Nature's Serial Story by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XVI. Gossip About Bird-Neighbors
"Doctor," said Mrs. Leonard, "Amy and I have been indulging in some surmises over a remark you made the other day about the bluebirds. You said the female was a cold, coy beauty, and that her mate would soon be overburdened with family cares. Indeed, I think you rather reflected on our sex as represented by Mrs. Bluebird."
"I fear I cannot retract. The female bluebird is singularly devoid of sentiment, and takes life in the most serious and matter-of-fact way. Her nest and her young are all in all to her. John Burroughs, who is a very close observer, says she shows no affection for the male and no pleasure in his society, and if he is killed she goes in quest of another mate in the most business-like manner, as one would go to a shop on an errand."
"The heartless little jade!" cried Maggie, with a glance at Leonard which plainly said that such was not her style at all.
"Nevertheless," continued the doctor, "she awakens a love in her husband which is blind to every defect. He is gallantry itself, and at the same time the happiest and most hilarious of lovers. Since she insists on building her nest herself, and having everything to her own mind, he does not shrug his blue shoulders and stand indifferently or sullenly aloof. He goes with her everywhere, flying a little in advance as if for protection, inspects her work with flattering minuteness, applauds and compliments continually. Indeed, he is the ideal French beau very much in love."
"In other words, the counterpart of Leonard," said Burt, at which they all laughed.
"But you spoke of his family cares," Webb remarked: "he contributes something more than compliments, does he not?"
"Indeed he does. He settles down into the most devoted of husbands and fathers. The female usually hatches three broods, and as the season advances he has his hands, or his beak rather, very full of business. I think Burroughs is mistaken in saying that he is in most cases the ornamental member of the firm. He feeds his wife as she sits on the nest, and often the first brood is not out of the way before he has another to provide for. Therefore he is seen bringing food to his wife and two sets of children, and occasionally taking her place on the nest. Nor does he ever get over his delusion that his mate is delighted with his song and little gallantries, for he kepps them up also to the last. So he has to be up early and late, and altogether must be a very tired little bird when he gets a chance to put his head under his wing."
"Poor little fellow! and to think that she doesn't care for him!" sighed Amy, pityingly; and they all laughed so heartily that she bent her head over her work to hide the rich color that stole into her face--all laughed except Mr. Alvord, who, as usual, was an attentive and quiet listener, sitting a little in the background, so that his face was in partial shadow. Keen-eyed Maggie, whose sympathies were deeply enlisted in behalf of her sad and taciturn neighbor, observed that he regarded Amy with a close, wistful scrutiny, as if he were reading her thoughts. Then an expression of anguish, of something like despair, flitted across his face. "He has lavished the best treasures of his heart and life on some one who did not care," was her mental comment.
"You won't be like our little friend in blue, eh, Amy?" said old Mr. Clifford; but with girlish shyness she would not reply to any such question.
"Don't take it so to heart, Miss Amy. Mr. B. is never disenchanted," the doctor remarked.
"I don't like Mrs. B. at all," said Maggie, decidedly; "and it seems to me that I know women of whom she is a type--women whose whole souls are engrossed with their material life. Human husbands are not so blind as bluebirds, and they want something more than housekeepers and nurses in their wives."
"Excellent!" cried Rev. Mr. Barkdale; "you improve the occasion better than I could. But, doctor, how about our callous widow bluebird finding another mate after the mating season is over?"
"There are always some bachelors around, unsuccessful wooers whose early blandishments were vain."
"And are there no respectable spinsters with whom they might take up as a last resort?" Leonard queried.
"No, none at all. Think of that, ye maiden of New England, where the males are nearly all migrants and do not return! The only chance for a bird-bachelor is to console some widow whom accident has bereaved of her mate. Widowers also are ready for an immediate second marriage. Birds and beasts of prey and boys--hey, Alf--bring about a good many step-parents."
"Alf don't kill any little birds, do you, Alf?" asked his mother.
"Well, not lately. You said they felt so bad over it But if they get over it so easy as the doctor says--"
"Now, doctor, you see the result of your scientific teaching."
"Why, Mrs. Leonard, are you in sympathy with the priestcraft that would keep people virtuous through ignorance?" said the minister, laughing. "Alf must learn to do right, knowing all the facts. I don't believe he will shy a stone at a bird this coming year unless it is in mischief."
