A Puzzle In Birds
( Originally Published 1910 )
Finches, Sparrows, etc.
THIS family of bird species, called by naturalists Fringillidae, or finch-like birds, comes the nearest to "flooring" Ned of anything in bird study. Not only is it the largest group among our North American birds, including about one-seventh of all our species, but many of these species look so much alike, especially as one usually sees them afield -skulking in grass or thick foliage, and shy in the bargain—that it is a very difficult matter to identify them. Try it, for instance, in the autumn, along the country road, where swarms of little brownish birds are constantly flitting on ahead of you and diving out of sight into the grass or bushes. They are sparrows, you say. Yes, but what kind? I can think of at least a dozen species which may be represented in that one flock. After studying them more or less all my life, I have to confess that very, very many times I am unable to identify these restless, nervous, timid, nondescript, elusive little rascals in the fleeting glimpse at them which they allow. I tell Ned not to get discouraged, but just to do the best he can, and he will surely know a good deal about them, as, indeed, he already does.
Not only are there sparrows, but grosbeaks, finches, buntings and various others. They are the great seed-eating group of birds, with strong cone-shaped bills, just adapted to splitting or crushing many kinds of seeds, or extracting them from various sorts of protecting covers. I was trying to think out some easy way to help Ned memorize and classify this difficult family, and I finally hit upon one which makes it very clear to him. Taking the species in the order in which they are ranked in the Handbooks, we may think of them in three groups. The main group is in the middle, the sparrows, or sparrow-like finchesbrownish-streaked birds, which mainly stay on or near the ground. Before these are put the hardy finches other than sparrows, which are found with us in winter, many of them coming from the far north—such as the Pine Grosbeak, Crossbills, Redpolls, Pine Siskin, Goldfinch, Snow Bunting, Purple Finch. After the sparrow group we %find given the more southerly finches—the Chewink, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Cardinal, Indigo-bird and several distinctly Southern species. This certainly simplifies the general plan and also helps one to remember the species, each of which it is then "up to" the bird student to learn. In telling of them in this chapter we will follow that order.
About twice in every decade, I should think, there comes a winter when various birds from the far North visit us in good numbers, and notably the species in this first group of the finch family. Deep snow which covers up the tops of the weeds with their load of seeds, the failure of the spruces and other evergreens to bear cones, or both these events in conjunction, drive them south to us. When I was a boy, the winter of 1882—8 first introduced me to these Northern visitors. I was out after them at every possible opportunity and what an exciting time I did have!
As early as October the Pine Siskins arrived. They are closely related to the Goldfinch, but are easy to tell from them because they are streaked all over. I was out hunting partridge and woodcock, when, in an opening in the woods, I saw a very large flock of these birds, then new to me, alight on an isolated tree, fairly covering the branches. Trembling with excitement, I fired into the midst of them and am ashamed to tell now the number I killed. I have never seen so many together since, but have met them at various times, usually along roadsides, or in woods where there were birches or hemlocks. They seemed to be very fond of the birch buds. Years later, in northern Nova Scotia, I found them in June on their nesting grounds. In the shade trees along the streets of Pictou, I saw them and heard them singing prettily—Northern Canary Birds, one might call them, for they. and the Goldfinch are closely related to the Canary.
In November the beautiful little Redpolls put in their appearance and in flocks were wandering around the stubble fields, feeding on the seeds of the various weeds. At a distance they look much like the Pine Siskin, or even the Goldfinch in winter plumage. But a closer view shows a pretty crimson patch on top of the head, and now and then there is one, an adult male, with a crimson wash over the breast. I remember that I took a very great fancy to them and all that winter I loved to watch the Redpolls. They are hardy birds, breeding in Greenland and the lands nearest the North Pole.
But I was equally fond of the grosbeaks and cross-bills. The occasion when I first saw these species stands out in my memory among the great events of my life. I was walking home one afternoon that same bird-eventful winter, in December, along a street in Jamaica Plain, a suburb of Boston, when I saw a flock of a dozen birds, the size of Robins, eating the buds of a maple tree in a garden, just over the sidewalk. Hurrying on toward them, I saw that they were dark gray in color, with yellow on the heads and backs, except two, which were of a beautiful rosy hue. They were Pine Grosbeaks, the rosy ones being adult males. Though it seems that, on the whole, I never enjoyed life more than I do now, at the same time I realize that familiarity has probably made me incapable of ever experiencing again the intense, overpowering excitement and delight which I experienced in that first sight of the Pine Grosbeak, hardy denizen of the North, whose very presence pictured before my inflamed imagination the boreal solitudes in their silent, icy grandeur, as did just once the rare Evening Grosbeak.
