of an Ovenbird which fluttered from her eggs almost at my feet. All was silent at the crow's nest, but I took the camera with me up a sapling which grew beside the other tree, and saw three young crows almost fully fledged squatting low in the nest. They were too old to beg for food, having learned to fear, so I photographed them as they were, in the nest; then I climbed to the nest, took them down in a creel, photographed them on a log, and restored them to their home, though my friend was for wringing their necks. After I was gone I suspect that they went the way of all the world !

Although the crow is usually a shy bird, it is perfectly possible to photograph it at the nest, provided that one find a nest favorably situated. I have not attempted it owing to pressure of other work, but once I placed a dummy camera close to a nest with young, and the old birds soon learned to ignore it and fed their off-spring. In the West the crows are much tamer than, here in the East. Out in North Dakota, I have been able to walk within a few steps of crows incubating in low trees, and it probably would not have been very hard to photograph them, had I been able to take the time.

Everyone knows how tame they become in severe winter weather when the snow is deep. Chilled and emaciated, they come close to houses and barns seeking food. Some years ago one came to a city street so exhausted that it could not fly, and I rescued it from a gang of cruel boys who were kicking it to death. I saw the remains of one on the snow in the woods, which a fox had eaten, as was shown by the many tracks, and they sometimes fall victims to hawks and owls. Near a certain hawk's nest recently,. one lay dead on the ground, with the flesh of its breast torn out. Next day nothing was there but a few feathers.

They breed quite early and it is time to find their eggs during the last half of April. In regions where there are pines they build in these, and high up, where the nests are generally hard to see from the ground. In such country as that where I now live, pines are scarce, and Ned and I hunt for crows' nests in deciduous trees or hemlocks.

Most people do not realize that the Blue Jay is a member of the Crow family. But it is, and has all the mischievous, destructive, thieving instincts of the crow, and with a lot of audacity, or "cheek," thrown in for good measure. It robs the nests of other birds and is very unpopular with them. The appearance of a jay about their homes is the signal for the breaking forth of a general clamor, till the rascal, seeing that it is found out, beats a retreat. Hardy, like the crow, it is found throughout the year. Ordinarily it is rather shy about making friends with man, but it often shrewdly senses when it is wanted and comes to him for food in cold weather. A friend of mine puts peanuts in the shell out on his piazza roof, and early in the morning I have watched the jays come and eat down the peanuts whole, shucks and all,

The Blue Jays' nest is a rather neat structure of twigs and rootlets and is built in some low tree in woods, swamp or pasture, and generally by early May contains four or five dark spotted eggs. Now and then a jay, especially when the young are hatched, is very bold in the defense of its home. There are many cases where the bird has braved the intruder and even allowed itself to be handled. But I have not yet had the good fortune myself to meet with such an individual. The nearest I came to it was with one which I found incubating on the first day of May in a low crotch of a small tree at the edge of the woods, about as high up as my head. This jay allowed me to step up on a stump six or eight feet from her, but only because I moved very slowly. At that time I had a camera with only a small lens and short bellows, and the best I could get was a small picture, as she would not return while the camera was set up near the nest.

Various friends of mine have beaten me on Blue Jay pictures, but some day I hope to get even with them. I tried to do this last spring and had most exasperating luck, though I made an encouraging start, finding three nests the first day I looked. Early in May I was going to a hawks' nest and passed some pasture cedars, bordering the woods, when I saw a jay go skulking from them. There was a nest near by, just ready for eggs. This set me to searching the cedars—always a favorite resort for jays-and further along I came upon a jay sitting on four eggs, and further still another on five. The birds were all shy, and, strange to say, a few days later, every nest was deserted or robbed. This only made me the more determined, and, one after another, I found six more nests, nine occupied nests in all, besides several other new ones that had been recently abandoned. But to be brief—not one of these pairs raised its family. Only three of them hatched, and in these cases the young disappeared before they grew a feather. I had not disturbed them in any way, save one pair at whose nest I set a dummy camera awhile, and I charged the mischief upon crows or other jays, though I have no means of definitely knowing. All I could do in line of pictures was to get a few snapshots with the reflecting camera of the jays that had young, as they scolded from the foliage above me. I shall keep on looking, though, and some fine day, I expect I shall find a bold pair of jays after my own heart. If Ned should succeed first, though, I know I should never hear the last of it.