"Well," said Squire Bartley, who had relapsed into a half-doze as the conversation lost its practical bent, "between the birds and boys I don't see as we shall be able to raise any fruit before long. If our boys hadn't killed about all the robins round our house last summer, I don't think we'd 'a had a cherry or strawberry."
"I'm afraid, squire," put in Webb, quietly, "that if all followed your boys' example, insects would soon have the better of us. They are far worse than the birds. I've seen it stated on good authority that a fledgling robin eats forty per cent more than its own weight every twenty-four hours, and I suppose it would be almost impossible to compute the number of noxious worms and moths destroyed by a family of robins in one season. They earn their share of fruit."
"Webb is right, squire," added the doctor, emphatically. "Were it not for the birds, the country would soon be as bare as the locusts left Egypt. Even the crow, against which you are so vindictive, is one of your best friends."
"Oh, now, come, I can't swallow that. Crows pull up my corn, rob hens' nests', carry off young chickens. They even rob the nests of the other birds you're so fond of. Why, some state legislatures give a bounty for their destruction."
"If there had only been a bounty for killing off the legislators, the states would have fared better," replied the doctor, with some heat. "It can be proved beyond a doubt that the crow is unsurpassed by any other bird in usefulness. He is one of the best friends you have."
"Deliver me from my friends, then," said the squire, rising; and he departed, with his prejudices against modern ideas and methods somewhat confirmed.
Like multitudes of his class, he observed in nature only that which was forced upon his attention through the medium of immediate profit and loss. The crows pulled up his corn, and carried off an occasional chicken; the robins ate a little fruit; therefore death to crows and robins. They all felt a certain sense of relief at his departure, for while their sympathies touched his on the lower plane of mere utility and money value, it would be bondage to them to be kept from other and higher considerations. Moreover, in his own material sphere his narrow prejudices were ever a jarring element that often exasperated Webb, who had been known to mutter, "Such clods of earth bring discredit on our calling."
Burt, with a mischievous purpose illuminating his face, remarked: "I'll try to put the squire into a dilemma. If I can catch one of his boys shooting robins out of season, I will lodge a complaint with him, and insist on the fine;" and his design was laughingly applauded.
"I admit," said Mr. Clifford, "that Webb has won me over to a toleration of crows, but until late years I regarded them as unmitigated pests."
"Undeserved enmity comes about in this way," Webb replied. "We see a crow in mischief occasionally, and the fact is laid up against him. If we sought to know what he was about when not in mischief, our views would soon change. It would be far better to have a little corn pulled up than to be unable to raise corn at all. Crows can be kept from the field during the brief periods when they do harm, but myriads of grasshoppers cannot be managed. Moreover, the crow destroys very many field-mice and other rodents, but chief of all he is the worst enemy of the May-beetle and its larvae. In regions of the country where the crow has been almost exterminated by poison and other means, this insect has left the meadows brown and sear, while grasshoppers have partially destroyed the most valuable crops. Why can't farmers get out of their plodding, ox-like ways, and learn to co-work with Nature like men?"
"Hurrah for Webb!" cried Burt. "Who would have thought that the squire and a crow could evoke such a peroration? That flower of eloquence surely grew from a rank, dark soil."
"Squire Bartley amuses me very much," said Mrs. Clifford, from the sofa, with a low laugh. "He seems the only one who has the power to ruffle Webb."
"Little wonder," thought Amy, "for it would be hard to find two natures more antagonistic."
"It seems to me that this has been a very silent winter," the minister remarked. "In my walks and drives of late I have scarcely heard the chirp of a bird. Are there many that stay with us through this season, doctor?"
"More than you would suppose. But you would not be apt to meet many of them unless you sought for them. At this time they are gathered in sheltered localities abounding in their favorite food. Shall I tell you about some that I have observed throughout several successive winters?"
