Where To Find Birds
( Originally Published 1910 )
THE plan of Nature seems to be that there should be birds everywhere. They are like a well-regulated police force, a suffident number of them on duty wherever needed, to guard every green thing from the attacks of the many sorts of insects, to prevent self-assertive plants, which we call weeds, from multiplying unduly, and, in general, to help preserve the balance of Nature. Hence, when things are normal, there should be no tree or plant that grows without its bird guardians of various sorts, Each species of bird knows its own province, and confines itself pretty closely to that, though some, like individuals of our race, will at times go astray.
Some of the birds, then, are at our very doors. Ignoring the imported English sparrow, which has spread all over most of North America and become a real pest, the best-known door-yard bird is doubtless the robin. Few there are who cannot identify that! Perhaps next to it in abundance comes the chipping sparrow, the little slender, brownish bird with unspotted light breast and a reddish patch on the crown. You think you know it because you can distinguish it from the English sparrow? Make sure that you know it from the field sparrow, which is common in the pasture and low scrub and has a different cast of reddish on his head and back, and a pinkish bill, stouter than hippy's.
In winter another sparrow of this genus comes around the house to get weed-seeds in the garden, the northern tree sparrow, which looks very much like the field sparrow except that it has a distinguishing dark mark on the center of its breast. At this season its near relatives are far away south. The song sparrow, with heavily streaked breast, often appears, usually in the shrubbery of the garden or along the roadside. If there are dry open fields near-by, especially with rather poor sandy soil and sparse grass, the vesper sparrow ought to be found, easily recognized by the outer tail-feathers showing white as it flies.
In some localities, especially near the coast or well to the north, the savanna sparrow is the common member of its family on the open ground about home. It resembles the song sparrow, but its streaked breast is not so heavily marked; it is a trifle smaller and has a yellowish stripe over each eye. Still another species which is found in some places in the old fields is the grasshopper sparrow, which has a weak song like the strident fiddle of a grasshopper; it is shy and hard to recognize, with its dull tints. Look it up in the handbook. Thus we see that most of the sparrows can be learned right around the house, and it will be a good feat to accomplish as an early move in the game of birds.
If there are evergreens in the yard, like as not a few pairs of the grackle or crow blackbird may take up residence in them to build their nests. The brilliant Baltimore oriole hangs its pouch-shaped nest from the tips of the elm-branches in many a yard or along the street. Frequently we may hear snatches of caroled song, and it will take some peering up-wards among the foliage of the shade-trees to see the singer, the vireo, a light-breasted bird, greenish-olive above: It may be any one of three kinds : the commonest is the red-eyed vireo, slightly the largest, with very white breast, large bill, and a pronounced white stripe over the eye; the warbling vireo, of rather duller hues and a breast not so white; or the yellow-throated vireo, with a conspicuous yellow throat.
The little brown house wren may be a neighbor, nesting in some hole or other, or old tin can nailed up. It is a real musician, almost constantly pouring out a medley of bubbling song. The little hummingbird visits the flowers, and very likely has its tiny, downy nest saddled on some branch over the garden. Probably bluebirds live in the orchard, and one is fortunate if the lovely creatures consent to occupy the bird-house. More would do so, were it not for the English sparrow which drives them out. The same is true of the tree swallows and purple martins, which now all too seldom are able to find lodgment, owing, in part at least, to the " feathered rat."
These cannot, however, dislodge the chimney swift, which comes so very close home as to build its basket-nest of gummed sticks in many a chimney of the older and wider type. Sometimes, when the young are growing, such a racket is kept up within the chimney, even at night, that it takes some enthusiasm for birds not to wish that these were farther off. Another notably familiar bird is the little gray phoebe, which puts its nest in any available building.
The orchard, even though small, is a favorite resort for certain birds, and even a few fruit trees in the garden have great drawing powers. Besides most of the birds already mentioned, the bold king-bird, our largest flycatcher, of excitable manners, is notably an orchard bird, defending its nest, and incidentally those of other birds, from marauding jay, crow, or hawk. The other large flycatcher, the crested, though rather scarce, likes the orchard, where in a hollow limb it builds its nest which is famous for always including a snake-skin in its material. The smallest species too, the least flycatcher, or " chebec," likes the orchard and the garden, as some times does one other, the wood pewee, with its pro-longed plaintive note, though the groves are most frequently its temple.