And the crossbills ! I was out sleigh riding in Brookline and was driving on a road that led through a wooded estate, when I noticed a group of birds on a limb of a pine tree which extended out low over the road. I stopped the horse almost under the strange birds. Some were dull red or pink, some greenish, and a few of each sort had white bars on their wings. They were a mixed flock of White-winged and Red Cross-bills, birds the points of whose upper and lower mandibles of the bill cross one, another. It would appear, with this seemingly awkward arrangement, as though they could not eat; yet here they were skillfully extracting the seeds from the pine cones, their favorite diet. For five minutes or so I fairly devoured those rare birds with my eager eyes.
The rest of that winter I revelled in the Northern birds, but it was not till several years afterward that I saw any more, so irregular are their occurrences. However, they did reach us occasionally, and some years I held tryst with the crossbills and siskins in summer up in their Northern homes in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. One season they stayed with us very late. Pine Siskins visited the larch trees in my garden in May, and on the seventh of May I was amazed, while looking for birds in a pine grove, to have a flock of White-winged Crossbills fly up from the ground and then stand and look at me from the lowest branches of the pines. Usually all these Northern birds have disappeared by the last of March or first of April.
In the winter of 1899–1900 both the crossbills were abundant, especially the usually rarer White-winged bird. It was a beautiful sight to see a flock of them almost daily on my lawn, picking up maple seed or other food. They were fairly tame, yet never so much so as a pair of White-wings that I found on the top of Bird Rock, far out at sea, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These were so tame that I actually caught them as they fed on some oats which I put out on the grass for them. They were very much emaciated, so I put them in a cage to have a good meal, but there they acted so frightened that we let them go and they returned at once to the oats. While they munched away at a pile of these, like little horses, I set up a camera on the tripod within two feet of them and photographed them without alarming them in the least.
Early one morning in January, 1907, Ned came rushing in to inform me that a flock of Pine Grosbeaks were right by the doorstep. Sure enough, there were half a dozen of them, feeding in the path where the heavy snowfall had been shovelled off. They seemed to be picking up little sticks and biting off the ends, but I soon found that these were the winged seeds of. our ash and maple trees, from which they were extracting the kernels. From that time on till the middle of March, they were our almost constant visitors. They were so tame that it was quite easy to photograph them with the reflecting camera. I met one little boy in town carrying around a paper bag of salt, trying to 'catch grosbeaks by putting salt on their tails, which he had been told was the proper method! Yet for all their familiarity they were timid in a way, for at any sudden noise, as of a wagon or a train, the flock would unitedly spring up with a twitter and a whir of wings and dart off, not to return for an hour or two. Sometimes there would be three dozen grosbeaks on our lawn at the same time, mostly gray birds, though once I saw seven rosy males.
When they finally disappeared it really seemed lonely without their intimate companionship, but kind Nature provided a most appropriate substitute in an equally large flock of Purple Finches, which stayed with us from late March pretty well through April. The carmine-hued males were, in this case, about equal in number to the somber females. After a time the flocks, which I often met in the woods as well as gardens, broke up into pairs, and presently they were nesting in scattered cedars or other evergreens in pastures or gardens. They are quite hardy birds and are some-times found as far north as New England in the dead of winter, though they are not as northerly as the species we have been describing.
With them we may well associate the beautiful Goldfinch, sometimes, but improperly, called the Wild Canary. They are interesting birds, original in their ways and no slaves to fashion. The male in summer, with his resplendent yellow and black plumage, is gay enough, yet he lays all this grandeur aside for the winter and goes garbed like his plainer wife. Hardy birds, they often flock about us through our coldest winters, and well might they be, we should think, among our earliest breeders. Yet they spend the spring and summer in play and at the last possible moment, as though it was a stupid task from which they shrank, they finally set to work to build nests and rear babies. The eggs are usually laid in a soft, dainty nest on a bush or sapling in a swamp or by the roadside in late July or early August. The young are not awing till well along in August and it is often pitiful, when September frosts come, to find the callow fledglings in the garden, barely able to flutter from their nest, chilled and piping plaintively. Ned called my attention to some in this predicament on a very cold day, the fifteenth of September. That same year I photographed a brood of them in a willow thicket beside the railroad track about the twentieth of August, and I tried hard to snap the parents feeding them, but when the camera was near the nest they would not approach, no matter how long I waited.