Having received eager encouragement, he resumed: "My favorites, the bluebirds, we have considered quite at length. They are very useful, for their food in summer consists chiefly of the smaller beetles and the larvae of little butterflies and moths. Many robins stay all winter. It is a question of food, not climate, with them. In certain valleys of the White Mountains there is an abundance of berries, and flocks of robins feed on them all winter, although the cold reaches the freezing-point of mercury. As we have said, they are among the most useful of the insect destroyers. The golden-crested kinglet is a little mite of a bird, not four inches long, with a central patch of orange-red on his crown. He breeds in the far North, and wintering here is for him like going to the South. In summer he is a flycatcher, but here he searches the bark of forest trees with microscopic scrutiny for the larvae of insects. We all know the lively black-capped chickadees that fly around in flocks throughout the winter. Sometimes their search for food leads them into the heart of towns and cities, where they are as bold and as much at home as the English sparrow. They also gather around the camps of log-cutters in the forest, become very tame, and plaintively cry for their share in the meals. They remain all the year, nesting in decayed logs, posts, stumps, and even in sides of houses, although they prefer the edge of a wood. If they can find a hole to suit them, very well; if they can't, they will make one. Their devotion to their young is remarkable. A nest in a decayed stump was uncovered, and the mother bird twice taken off by hand, and each time she returned and covered her brood. She uttered no cries or complaints, but devotedly interposed her little form between what must have seemed terrific monsters and her young, and looked at the human ogres with the resolute eyes of self-sacrifice. If she could have known it, the monsters only wished to satisfy their curiosity, and were admiring her beyond measure. Chickadees are exceedingly useful birds, and make great havoc among the insects.
"Our next bird is merely a winter sojourner, for he goes north in spring like the kinglet. The scientists, with a fine sense of the fitness of things, have given him a name in harmony, Troglodytes parvulus, var. Hyemalis."
"What monster bird is this?" cried Amy.
"He is about as big as your thumb, and ordinary mortals are content to call him the winter wren. He is a saucy little atom of a bird, with his tail pointing rakishly toward his head. I regret exceedingly to add that he is but a winter resident with us, and we rarely hear his song. Mr. Burroughs says that he is a 'marvellous songster,' his notes having a 'sweet rhythmical cadence that holds you entranced.' By the way, if you wish to fall in love with birds, you should read the books of John Burroughs. A little mite of a creature, like the hermit-thrush, he fills the wild, remote woods of the North with melody, and has not been known to breed further south than Lake Mohunk. The brown creeper and the yellow-rumped warbler I will merely mention. Both migrate to the North in the spring, and the latter is only an occasional winter resident. The former is a queer little creature that alights at the base of a tree and creeps spirally round and round to its very top, when it sweeps down to the base of another tree to repeat the process. He is ever intent on business. Purple finches are usually abundant in winter, though, not very numerous in summer. I value them because they are handsome birds, and both male and female sing in autumn and winter, when bird music is at a premium. I won't speak of the Carolina wax-wing, alias cedar or cherry bird, now. Next June, when strawberries and cherries are ripe, we can form his intimate acquaintance."
"We have already made it, to the cost of both our patience and purse," said Webb. "He is one of the birds for whom I have no mercy."
"That is because you are not sufficiently acquainted with him. I admit that he is an arrant thief of fruit, and that, as his advocate, I have a difficult case. I shall not plead for him until summer, when he is in such imminent danger of capital punishment He's a little beauty, though, with his jaunty crest and gold-tipped tail. I shall not say one word in favor of the next bird that I mention, the great Northern shrike, or butcher-bird. He is not an honest bird of prey that all the smaller feathered tribes know at a glance, like the hawk; he is a disguised assassin, and possessed by the very demon of cruelty. He is a handsome fellow, little over ten inches long, with a short, powerful beak, the upper mandible sharply curved. His body is of a bluish-gray color, with 'markings of white' on his dusky wings and tail. Three shrikes once made such havoc among the sparrows of Boston Common that it became necessary to take much pains to destroy them. He is not only a murderer, but an exceedingly treacherous one, for both Mr. Audubon and Mr. Nuttall speak of his efforts to decoy little birds within his reach by imitating their notes, and he does this so closely that he is called a mocking-bird in some parts of New England. When he utters his usual note and reveals himself, his voice very properly resembles the 'discordant creaking of a sign-board hinge.' A flock of snow-birds or finches may be sporting and feeding in some low shrubbery, for instance. They may hear a bird approaching, imitating their own notes. A moment later the shrike will be seen among them, causing no alarm, for his appearance is in his favor. Suddenly he will pounce upon an unsuspecting neighbor, and with one blow of his beak take off the top of its head, dining on its brains. If there is a chance to kill several more, he will, like a butcher, hang his prey on a thorn, or in the crotch of a tree, and return for his favorite morsel when his hunt is over. After devouring the head of a bird he will leave the body, unless game is scarce. It is well they are not plentiful, or else our canary pets would be in danger, for a shrike will dart through an open window and attack birds in cages, even when members of the family are present. In one instance Mr. Brewer, the ornithologist, was sitting by a closed window with a canary in a cage above his head, and a shrike, ignorant of the intervening glass, dashed against the window, and fell stunned upon the snow. He was taken in, and found to be tame, but sullen. He refused raw meat, but tore and devoured little birds very readily. As I said before, it is fortunate he is rare, though why he is so I scarcely know. He may have enemies in the North, where he breeds; for I am glad to say that he is only a winter resident.
