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Birds Every Child Should Know
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BLACK AND WHITE CREEPING WARBLER
Called also: Summer Yellowbird; Wild Canary.
RATHER than live where the skies are gray and the air is cold, this adventurous little warbler will travel two thousand miles or more to follow the sun. A trip from Panama to Canada and back again within five months does not appal him. By living in perpetual sunshine his feathers seemed to have absorbed some of it, so that he looks like a stray sunbeam playing among the shrubbery on the lawn, the trees in the orchard, the bushes in the roadside thicket, the willows and alders beside the stream. He is shorter than the English sparrow by an inch. Although you may not get close enough to see that his yellow breast is finely streaked with reddish brown, you may know by these marks that he is not what you at first suspected he was-somebody's pet canary escaped from a cage. It is not he but the goldfinch-the yellow bird with the black wings-who sings like a canary. Happily he is so neighbourly that every child may easily become acquainted with this most common member of the large warbler family.
I don't believe there is anybody living who could name at sight every one of the seventy warblers that visit the United States. Some are very gaily coloured and exquisitely marked, as birds coming to us from the tropics have a right to be. Some are quietly clad; some, like the redstart, are dressed quite differently from their mates and young; others, like the yellow warbler, are so nearly alike that you could see no difference between the male and female from the distance of a few feet. Some live in the tops of evergreens and other tall trees; others, like the Maryland yellow-throat, which seems to prefer low trees and shrubbery, are rarely seen over twelve feet from the ground. A few, like the oven-bird, haunt the undergrowth in the woods or live most of the time on the earth. With three or four exceptions all the warblers dwell in woodlands, and it is only during the spring and autumn migrations that we have an opportunity to become acquainted with them; when they come about the orchard and shrubbery for a few days' rest and refreshment during their travels. Fortunately the cheerful little yellow warbler stays around our homes all summer long. Did you ever know a family so puzzling and contradictory as the Warblers? The great majority of these fascinating and exasperating relatives are nervous, restless little sprites, constantly flitting from branch to branch and from twig to twig in a never-ending search for small insects. As well try to catch a weasel asleep as a warbler at rest. People who live in the tropics, even for a little while, soon become lazy. Not so the warblers, whose' energy, like a steam engine's, seems to be increased by heat. Of course they do not undertake long journeys merely for pleasure, as wealthy human tourists do. They must migrate to find food; and as insects are most plentiful in warm weather, you see why these atoms of animation keep in perpetual motion. They are among the last migrants to come north in the spring and among the first to leave in the autumn because insects don't hatch out in cool weather, and the birds must always be sure of plenty to eat. Travelling as they do, chiefly by night, they are killed in numbers against the lighthouses and electric light towers which especially fascinate these poor little victims.
Who first misled us by calling these birds warblers? The truth is there is not one really fine singer, like a thrush, in the whole family. The yellow-breasted chat has remarkable vocal ability, but he is not a real musician like the mockingbird, who also likes to have fun with his voice. The warblers, as a rule, have weak, squeaky, or wiry songs and lisping tseep call notes, neither of which ought to be called a warble. The yellow warbler sings as acceptably as most of his kin. Seven times he rapidly repeats "Sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet-sweeter-sweeter" to his sweetheart, but this happy little lovemaker's incessant song is apt to become almost tiresome to everybody except his mate.
What a clever little creature she is! More than any other bird she suffers from the persecutions of that dusky rascal, the cowbird. In May, with much help from her mate, she builds an exquisite little cradle of silvery plant fibre, usually shreds of milkweed stalk, grass, leaves, and caterpillars' silk, neatly lined with hair, feathers, and the downy felt of fern fronds. The cradle is sometimes placed in the crotch of an elder bush, sometimes in a willow tree; preferably near water where insects are abundant, but often in a terminal branch of some orchard tree.
Scarcely is it finished before the skulking cowbird watches her chance to lay an egg in it that she may not be bothered with the care of her own baby. She knows that the yellow warbler is a gentle, amiable, devoted mother, who will probably work herself to death, if necessary, rather than let the big baby cowbird starve. But she sometimes makes a great mistake in her individual. Not all yellow warblers will permit the outrage. They prefer to weave a new bottom to their nest, over the cowbird's egg, although they may seal up their own speckled treasures with it. Suppose the wicked cowbird comes back and lays still another egg in the two-storied nest: what then? The little Spartan yellow bird has been known to weave still another layer of covering rather than hatch out an unwelcome, greedy interloper to crowd and starve her own precious babies. Two and even three-storied nests are to be found by bright-eyed boys and girls.
