( Originally Published 1910 )
AS the spring migration passes into history, we are compensated by finding ourselves launched upon the full tide of what is in many ways the best time of all, the height of the nesting season, the time of love, of jubilant song, of beautiful home-life. It affords golden opportunities for intimate acquaintance with the life of many of the birds. During migration we see many of the birds individually, but of each one we gain at best but a fleeting glimpse ere it is gone, probably to be seen no more. But when we find a nesting-site we can return again and again to meet the same birds, observe their individual traits, learn how they spend their time, what they eat, how they build their homes, how long it takes to build, lay eggs, incubate, rear their young, how they feed them, and all sorts of details of their lives. Moreover, this is the time of all to secure photographs.
The height of the nesting-season, in the Middle and Northern States, is from about the twenty-fifth of May to the twentieth of June, four wonderful weeks of special opportunity. Short and fleeting it is ! Ten or twelve days of incubation, and eight or ten only for the young to grow from blind and naked worms to pretty birdlings fluttering from the nest. By the middle of June we begin to meet warblers which scold anxiously at us, and just as we think we shall surely find a nest, we see the other parent fly up on a branch and feed a youngster which is well able to fly. The beginning of the end ! we sigh.
The intelligent finding of birds nests is in itself an art, involving skilled knowledge both of topography and of the habits of the birds, as well as keen, trained eyes and an alert mind. Interesting and wonderful are the methods used by birds in concealing or protecting their nests. Some best secure their ends by confiding in man and building openly on his premises — like the robin, bluebird, chippy, phoebe, house wren, and the swallows. Others, like the woodcock, nighthawk, and whippoorwill lay their eggs boldly on open ground and trust to " protective coloration," the blending of their colors and markings with the surroundings. Of another type are nests built on the ground, hidden in grass, debris, or foliage.
Some nests in trees closely resemble their surroundings, as those of the hummer, wood pewee, and redstart. Other nests are concealed among thick foliage, as those of warblers which build high in ever-greens, like the black-throated green and Blackburnian, or of thicket-nesting birds, such as the chat and catbird. Another class protect themselves by building high, like hawks and owls in tall trees, or ravens and guillemots on cliffs. Many water-birds select lonely, inaccessible islands.
Nests can be successfully hunted and found both by special and general search. In the first case one has in mind some particularly desired nest. The thing to do is to become familiar with the bird at sight, its songs or notes, and learn what sort of places it frequents and chooses for nesting. This can be ascertained in various ways — through books, from friends. Then go out and hunt for birds of that kind. When one is found, especially if it be seen repeatedly near one place, the nest will not be very far off. To be sure, it may be a hundred or two yards away, in any direction, or much more with large birds, which gives wide latitude for searching. But if one knows, even from reading, where to look, in many cases the area for search can be greatly narrowed, and it becomes largely a matter of persistence, activity, and keenness of -observation to find the nest.
When it comes to the general search, to go out somewhere and look around for anything that may turn up, even the person who knows nothing of birds is liable to flush birds from their nests by merely " stirring around " or to spy out some of them. Yet one will accomplish far more through having at least read about the birds, knowing what kinds to look for in the locality chosen for the search, and how and where these birds nest. Such knowledge will keep one from wasting time in unlikely places or from looking in the wrong place for the nest of some bird which is seen. One might see a ground-builder in trees and gaze upward all day, to no purpose. It is important also to have in mind the approximate period when each species can be expected to be nesting.
Though the majority of the birds nest in late May or June, it does not follow that the opportunities of nesting-time are confined to that halcyon period. If we travel, even in our own country, we can find some birds breeding throughout the greater part of the year. In southeast Florida the brown pelicans and bald eagles begin to nest as early as November, and in the North various birds are not through until late in August, or even in September.
In the Middle and Northern States the great horned owl fires the opening gun, so to speak, usually in late February, and the various large raptorial birds follow in March and April. The woodcock has eggs early in the latter month. Ordinarily the first of the smaller birds to lay is the bluebird, from the tenth of April and on, followed as a close second by the robin, and also the song sparrow, white-breasted nuthatch, hairy woodpecker, crow, crow blackbird, and European starling. This is ignoring the English sparrow, which seems to be multiplying its kind during a good part of the whole year.