"It gives one a genuine sense of relief to turn from this Apache, this treacherous scalper of birds, to those genuinely useful little songsters, the tree and the song sparrow. The former is essentially a Northern bird, and breeds in the high arctic regions. He has a fine song, which we hear in early April as his parting souvenir. The song sparrow will be a great favorite with you, Miss Amy, for he is one of our finest singers, whose song resembles the opening notes of a canary, but has more sweetness and expression. Those that remain with us depart for the North at the first tokens of spring, and are replaced by myriads of other migrants that usually arrive early in March. You will hear them some mild morning soon. They are very useful in destroying the worst kinds of insects. A fit associate for the song sparrow is the American goldfinch, or yellow-bird, which is as destructive of the seeds of weeds as the former is of the smaller insect pests. In summer it is of a bright gamboge yellow, with black crown, wings, and tail. At this time he is a little olive-brown bird, and mingles with his fellows in small flocks. They are sometimes killed and sold as reed-birds. They are brilliant singers.
"The snow-bird and snow-bunting are not identical by any means; indeed, each is of a different genus. The bunting's true home is in the far North, and it is not apt to be abundant here except in severe weather. Specimens have been found, however, early in November, but more often they appear with a late December snowstorm, their wild notes suggesting the arctic wastes from which they have recently drifted southward. The sleigh tracks on the frozen Hudson are among their favorite haunts, and they are not often abundant in the woods on this side of the river. Flocks can usually be found spending the winter along the railroad on the eastern shore. Here they become very fat, and so begrimed with the dirt and grease on the track that you would never associate them with the snowy North. They ever make, however, a singular and pretty spectacle when flying up between one and the late afternoon sun, for the predominant white in their wings and tail seems almost transparent. They breed at the extreme North, even along the Arctic Sea, in Greenland and Iceland, and are fond of marine localities at all times. It's hard to realize that the little fellows with whom we are now so familiar start within a month for regions above the Arctic Circle. I once, when a boy, fired into a flock feeding in a sleigh track on the ice of the river. Some of those that escaped soon returned to their dead and wounded companions, and in their solicitude would let me come very near, nor, unless driven away, would they leave the injured ones until life was extinct. On another occasion I brought some wounded ones home, and they ate as if starved, and soon became very tame, alighting upon the table at mealtimes with a freedom from ceremony which made it necessary to shut them up. They spent most of their time among the house plants by the window, but toward spring the migratory instinct asserted itself, and they became very restless, pecking at the panes in their eagerness to get away. Soon afterward our little guests may have been sporting on an arctic beach. An effort was once made in Massachusetts to keep a wounded snow-bunting through the summer, but at last it died from the heat. They are usually on the wing northward early in March.
"The ordinary snow-bird is a very unpretentious and familiar little friend. You can find him almost any day from the 1st of October to the 1st of May, and may know him by his grayish or ashy black head, back, and wings, white body underneath from the middle of his breast backward, and white external tail-feathers. He is said to be abundant all over America east of the Black Hills, and breeds as far south as the mountains of Virginia. There are plenty of them in summer along the Shawangunk range, just west of us, in the Catskills, and so northward above the Arctic Circle. In the spring, before it leaves us, you will often hear its pretty little song. They are very much afraid of hawks, which make havoc among them at all times, but are fearless of their human--and especially of their humane--neighbors. Severe weather will often bring them to our very doors, and drive them into the outskirts of large cities. They are not only harmless, but very useful, for they devour innumerable seeds, and small insects with their larvae. Dear me! I could talk about birds all night."