It would be a great omission not to speak of the Snow Bunting, that hardy boreal bird which has well earned also the name Snowflake, from the whiteness of its plumage. I have seen them by hundreds on the wintry seacoast, on beach, marsh or sand dunes. I wish they were as common inland where I now live, yet they are there no strangers to Ned and me, whirring over the snow and the projecting stubble in open places. One very wintry day they afforded us a beautiful spectacle. We were out sleigh riding, on a road which followed the open summit of quite a high hill. A snow squall came up, driving fiercely in our faces. Presently we saw what at first I thought was a cloud of the light, newly fallen snow stirred up by a squall of wind, blowing toward us across a weedy field. Instead it proved to be a large flock of Snow Buntings. Their advance guard were alighting to eat the seeds of the weeds, while those in the rear were continually flying over those ahead of them and themselves becoming leaders. Thus the flock rolled over and over as it were, like a great white wheel, ever advancing.
Associating with the Snow Bunting we are liable occasionally to meet the Lapland Longspur, a bird of about the same size, but darker colored, the males black on the breast and throat. They are much rarer than the other, enough so to make it a red-letter day when one is identified. How delighted I was when I saw my first Lapland Longspur! I was driving in a sleigh in February, along a country road, when I saw three birds ahead of me feeding in the road. Two were clearly Snow Buntings, as their white wings showed. The other was unfamiliar. I drove up within a few feet of them and stopped. The stranger had bully cheeks and some black on the breast. It was not a Horned Lark and I instantly recognized the Lap-land Longspur, for which I had so long looked in vain.
And now for the Sparrows. The Tree Sparrow, or Arctic Chippy and the slate-colored Junco, or Snowbird, are the only native sparrows which are common in winter. We do not count that foreign pest, the English Sparrow, which does not deserve to be considered as a bird, but rather as a feathered rat, a pestiferous mongoose to destroy bird life and drive out our beloved native birds. The pretty little warbled song which comes from the weedy patch or the line of shrubs or stubble along the fence on a bitter cold February morning is the good cheer of the happy little fellow from the far north, the Tree Sparrow, and it is almost the only real song that we are likely to hear at this season, though the Chickadee has some pleasant notes, and the Junco will begin in March to practice its simple trill. The Tree Sparrows are a bit timid, but I have had them come up on the window-sill to be fed and photographed. Ordinarily, though, they will not venture quite so much, but we can scatter hay-seed or small grain on the frozen snow in the garden and they will greatly appreciate it. Associated with them we shall often see the Junco, which is even shier.
A few of that commonest of our sparrows, the Song Sparrow, linger in sheltered places through the long cold winter, and the whole tribe of them are back in March. Early in the month we first hear their familiar and beautiful song ringing out from the shrubbery along the roadsides, or in the garden. One can distinguish them by their heavily marked breast with a conspicuous brown spot in the middle.
Soon after the middle of March we are likely to notice on the edge of the woods, or along retired wooded roads, a bird of deep rich brown color. It is the Fox Sparrow, the largest and handsomest of the sparrows. It is fond of scratching among the dead leaves, and is a great musician, though, unfortunately, it seldom sings until it approaches its Northern breeding grounds, for it never remains with us. I have twice found its large, well-built nest on the Magdalen Islands and have heard there many a time its wonderful song.
Probably the next to arrive will be the Swamp Spar-row, late in March. It frequents bushy swamps or meadows interspersed with brush, and, though it resembles the Song Sparrow, can be readily distinguished from it by its reddish head and unmarked ashy breast. The song is a loud, simple trill, not unlike that of the Junco. The rare Lincoln's Sparrow, related closely to this and the Song Sparrow, is also possible reward for careful scrutiny.