It is a good plan to have an eye out for these early nestings, so as to save time later for other things. The bluebird and nuthatch use hollow limbs or holes in trees, generally near houses, unless the former consents to occupy a box. This also is the habit of the starling, when it does not creep into some shed or the cornice of a building. The grackle's favorite locality is the evergreens in gardens. The hairy woodpecker prefers the woods, or swamps where there are dead stubs in which, or else in the solid wood of live trunks, it digs out the hole for its nest. The song sparrow's secret we discover as we tramp about and flush it from the well-hidden nest on the ground amid the tangle of grass, weeds, or bush, located almost any-where in open land,-- wet or dry, it makes little difference which.
During May, not to speak now of birds of prey and water-birds, the blue jay, kingfisher, vesper sparrow, and ruffed grouse are at it good and early. The sparrow chooses open ground in a dry field, while the kingfisher hides in a deep tunnel in a bank, usually where some excavation has been made for gravel or in cutting a road. Almost anywhere in deep woods we are liable to flush the mother grouse from her large assortment of eggs, usually at the foot of some tree or bush or by log or underbrush. The jay nests in woods or pasture, even in the garden in some fruit or shade tree, but it likes a cedar or other evergreen pretty well.
The next installment, about the second ten days of May, are the swamp, field and chipping sparrows, meadowlark, phoebe, barn swallow, and Louisiana water thrush. Look for the swamp sparrows' nests in tussocks of grass in swamps, field sparrows' in pastures, under or in low bushes and weed-clumps.
Chippy builds in trees, vines, or bushes in garden, orchard, or pasture, and phoebe and the barn swallow like barns or old buildings, though both in wild districts, particularly the former, attach their nests to ledges of rocks an old bridge delights the phoebe's heart. The meadowlark chooses an open field, and locates the nest at the foot of a tussock, 'usually with grass arched over it. It is difficult to find unless one can flush the bird, but ordinarily the male gives warning and the female slips away. Sometimes, though, I have surprised her and made her reveal her secret. The water thrush likes to build under the roots of an upturned tree or old stump in a wooded swamp, or else in a recess of the steep bank cut by a woodland torrent.
Then the flicker, downy woodpecker, chickadee, purple finch, wood thrush, brown thrasher, chewink, veery, oven-bird, blue-winged warbler, Baltimore oriole, and others get busy. During the last days of May the " advanced " individuals of almost any one of the species, with some few exceptions, are liable to have completed their nests and begun the task of incubation. By about the fifth of June nearly all the birds have eggs, and some are already hatching.
The early part of the general nesting period, when so many of the birds are building, is a splendid time to locate nests by watching the birds carrying material. A bird with any substance in its bill becomes to the bird-student a very suspicious personage, needing careful following. In a favorable locality near home, or around the house, where one can do considerable watching, it is a good idea for one to scatter possible nesting material in the shape of bits of cotton, cloth, or yarn, and various birds may carry it off, thus making it possible to trace them to their nests.
A little judicious inquiry is often an excellent means of finding desirable nests. I do not hesitate to ask any farmer or boy whom I meet afield if he has seen any interesting birds or knows of any nests, explaining my purpose, that I do not wish to rob them, only to study the birds and take photographs. In this way many a desirable nest has come to me with little effort, which otherwise I should not have found.—such nests as those of hawks and owls, woodcock, wood duck, dusky duck, quail, ruffed grouse, meadow-lark, and many others. People living and working in the country run across such things, especially in cutting timber or brush and in mowing. A little courtesy will often be repaid many fold.
