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Birds - Thrush Cousins

( Originally Published 1910 )

Thrashers, Wrens, Titmice, Kinglets, Thrushes, Etc.

SUCH a bird as the Brown Thrasher is often popularly thought of as a kind of thrush, but, though this is not strictly correct, it has so much in common with the thrushes that we can quite naturally talk of the group to which it belongs, and those between it and the thrushes in the classification, along with the true thrushes.

Our thrasher, together with the familiar Catbird and the various wrens, are classed in a family called Troglodytida, or wren-like birds. This scientific name literally means "cave-dwellers," suggesting that they are all birds of a sort of underworld, fond of seeking out holes and crevices and impenetrable tangles, sly and artful dodgers. Though willing enough to show themselves upon occasion, they seldom get very far from the possible place of refuge, into which they can dive upon the slightest alarm. Wherever a bird of their size can penetrate, they can do likewise with their enchantments, or even go it one better.

Most people know—or at any rate ought to know-the Brown Thrasher, the rather large bird with rich reddish-brown back and a long tail, which is so fond of dusting itself in the road and which one sees flitting into the thickets. It returns from the South about the last of April, and when it mounts up on a roadside bush or sapling and pours out a flood of song, it is supposed by farmers, according to the old adage, to be calling out, "Plant corn, plant corn." The thrasher probably is no farmer, but it arrives and begins to sing at about the usual corn-planting season. It is really a remarkable songster, one of the most gifted of our feathered musicians. Toward the end of May the nest with its four or five eggs finely dotted all over with brown may be found by the sharp-eyed and persistent searcher in a thicket, either on the ground, or, more generally, several feet up in the bushes.

I used to wonder why the bird was called a thrasher. But after I had actually received a real thrashing from a pair of them, I thought I had some light upon the subject. Ordinarily they are quite timid and retiring, and, though I had heard of cases where they were very bold in defending their nests, in all my experiences I had found them as timid as most song birds. But on the afternoon of June 18, 1906, toward sundown, I was driving homeward along a country road, on one side of which was a farmhouse, on the other a bushy pasture. Here I saw a Brown Thrasher fly across the road just ahead of me, carrying in its bill a large worm. It flew down into the pasture and alighted upon the top of a dead sprout which projected from a thick clump of bushes. After pausing for a moment to look around in order to be sure that the coast was clear, down it went into the midst of the thicket.

It was evident that there was a nest somewhere near that spot, so I hitched the horse, took my 4x5 camera and tripod, and went to investigate. First of all I made a careful inspection of the thicket into which the thrasher had gone, but could see no sign of a nest. Puzzled, I looked it through again, but with the same result. Just as I was going off, to look further away, I heard a series of sharp hissing sounds, which increased in vehemence as I followed up this clue. Even then it was some moments before I discovered the author, not a snake, but the Brown Thrasher, sitting close on a nest which was built into a cavity of the ground under the bushes. There the bird remained, though I was but a step away, looking up into my face and continuing to hiss, braving me and daring me to touch it.

Of course I withdrew a little and made ready the camera on the tripod. But the presentation of that blunderbuss was too much for the thrasher's nerves. It ran off into the bushes where it was joined by its mate, and both of them set up a great outcry. I could now see them both at times and discovered that the brighter colored one, the male, was the one which had been on the nest. No wonder they were angry and anxious, for they had five young ones, ragged and uncouth in appearance, but lusty and promising, of quite good size.

Opening up the bushes temporarily to let in a little light upon this interesting subject, I set the camera upon the shortened tripod, decked it with foliage, attached a thread, set the shutter for one second exposure, and retired for awhile. The birds soon stopped scolding, so I sneaked up and discovered that the male thrasher was upon the nest. So I pulled the thread, and was glad to see that the bird sat still. He then allowed me to creep up behind the camera, change plates, and make exposures by hand, using a long-focus, eighteen inch single lens. But when I tried to push the camera nearer he beat a retreat. It was now getting too dark for further work that day, so I put back the bushes in order and went home.

