Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE trail that led over to Cornell Canyon started right up a small ravine from the city street. The street ended at the abrupt slope that cut steeply up the gulch. Below was the paved sidewalk, above a jungle of rosebrier, blackberry, and young firs. Through and above this I climbed to the abandoned wood road that wound up the hillside. In the street below the English Sparrows (Passer domesticus) live, above, on the slope, the Song (Melospiza melodia morphna) and White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli) nest. The Englishers dwell at the lower end of the row in what I call the tenement quarter; the songs and white-crowns live above in a more restricted district. I can be in the city with the noise and the city manners of the street sparrows, or in a few seconds I can be in the deep woods with the song sparrow.
What a contrast, the song sparrow and the Englisher! The song sparrow is a bird of character, the other is a street gamin. Our native songster is not quarrelsome. He has gentle dignity, while this imported son of England is bold and brawling. The full, rich notes that ring from the hillside are drowned in the discordant chirps about the sidewalk and street.
The song sparrow is one of the most constant singers throughout our land. Wherever birds live, there we may find him, whether in the mountains or along the rivers, whether along the sea-shore or on the dry, chaparral-covered deserts. He is a bird with a name that fits, and he lives in every state of the Union. But he has many different variations in name, owing to some little difference in the color of his coat, due perhaps to the place where he lives.
Early in the season I watched a pair of song sparrows at work. They dug out a hollow in the centre of a thick tussock of grass. They lined it with a bed of dry leaves and twined the grass stems around and around, the mother weaving them in and shaping the cup with her breast.
The male sparrow wore a plain brown-colored coat, and had a black spot hung right in the centre of his breast as a mark of identity. But clothes do not make the bird. He had a repertoire of song rolled up in his tiny brain that would win the affection of any audience.
song sparrow is an artist, and he loves his art. He sings for the
sake of the music. The hillside is his permanent home, for I have
seen him there winter as well as summer. He stays and sings when the
snows cover the hills. After a night of drenching March rain he hops
out from under a brush heap and sets the woods atune for the
coming of spring. Then a little later he breaks into an ecstasy, and
almost loses himself in the endless changes of his song. While house
building, and after the mother has cradled her four spotted eggs,
the male always shows the quality of his music. After the family cares
of the summer and when the sun makes him moult, he chirps more
than he sings, but when the October frosts nip the leaves and the
wind sends them scurrying ground-ward, and his coat changes, the song
sparrow sits in the leafless tops and still sings of the beauties
that haunt his memory.
The white-crowned sparrow has not the variation in his singing that the song sparrow has. He has one theme, and that he has sung till perfection has been reached. I never tire of the song, because it always seems to have some new association or suggestion. I remember it in my boyhood days, when the white-crowns used to come trooping in with anxious chirps to roost in the thick growth of the eucalyptus in front of the house. Before dark they would swing on the higher branches and sing of the Quaker poet, "Oh! De-e-ar! Whit-ti-er! Whit-ti-er!" And then in the darkening moments a little later would come the sad refrain, "Oh! De-e-ar! De-e-ar!" And as I lay by the open window sometimes in the dreamy hours of the night I heard the song repeated.
The white-crowns liked the hillside because they could drop down the slope to the back yard of a friend that kept a bath basin of running water and a free lunch of crumbs and seeds. They came and ate all they wanted in the early spring, then later on, instead of eating the food, they began to carry it away. This looked suspicious, so I followed them up the hill and found four little sparrows in a grass nest on the sloping bank under a small dogwood.
In order to get some pictures of the sparrows, we had focused our camera on the ground where the crumbs were placed and snapped the birds as they came to feed. Early in the springtime the sparrows were not wild, and we got a number of good photographs, but later, when the young were hatched and we tried to get pictures at the nest, the birds resented such interference. We tried for several days with the camera at the nest, but the birds would not go near it when we were there. Then we focused on the top of the dogwood where the sparrows were accustomed to light, and covering the camera with limbs and leaves we got some pictures.
Once or twice I saw a dangerous-looking cat in the next yard from the sparrows' lunch-table. We have tried every lawful way of getting rid of stray cats, for they are the most persistent enemies the birds have. Some one has estimated that on an average a stray cat will kill fifty songsters a year. Of course, certain cats will kill many more than this. Most states have laws that prevent man from killing the birds. A man may be fined for killing a bird, but he may keep a cat that kills a hundred. Why can't the owners of cats see that they are well supplied with food, so that they do not have to hunt birds for a living? Why can't people who own cats keep them at home or make some effort to teach them to let birds alone?