That large woodpecker, the flicker, likes to carve out his nest in a dead limb or decaying trunk. The cedar waxwing, or cedar-bird, is very partial to the apple orchard, particularly in its nesting-time late in summer. Its companion in tardy breeding, the gold-finch, while it may nest about the premises, is more apt to come for thistle and sunflower seeds. If the place be a farm, the barn and eave swallows are apt to take up residence in the barn.
During spring and fall migration, quite a number of birds are likely to drop in while passing. In spring the warblers make a most beautiful accession: Some days in May the blossoming apple-trees are alive with them and they are seen nearly everywhere. The pretty white-throated sparrow is quite apt to come in both the migrations, and sometimes the shy thrushes, even the hermit and olive-backed, are liable to favor us, though well back in the garden.
It must be evident from the above that there are a good many birds to study close at home, and if people are willing to use their eyes a little, they can learn a great deal with very little trouble. It is interesting, while studying birds, to keep an incidental record of all species seen on one's own premises. In my former home garden in Boston, during a series of a dozen years, I noted about eighty-five kinds of birds, and another observer, in a recent book, records one hundred and ten seen on Boston Common in a decade. Many happy odd minutes can profitably be spent with the opera glass in one's own yard. Indeed, almost any bird is at times liable to occur in such surroundings.
It would, however, seem rather indolent to wait for the birds to come to us. There are many other sorts of localities to explore. Out in the grassy field or meadow we may hear and see the bobolink and the meadowlark. A very excellent and prolific sort of place is the scrub pasture. Here we shall meet the chewink and the brown thrasher. The field and song sparrows doubtless are abundant. The dark blue male indigo-bird mated to a dull brown little female is another kind to be looked for, and with about as much assurance the chestnut-sided warbler; also, in some localities, the prairie warbler. There the parasite, the cowbird, is about, the female ready for mischief, to deposit her egg in the nest of some smaller-bird.
Especially if there are cedar trees, the purple finch may be found. This is another species where the different appearance of the sexes may puzzle the be-ginner. From the female the rich crimson " wash " of the male is omitted, leaving a streaked bird, a good deal like the song sparrow, whose thick bill and forked tail will betray it to those whose eyes are keen. That singular bird, the yellow-breasted chat, loves the scrub, briers, and thicket.
One must always bear in mind that birds are seldom wholly restricted to one sort of locality, and also that it is impossible to divide a region into hard and fast sections. Hence the best I can do, by way of general suggestion, is to mention several leading types of localities and a few of their most characteristic birds. One need not be surprised to encounter many others, as will surely be the case.
The type of locality that almost blends with the pasture is the bushy swamp, or swampy thicket. Here are various birds which easily overflow into the pasture. A notable case is the catbird. Anywhere where there are thick, rather high bushes one is liable to find it. This is true also of the yellow-throat, that inquisitive warbler of the swamps which the beginner will soon have to learn. It is supposed to sing " witchery, witchery," and its conspicuous feature is that suggested by its name, the male having also a pronounced black stripe about the eyes. In these haunts we may find, in migration, the mourning and Connecticut warblers. The white-eyed vireo is partial to thickets near a swamp or brook. It has a bold, ringing song, very distinct from that of the other vireos, and as it is quite apt to let one approach very near and see its funny eyes with the staring white iris, it is not hard to identify.
The rose-breasted grosbeak is especially partial to a swampy growth of young maples, where it nests, but the drier thickets often answer its purpose, and it even rambles to the garden. This bird resembles the purple finch in the difference between sexes. The female is also a sparrow-like bird with a very thick bill, but much larger than the purple finch or any sparrow, and radically different from her distinguished black and white husband with the rose-spot on his breast. The cuckoos also seek the thick places, though frequently they locate in the orchard, The two kinds are not easy to distinguish, and the book-descriptions should be read carefully.