Owing to trips away and rainy weather, it was not till four days later, June 22d, that I was able to resume the work, this time with a reflecting camera. Again the male was on duty. Ile slipped off as before, and again I opened the bushes, and, very innocently, put out my hand to the nest to remove an obstructing leaf. I was so surprised and startled that I almost fell over backward when instantly the male thrasher dashed from the shrubbery behind the nest and struck the offending hand a stinging blow. Quickly he withdrew again and took his station behind the nest with his five big offspring, waiting to see what I would do. As I was not looking for a fight, but for the pictures, I stepped back a bit and squatted, quietly waiting for the brave defender to make the next move. Though it was mid-afternoon, the June sun was quite warm, and in a very short time the young, though now too old to be injured thus, became a bit restless. The devoted father noticed this, and came at once to their relief. Running out from his shelter, he took his stand over them, spreading out wings and tail so as to perfectly shield them from the sun. How fine and noble a bird he looked as he bravely did his duty, with an air both fearless and at the same time resigned to whatever fate might befall him. The female was back in the thicket exhorting him, I took it, to be brave. But, despite this intrusion for the sake of my studies, I came as a friend, and would not, nor did not, hurt them.

With the reflecting camera I then advanced, and, presenting the instrument as near to him as I pleased, snapped and snapped again. Then I wanted a different pose of the brave bird, so I extended my foot toward him. Quick as a flash he pounced at my leg, struck it a quick, angry blow, and hastened back to the young, this time sitting on the nest as though incubating. After getting his picture in this position, I decoyed him off several times again. After each attack he would either return to the nest directly, or go off into the thicket a few moments before coming back home to assume some new and striking pose. One such was when he stood over the young and some of them poked out their heads to see for themselves what was going on, Some-times, when I made only a slight feint, he would run part way to meet me and stand out in the open in a defiant attitude, while I snapped him.

During the course of this fracas the young had one by one crawled just outside the nest into the shade close by, all but one, which was more puny than the rest and could not get out of the rather deep cup. It was fortunate for me that this one stayed, for the noble parent was as ready to incur danger for one as for all. His fine example at length seemed to inspire his rather faint-hearted mate, for she began to grow more threatening and even ran out in front of the nest, where I secured just one snapshot of her standing on a low rock.

Having now used up quite a number of plates and secured pictures of about every possible position, I thought I would see what they would do if I actually handled the young. So I started to lay hold of the chick in the nest. But no sooner had I touched it than like a whirlwind, with shrieks of rage and despair, both thrashers precipitated themselves upon me.' Seizing my fingers with their claws, they hung on, scratching like vixens, nipping my hand here and there with their sharp bills and beating it furiously with their wings. Then they darted off into the thicket, and again and again I tried to touch the young one, with the same result. The whole thing so touched and interested me that I felt no injury from their attack, but when I be thought myself to look at my hand I saw that it was dotted with little drops of blood, where they had scratched or bitten through the skin. Then I wrapped a handkerchief around the injured member and let them try to tear that for a change. If I stood up and put my foot near the nest they attacked that, clinging to my pant leg and mauling that to the utmost of their ability.

My only lack was of an assistant to photograph the birds in the act of attacking me. It was too late, though to secure one that afternoon. The next day I would have brought Ned, but the rain poured down unceasingly, and by the day following the thrashing thrashers and their offspring had retired safely from the field of the hard fought battle and the glorious victory. No doubt they believe that they worsted and routed a man, and henceforth and forever thrasher art, folk-song and literature will, of course, prate of arms and of the man who on that memorable day backward reeled from the stubborn birds and a barren field. And, as for the man in the case, he no longer doubts the thrasher prowess, and enjoys recounting the sensations of the thrashing administered by these professional thrashers.

The melodious thrasher likes the dry thicket and patches of bushy scrub, whereas his vocal rival and near relative, the Catbird, prefers the swampy thickets, or those bordering upon wet ground. Though called Catbird from its ordinary scolding, mewing note, the bird is a really magnificent singer, with an amazingly extensive repertoire. After watching it on some perch and hearing it warble away and imitate various birds, if we invade its chosen thicket a striking change occurs as it turns from singing to scolding, about as radical as though at a concert the prima donna should suddenly begin to swear. However we are not surprised, for we know the Catbird to be a great scold.