"And we could listen to you," chorused several voices.
"I never before realized that we had such interesting winter neighbors and visitors," said Mrs. Clifford, and the lustre of her eyes and the faint bloom on her cheeks proved how deeply these little children of nature had enlisted her sympathies.
"They are interesting, even when in one short evening I can give but in bald, brief outline a few of their characteristics. Your words suggest the true way of becoming acquainted with them. Regard them as neighbors and guests, in the main very useful friends, and then you will naturally wish to know more about them. In most instances they are quite susceptible to kindness, and are ready to be intimate with us. That handsome bird, the blue jay, so wild at the East, is as tame and domestic as the robin in many parts of the West, because treated well. He is also a winter resident, and one of the most intelligent birds in existence. Indeed, he is a genuine humorist, and many amusing stories are told of his pranks. His powers of mimicry are but slightly surpassed by those of the mocking-bird, and it is his delight to send the smaller feathered tribes to covert by imitating the cries of the sparrow, hawk, and other birds of prey. When so tame as to haunt the neighborhood of dwellings, he is unwearied in playing his tricks on domestic fowls, and they--silly creatures!--never learn to detect the practical joke, for, no matter how often it is repeated, they hasten panic-stricken to shelter. Wilson speaks of him as the trumpeter of the feathered chorus, but his range of notes is very great, passing from harsh, grating sounds, like the screeching of an unlubricated axle, to a warbling as soft and modulated as that of a bluebird, and again, prompted by his mercurial nature, screaming like a derisive fish-wife. Fledglings will develop contentedly in a cage, and become tame and amusing pets. They will learn to imitate the human voice and almost every other familiar sound. A gentleman in South Carolina had one that was as loquacious as a parrot, and could utter distinctly several words. In this region they are hunted, and too shy for familiar acquaintance. When a boy, I have been tantalized almost beyond endurance by them, and they seemed to know and delight in the fact. I was wild to get a shot at them, but they would keep just out of range, mocking me with discordant cries, and alarming all the other game in the vicinity. They often had more sport than I. It is a pity that the small boy with his gun cannot be taught to let them alone. If they were as domestic and plentiful as robins, they would render us immense service. A colony of jays would soon destroy all the tent-caterpillars on your place, and many other pests. In Indiana they will build in the shrubbery around dwellings, but we usually hear their cries from mountain-sides and distant groves. Pleasant memories of rambles and nutting excursions they always awaken. The blue jay belongs to the crow family, and has all the brains of his black-coated and more sedate cousins. At the North, he will, like a squirrel, lay up for winter a hoard of acorns and beech mast. An experienced bird-fancier asserts that he found the jay 'more ingenious, cunning, and teachable than any other species of birds that he had ever attempted to instruct.'
