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Birds - Four Diverse Neighbors

( Originally Published 1910 )

Tanagers, Waxwings, Shrikes, Vireos

NED came in one day in May, when the migration was at its height, and reported that he had seen a flock of male Scarlet Tanagers, six of them together, along a roadside, and asked if it was not a rare thing to find so many at once. I told him that it was rather unusual, but that I had occasionally seen such an occurrence at this time of year. They winter in Central and South America, and the males start first for the North, as is the case with many other birds, trusting to the females to come along later and help in setting up housekeeping. To see so many of these black and scarlet birds at once would make one think that they were more abundant than they are. But most people think it quite an event when they see even one. Though they are not rare, they are retiring birds and keep mostly to the woods, so the average person hardly ever sees them.

I went on to tell Ned that, if we lived in tropical America, the brilliant tanagers would not seem so remarkable to us, for there they have great numbers of them. Indeed there are so many kinds that instead of telling about tanagers, waxwings, shrikes and vireos all in one chapter to even things up, as we are doing now, we might have to make a whole book about the tanagers alone, for, actually, there are said to be three hundred and fifty species of tanager in Central and South America, a good many more kinds of birds than we are telling about in this whole book. Of all these tanagers, only five reach the southern border of the United States, and only one, the Scarlet Tanager, is found, except as a straggler, in our northeastern districts.

The four bird families named in the heading of this chapter follow each other in this order in the classification, except that we have taken out the swallows to treat by themselves—yet it is curious and remarkable how diverse these neighbors are. Not only are they entirely distinct in form, habits and coloration, but, taken as families, there are other interesting points of difference. For instance, the tanagers, as we have said, are a tremendously large group and are confined to the Western Hemisphere; but of the waxwings, which are American also, there are only two known species that certainly belong to this group. The shrikes, on the other hand, belong largely to the Eastern Hemisphere, for out of two hundred kinds America can boast of but two. The vireos are peculiarly American, and there are fifty species, but of these we only see six in northern and eastern North America.

The female Scarlet Tanager is not a scarlet tanager at all, but a dull greenish-olive one, and very few people would suspect her relationship to her brilliant husband. Indeed, she generally comes into publicity, if at all, as it were in his reflected light. First we see the male, about the most conspicuous object in the woodland landscape, and then, looking about very sharply for his companion, we finally make out her demure and inconspicuous form among the foliage. It is well that she is not as conspicuous as her husband, for every marauder would discover the nest, and presently there might be no more Scarlet Tanagers.

The nest is generally built in the woods out toward the end of some horizontal branch, often in an oak, and as high as twenty feet from the ground. But I have also found them in saplings no higher than one's head, in pastures close to the edge of the woods, in wild apple trees or abandoned orchards grown to scrub. In one spot of this latter sort I recently found three old nests, in early June, and saw the pair of tanagers loitering about, but could not trace them to their new home.

There is another decadent orchard spot near my home, on a hillside, by the edge of woods, all grown up to briers and scrub. The season before the one just mentioned, on the twenty-fifth of May, I noted a new but uncompleted nest on an extending branch of an apple tree. No bird was about, and I was uncertain to what species it belonged—either Rose-breasted Grosbeak or Purple Finch I thought it would prove to be. On June first the nest held four eggs, which looked like tanagers', but there was no bird in sight. Next time, however, the female tanager was on the nest. It was not favorably situated to photograph, but I thought I would pose the young later, when they were of the right age. But young land birds grow surprisingly fast and I must have waited just a little too long, for in a Wood Thrush's nest near by, in which the eggs were laid at about the same time, the young were ready to leave, and the tanagers' nest was empty. But I photographed a nest with eggs on a sapling in the woods and so have at least that much to show. Once I came near getting a good snapshot picture of a male on a wire fence with my reflecting camera. I crept up quite near, but the bird started to fly just as I snapped, so the picture was not very good.

Of the two species of waxwings, the Bohemian Wax-wing is a very rare winter visitor from the far North, and I have never seen it alive. The other, the Cedar-bird, is a common and familiar bird, much admired for its soft brown plumage, its wavy crest, the yellow-bordered tail, and the little red "sealing wax" feather tips that some of them have on their wings. Most of the year they go in compact flocks, making a lisping note as they fly, and alighting close together on the trees. These flocks sometimes appear in the winter, and one of my earliest recollections about birds is that one bitter cold day in February a large flock of these birds was flying about our garden, and we picked up one dead, which we had mounted. How I did admire it!—much, I suppose as my baby girl feels, who pats the stuffed birds in my study every day, saying, "Chicky, chicky."