One will find the rather bulky nests of this bird almost everywhere in the thickets. Some are old and abandoned; the new ones, from the last of May and on, will contain four or five very dark blue eggs, and later young. When one comes near the bird flies off, and then begins to mew and scold at a great rate, yet I never heard of one turning "thrasher." For all that, though, the average Catbird is bolder then than the average Brown Thrasher. At such times I have been able to "snapshoot" them with the reflecting camera, watching the opportunity when the bird comes out for a moment upon some open branch where the sunlight strikes it. If we pose the camera near the nest, our formerly bold friend becomes very suspicious and it is no easy matter to get a photograph. At one time when I tried it, I could not for the life of me see the old bird on the nest when I crept up. The eggs were warm, and I knew she had sneaked off when she heard me coming, so I laid the thread away out into the pasture and pulled it from afar, after waiting a good long time to give her the chance to return. Twice I tried it, and in both cases, when I developed the negative, I saw that I had caught the sly fox.

The Mockingbird, celebrated for its song, belongs to the same. order as Catbird and Thrasher. Though it is doubtless the best singer among them, these others are not so very far behind. It is a good deal like the Catbird in appearance and in some of its traits. I have watched and heard it a good deal in the South, but it also comes up sparingly into the Middle States, and I have met it as far north as Boston.

And now for the most wren-like of all the Troglodytidoe, for there is nothing so like wrens as the wrens themselves. They all look a good deal alike, little brown fellows, artful dodgers indeed, that run into about every imaginable crevice or cranny, hunting out insects and their eggs or larvae, surely a useful tribe. Best known of them all, and most beloved, is the House Wren. How glad we are in May to hear again the merry, bubbling song in the garden and around the house, and in due time to see the little people hunting for a building-site. Almost any sort of a hole will do, in a building, in a tree, a bird-box, an old tin can, or any crevice. As soon as they have chosen the place, they go right to work to fill it up with twigs, in the midst of which they make a soft nest of grass and feathers and the like.

Some of the sites which they select are perfectly ridiculous. I have known them to build in the pocket of a coat hung up in a shed, and in a hat or pot laid on a shelf. The funniest and most audacious thing I ever saw a bird do I am almost afraid to tell, lest I should injure my reputation for truthfulness. But, having a reliable witness, I will venture to tell it. I was off on an expedition in the West with Dr. L. B. Bishop, of New Haven, Conn,, a well-known ornithologist. In a grove by our camp he was engaged each day for about a week in skinning birds. The guide had provided him with an old upholstered chair, the lining of which hung down beneath. While the learned doctor sat doing up bird specimens in scientific form, a House Wren (of the race called Bewick's), fearless of being itself consecrated to science, actually went to work building its nest in the lining of the chair while the doctor was sitting on it, finished the structure, and before we moved camp had laid a part of her litter of eggs.

These wrens seem especially fond of an old tin can with a small hole in one end, put up for their benefit, and I have known them to set to work building within half an hour of the time the can was nailed up. Ned nailed one to an apple tree, about five feet up the trunk, and the wrens took possession and raised a brood. Every few minutes during the day they would feed the six hungry young, which gave a fine opportunity for photographs. I stood the camera boldly up on the tripod near the nest, without any attempt to conceal it, and sat a little way off holding the thread ready to pull, throwing light upon the can with a mirror. When the parent was entering or leaving I would pull the string and get a picture. After their young had gone, the pair wanted to raise a second brood, in July, and began looking around for a new site, as the old nest swarmed with bird lice. Ned nailed up another can under the eaves of a low shed, and at once the wrens went to work building in it. There they raised the other brood, which soon became as lousy as the first had been.

If you see a wren in midwinter hopping about a brush pile or a stone wall, do not imagine it to be the familiar House Wren. It is the kind known as the Winter Wren, distinguishable from the other by having upper parts of a brighter, reddish brown. It breeds mostly well to the north, in the dark spruce forests, but Ned and I met two pairs of them in early July in a wild, mountainous part of Connecticut, whither we had gone to explore for Northern birds. How wonderfully these males did sing, a tinkling, bell-like warble, that lasted each time I should think as much as fifteen seconds, one of the longest bird songs I have heard. The larger Carolina Wren is also a famous singer. It rarely reaches New England, but appears in the Middle States, and more abundantly as we proceed southward.