The next day when we scattered crumbs for the sparrows we found several feathers that looked as if they were from the tail or wing of one of our birds, and when neither of the white-crowns appeared the indications looked bad. If the old cat had killed the mother, the young might be starving.
I hurried up the hill to look after the orphans. There was not a sparrow in sight. When I climbed up to the dogwood I pushed the ferns aside, and four gaping mouths were stretched up to me. It looked as if I were a long lost relative arriving in the nick of time to save a hungry family from starvation. Mercy! What could I do with such a family on my hands? A big, bungling man with such tiny nestlings to feed! I sat down to think it over, but before I had been there a minute here came the father white-crown, hopping from limb to limb, and chirping excitedly. To my astonishment, he was followed by the mother. Not much, the cat had not eaten her! She was well and happy, but absolutely tailless. "He didn't catch me. Here I am," she seemed to say, as she perched in the top of the dogwood over my head. She chirped, and at every chirp she jerked to throw up her tail in emphasis, but she couldn't emphasize in her old way. Whereas yesterday she was graceful and could talk with an air of dignity, now she had lost balance, and was ridiculous because she could hardly poise on a limb.
But now the tailless bird had more interest for us than she had before. We wanted to watch her and picture her, so we focused the camera on the tree-top and hid until we could get the sparrows into position.
If one thinks the tail of a bird is not an important factor in flight, he should have seen that mother sparrow try to catch a fly on the wing. Several times I saw her dart out from the tree in pursuit of an insect that flew past. Almost every time she missed at the first strike, and then I could see that she sorely felt the loss of her long, guiding feathers, She scrambled about in mid-air in her efforts to turn abruptly and start off in a new direction. She was always successful in the end, although at one time I saw her make five tries before she landed a moth. At another time she darted with such vigor that she almost turned a complete somersault before she regained her equilibrium.
The invasion of the Englisher in the bird world is a tremendous problem for our native songsters. It is no negro problem of the South for them, for education is out of the question, and exportation is impossible. This foreign sparrow may be all right in a narrow-streeted city where other birds do not live, but he has no place in a city with tree-lined streets and gardens and parks, for our native songsters are superior in every way to the imported street gamin.
Englisher is the greatest bird colonizer I know. In the year of 1887
there was not a single one about the city where I live. But in the
spring of 1889 I found the first pair had taken up a residence about
an old ivy-covered house. They had likely come in during the winter
over the usual freight-car route. It is well known that the spread
of these birds is often due to the railroads, for this medium will
populate any community. In cities where these pests thrive they are
generally found about depots and warehouses, and in winter the
sparrow asks for no better home than an empty freight-car,
especially if the floor is covered with loose grain. When the doors
of the freight-cars are locked, the sparrows are shut in and carried
off, tramplike, to other places. By this civilized mode of travel
this bird has been carried from point to point, and it is readily at
home wherever it lands.
I have watched the population of our city grow, until now there is hardly a street that isn't overcrowded from the river to the hills. The sparrows have long since spread into the surrounding towns, and some day I suppose they will be in dominant possession of the country as well as the city. Some people advocate a wholesale slaughter, but others always object, for they still fall back to the fact that he is a bird.
For several years I had a bird-house that was rented each summer by the bluebirds. Then one spring, when they returned from the South, they found a pair of sparrows in possession. After that I was never able to get the bluebird tenants to return, although I pitched the sparrows into the street and cleaned the house thoroughly. For every sparrow I choked and ejected another occupant came to take possession, till at last I used the box for kindling, I had the same difficulty with some swallow tenants. The bluebird, the white-breasted swallow, and Parkman wren are all common residents about our city, and each of these birds likes to take up a homestead in a good, sheltered bird-box. From my own standpoint, my property increases in value whenever one of these songsters takes up a residence with me. on the other hand, my real estate drops every time an English sparrow moves in, because no self-respecting feathered native can dwell in the same neighborhood.
No one can dispute the sparrow's success as a family man. He works overtime to people the earth, The stork of the sparrow species is a busy individual for almost half of every year. Then, in addition, the English sparrow has the advantage over the songsters that nest in the woods and fields, for they have so many natural enemies, such as hawks, owls, animals, and snakes. The Englisher lives about the crowded city, where he has little to fear, because men are unobserving and rarely interfere.