There is a group, or Family, of. birds which comes next after the Corvidae, or Crows, called Icteridae, which means oriole-like birds. It includes the various blackbirds, so that it is easy to think of them along with the crow. One of its members is the Meadow-lark, which is really not a lark at all. The Family of true Larks comes in the classification just before the Crows, and, as we have just one species, we may as well mention it here with the Meadowlark. It is the Horned Lark, or Shore Lark. During the winter months they come down to us from the cold North, especially along the seacoast, on beaches or sand dunes. How I have enjoyed midwinter seashore strolls, and this pretty lark, with its salmon tints, black half-moon on the breast and curious little feathery "horns." They go in scattered flocks, often with the handsome white Snowflake, or Snow Bunting. We trace them by their mellow chirpings and find them here and, there among the beach grass, picking up the seeds. Like enough we alarm them and away goes the flock all at once. For a while they circle about in the air, and finally return, perhaps, to nearly the same place. Inland they are not so common, yet we are liable to run across them now and then in winter, in open fields, especially with flocks of Snow Buntings. There is also a pale Western form of this species called the Prairie Horned Lark. This occasionally breeds with us anywhere in the East, frequenting dry fields and barren pastures or hillsides. If one see a pale, bleached-looking lark, look out, for it is something worth while! A pair stopped one spring late in April about two miles from where I live. Ned kept track of them for me and often heard their sweet warbled songs. We surely thought they were intending to breed and spend the summer, but in two weeks they disappeared.

In these same fields the Meadowlark is found, fairly commonly, but not as much so as it used to be. Formerly it was hunted as game, but now it is protected as one of our most. valuable destroyers of grubs and insects that damage the grass land. About the middle of May they have eggs in a well-concealed nest in a bunch of dry grass, arched over on top. The male is very watchful and gives his sitting wife the alarm when he sees anyone coming, and at once she sneaks off without flying directly from the nest. Consequently the nest is very hard to find. But now and then I have taken the sentinel off his guard, especially in the evening, and by mere chance flushed the- female from her eggs when I had almost trodden upon her. The farmer in mowing his fields is the most apt of anyone to find this hid treasure, for the bird often rears two broods, the last even as late as July or August. One farmer showed me a nestlate in August which a day or two before I saw it had contained two unsound eggs and two young birds nearly grown. When I came, one of these had traveled off in the grass on his stout long legs, and somehow an egg had disappeared, but I photographed what was left, glad enough of the chance.

The Western form of this species, called the Western Meadowlark, is a beautiful singer and is perhaps the most beloved of birds to the settler upon the vast prairie. And I, too, on my expeditions, have enjoyed them and their fine music.

Next come our Orioles, and not everyone knows that we have two kinds. The brilliant Baltimore Oriole that builds its remarkable hanging nest from the tips of the elm boughs along our shaded town or village streets is the one that is so widely known. Very promptly each spring on the fourth to sixth of May, Ned and I hear its clear notes again, after its long trip to South or Central America and back since we last saw it. As with many birds, the males arrive some time before the females. But before long they are all here and mated, and then begins the making of their very remarkable suspended pouch nests. Everyone knows of the wonderful skill with which they weave into these structures all sorts of material in ways that would defy our ingenuity. When I was a boy my mother hung out some nice lace work from the window of our home, in the suburbs of Boston, to bleach and dry. A pair of orioles were building a nest in the elm close by and they appropriated the lace. We never knew what had become of it till in the autumn a great gale blew down the branch on which hung the orioles',nest, and there was the lace woven into it so skillfully that it took a long time to get it out, somewhat the worse for wear. But we like to hang out less expensive material, strings and yarn, and see the orioles tug at it and carry it off to their nests. A little girl up in our section of the country had a fine scheme. She prepared warp and woof for the orioles' use, and to each piece tied a label with her name and the date. The orioles made good use of it and were willing to give her their free advertising, for a number of fluttering tags hung from the nest announcing that the firm of "Helen Pease" had supplied building material.