We have two more wrens, very different in their habits from either of the above—the Long-billed Marsh Wren and the Short-billed Marsh Wren. These also are artful dodgers, but they do their hiding and climbing amid the reeds or grass of the marsh or meadow. Though neither of them are as gifted singers as the others, they have pleasing little ditties which add to the attractiveness of their wet surroundings. The Long-billed kind is generally much the more common and conspicuous of the two. One sees them hopping about among the reeds or rushes, tails sticking straight up in jaunty fashion, singing away as every happy little wren should. They build a conspicuous globular nest sus» pended well up among the reeds or rushes. Entrance is by a little round hole in one side. The chamber is softly lined with plant down, and rather late in June contains from five to nine very dark little eggs of a mahogany-brown color. A curious trait of this wren is that it builds a number of dummy nests, apparently to mislead intruders. One will often examine half a dozen nests before the finished and occupied one is found.

The Short-billed Marsh Wren is similar in many of its habits, but is even more secretive and mouse-like than the other. It keeps more to low, thick meadow grass, and builds a nest similar to that of the other, but low down in a tussock. The equally numerous eggs are, however, pure white. The sitting bird will sneak off the nest and be hiding in the grass close by, despite all one's efforts to kick it out. I succeeded once in getting a photograph of one near its nest in a meadow by setting the camera focused on a nearby bush on which I saw it several times alight. Standing off in the distance, holding the thread connected with the shutter, I had a friend chase the little rascal. It took short flights from bush to bush, until once it a lighted just where I wanted it. Often it would get just under the bush, and I would walk up and poke at it with a switch to try to make it fly up higher. But instead it would run like a mouse off into the grass.

Between the wrens and thrushes come four small groups of birds, about which we must say just a few words. One is the creeper family, of which we have but one species in America, our Brown Creeper, that slender little brownish fellow with a rather long bill and stiff spiked tail which we see in the colder months running up the trunks of trees, uttering faint lisping sounds as it does so. It is a timid little creature and is pretty hard to locate, even when we are hearing its deceptive notes. It usually nests well to the north, but sometimes as far south as southern New England, and builds behind a loose, rotten sheath of bark on a decaying tree.

Next are the nuthatches, two of which we have—White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches. Their name was earned by skill in cracking nuts. They are the funny little blue-gray fellows that climb about on the trees saying, "ank, ank," hanging or feeding head down as easily as any other way. The smaller Red-breast we have mostly as a migrant to and from the North, but now and then it stays in winter. The White breast we have resident with us the year round. In winter it becomes very familiar and accepts our hospitality of nuts, crumbs, or suet. It is not a bit afraid of the camera, and many a person, myself for one, have photographed it by focusing the camera upon the "lunch counter" and pulling the thread when the bird seems to be posing just right. Some use a pneumatic tube and bulb, but this device cracks and leaks air or fails to move the shutter, and I very much prefer a thread. Quite early in spring friend Nutty ignores our charity and makes a nest in a hollow limb of some shade or orchard tree, where it raises a family of from five to eight.

The sub-family of titmice are now classed with the nuthatch sub-family in the family Paridoe, or titmice, and well so, for they all have much in common in their mode of life.

Our common little Chickadee is enough to make us think well of this group. They are so animated and interesting that it is a delight to have them about our homes in the winter, feeding on the suet. Everyone ought to tie or nail up a piece of fat meat for the birds, out of reach of cats, and as an investment it pays big dividends in the pleasure which their company in the long, cold season affords. Like .the nuthatch they are easy to photograph, and like them they forsake us with the passing of the snow, and, betaking themselves to the woods and swamps, in May they excavate a tiny burrow in a rotten stub, in my experience generally a birch, which is very soft. Like the nuthatches also they rear large families, and it is remarkable how the young birds escape being smothered, for they fill the hole about solid full when they are well grown. If we take them out it is a real problem how to get them all in again.

