Early Birds

( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )

Mr. Fuertes is a well-known bird painter who has illustrated many of the more important bird-books which have appeared in recent years. His close and careful study of them for this purpose gives an especial value to his verbal descriptions.

AFTER a long winter, many of us are too impatient for spring to wait for the swelling of the buds, the opening of the early flowers, and the springing of the grass. Several weeks lie between the end of winter and the truly genial spring days, and during this interval we look for something to herald the settled spring season. And the thing which gives us that for which we are unconsciously looking, more than all other signs, is the arrival of the birds. Who has not warmed to the quavering call of the first blue-bird, or been suddenly thrilled some early spring day with the sunny notes of the song sparrow !

In the southern part of New York, notably in the lower !Hudson Valley, the winter is spent by several birds which elsewhere we are accustomed to see only after the winter has passed. Among these are the blue-bird, robin, song-sparrow, white-throated-sparrow, meadow-lark, and possibly the purple-finch. But in most of the State we must wait until the first or second week in March before we can be sure of seeing. any of them. It is a question which of the earlier birds will first make its appearance, as these early migrants are much less regular in their movements than those that come late in April and in May, after the weather has become settled. Many a robin and blue-bird arrives during some early warm spell," to find himself suddenly surrounded by flying snow and blown about by cold winds. But these and a few other hardy ones seem able to stand such rebuffs with great equanimity, and the momentary shining of a fickle March sun will often evoke some pent-up song-sparrow's notes from the shelter of a hedge or thicket. Robins, blue-birds, song-sparrows, cowbirds, meadow-larks, phoebes, bronzed grackles, kingfishers, and doves may be looked upon as the vanguards of the hosts of migrating birds that come to us each year, and the first four or five may be expected almost any time after the first week in March. If the winter has been late, these may not appear until the middle or even the latter part of the month, in which case one is busy keeping track of the arrivals, as the other birds have caught up then, and all come nearly at the same time.

It is unnecessary to give detailed descriptions of robins, blue-birds, and song-sparrows, as nearly every-one is familiar with them; but some of the other early comers may be more easily recognized if some field impressions of them be given.

Almost any warm day in early March we may hear a thin, clear " tsssss in a high piping key, and on looking up see from one to five black birds, about the size of orioles, flying in a strange undulating manner— some up and some down, with the wings held close to their sides during the " drop " in their flight. They are cowbirds. The flock may swirl into the top of a tree and sit close together. If this happens within eyeshot, stop and watch them for a moment. One or two of the males are almost certain to utter the ridiculous song of the species, which, like that of their relatives, the grackles, is accompanied by the most grotesque of actions. The bird spreads its wings to their utmost, spreads and elevates the tail, stretches its neck upwards and forwards, and then, quivering and tottering, nearly falls forward off the perch. The only sound which accompanies this absurd action is a faint chuckling " clk-sfs'k," which is scarcely to be heard a hundred feet away.

With the cowbirds we may expect the arrival of the bronzed grackles, which resemble them much in flight, but are larger and come in far larger flocks — sometimes ten, sometimes a hundred or more. Their arrival is known by the vigorous calls they utter while flying, a loud bass " jook." When seen squabbling in the spruce trees or in the bare branches of the willows fringing the streams, the males are likely to be giving their song." It is scarcely more of a note than the cowbirds's a rusty squeak, and it is accompanied by a contortion in the same manner. It is not such a pronounced effort, however, and is often only a slight shudder and shrug of the shoulders. They feed, like cowbirds, mostly on the ground, and walk about most sedately in the grass like small crows. In tall grass, however, they waddle too much to be graceful. When taking flight they spread their long pointed tails in a very peculiar and characteristic manner—not out in a horizontal plane, like most birds, but up at the sides in the shape of a gardener's trowel, which gives them an extraordinary appearance.

The redwings begin to come into the marshes soon after the grackles, and are at that time in full feather and song. Their rich, deliberate " clonk-ka lrrrrrrr," inter-larded with the clear piping whistles of some of the flock, makes a concert of bird-notes very dear to all who are familiar with it. In their scarlet and black velvet dress these birds are impossible to mistake, whether seen chasing over the marshes, singing from an elm-top, or balancing with spread tail upon some tall reed stalk.

There is a bird-note so often and so justly mistaken for that of the phoebe that the error certainly merits correction. The spring song of the chick-a-dee (which may be heard on almost any warm day all winter, and is very easy to call forth by even a poorly whistled imitation) is a clear, pure or which really says " Phoebe " much more plainly than the true phoebe note, this latter being much lower in tone, and only to be heard after March is well on, and almost always in the vicinity of running streams and brooklets; while the gay little chick-a-dee whistles at any time or place that suits his versatile fancy.