Late in March or early in April comes the Field Sparrow, and about the middle of April the nearly related Chipping Sparrow. These and the Tree Spar-row are a good deal alike—slender, long-tailed little fellows, with brownish-red crowns. The best way to distinguish them is that the Tree Sparrow has a conspicuous dark spot on the middle of the breast, the Field Sparrow a plain breast and reddish bill, the Chippy a distinct white stripe over each eye and a gray rump,. with the whitest breast of them all.
About the same time as the Field Sparrow, or soon after it, comes the Vesper Sparrow, or Grass Finch, with its simple but pretty song. This is the species with the bay-colored patch on the bend of the wing and the white outer tail feathers. This last is especially characteristic of the Junco, but one cannot confuse that slate-colored bird with the brownish Vesper, and at any rate the former disappears on its northward migration soon after the other begins to arrive.
Somewhat similar in haunts and habits is the Savanna Sparrow, which also arrives in early April. They are found in dry open fields, but also in meadows or salt marshes. They have streaked breasts, like the Song Sparrow, but are smaller birds. In most inland localities they are not common, but in many seacoast regions, and notably along the Northern coast, any sparrow which one may see is more than likely to be a Savanna. They haunt the grassy wind-swept headlands or even the sand dunes.
On the coast we also may meet the Sharp-tailed and Seaside Sparrows on the salt marshes, skulking in the long grass, and in late fall and winter the rather rare Ipswich Sparrow. I have found a number of the latter in dry open places not far back from the sea, or on islands.
But we have not yet exhausted the possibilities of the migration inland. There is a very queer little fellow called the Grasshopper Sparrow, so named because its funny weak little song sounds more like this insect's attempt than a bird's. It is a small bird, dull-colored, with plain ashy-colored under-parts and is very secretive, one of the hardest of birds to locate and observe. It frequents dry fields, but might be common all about one without its presence being detected, unless one noticed the faint, locust-like song. A somewhat similar bird, but rarer, is the Henslow's Sparrow, which, how-ever, prefers moist grass land, notably springy hillsides where the bush known as shrubby cinquefoil abounds.
Last of all, in May, come those beautiful sparrow migrants, the White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, both of which nest well to the north. The latter is rather rare, more's the pity, for it is a. very striking bird, with its conspicuously white crown-patch. It is only once in a great while that I am able to see one. The White-throat is much better known. The male has a pronounced white bar on each side of the head, and sometimes may be mistaken for the other. But when one really meets the White-crown, he will know it. "Pee, pee, peabody, peabody,'' sings the White-throat in long-drawn, high-pitched piping, and thus gains the name of Peabody-bird. The male sings his peabody song vociferously in Maine and Canada, but I have heard it all too seldom further south.
There, now, we have gone through with every one of our numerous Sparrows which we are at all likely to meet. Do you suppose now you can go out and identify them? Remember there are the confusing plumages of the young, which help to make the muddle all the worse. No, you must study hard on them, be patient, and get to know them one at a time. With a little intelligent care, and referring to the descriptive books, you will be surprised how quickly the common birds can be tolerably well learned. So there is no need of being discouraged. If we could learn everything easily at once, there would be far less fun in studying birds. We need some difficulties to arouse the spirit of true sport.
When it comes nesting time the nests of most of the sparrows are to be sought and found on the ground, and usually in grass. The Chippy, however, builds in a tree or bush near the house, though once I found its nest on the ground in an orchard. The Song Sparrow sometimes gets lofty ideas and builds in a bush even as high as one's head, but the vast majority of nests are on the ground in grass or beside a bush. This is the nest with four or five darkly blotched eggs which one so often finds in the pasture or by the roadside by almost stepping on it and having the sitting bird pop off at one's very feet.
In wading the meadow, I expect to start the Swamp Sparrow from its nest in the tussock. The Field Spar-row likes the clump of weeds in pasture or orchard for the temporary home, and it will be either on the ground or within a foot of it among the stems of the weeds or in a tiny sprout. The eggs are smaller and more finely marked than those of the Song Sparrow, and thus can be distinguished.
It is not so easy to find the Vesper Sparrow's nest, though it is built usually where the grass is scant, for the bird sees an intruder and usually flies off before he comes dangerously near.