Toward the end of winter the Chickadee has a fine trick of fooling people by a note which they think is made by the Phoebe. It is a long-drawn, plaintive whistle—"pee-wee-e," but it is not so very much like the Phoebe's note, if one could hear both together. Yet the correspondent of the local country paper reports the first Phoebe heard—though never seen in January or February, and the knowing ones smile. In Canada there is also the Hudsonian Chickadee, which wears a brown cap instead of a black one, and says "dee-dee" instead of "chicka-dee-dee," and in the Middle States and southward they have the Tufted Titmouse, which has a topknot, and the Carolina Chickadee.

In still another group, the Sylviidoe, or birds of the "Old World Warbler" type, we have several dainty little midgets, next in size to the hummers, which are very interesting. One is the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, found in the Middle States and southward. I have had no opportunity to know and study it afield, as I have the two other species, the Kinglets—Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned. They are both tiny birds, greenish olive above and white beneath, with a brilliant crown color-patch which the Manuals describe, which, how-ever, is lacking in the female and immature Ruby crown. They are spring and fall migrants with us, sometimes wintering. How such fragile little mites of birds can keep from freezing in cold weather is a mystery. They are fond especially of evergreen woods, but appear in other timber as well. If in the woods one hears repeated faint lisping sounds which are hard to locate in the treetops, they probably are made either by the Brown Creeper while running up some trunk and hiding behind it, or else by either or both of these Kinglets. They go in small parties, sometimes the two species together, and often in company with the Chickadees, flitting merrily from branch to branch in their hunt for larvae, lisping away in their almost insect-like dialect. In northern New England and Canada they build globular nests of moss, with side entrance, suspended well out on the limbs of evergreens in the forests.

Now we come to the thrushes, another of our rather puzzling groups, though they are not as hard to master as the finches or warblers in that we have not nearly so many species of them. In the Eastern and Middle districts of the United States and Canada there are but eight species and forms to learn, and most of these are perfectly distinct, some of them very well known. For instance, no one can mistake the Robin or the Bluebird—these are both thrushes. Then there is the familiar Wood Thrush, the bird with bright reddish-brown upper parts and heavily spotted breast. The common Veery, or Wilson's Thrush, has also bright upper parts, though less so than the preceding, but smaller and fainter markings below. The Hermit Thrush has a bright rufous tail, much brighter than the brown of the back. The only great confusion can occur with the dark-backed thrushes, which are the Olive-backed and Alice's—the latter having under it another form or geographical race known as Bicknell's Thrush, the only difference being that it averages a little brighter and smaller than the Alice's Thrush. Both these two species have upper parts dark olive brown and light but spotted under-parts; they differ mainly in that the Alice's Thrush has the light color of the under-parts, throat, sides of head, and eye-ring, pure white, while in the Olive-backed Thrush these parts have a bully suffusion.

If the bird student can bear these points of the thrushes in mind, there will be little trouble in identifying them, if one can only get a good view of the birds. But, "aye, there's the rub." The thrushes, all except the Robin and Bluebird, are timid, retiring creatures, fond of deep woods or swampy woodland solitudes. The latter are especially the Veery's choice, and we can oftener hear than see him, as he utters his ordinary "whee-u" call, or chants his simple "veery-veery-veery" lay. All the thrushes are good singers, with flute-like tones, and more continuous and elaborate songs than most birds. The Hermit Thrush is the finest singer of them all, with the Wood Thrush as a close second, and honorable mention for the efforts of the Olive-backed and Alice's Thrushes. The Robin's familiar outpourings have a homely beauty and strike a responsive chord in all hearts, while few sounds of Nature delight us more than the ethereal aeolian harp of the Bluebird, especially as heard from the skies in March mingling with the sighing of the cool northwest wind—our harbinger of spring.

The Bluebird is usually the first thrush to arrive, followed soon, or even accompanied, by the Robin. The next to come is the hardy Hermit Thrush during the first half of April. We find it searching for larvae among the dead leaves in the woods, and sometimes I have met it when Ned and I were gathering the first blossoms of the ever-welcome trailing arbutus. Early in spring, it is also late in fall, and it appears mostly as a migrant, though I have found it as far south as Connecticut in the breeding season in high mountainous wooded regions. The Wood Thrush comes rather late in April, followed by the Veery in early May, and both of these beautiful species remain with us to breed. About the middle of May the Olive-backed and Alice's Thrushes usually appear, in the height of the warbler migration, soon to pass us by for the silent northern spruce forests.