"One of our most beautiful and interesting winter visitants is the pine grosbeak. Although very abundant in some seasons, even extending its migrations to the latitude of Philadelphia, it is irregular, and only the coldest weather prompts its excursions southward. The general color of the males is a light carmine, or rose, and if only plentiful they would make a beautiful feature in our snowy landscape. As a general thing, the red tints are brighter in the American than in the European birds. The females, however, are much more modest in their plumage, being ash-colored above, with a trace of carmine behind their heads and upon their upper tail coverts, and sometimes tinged with greenish-yellow beneath. The females are by far our more abundant visitants, for in the winter of '75 I saw numerous flocks, and not over two per cent were males in red plumage. Still, strange to say, I saw a large flock of adult males the preceding November, feeding on the seeds of a Norway spruce before our house. Oh, what a brilliant assemblage they made among the dark branches! In their usual haunts they live a very retired life. The deepest recesses of the pine forests at the far North are their favorite haunts, and here the majority generally remain throughout the year. In these remote wilds is bred the fearlessness of man which is the result of ignorance, for they are among the tamest of all wild birds, finding, in this respect, their counterpart in the American red cross-bill, another occasional cold-weather visitant. For several winters the grosbeaks were exceedingly abundant in the vicinity of Boston, and were so tame that they could be captured in butterfly nets, and knocked down with poles. The markets became full of them, and many were caged. While tame they were very unhappy in confinement, and as spring advanced their mournful cries over their captivity became incessant. They can be kept as pets, however, and will often sing in the night. Mr. Audubon observed that when he fired at one of their number, the others, instead of flying away, would approach within a few feet, and gaze at him with undisguised curiosity, unmingled with fear. I have seen some large flocks this winter, and a few fed daily on a bare plot of ground at the end of our piazza. I was standing above this plot one day, when a magnificent red male flew just beneath my feet and drank at a little pool. I never saw anything more lovely in my life than the varying sheen of his brilliant tropical-like plumage. He was like a many-hued animated flower, and was so fearless that I could have touched him with a cane. One very severe, stormy winter the grosbeaks fairly crowded the streets of Pictou. A gentleman took one of these half-starved birds into his room, where it lived at large, and soon became the tamest and most affectionate of pets. But in the spring, when its mates were migrating north, Nature asserted herself, and it lost its familiarity, and filled the house with its piteous wailings, refused food, and sought constantly to escape. When the grosbeaks are with us you would not be apt to notice them unless you stumbled directly upon them, for they are the most silent of birds, which is remarkable, since the great majority of them are females".
"That is just the reason why they are so still," remarked Mrs. Leonard. "Ladies never speak unless they have something to say."
"Far be it from me to contradict you. The lady grosbeaks certainly have very little to say to one another, though when mating in their secluded haunts they probably express their preferences decidedly. If they have an ear for music, they must enjoy their wooing immensely, for there is scarcely a lovelier song than that of the male grosbeak. I never heard it but once, and may never again; but the thrill of delight that I experienced that intensely cold March day can never be forgotten. I was following the course of a stream that flowed at the bottom of a deep ravine, when, most unexpectedly, I heard a new song, which proceeded from far up the glen. The notes were loud, rich, and sweet, and I hastened on to identify the new vocalist. I soon discovered a superb red pine grosbeak perched on the top of a tall hemlock. His rose-colored plumage and mellow notes on that bleak day caused me to regret exceedingly that he was only an uncertain and transient visitor to our region.
"We have a large family of resident hawks in this vicinity; indeed, there are nine varieties of this species of bird with us at this time, although some of them are rarely seen. The marsh-hawk has a bluish or brown plumage, and in either case is distinguished by a patch of white on its upper tail coverts. You would not be apt to meet with it except in its favorite haunts. I found a nest in the centre of Consook Marsh, below West Point. It was a rude affair. The nests of this hawk are usually made of hay, lined with pine needles, and sometimes at the North with feathers. This bird is found nearly everywhere in North America, and breeds as high as Hudson Bay. In the marshes on the Delaware it is often called the mouse-hawk, for it sweeps swiftly along the low ground in search of a species of mouse common in that locality. It is said to be very useful in the Southern rice-fields, since, as it sails low, it interrupts the flocks of bobolinks, or rice-birds, in their depredations. Planters say that one marsh-hawk accomplishes more than several negroes in alarming these greedy little gourmands. In this region they do us no practical harm.
