Some Quebec Bird Notes
( Originally Published 1907 )
WHEN the inexorable railroad laid its hands on our old home " Ravenscliffe, " Cap Rouge, where for sixteen years we had browsed among the wild birds and wild flowers from spring until late autumn, and in winter followed on snowshoes the trail of the red deer, the fox, loup cervier, hare and partridge, we felt a strange sense of homelessness and looked forward to a residence in Quebec with some misgiving. With time, however, we have found some compensation in other pursuits and occupations, and, strange as it may seem, in a continuance of our wild bird studies within the very walls of the city.
Immediately upon taking possession of our house in October we were waited upon by a large and noisy committee from the band of English sparrows that run our street and we were plainly given to understand that we were expected to contribute to their maintenance during the winter months under penalty of having our morning's sleep interrupted by window ledge daily clanging. We capitulated at once, treated the committee to some stale cake, and promised a daily supply of rations. We faithfully adhered to our part of the agreement, but our small feathered friends have sometimes forgotten to keep theirs when politics ran high among them, or a personal quarrel had to be settled by a resort to force. It must be confessed that they are a quarrelsome crowd and their bickerings are of daily occurrence. In very stormy winter weather they would seek the protection of our hangard and demand double rations. They roosted on a wall beam under the roof and seemed indifferent to the severe cold. Cats, rats, and the small boy of the boomerang and pea-shooter are their in-satiable enemies and no doubt help to keep their numbers down. They find the flesh pots of the city fuller than the granaries of the country and have become strict urbanites in consequence. Just at present they have mated and taken up light housekeeping. Mrs. Sparrow spends a good deal of time in her nest, and is looking eagerly forward to coming events.
Long after the last country crow had winged its way south I heard a cawing one evening at sundown in Artillery Park. A little careful searching and I found some five or six crows roosting in some thick high lilac trees. I made their acquaintance at sunrise a few days later. To an old family friend they did not mind confessing in strict confidence that Quebec was a veritable gold mine in food supply, and they had decided to winter over, but as it was now breakfast time they would say caw-caw! for the pre-sent. I watched them drop down onto the St. Charles' flats, where no doubt a menu meal awaited them. As the winter advanced they complained a good deal of the severe cold, but they said the bill of fare on the dump piles was numy-num—first-class and up-to-date in out-of-season delicacies. The open can desserts were of unusual excellence and plenty. They wished, however, to beg my influence through the press to induce housewives to pay more regard to the opening of cans. One crow had had to submit to the indignity of having to stumble around for part of a day with his head fastened inside of a tomato can that had been only partially opened. They also deprecated the constant attempts upon their lives by young gentlemen with .22 rifles. My sable friends continued to make the Park their headquarters until early in May, when I think they moved across the St. Charles into a clump of Lombardys for family reasons. When Mr. Pozer lived on John street he had a winter house built for some crows, and they used it for years.
Sometime towards the end of March we were taking a squint of the St. Lawrence from the Terrace for some indication of spring. Just as we approached the easterly end near the P. O. we heard a burst of the most joyous melody on the cliff side. Looking over we soon descried the singer in an old friend—the song sparrow—"le rossignol," so beloved of our French-Canadian brethren for its unusual cheerful ditty even amidst stress and storm,
"Chante, rossignol, chante,
This little harbinger of spring is either a very early arrival or it winters with us. We have never satisfied ourselves on this point.
Early in April came an advanced guard of robins. They occupied every likely-looking spot about the city, and appeared to be quite at home, so we came to the conclusion that they were old summer visitors, and in this conclusion we are now confirmed, as they are nesting in the Governor's Garden, Artillery Park, Battery, the yard of St. Andrew's Church—in fact, wherever there are trees and grass. The sunrise and sundown song of the male, perched on a tree-top, if not melodious, is at least cheerful. He holds his own pretty well against the saucy annoyances from the English sparrow.
Now that the lilacs are in full bloom many of the city parks and private gardens are the daily resort of the ruby-throated humming bird, whose flight from flower to flower is a flash of color merely. How cleverly constructed and how dainty its nest when discovered, but it takes a quick eye to pick out the tiny affair, so nicely is it adjusted to the color of the tree in which it is built.