BLACK AND WHITE CREEPING WARBLER
You may possibly mistake this little warbler for a downy woodpecker when first you see him creeping rapidly over the bark of trees, or hanging from the under side of the branches. But when he flits restlessly from twig to twig and from tree to tree without taking time to examine spots thoroughly; especially when he calls a few thin wiry notes -- zee-zee-zee-zee -- you may know he is no woodpecker, but a warbler. Woodpeckers have thick set, high shouldered bodies which they flatten against the tree trunks; the males wear red in their caps, and all have larger, stouter bills than the warbler's. Moreover, no woodpecker is so small as this streaked and speckled little creature who is usually too intent on feeding to utter a single zee. You could. not possibly confuse him with the dilligent, placid brown creeper or with the slate-blue nuthatch which also creeps along the branches on the under or upper side. Some children I know call this black and white warbler the little zebra bird. Would that all warblers were so easily identified!
The Ovenbird who calls "Teacher- Teacher-TEACHER-TEACHER - TEACHER!"
Ovenbird in her cleverly hidden nest. Some of the leaves and sticks have been pulled away from the front to secure her picture
Young ovenbirds on day of leaving nest
OVEN-BIRD Called also: The Teacher; Golden-crowned Thrush; The Accentor.
"Teacher- Teacher-TEACHER-TEACHER - TEACHER!" resounds a penetrating, accented voice from the woods. Who calls? Not an impatient scholar, as you might suppose, but a shy little thrush-like warbler who has no use whatever for any human being, especially at the nesting season in May and June, when he calls most loudly and frequently. Beginning quite softly, he gradually increases the intensity of each pair of notes in a crescendo that seems to come from a point much nearer than it really does: Once heard it is never forgotten, and you can always be sure of naming at least one bird by his voice alone. However, his really exquisite love song-a clear, ringing, vivacious melody, uttered while the singer is fluttering, hovering, high among the tree-tops-is rarely heard, or if heard is not recognised as the teacher's 'aerial serenade. He is a warbler, let it be recorded, who really can sing, and beautifully, however rarely.
Why is he called the oven-bird? A little girl I know was offered five dollars by her father if she could find the bird's nest in the high dry woods near her home. "Teacher!" was the commonest sound that came from them. It rang in her ears all day, so of course she thought it would be "too easy" to earn the money. Every afternoon, when school was out, she tramped through the woods hour after hour, poking about among the dead leaves, the snapping twigs, the velvety moss, the fallen logs, the young spring growth of the little plants and creepers, always keeping her eyes on the ground where she knew the nest would be found. Day after day she continued the search. Every time she saw a little hump of dead leaves or twigs and grasses her heart bounded with hope, but on closer examination she found no nest at all. Finally, one day when she was becoming discouraged, she spied in the path a little brownish olive bird, about the size of an English sparrow, but with a speckled, thrush-like breast and a dull orange V-shaped patch, bordered by black lines, on the top of his head. He was walking about on the ground, nodding his head as if marking time, not hopping, sparrow-fashion; and he took very dainty, pretty steps that suggested a French dancing master. Occasionally, he would scratch the path for insects, like a tiny chicken. Although she had never seen the teacher, and had expected that the loud voice came from a much larger bird, she felt sure that this must be he, so she sat down on a log and watched and waited. Presently she saw him tug at a fine black hair-like root that lay across the path, and, snapping it off, quickly fly away, away-oh, where did he go with it? She ran stumbling after him through the undergrowth to a little clearing. There another bird, just like him, whom she instantly guessed was his mate, flew straight toward her, dropped to the ground, ran about distractedly, dragging one wing as if it were broken, and uttering sharp, piteous notes of alarm. The little girl didn't like to distress the birds, of course, but how could she resist the temptation to find their nest? So on she tramped around and around in an ever widening circle, the excited birds still hovering near and sharply scolding her. You may be sure she was quite as excited as they. At last, a little dome-shaped mound of grasses, half hidden among the dry brown oak leaves and wild geranium, gladdened her eyes. Running around to the opposite side she knelt down on the grass, peeped under the arched roof and into the nest, which was shaped like an old-fashioned Dutch oven. Was ever a sight so welcome? She almost screamed with joy. Through the opening on one side, that was about three inches high, she could see the lining of fine black rootlets, just like the one she had watched the bird snap off and carry away. Then she flew home, as if she too had wings, and, calling breathlessly "Oh Father! Father! I've found it!" burst into the house. A week before even one white speckled egg had been laid in the oven-bird's nest, there was a golden half-eagle in a happy little girl's palm. A fortnight later a man with a camera took a picture of the patient mother-bird, whose pretty striped head you see peeping out from under the dome.