The Savanna Sparrow, though it often builds in similar situations, is more tame and less shrewd, and I have found their nests by dozens through flushing them, in regions where they are common, as on open headlands by the sea. But the Grasshopper Sparrow —how it can hide its treasures! I have found but one of their nests and it was on this wise. I was crossing a dry, sandy field, with very sparse grass, when out fluttered a small sparrow right from my very feet. Of course I knew there was a nest, though none was in sight. Down I dropped on hands and knees, laying my handkerchief on the grass about where the bird was first seen. I felt like a fool when, after a quarter of an hour spent in examining every inch of ground, I could not for the life of me find the nest. The only thing to do was to withdraw, mark the spot and try again. So in half an hour I came back and this time I saw exactly where the bird flushed. But even then it was a couple of minutes before I detected the tiny tunnel, overhung by dry grass which led in under a small tussock, There, clear out of sight, was the simple nest of grass with its five white, sparsely marked, handsome eggs, very different from those of our other sparrows.
Sparrow's eggs are usually so much alike that in most cases it is necessary to identify them by clearly seeing their owners, and often this is a very difficult task. I have spent hours waiting or searching about, trying to make the secretive, skulking bird show herself. Even if the pesky thing does come out for an instant, it is more than likely that it will be gone again before the glass can be brought to bear.
Almost everyone who lives in the country has the pleasure of seeing the familiar Chippy nest on the premises, in perfect confidence of good treatment. Chippy nests in my orchard, on any bush or low tree in the garden, or even on my piazza porch in the woodbine. There I took her picture while she gazed at me beseechingly, hoping that I had not now become her foe. This last spring a pair built their nest on the trellis right at the entrance of our front door, but there was so much passing that the little bird became frightened and the eggs were not laid there.
Chippy is a good subject to photograph in the act of feeding her young. Some sparrows are too shy and nervous to brave the camera, but she will do it. A pair had a nest in our mulberry tree, and on the day that the four little fellows left the nest I caught two of them and made them sit on a stick in front of the camera which was all ready for business. At first mother Chippy was a little afraid, but she soon plucked up courage and at frequent intervals came with an insect and fed the little fellows in turn. In a short time I had a dozen as good feeding pictures as I could want.
Leaving the Sparrows, now, to be studied afield, I must tell a little about that other group of birds in this finch family which we referred to at the beginning of the chapter as the more southerly fellows which are large of beak. The next, one after the sparrows, as numbered in the American Ornithologists' Union Check List, is the handsome and common bird variously known as Towhee or Chewink, and I have also heard it called Swamp Robin. This is the black and white fellow, with brown markings, who plays hide and seek with us in the bushy pasture, the scrub land, or along the roadside. He is bound to see who you are, but does not intend that you shall see him very much, though he calls out a pert inquiring "tow-hee," or "chewink," as he seems to different observers to say. But when he thinks there is no one around to bother him, he stands up proudly on the top of a bare tree that towers above the thicker of scrub and sings a happy and more pretentious song. The nest is hidden away in a brush heap or under a small bush and about the only way I know of finding it is to flush from it the brownish female, who will soon return with her black-gowned husband and set up a great outcry. Once I was shown a nest out in the open in the hollow of a grassy bank in a pasture. The female was in charge of the five pretty eggs and allowed me to come quite near, but she crouched down so deep into the hollow that a picture showed nothing but her bill.
Then there is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The male is a beautiful black and white bird with a rose-colored spot on his breast and under each wing, and is a sweet singer, with clear, liquid notes. But the female is a plain brownish little lady, looking like an enlarged sparrow. They are moderately common in many localities, and it would be well if they were more so, for they have a habit which will commend them to all who know of it. If they are seen in the garden, do not assume that they are working mischief though sometimes they eat buds, they are mostly insectivorous and are among the few birds that will eat potato bugs. I have known them to go day after day to the potato patch to feed upon these vermin as long as they lasted. I tell Ned that they are more useful in that line than he, for he is not fond of "picking potato bugs," though his mother tells that when he was a baby she found him one day munching a horrid black squash bug. But in time he proved not to be insectivorous after all!