The Bluebird is the first of the group to go to nesting. Early in April they begin to build in the bird-box, or the hollow limb or woodpecker's hole in the orchard, by the roadside, or in swamp or pasture. By the tenth of the month some pairs have their five pale blue eggs. Ordinarily they raise at least two broods, and it is August before all of them are through with these household cares. Then they gather into flocks and have a good easy time here till they leave us in November. It is pleasant to have them nest on our premises, and it is well worth while to put up boxes for their use. The surest form of architecture to attract them is a section of a hollow limb, closed except for one quite small hole in the side, and nailed upright in a tree.

Soon after the Bluebird, the Robins get busy with housekeeping, from April 20th and on. Everyone is familiar with their operations, and knows of the curious sites which they select for nests. In my garden and premises a pair has built on the piazza in the woodbine, another on a branch extending over the front walk, and two pairs close together at the same time in a shed. They are fond of the apple orchard, and a hole in a bank by the roadside is quite attractive. One foolish pair built flat on the ground by a roadside under a projection of turf, and a kindly neighbor had to put some branches in front of it to keep away cats. The mother bird was so shy that she would hop out whenever anyone passed by, but for a wonder she raised her brood of three. This is the usual number for the second brood, but it is generally four for the first, and very rarely five. I only remember seeing three nests with five eggs, out of the many hundreds I have examined. Once Ned put his hand into a Robin's nest to see what was in it and broke an egg, the only time I ever knew him to have such a mishap When he looked in, he saw that it was a rare set of five. How-ever, the bird still had the usual number!

Since the Robin builds so near houses it is easy and interesting to watch the family life. One of the prettiest sights in bird life, I think, is to see the mother Robin, on a rainy day, stand in the nest and spread out her wings over the youngsters like an umbrella, thus keeping them dry, despite the downpour.

The Veery generally builds on the ground in the woods, among shrubbery, or very near mother earth in a clump of low bushes. Generally it is not easy to find, the nest except by flushing the brooding bird from it, but in this way I have often found nests and photographed them. The Veery will let one come quite close before leaving, and I have tried to snap her by walking up with the camera in hand, but she could not quite muster up courage to wait for me. Sometime, when I get round to it, I imagine it will not be so very hard to get a picture by setting the camera. I had a good chance this last season and would have tried it, had not some bad boys broken up the nest. It was on the edge of a little wood road quite near home, in some low weeds, about a foot from the ground, right in plain sight of any passer-by. It is strange what pleasure anyone can find in destroying a bird's home and eggs without purpose, not even for collecting, but just in wanton destruction. How infinitely much more real fun it would be to watch this family from the first to the time when the young were grown—seeing when each egg was laid, how long it took to hatch, how the parents fed the young, how long it took them to grow up, how they left the nest, and so on. But to destroy a bird's nest "for the fun of it" is lower than brutish, for even a "rascal" crow or jay robs nests for food.

The nest of the Wood Thrush is generally built in the fork of a sapling or low tree in the woods, from four to eight feet up. It is quite bulky, stiffened with mud like the Robin's nest, and the three to five blue eggs look almost exactly like the eggs of that bird. The dead leaves of which the foundation for the nest is usually made, though, "give it away," as to identity. The incubating Wood Thrush varies individually as to tameness, but generally it will allow a near, and sometimes a close approach. Several times I have been able to place my tripod and camera very near a nest and take pictures without flushing the birds, but only because I made every motion very slowly and carefully, taking a long time to do the work. On one such occasion Ned watched me, and thought it looked easy, but when he tried it, away went the bird, simply because he was in too much of a hurry. In such work with timid birds, after every new movement one must pause for the bird to become accustomed to that condition, ere it is ready for the next innovation. One mother Wood Thrush was so obliging that she let me reach within one foot of her and bend aside leaves without being startled to flight. But the next time I went, when she had young, I could not get within fifteen yards of her. The best rule in working with birds is to take advantage of their varying moods, and when a bird is "nice," use the present opportunity for all it is worth, as though there would never be another, for indeed, very likely there never will be just such another again.

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