"Our most abundant hawk is the broad-winged, which will measure about thirty-six inches with wings extended. The plumage of this bird is so dusky as to impart a prevalent brownish color, and the species is distributed generally over eastern North America. Unlike the marsh-hawk, it builds in trees, and Mr. Audubon describes a nest as similar to that of the crow--a resemblance easily accounted for by the frequency with which this hawk will repair crows' nests of former years for its own use. I once shot one upon such a nest, from which I had taken crows' eggs the preceding summer. I had only wounded the bird, and he clawed me severely before I was able to capture him. I once took a fledgling from a nest, and he became very fond of me, and quite gentle, but he would not let any one else handle him. On another occasion, when I was examining a nest, the male bird flew to a branch just over it, uttering loud, squealing cries, thence darted swiftly past me, and so close that I could feel the rush of air made by his wings; then he perched near again, and threatened me in every way he could, extending his wings, inclining his head and body toward me, making meanwhile a queer whistling sound. Only when I reached the nest would the female leave it, and then she withdrew but a short distance, returning as soon as I began to descend. The devotion of these wild creatures to their young is often marvellous. Mr. Audubon describes this hawk as 'spiritless, inactive, and so deficient in courage that he is often chased by the little sparrow-hawk and kingbird.' Another naturalist dissents emphatically from this view, and regards the broad-winged as the most courageous and spirited of his family, citing an instance of a man in his employ who, while ascending to a nest, was assailed with great fury. His hat was torn from his head, and he would have been injured had not the bird been shot. He also gives another example of courage in an attack by this hawk upon a boy seeking to rob its nest. It fastened its talons in his arm, and could not be beaten off until it was killed. Perhaps both naturalists are right. It is brave and fierce when its home is disturbed, and lacks the courage to attack other birds of its own kind. At any rate, it has no hesitancy in making hawk-love to chickens and ducklings, but as a rule subsists on insects and small quardrupeds. It is not a very common winter resident, but early in March it begins to come northward in flocks.
"Next to the broad-winged, the sharp-shinned is our most abundant hawk, and is found throughout the entire continent from Hudson Bay to Mexico. It usually builds its nest in trees, and occasionally on ledges of rocks, and as a general thing takes some pains in its construction. Its domicile approaches the eagle's nest in form, is broad and shallow, and made of sticks and twigs lined thinly with dried leaves, mosses, etc. A full-grown female--which, as I told you once before, is always larger than the male among birds of prey--measures about twenty-six inches with wings extended. It is lead-colored above, and lighter beneath. You can easily recognize this hawk by its short wings, long tail, and swift, irregular flight. One moment it is high in the air, the next it disappears in the grass, having seized the object of its pursuit. It is capable of surprisingly sudden dashes, and its pursuit is so rapid that escape is wellnigh hopeless. It is not daunted by obstacles. Mr. Audubon saw one dart into a thicket of briers, strike and instantly kill a thrush, and emerge with it on the opposite side. It often makes havoc among young chickens. One came every day to a poultry-yard until it had carried off over twenty. It does not hesitate to pounce down upon a chicken even in the farmer's presence; and one, in a headlong pursuit, broke through the glass of a greenhouse, then dashed through another glass partition, and was only brought up by a third. Pigeons are also quite in its line. Indeed, it is a bold red-taloned freebooter, and only condescends to insects and the smaller reptiles when there are no little birds at hand. During the spring migration this hawk is sometimes seen in large flocks.
"The American goshawk is the next bird of this family that I will mention, and I am very glad to say that he is only a winter resident. He is the dreaded blue hen-hawk of New England, and is about twenty-three inches long, and forty-four from tip to tip of wings. One good authority says that for strength, intrepidity, and fury he cannot be surpassed. He will swoop down into a poultry-yard and carry off a chicken almost before you can take a breath. He is swift, cunning, and adroit rather than heedless and headlong, like the sharp-shinned hawk, and although the bereaved farmer may be on the alert with his gun, this marauder will watch his chance, dash into the yard, then out again with his prey, so suddenly that only the despairing cries of the fowl reveal the murderous onslaught. In western Maine this hawk is very common. A housewife will hear a rush of wings and cries of terror, and can only reach the door in time to see one of these robbers sailing off with the finest of her pullets. Hares and wild-ducks are favorite game also. The goshawk will take a mallard with perfect ease, neatly and deliberately strip off the feathers, and then, like an epicure, eat the breast only. Audubon once saw a large flock of blackbirds crossing the Ohio. Like an arrow a goshawk darted upon them, while they, in their fright, huddled together. The hawk seized one after another, giving each a death-squeeze, then dropping it into the water. In this way he killed five before the flock escaped into the woods. He then leisurely went back, picked them up one by one, and carried them to the spot selected for his lunch. With us, I am happy to say, he is shy and distant, preferring the river marshes to the vicinity of our farmyards. He usually takes his prey while swooping swiftly along on the wing.
"Have we any hawks similar to those employed in the old-time falconry of Europe?" Webb asked.