This grosbeak builds a frail nest of small sticks and rootlets in a low tree or bush in a swamp or thicket, usually from five to ten feet from the ground. Both birds incubate and they are not very shy, only the nest is rather hard, usually, to get at to photograph, unless one raise the camera on stilts and focus, say, from a step-ladder. In one case a nest was out on a horizontal bough and I bent it down and tied it so that the nest was on a level with my camera on the fully extended tripod. When I came, sometimes the male was on, but more often the female. He would not let me walk up with the camera, but she allowed me to do so and even to work on her within a yard, if I moved slowly and kept very quiet.
Still another interesting and striking species is the Indigo-bird, or Indigo Bunting. It is a small species, of sparrow size, the male of which is of a rich dark blue color all over, very gaudy and conspicuous, One would not suppose that the dull brownish female could be any near relative of his. They are fond of bushy pastures and the neat nest is suspended in a thicket or brier patch. One that I found was beautifully lined with black horse-hair. Another was discovered through the anxiety of the male that I should not find it. I was passing through some scrub and brier thicket one hot day in June, looking for nests to photograph. Suddenly this male Indigo-bird appeared on a poplar tree near by and began to advise me in his language that the best thing I could do was to get right straight out. Instead of doing this, I began to look about all the more sharply and soon I found his nest, nearly completed, close to where I had just passed. Later it held three bluish-white eggs. I photographed them, but could not catch either of the birds with the lens, though I hid the camera quite well in a clump of bushes near by, covering it with foliage.
In the Middle States, up as far as New York City, we may see the brilliantly colored male Cardinal Grosbeak and his more somber-clad mate. Their beautiful songs are a delight about the garden, and their nest may be found in the adjoining shrubbery. The further south we go the more plenty they become. During my trips to the South I have greatly enjoyed the Cardinal.
Besides the Cardinal, there are other distinctly Southern species in this family of which it is beyond my present purpose to write. But instead, seeing that I mentioned above the American Ornithologists' Union, and also the difficulty of studying such birds as this finch family, I want to advise every one of my bird-loving readers to become an associate member of this organization, if he or she has not already done so. Though it is the greatest ornithological society of America, and includes in its membership the leading scientists, it is intended just as much for beginners in bird study, to increase and cultivate the friendly interest in birds which has now become so widespread. Its "Associate" class of members numbers many hundreds, all over the United States and Canada, including boys and girls, and ladies as well as men. My young friend Ned is an enthusiastic "Associate," and it helps him very much. Through it he knows many other bird-lovers. , Its large quarterly magazine, The Auk, the leading bird publication in America, which everyone belonging to it receives, is very instructive and enables him to keep up with whatever is being done by other students. Now and then he goes to its "Annual Congress," which is a most delightful social occasion. There he gets acquainted with many other young ornithologists, and also with the great scientists, who are glad to see all who are beginning to take interest in birds, no matter how little they know about the subject at present. It costs three dollars a year as membership fee, which includes subscription for The Auk, and I hope that many young bird lovers, or others, after reading this will write to the Treasurer of the A. 0. U., Dr. Jonathan Dwight, 134 West 71st Street, New York City. He will send you any desired information. The more membership fees the Union has, the better magazine they can publish, with more illustrations, and the more they can do for bird study and bird protection.
If you could only have a talk with Ned, I am sure he would soon persuade you to join and make you feel that because you love birds you are just exactly the kind of a person that they want on the roll of membership.
Both he and I want also to say a good word for the Audubon Society, whose special work is to interest in birds those who have not thought much about them, to train the growing generation of children and youth to love and befriend the birds, and to secure money, laws and public sentiment for their protection. In each State there is a local Audubon Society, all of which are incorporated as "The National Association of Audubon Societies." For a few cents annually any-one can be a member, and for a dollar a year more have that delightful little illustrated magazine, Bird-Lore, the organ of the Association, which every beginner in bird study ought to have and all bird lovers as well. To secure further funds for the educational and humanitarian crusade, for enforcement of protective laws, for guarding breeding-colonies of birds and the like, there are various degrees of honorary membership, attainable through certain money payments. Inquiries addressed to the headquarters of the Association, the office of its President, Mr. William Dutcher, 141 Broadway, New York City, will secure all information needed. Those who take delight in our wild birds and are interested in their protection will both get and give a great deal by being associated in these organized ways with other bird lovers, and " the sport of bird study" will thus be found far more fascinating than by " going it alone."