The other species is the Orchard Oriole, a somewhat smaller bird, less brilliantly colored, and much rarer than the Baltimore. It is seldom seen further north than the latitude of southern New England. As its name implies, it is partial to orchards. There, in a pear or apple tree, often close to houses, it builds its nest, which is not so deep or elaborate as the Baltimore's, nor so pensile, and is made of dry grass.

On a certain farm one or two pairs of both kinds of orioles were accustomed to build. Both of them liked the pear trees for a nesting site, but the brilliant bird also used the elms and the other the apple trees. It is a hard matter, usually, to photograph any orioles'nest in situ. Many a nest hanging tantalizingly before me I have been unable to reach. But one year, on this farm, a pair of Orchard Orioles built their nest in the middle of a large apple tree, though among the topmost twigs, and it seemed as though here must be a chance for a picture, if ever I was to have one. After discussing the situation with Ned, we borrowed a tall ladder and set it up against the tree. Then I went up with camera and tripod to the top of the ladder and climbed into the slender boughs above. The only accessible side of the nest was shaded, so a short-timed exposure on the tripod was necessary. I managed to stick the spike of each tripod-leg into a slender branch or crotch, and, by keeping very still at the critical moments, fairly holding my breath, secured some good pictures. There were three well-grown young in the nest, and one picture shows an open bill projecting out, begging for food. After succeeding there, I placed two of the young on a branch in a more favorable position, and Ned and I both added pictures of young Orchard Orioles to our series.

All our other species which are classed in this group of birds have some claim to be called Blackbirds. Even the prattling Bobolink often gets the name of "Skunk Blackbird" because the male is black and white. This interesting bird is a regular "Jekyll and Hyde" in leading a double life. As Bobolinks they arrive in early May and settle down in the meadows and clover fields for about ten weeks of love, song and familiarity with men. But before July is out, presto, they are "Reedbirds," plain in dress, shy roamers in flocks, which levy toll upon the growing grain.

It is no easy task to find the Bobolinks' nest, hidden away snugly in the long grass. The garrulous male gives warning of our approach and the female sneaks from the nest, so that in vain do we try to flush her. But Ned and I have learned a trick or two. We get a rope a hundred feet or more in length, and in the evening or on a rainy day, having secured permission of the owner of the land, course systematically over the fields the distance of the length of the rope apart, dragging it between us and watching its progress. Suddenly up goes a brown bird, perhaps midway along the rope where it has just swished over the grass. Keeping our eyes on the spot where it started, we drop the rope and hurry there, and, on hands and knees, presently find the frail nest of dry grass with its five or six handsomely marked eggs, or an equal number of thriving young for which the meadow has produced abundance of insect or other foods.

Another of these quasi-blackbirds is that parasite, the enemy of the small birds, generally known as Cow-bird, but it is also called Cow Bunting, or even Cow Blackbird. The latter name it deserves well enough, for the male is shiny black, all but its brown head and neck. The "cow" part of its various names it has earned by its fondness for the company of cattle. I have seen them on the backs of the cattle like big flies —especially out West where there are plenty of both cattle and Cowbirds. They are good friends to the cattle because they pull out grubs or maggots from the animals' hides or sores, and thus perform a useful service. We can only wish that they were as helpful to their nearer relatives among the birds. But the existence of every Cowbird proclaims the death of a brood of useful destroyers of insects or weed-seeds, which have perished because of the strong and greedy parasite. The female Cowbird lays one egg or more in the nests of these other birds, and in the struggle for existence the young Cowbird always wins. In other chapters where figure the victimized species, I shall show how the parasite works and fares.