"Yes; our duck or great-footed hawk is almost identical with the well-known peregrine falcon of Europe. It is a permanent resident, and breeds on the inaccessible cliffs of the Highlands, although preferring similar localities along a rocky sea-coast. There is no reason to doubt that our duck-hawk might be trained for the chase as readily as its foreign congener. It has the same wonderful powers of flight, equal docility in confinement, and can be taught to love and obey its master. I have often wondered why falconry has not been revived, like other ancient sports. The Germans are said to have employed trained hawks to capture carrier-pigeons that were sent out with missives by the French during the siege of Paris. In a few instances the duck-hawk has been known to nest in trees. It is a solitary bird, and the sexes do not associate except at the breeding season. While it prefers water-fowl, it does not confine itself to them. I shot one on a Long Island beach and found in its crop whole legs of the robin, Alice's thrush, catbird, and warblers. It measures about forty-five inches in the stretch of its wings, and its prevailing color is of a dark blue.
"The pigeon-hawk is not very rare at this season. Professor Baird describes this bird as remarkable for its rapid flight, its courage, and its enterprise in attacking birds even larger than itself. This accords with my experience, for my only specimen was shot in the act of destroying a hen. He is about the size of our common flicker, or high-holder, which bird, with robins, pigeons, and others of similar size, is his favorite game. The sparrow-hawk is rare at this time, and is only abundant occasionally during its migrations. The red-shouldered hawk is a handsome bird, with some very good traits, and is a common permanent resident. Unless hunted, these birds are not shy, and they remain mated throughout the year. Many a human pair might learn much from their affectionate and considerate treatment of each other. They do not trouble poultry-yards, and are fond of frogs, cray-fish, and even insects. Occasionally they will attack birds as large as a meadow-lark. They have a high and very irregular flight, but occasionally they so stuff themselves with frogs that they can scarcely move. Wilson found one with the remains of ten frogs in his crop.
"Last among the winter residents I can merely mention the red-tailed hawk, so named from the deep rufus color of its tail feathers. It is a heavy, robust bird, and while it usually feeds on mice, moles, and shrews that abound in meadows, its depredations on farmyards are not infrequent. It is widely distributed throughout the continent, and abundant here. It is a powerful bird, and can compass long distances with a strong, steady flight, often moving with no apparent motion of the wings. It rarely seizes its prey while flying, like the goshawk, but with its keen vision will inspect the immediate vicinity from the branch of a tree, and thence dart upon it. It is not particular as to its food. Insects, birds, and reptiles are alike welcome game, and in summer it may be seen carrying a writhing snake through the air. While flying it utters a very harsh, peculiar, and disagreeable scream, and by some is called the squealing hawk. The social habits of this bird are in appropriate concord with its voice. After rearing their young the sexes separate, and are jealous of and hostile to each other. It may easily happen that if the wife of the spring captures any prey, her former mate will struggle fiercely for its possession, and the screaming clamor of the fight will rival a conjugal quarrel in the Bowery. In this respect they form an unpleasing contrast with the red-shouldered hawks, among whom marriage is permanent, and maintained with lover-like attentions. Thus it would appear that there are contrasts of character even in the hawk world; and when you remember that we have fifteen other varieties of this bird, besides the nine I have mentioned, you may think that nature, like society, is rather prodigal in hawks. As civilization advances, however, innocence stands a better chance. At least this is true of the harmless song-birds.
"I have now given you free-hand sketches of the great majority of our winter residents, and these outlines are necessarily very defective from their brevity as well as for other reasons. I have already talked an unconscionably long time; but what else could you expect from a man with a hobby? As it is, I am not near through, for the queer little white-bellied nut-hatch, and his associates in habits, the downy, the hairy, the golden-winged, and the yellow-bellied woodpeckers, and four species of owls, are also with us at this season. With the bluebirds the great tide of migration has already turned northward, and all through March, April, and May I expect to greet the successive arrivals of old friends every time I go out to visit my patients. I can assure you that I have no stupid, lonely drives, unless the nights are dark and stormy. Little Johnnie, I see, has gone to sleep. I must try to meet some fairies and banshees in the moonlight for her benefit But, Alf, I'm delighted to see you so wide-awake. Shooting birds as game merely is very well, but capturing them in a way to know all about them is a sport that is always in season, and would grow more and more absorbing if you lived a thousand years."
A bent for life was probably given to the boy's mind that night.