In early spring, usually by March, one begins to see more and more flocks. These large companies break up soon into smaller ones. But after all the other birds have paired and are nesting, still we see flocks of Cedar-birds and Goldfinches, our two greatest delinquents. The Cedar-bird is the first of these two to yield to the inevitable, and by late June or early July we begin to miss them. But if we use our eyes a little we can find a nest here and a nest there, preferably in an orchard tree, but also in shade trees in gardens or along village streets. The pretty mother sits quietly on her compact nest of straws and rootlets, incubating her four or five spotted eggs, which can be distinguished at once from those of any other kind. If we disturb her we shall hear the lisping notes which were familiar in the spring. One day in midsummer a boy came to ask me what sort of a bird it was that had a nest in an apple tree by his home and kept saying, "Listen to me, listen to me." I told him that I never heard a bird say that, so I went with him to see, and found that it was a Cedar-bird.

They sometimes nest in my apple trees, and I find nests elsewhere readily enough, but most of them are out on slender branches or in deep shade, giving little chance for photography. However, as though to reward my forbearance in not cutting down a nest to pose in unnatural surroundings, I had an unusual chance to photograph a pair of Cedar-birds from life. In a neighbor's yard, a nest blew down in a thunder-storm, and all but two of the young were drowned or otherwise disappeared. A kind lady rescued the neglected orphans and fed them till they were fully grown and feathered. When I saw them they were at liberty in the garden, and were so tame that almost at once they would fly upon my head or shoulder and beg for food. They were very fond of raspberries, and every few minutes they would clamor to be fed—in their lisping dialect and by beseeching gestures. Hand-ling them did not alarm them in the least, so I focused the camera on a small bush, and fed the little fellows on the desired branch, when they assumed all sorts of pretty positions as I snapped them. After a few days they wandered off, and one afternoon a lady who stepped out on the sidewalk in front of her house was amazed to have a Cedar-bird suddenly alight on her head and then hop to her shoulder, where she could see that it was begging for food. She fed it, and the other one appeared, and they stayed about her home all day. It is not good, though, for birds to be too confiding, for a cat caught one of them, and it is more than likely that the other perished before long in some such way.

Very different in temperament from the gentle wax wing is the carnivorous shrike. Of the two species, the bold Northern Shrike, or Butcherbird, is the one with which I am the more familiar. We only have it in winter, from November to about early April. Most often it appears to our view as a solitary, gray-colored bird, nearly as large as a Robin, perched up on the topmost twig of some isolated tree, in a field or by the roadside. While we watch, it may suddenly dive down into the bushes or grass below, perhaps returning to its perch without result, or it may be with a mouse or a poor Tree Sparrow or Junco, grasped by the neck by the strong, toothed beak. If hungry, it will proceed to devour the victim like a little hawk. But at times it seems to kill merely from habit, and will impale its slaughtered victim on a thorn in the thicket, or suspend it in a crotch, and leave it. It is doubtful if this is done to provide for the future. Surely, in cold winter weather, when the meat would freeze solid, the shrike could hardly be supposed to eat it. Sometimes, when one of these birds of murderous taste locates in a town and practices its talents on English Sparrows, we come to feel friendly toward it.

I remember how surprised I was the first time I heard the Butcher-bird sing. It was in March, and on the topmost twig of a small elm on the edge of a field stood a bird which at once I called a shrike. As I drew near I was greatly surprised to hear it warbling away very prettily. At that time I had not read that butchering and musicianship could unite in an individual. I should about as soon have expected a hawk to rival the pet Canary. However, I saw that it was a Butcher-bird without doubt, so that day I added to my little stock of bird-lore.

The Butcher-bird nests far to the north, but the other species, the, Loggerhead Shrike, is more southerly, and is quite widespread, though rare in the northeastern States. I have found its nest in Florida and seen it a few times as far west as North Dakota. In habits it is a good deal like the Butcherbird, though more of the sort of singer that one would expect a butcher to be. I have noticed that it seems to like pretty well to perch on telegraph wires.