When it comes to housekeeping, I give the Englisher credit for wanting something new and up-to-date. He loves the crosspiece in the protected top of an electric arc lamp. There he gets free light and heat. For second choice, he takes a bird-box or protected nook about a building. If necessary, he takes to a tree, but he does not like this, for nest building in a tree is more difficult. If hard pushed, he will even take a rain spout or a gutter along the eaves of the house. You can't "stump" a sparrow for a nesting site.
Down near the lower end of sparrow row some hornets built a nest up under the projecting eaves of the front porch of a cottage, just beside the bracket. I can understand how a pair of sparrows will fight for a bird-box and drive other birds away, but I never dreamed they would be envious of the hornets. But a sparrow must have a place to nest, Whether the hornets left voluntarily or with the aid of the sparrows I do not know, but the next time I passed I found the birds in possession—actually making a home in a hornet's nest. They had gone in through the bracket and pulled out a large part of the comb, and were replacing it with grass and feathers,
Think of raising a family of birds in a hornet's nest —not one, but several families! When the young sparrows grew older, I looked to see the bottom fall out and drop the nestful of little brats to the porch, but it didn't. The hornet's nest remained as strong as if it had been made for sparrows. And the sparrows liked it immensely; it was a novelty, and not another pair around had a home like theirs.
The cock-sparrow was proud of his home. He helped feed the children, but not because he liked it. I could see it was not in a cock-sparrow to nurse children. He liked fighting better, and between meals, even if he only had a moment to spare, he would spend it in fighting with the neighbors. He would drop down suddenly in the street in the midst of a crowd of sparrows and pitch into the nearest by jerking at a tail or wing feather. For a moment the dust and feathers would fly, and the victor would sputter around with his wings drooping and his tail up. Then away he would go, fluttering off, foraging for fruit and bugs. He returned, dusty and dirty, every few minutes with morsels of food.
It is always a wonder to me that more of these street sparrows are not killed as they hop and flutter about the hoofs of the horses and in front of the cars. Half the time they seem to see how close they can miss getting hit, and off they flutter in sidelong flight, as if hardly able to rise. But the sparrow knows the ways of the city like a newsboy, and he is safer down amid the clatter of the wheels than his cousins are in the woods and fields.
THE SPARROW AND FINCH FAMILY
The Fringillidæ, or Finch and Sparrow family is our largest family of birds. As a rule, they are plainly dressed in dull colors, and sing well. The average length is six or seven inches. This class of birds is known as seed-eaters and can be recognized by their stout conical bills, but they also live largely on cutworms, caterpillars, and other insects. The sexes are generally alike. With the English sparrow in mind as a type, other members of the family should be readily recognized.
English Sparrow (Passer domesticus), House Sparrow, Street Gamin, Tramp: Male, upper parts ashy-gray, streaked with black and brown; black patch about eyes and on throat, rest of under parts grayish; red brown patch behind eye; wing with brown patch and white wing-bars, Female, grayish-brown above and gray beneath. This bird was brought to this country from England. It has spread all over the United States where it is a persistent resident of towns and cities.
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia): A familiar and favorite bird throughout North America. Its dress has been modified slightly by climatic influences in different parts of the country. In the Northwest, where rain is plentiful and vegetation is dense, his coat is sable-brown; on the deserts, his dress is a pale, sandy color to match the ground. But whatever the shade of his dress, he is always the same in every state in the Union. Male and female, streaked above and below; the upper parts are brown-gray and olive; gray stripe over the eye; breast is white, streaked with dark brown and a larger spot on the chest. Sometimes the song sparrow stays all winter; others return from the South in April and stay till November. Nest on the ground or in a low bush. Eggs, four, grayish-white, spotted and clouded with brown and lavender.
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella socialis), Chippy, Hair-bird: Male and female, cap red-brown; brown stripe through the eye and gray stripe above; back streaked brown and gray; breast light gray.
White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys): Male and female, white crown set between two black stripes with white stripe running hack from eye; cheeks, throat and back of neck gray; back, general ashy color, streaked with brown; below, light gray.
Sparrow, similar to above, but with yellow spot in front of eye, and
white throat. Both are handsome birds and good singers.