The Red-winged or Swamp Blackbird is a familiar and abundant bird over most of the United States. Few fresh water marshes there are where we may not hear the "conk-a-ree" song or the harsh alarm note of this conspicuous bird. But common as it is, we must go where it lives in order to see it. A lady of my acquaintance thought that the Red-wings had decreased sadly in her vicinity; she had not seen one all that season. But that very day in walking to her home I had seen dozens of them in the meadows along the road.

They begin nesting by the middle of May, and the nests are easy enough to find if one cares to don the long rubber boots and go wading. The Red-wings, both the black male with his flashy scarlet epaulettes and his somber-hued streaky wife, will be hovering excitedly overhead or scolding from perches near by. There are so many pairs to the average boggy swamp that it is no hard matter to find nests, either built in the grass on top of tussocks, or suspended among reeds or rushes. It is said to be hard to photograph the female on the nest, but if one have a reflecting camera and wade near their homes, he is reasonably sure of good camera shooting, taking the birds both in flight and after they alight. They are a hardy species and now and then appear even in midwinter as far north as southern New England.

The Crow Blackbird is another common and widely known blackbird, though scientists have surrounded our old friend with some mystery by carving him up into Bronzed and Purple Grackle. If the specimen has the purple color of the neck and head extend down into the bronze color of the back, it is a Purple Grackle, but if the bronze is without purplish streaks, it is the Bronzed Grackle. One cannot, however, tell these races apart without shooting the birds, and for all but technical purpose the plain Crow Blackbird is good enough for most of us. With us it generally nests in gardens in towns, especially in evergreen trees, such as the Norway spruce. By the middle of May they have built their nests, which are much like those of the Robin, being lined with mud. There is quite a colony on the street where I live and every year the handsome birds are seen on our trees and lawns. Unfortunately they sometimes pull up sprouting corn, and this season in June some farmer whom they had annoyed put out poisoned grain in his field. The next day there were heaps of dead grackles under the trees where they nested and the young all starved. Not a single one was henceforth to be seen in the locality. It was a mean thing to do, for not only did it kill blackbirds, but probably various other more useful birds.

Out in the wilder parts of the country I have found the grackles nesting in hollow trees. In one instance, near my home, I found a nest in a swamp. I was hiding to photograph a Green Heron on its nest, and watched a male grackle spread his wings and tail and "squeak" his love song in a tree above me. Presently I noticed the female low down sneak along through the alder bushes and go on to a nest in the low fork of a very small one which grew out of water. This nest was built only about a foot above the surface—a most unusual location. Yet the grackles resort all the time to this swamp to feed, and I was not surprised that one pair were sensible enough to break away from old fogy custom and locate by their base of supplies.

The flocking of the grackles in August and early autumn is interesting. As I sit on my piazza I hear a rushing sound as of an approaching tempest, and with a chorus of harsh grating notes, a compact body of the black fellows almost darken the sky as they whirl past just over the treetops. Sometimes they alight and then our ears are regaled with a symphony as from a lot of unoiled axles of wheelbarrows.

Our remaining species is the ''Rusty Blackbird. This is a little smaller than the last, about the size of the Redwings. The male is all black, which makes his white eyes conspicuous, while his mate is much less showy, of a dull rusty grayish brown. They are with us in April, on their way north, and then again rather late in the fall. None are known to nest further south than northern New England, but I have been at the Magdalen Islands in June when the young were just leaving their nests in the spruce swamps. These looked like Robins' nests and were built on the lower branches of the spruces. What a fuss the old birds made over my presence, not to lionize, but to berate! I took my revenge by setting up my camera near a small spruce and focussed on the top where the female Rusty was inclined to alight. The next time she did it I pulled the thread and caught her in the act, her open mouth emitting a flood of saucy expletives. This I shall use against her in court if the occasion ever requires it.

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