In open fields or meadows, where a number of kinds of birds are liable to be nesting, it is an excellent plan to beat over the ground systematically, on general principles, trying to flush birds from their nests. A good time to do this is in the evening or in wet weather when birds are almost sure to be sitting. More ground by far can be covered if one can secure help, perhaps from a boy, and drag a long rope between them over the grass. As the rope comes swishing over the head of the sitting bird, in most cases it will flush, and reveal the whereabouts of the nest. By this method, on a grassy island in a lake out in Saskatchewan, a friend and I once found in one hour about thirty-five nests of various species of wild ducks which were hidden in the grass.
Bushy, weedy, and briary tracts are good places for the nests of quite a variety of birds. In such a place it pays well to course through it systematically, and with a long light switch strike at every bush, pile, or clump of any sort, wherever a nest might be concealed. By keeping patiently at this, one can be pretty sure, in time, to find various nests of any of the kinds of birds which are found in such a place. The same tactics should be pursued in a swamp. It all means activity and hard work, but it pays.
In such searchings one needs to be constantly on the alert, watchful for the slightest clue, the faintest note or sound, the merest suggestion of movement. Otherwise a great deal will be overlooked. Often upon the merest trifle hangs all the difference between success and failure. With the faintest rustle a rare rail or a short-billed marsh wren will slip from the nest and skulk off into the depths of secrecy. One day while tramping through a swamp, I thought I heard a slight sound, and looking quickly around, I barely caught sight of a quick movement, so quick, indeed, that I hardly knew whether I had really seen anything or not. It might have been a frog that jumped.
I stopped short in my tracks, laid my handkerchief on a sprout to mark the spot, and began to look around. There was no need to extend the search. Right between my feet, in a small tussock of coarse grass, with the leaf of a skunk cabbage arching over it, was a little nest with five white, sparsely spotted eggs. The owner had not left till I was fairly treading on her, and now kept carefully out of sight. Though I thought it was the nest of a yellow-throat, there was no telling but that it might belong to a mourning or Connecticut warbler, or some rarity. So I crouched down behind a bush and waited a quarter of an hour, when I saw the female yellow-throat slinking anxiously through the tangle, chirping her disapproval of my wayward course, What business had I to be in a lonely swamp tramping over her nest !
When the young are hatched, the parent bird will be more in evidence, searching for food and carrying it to the nest. This gives an excellent opportunity to trace it out by watching the old birds.
Do not imagine, when the twentieth of June is reached, that the nesting season is over. Some individual pairs of birds have been tardy, or have had some accident to their first nest and have built again. Various species often, and in some cases habitually, raise a second brood. The robin, bluebird, phoebe, catbird, quail, red-winged blackbird, all the swallows, and most of the sparrows, notably the song, swamp, chipping, field, vesper, and savanna, habitually raise two broods. Others which sometimes do, most of them to my personal knowledge, are the house and long-billed marsh wrens, chickadee, yellow-throat, black and white creeper, red-eyed vireo, chewink, purple finch, meadowlark, hummingbird, and scarlet tanager. Probably there are others which do so occasionally, or at any rate have late broods.
The nesting-time gives great opportunity for learning very many things about the lives of even our common birds: Careful noting of all details of the habits of birds is very interesting and rewarding, and accurate record should be made of everything that is observed.
Avoid contracting the craze for collecting eggs. It is contrary to law, except to the few to whom permits are granted, and is unnecessary, in these days of illustrated books and well-stored museums. Except in the case of some few extreme rarities, science has little more to learn from such collecting. In fact it is often anti-scientific, and I know of cases where, for the sake of a hoard, some of the rarest opportunities for the real advancement of science have been destroyed. The present need is for detailed, accurate knowledge of living birds rather than dead ones, and along this line there is a splendid field for research. We may say of the scientific study of the birds of North America that the nineteenth century discovered and described them, and that it will be the work of the twentieth century to advance our knowledge of their habits and economic value.
It is a fact that there are few birds, if any, even the most common species, whose biographies have yet been exhaustively or adequately written. This will afford worthy opportunity for generations of students yet to come. An excellent way to make important contributions to science is to select some one species and try to make a thorough, exhaustive investigation of its life-history. We may congratulate ourselves that we are not born too late to add to the sum-total of human knowledge.