Somewhat resembling the shrikes in structure, having in common with them the strong, notched bill, the vireos are yet a very different group of birds. They are birds of the foliage, clad in dull green and olive garb which renders them inconspicuous, great destroyers of insects, and of considerable ability in song. They all build neat cup-shaped nests which they hang in a slender fork, usually near the end of a bough. Of the six species that visit us, the first to come in spring, toward the latter part of April, is the Blue-headed or Solitary Vireo. These species are all pretty much of a size and quite similar in plumage, and we must look carefully to distinguish them. This one is particularly distinct with the bold white ring around the eyes, bluish-gray crown and sides of head, and short, stubby bill. It is a northerly species, but it sometimes nests as far south as southern New England and in the Alleghany Mountains.

I have been fortunate enough to find one nest. As I was passing along the edge of a pine grove one June seventeenth, I noticed a vireo's nest in the fork of an extended branch of a sapling, not quite as high as my head. The owner, a Solitary Vireo, was at home, and was surprisingly tame. Though I stood close to her, she did not move, and it was only when I almost put my hand on her that she hopped off and began to scold very angrily. There were four small young in the nest. Unfortunately this was before the days of bird photography, in my boyhood, when the portrait photographer fixed one's head in a vise and made one sit rigid for a fearfully long time. I am certain that the vireo would not have submitted to that.

Last summer I came pretty near finding another nest of this bird. A friend and I had been exploring a typical Northern sphagnum swamp, around which grew a tract of black spruce, making ideal conditions for tempting Northern birds to linger south of their usual range. It was getting toward evening, and we were just coming out of the woods when we heard a vireo singing away with all its might from a pine tree near by. "That song doesn't sound to me just like the common Red-eye," said my friend. "It certainly does sound a little peculiar," I replied, "let's look it up." The pine was a large one, and for a quarter of an hour we vainly craned our necks, while the bird sang on. Finally my friend threw a stone at random and almost hit the singer, which darted out over my head and went down into the swamp. Presently it began again to sing and we followed it up. For some time it kept itself concealed in the top of another tall pine, but at last it flew down low and gave us a fine view. It was a Blue-headed Vireo. This was in late June and of course the nest was somewhere near by. We made a long, careful search for it, but at last had to give it up and return for supper. It proved impossible for me to visit the spot again.

Another species that is easy to distinguish is the Yellow-throated Vireo. Its bright-yellow throat reveals its identity in a moment. Though found in woodland, it is quite partial to the shaded street or garden, where it finds delight and food in the tall shade trees, from which it sings away blithely all the day. One of my earliest recollections is of a beautiful nest of this species in our garden in Boston, ornamented with many bits of white paper and cotton and lined with beautiful soft plant down. More latterly a pair built at the extremity of a slender limb of an ash tree quite near a window of my present home.

The Warbling Vireo is another species which frequents the tall shade trees of town or village, or even city. It is a plainly-garbed little bird, perhaps the most demure of all the vireos, greenish above and yellowish white below, without distinct markings. The nest is nearly always inaccessible, and were it not for its voluble singing, it would seem much scarcer than it really is. There is another vireo which is quite like it, a rare migrant, the Philadelphia Vireo, which may be distinguished by uniform pale greenish-yellow color of its entire underparts.

The remaining other two kinds are named after the color of their eyes, or iris—White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireo. The former has a ring of yellowish feathers around the eyes, and is a bird of the swampy thicket, a hard bird to study, as its haunts are so impenetrable. However, I have managed to find its nest, suspended in a low bush in the dense tangle of a swamp, though were it not, for the fact that the little fellow is such a capital singer and mimic, the most accomplished vocally of all our vireos, even the bird lover might not suspect its presence. Even as it is, with all its fine singing, few people know of its existence.