The mellow flute notes of the meadow larks float to us from the middle of some large, open field, and are among the most beautiful bits of bird music we ever hear. They are not to be represented by notes, and can only be most inadequately described. There is great variation in they sequence of notes, but all are beautifully clear and ringing, and have a decided tinge of what would be sadness if it were not so sweet. The bird flies in a very characteristic manner, never raising the wings above the plane of the back, and when seen below the horizon line always shows the white feathers in the tail. His saffron breast and black breastmark seldom show on the living birds, and, the mottled brown back is a wonderful safeguard against his many overhead enemies.

Two or more doves may be seen winging their headlong flight through the air. These are among the swiftest of birds, and are generally out of eyeshot almost before you have seen them. (That is one way of knowing what they are.) In flight, they look like small pigeons with very long, graduated tails, and when, in some old orchard or open wood, you see one rise from the ground into a tree, the white lateral feathers in the tail make an easily recognizable mark. Their cooing notes are well known--a 'high-pitched " overtone," followed by several long bell-toned " notes.

About April 1 to 10, you may hear a scratching in the dead leaves among the underbrush in any thickly grown tangle, and upon cautiously coming up you may discover the authors—not big grouse as you may have supposed, but a flock of fine, vigorous fox-sparrows on their way to their northern breeding grounds. They are bright bay fellows, with boldly blotched brown and white breasts, diligently scattering the leaves for their food of seeds, spiders, ants, and various insects. If you have been fortunate enough not to have been seen you may hear their song, which is one of the finest of our sparrow songs, readily recognizable as such, though not resembling any of its fellows— a clear, vigorous carol, often ending abruptly with a rather unmusical " clip." If, however, they have seen you, you will be treated to a sharp " tseep ! " and a rear view of a flock of rapidly retreating birds, for they are not sociable (with us, at least), and generally take a hint to move on before you know of their presence. They do not stay long with us on their migration, and seeing them one day is no indication that you can find them the next.

Although the white-throated sparrows spend the winter in our southern counties, they do not start their northward journey as early as we might expect, and it is not until the first part of April that we may be sure of finding them. I have one list, indeed that shows their first appearance on May first!

They are to be found in places similar to those which the fox-sparrows choose, and are very similar to them in habits, but the boldly striped head and gray breast are very distinctive marks. Almost all of our native spar-rows have a call note, the "tsweep " note, which is hard to distinguish in the different species without much patient listening— and I doubt if any person is infallible in this distinction. The white-throat has this note, as well as the song-sparrow, tree-sparrow (a winter bird), fox-sparrow, white-crown, chippy, field-sparrow, grass-finch, in fact all our brown-backed sparrows. But the song of the white-throat is his own, and may be heard frequently during his very leisurely journey through our state. His Canadian name, " Peabody bird " is descriptive of his notes. When a number get together and whistle, as if they were singing a round, it makes a very sweet concert.

One of the foremost birds in the spring movement is the grass-finch (vesper-sparrow or bay-winged bunting). It is to be found in open fields and along roadside fences, in company with meadow larks, and its sweet song may be heard almost any warm evening after the middle of April. Unlike most of our birds, this sparrow sings at its best late in the afternoon and during twilight, which perhaps makes its song seem the sweeter. It is rather a gentle song, though to be heard at some distance, carrying quite as far as that of the song-sparrow. Although the quality of voice is somewhat similar in these two birds, the grass-finch lacks the merry abandon that characterizes the song-sparrow's song, but has instead a deeper chord, which is called by some people sadness. The bird may be easily recognized in the fields by the white tail-feathers, which always show in flight. It is about the size and general color of the song-sparrow.

By the time the foregoing birds are comparatively common, and the maple buds are bursting and the lilacs swelling, the gay purple finch appears. He is not purple at all, but has a crimson head, which fades on the lower breast through rosy pink into pure white. He is fond of spruces and larches, feeding greedily on the tender buds as well as on the ants and scale insects that infest them. His song is a fine one, and in addition to the charm of being poured forth in full flight, is so long and intricate that one finds himself holding his breath as the burst of melody continues, as if to help the little fellow catch up with his music.

Along the banks of some lake or stream, sitting idly on a telegraph pole or wire, rising and settling, elevating and depressing his long parted top-knot, a patriarchal old kingfisher may be seen silently awaiting the gleam of a shiner in the water below. Or perhaps you may first see him flying like a big woodpecker, screaming his chattering cry high in the air, or scaling close to the water under the fringing hemlock branches that overhang the stream. His large size, slate-blue back, loud notes, and characteristic flight make him a hard bird to mistake in any case.

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