In places more swampy still, and rather more open, the red-winged blackbird is the most conspicuous citizen, especially the male, with his flashing red epaulettes, who will not fail to let one know where he is. Sometimes the kingbird will surprise us by dwelling in the bushy swamp, building the nest in the crotch of a bush over the water or even out from the shore of a pond. The swamp sparrow is partial to such places, where there are grassy tussocks among the bushes. It is in these tussocks that the rather rare short-billed marsh wren makes its nest. Where the swamp becomes the bog, with tall reeds or rushes, the long-billed marsh wren dwells and suspends its odd globular nest among the stems. Here are found certain water-birds, which will be described later.
The other main division of the landscape is the woodland, and a very charming one it is. Many of the smaller species thought of as woodland birds are more apt to be found near the edge of the woods, adjacent to open land or even human habitation. Among our most typically woodland birds are the thrushes, with the exception of the robin, yet even this familiar fellow I have found nesting in the woods. Most conspicuous of them is the wood thrush, of good size, with bright brown back and heavily spotted breast and sides. The only bird it could be at first mistaken for is the brown thrasher, but that is larger, more vivacious, and has a much longer tail.
The Wilson's thrush, or veery, is fairly common. It is rather a timid bird, not always easy to approach, but if we can get a look at its faintly spotted breast and unspotted sides, we can distinguish it at once. The hermit thrush occurs only as a migrant, save from the Northern States and on. Its "give-away" point is that the tail is of a brighter reddish brown than the back. The olive-backed thrush is another rather common migrant, and has a dark olive-brown back, very different from the others.
In the same rank with the wood thrush as the commonest woodland birds belong the red-eyed vireo and the, oven-bird. Both of these are very voluble singers. The former has been called " preacher" because he talks so much, and the latter " teacher " because of a supposed propensity to repeat that word, louder and louder. The scarlet tanager is a wood-bird, though not averse to being near the edge by a house. Most of the hawks and owls are of the woods woodsy, and we shall give them a separate chapter. The ruffed grouse, that great game-bird, is perhaps even more than any of our birds, save the hawks and owls, a lover of the deep, lonely forest, where almost no other bird is to be seen or heard, unless there are evergreens with their black-throated green warblers.
This warbler and a number of others are notably woodland birds. Most of these, however, go northward to the latitude of Maine and Canada. But the black and white warbler also stays with us, and so does the black-throated blue on high wooded hills among mountain-laurel undergrowth and the Canadian warbler in similar places. Most of the migrant warblers breed in the spruce and balsam forests of the far north. Others, like the worm-eating, hooded, and Kentucky warblers are content with woodlands of the middle districts. The two water thrushes, also birds of the woods, are much alike, but can be distinguished in that the Louisiana water thrush has a pure white throat, while that of the other has distinct markings.
The two tiny kinglets are denizens of evergreen forests, though they come around houses at times. Crows and jays nest in the woods, though the blue jay does so in pastures or orchards at times. Among flycatchers, the wood pewee, a dark, slender bird, prefers the deep woods, often, though, on the border of a road. The whippoorwill is notably a woodland bird, though at night it sallies forth into the open. Flush a fair-sized brown bird from the ground, silent of flight and long of wing, and probably it is the whippoorwill which at night makes the welkin ring with its odd cries. Its near relative the nighthawk is a bird of the open rocky field. It flies around over-head by day and is distinguished from the other especially by the white bar on each wing.
Most of the woodpeckers are also naturally woodland birds, notably the hairy, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, and the great pileated woodpecker which is as large as a crow. The rest of them are more or less partial to woods, as are some other birds which are not supposed to care for the forest, like the hummer, which I have several times found nesting in the deep woods. Some birds, such as the redstart,—that striking warbler, the male with his black and orange, and the female with her long yellow-marked tail, prone to spread,— love the edge of groves. Thither many a bird resorts, and in the early morning a great chorus arises where forest adjoins civilization.
Thus one might go on throwing out hints to help identify every last bird, but enough of the more numerous and conspicuous ones have been mentioned to give the beginner a pretty good idea of what are to be most readily encountered in the various sorts of localities. But let no one imagine that even these will show themselves upon the first demand. Birds do not bother themselves about our convenience or wishes. They will appear when they get ready, or, more likely, when we work hard enough to find them. If we have the true enthusiasm we will go where the birds are, into all the sorts of places where they are to be found, knowing woodland, swamp, and thicket, along with the nearer realm of field and garden.