If there is any vireo at all well-known, it is the Red-eyed Vireo, or "Preacher-bird," as some have called it, readily distinguishable by white stripe over the eye. It is one of our most abundant woodland birds, and is also often found in shade trees or orchards. No bird's nest is more often found in the woods than the Red-eye's. One winter day, while taking a walk in the woods With Ned and another boy, I noticed a number of these nests on the bare branches. "Boys," said I, "stop a moment and tell me how many vireos' nests you can discover right from where you stand." The boys began to peer about, and after some little time they made out to find the six which I had already noted. In late spring and pretty much throughout the summer it seems as though one could hardly go anywhere into woodland without hearing the simple monotonous carol of the Red-eye "preacher." If no one listens to his discourse, it makes no difference, for his "preaching" is only intended for home consumption, the expression to his mate of his affection and of their mutual happiness.

The nest is generally in the fork of a sapling, low down, often within four feet of the ground. The mother bird sits tamely upon her three or four white, sparsely-dotted eggs. I have found it easy to stand the camera near by and photograph her, though she snuggles down so deeply into the cup that little of her can be seen save her head and the top of her back.

Of all the many Red-eyes' nests which I have seen, none have proved as interesting as one which I found this last June. I was just coming out of the woods back from the shore of a pond, when one of these vireos, flying into the shrubbery, suddenly encountered me face to face. At once it began to scold, and I saw the nest on a low sprout, just to one side. It was newly finished and contained only one egg, not the vireo's, but of the Cowbird parasite. To help the vireo, I removed it, thinking that now the birds might raise their brood in peace. I kept the nest in mind, and, wishing to photograph young vireos, I returned to it twenty-three days later, at the time when the brood ought to be nearly fledged. As I peered into the nest I saw that there were young, but imagine my surprise when these young proved to be, not vireos, but two lusty young Cowbirds, about ready to fly. There is no way of knowing whether one Cowbird had laid three times in this nest, or whether it was the work of three different Cowbirds. No doubt these youngsters had thrown out or trampled to death the whole brood of young vireos. I had a good mind to wring their necks, but the foster mother came and acted so distressed, that I decided she had had trouble enough.

But anyhow I was going to photograph the young rascals. It was dark there in the woods, so I carried them some rods out into an open clearing, where I posed them on a branch and used up my last few plates. By this time the old vireo had found us and

scolded plaintively from a branch close by. Then it began to dawn upon me that I had been rash in using up my plates so soon. I withdrew a few yards, leaving the camera where it was, close to the young. Within a minute the vireo flew down and gave one of her adopted children a worm, utterly ignoring the camera. I do not know when I ever felt more utterly disgusted at myself for having made such a blunder. Oh, if I only had a few plates ! My reflecting camera was in the buggy half a mile away and the sun nearly setting ! Putting the young Cowbirds in the carrying case, to keep them from fluttering away in my absence, I ran as fast as I could, got the other camera and plates, and rushed back again. I put the youngsters on the branch and sat down near by with the big camera, ready for business. The vireo, to my delight, went right to feeding the clamorous Cowbirds and I scored half-adozen shots before the western hill cut off the yellow sunshine. I put the youngsters back in the nest, hoping against hope that they would not be gone on the morrow, for I knew that these pictures already taken must be under-exposed, as they proved to be.

All in a flutter of excitement, the next morning, I peered through the foliage as I neared the nest. "Oh, joy, they are there" I exclaimed. I thought surely I was all right now, but my troubles were to begin. I posed the young, but they were determined not to stay on the branch, and I had to replace them again and again—scores of times. Besides this, the mother did not show up. After waiting over an hour, I feared all sorts of things, as she had not appeared at the nest while I was removing the young. Finally, just as I was thinking of returning them to the nest, I heard the old bird, and presently she came and gave one a worm. But now it had clouded up darkly and threatened rain, being too dark to photograph. I sat there another hour or more and watched her tuck grubs, flies, raspberries and the like into the hungry mouths. There was the camera staring helplessly at all those splendid poses two or three feet away, and I fairly gnashing my teeth, my proverbial patience almost a complete wreck.

But at length the clouds began to break, The sun peered out, and I scored a shot as a big red raspberry was being shoved into a widely opened mouth. Presently another gleam, just in time to catch on the plate the offer of a great fat worm. For about an hour there were intervals of sunshine, during which feeding was in active operation, and shooting, too ! I fired away with that camera till it was, metaphorically, red-hot and when the dark leaden pall shut in again over the sky before the shower broke, I went away rejoicing, leaving the devoted and deluded vireo still cramming the insatiable maws of those murderers of her own offspring.

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