The little night hawk—that omnivorous moth catcher—is in considerable numbers about the city and his shrill cry can be heard any evening, and from that time until daylight. It feeds on the wing and its big mouth fits it for this method of seizing its prey. It will perch on the roof peak of a house and by its loud repeated and discord-ant cry attracts considerable attention to itself from the passers-by on the street.
We have seen but one owl, but it passed so quickly into the darkness of the trees that we had no opportunity for identifying it. We are told of their frequent occurrence in various localities in town.
An occasional partridge of an adventurous turn of mind is seen along the cliff at the Cove Fields or on the Ste. Foye side, but his visit is usually a hurried one and he soon returns to the old home in the Gomin swamp.
One May morning through our open bedroom window floated a " Sweet-sweet-Canada-Canada ! " We could scarce believe our senses—our hermit friend of the swamps and wooded fastnesses—and on a visit to the city? But so it was and a number of companions with him. They remained so long that it looked like a housekeeping affair, but one morning they were gone and we heard and saw them no more in town, but we half way believe we met some of them on the borders of a lake we were fishing some time since.
We must now read what Sir James LeMoine has to say about the birds that visit Spencer Grange. Although the latter estate is only a mile and a quarter from the city limits its sylvan beauties have been sung by the poets and revelled in by the thousands of visitors to the venerable historian and naturalist who has resided here for forty odd years.
"To GEORGE M. FAIRCHILD, ESQ.,
SPENCER GRANGE, SILLERY,
May 31, 1906.
"DEAR MR. FAIRCHILD,-I promised to give you the names of the birds I notice in my woods, and to mention the date of their arrival in the spring. Some time since in May I had a pleasant visit from Thomas Mclllraith, the leading ornithologist of Ontario. In comparing notes I found I could claim at the Spencer Grange summer orchestra at least 50 musicians. The first arrival by order of date about the middle of April was the song sparrow—' Le Rossignol' so dear to Canadian hearts. I might style him the cousin of the white-throated sparrow, whose shrill whistle 'Sweet! Sweet ! Canada!! Canada!!' even during the night is so familiar to you; he, however, arrives a few days later.
"A large band of lively robins, alas! much reduced in number, of late years follow en route to set up house-keeping at Hudson Bay after leaving a few pairs behind, who build around my house and are much appreciated.
"I have noticed some harsh screeching crackles mixed up with the robins. Those beautiful favorites, the 'thrushes,' the 'he' the 'veery,' the 'olive-backed,' warble sweetly night and morning, after taking their bath in the Belle Boume brook. I must not omit the 'chipping sparrow' and the 'slate-colored junco' (Wilson snow bird recognized by the two white feathers in its tail). I have three nests of these birds with-in a few yards of my parlor window.
"As the weather gets warmer the 'red-eyed virco' arrives, followed by the lovely 'indigo bird' under contract to sing until September ; then comes the 'ruby-throated humming bird,' who buzzes over the geraniums in bloom in rainbow tints—of the four Canadian varieties the `ruby-throated' alone honors us with a call in the leafy months. But I must hurry on with my list. Amongst others a, bevy of brilliant fly-catchers—in May 'golden-winged woodpeckers,' `red-headed ditto,' `chimney swallows,' `king-birds,' `grey crested fly-catchers,' `blue jays,' `purple finch,' `pine gros-becs,' (in winter only), `American gold finch,' `wren,' `pine siskin,' `fox sparrow' (occasionally during a warm spell a `scarlet tanager'), `cedar bird,' ` chickadee.' Several varieties of owls visit our woods.
"I remember a tiny Richardson's and a 'saw-whet owl' entering on different occasions through my drawing-room window in the evening. A fine specimen of the great cinereous owl was captured near my residence. And I've heard at night the hoarse croak of the bittern on the look-out, I imagine, for frogs near Belle Bourne Brook.
" Of the birds of prey, several individuals hover occasionally over my farm yard in quest of chickens, the rascals. !
"I am safe, I think, fixing at 50 the specimens of the bird world, without counting a large colony of noisy crows that visit Spencer Grange during the summer months, and steal the sprouting corn.
" I enclose for your information a paper I read before the Royal Society on the birds of the Province of Quebec—though you can count several feathered choristers, within the city; you see we are better off than you in the green woods of Sillery.
"Ever yours faithfully,
"J. M. LEMOINE."