Called also: Black-masked Ground Warbler
This gay little warbler looks as if he were dressed for a masquerade ball with a gray-edged black mask over his face and the sides of his throat, a brownish green coat and a bright yellow vest. He is smaller than a sparrow. How sharply the inquisitive fellow peers at you through his mask whenever you pass the damp thicket, bordering the marshy land, where he likes best to live! And how quickly he hops from twig to twig and flies from one clump of bushes to another clump, in restless, warbler fashion, as he leads you a dance in pursuit! Not for a second does he stop watching you.
If you come too close, a sharp pit-pit or chock is snapped out by the excited bird, whose familiar, oft-repeated, sprightly, waltzing triplet has been too freely translated, he thinks, into, Fol-low-me, fol-low-me, fol-low-me. Pursuit is the last thing he really desires, and of course he issues no such invitation. What be actually says almost always sounds to me like Witch-ee-tee, witch-ee-tee, witch-ee-tee. You will surely hear him if you listen in his marshy retreats. He sings almost all summer. Except when nesting he comes into the garden, picks minute insects out of the blossoming shrubbery, hops about on the ground, visits the raspberry tangle, and hides among the bushes along the roadside. Only the yellow warbler, of all his numerous tribe, is disposed to be more neighbourly. In spite of his local name, he is to be found in winter from Georgia to Labrador and Manitoba westward to the Plains. You see he is something of a traveller.
The little bird who bewitches him, and to whom he sings the witch's song, wears no black mask, so it is not easy to name her if her mate is not about. Her plumage is duller than his and the sides of her plump little body, which are yellowish brown, shade into grayish white underneath. Sometimes you may catch her carrying weeds, strips of bark, broad grasses, tendrils, reeds, and leaves for the outside of her deep cradle, and finer grasses for- its lining, to a spot on the ground where plants and low bushes help conceal it. She does not build so beautiful a nest as the yellow warbler, but like her she, too, poor thing, sometimes suffers from the sneaking visits of the cowbird. Unhappily, she is not so clever as her cousin, for she meekly consents to hatch out the cowbird's egg and let the big, greedy interloper crowd and worry and starve her own brood: Why does the cowardly cowbird always choose a victim smaller than herself?
THE YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT
"Now he barks like a puppy, then quacks like a duck, then rattles like a kingfisher, then squalls like a fox, then caws like a crow, then mews like a cat -- C-r-r-r-r-r-whrr -- that's it -- Chee-quack, chuck, yit-yit-yit-now -- hit it -- tr-r-r-r-wheu-caw-caw-cut, cut-tea-boy-who, whomew, mew," writes John Burroughs of this rollicking polyglot, the chat; but not even that close student of nature could set down on paper all the multitude of queer sounds with which the bird amuses himself. He might be mistaken for a dozen different birds and animals in as many minutes.
Such a secretive roysterer is he that you may rarely see him, however often you may hear his voice when he is hidden beyond sight in partial clearings or the bushy, briery, thickety openings in the woods. As he seems to delight in keeping pursuers off by a natural fence of barbed wire, the cat brier, wild blackberry, raspberry, and rose bushes are among his favourite plants. But if you will sit down quietly near his home, your patience will probably be rewarded by the sight of this largest of the warblers, with olive green upper parts, a conspicuous white line running from his bill around his eye and another along his throat, and a bright yellow breast shading to grayish white underneath. He is over an inch longer than the English sparrow. His wife looks just like him.
The zany at the circus can go through no more clownish tricks than the chat. See him, a mere bunch of feathers, dance and balance in the air, now fluttering, now falling as if he had been shot, or turning aerial somersaults, now rising and trailing his legs behind him like a stork, now dropping out of sight in the thickest part of the thicket. The instant he spies you, Chut-chut, he scolds from the briars. Shy, eccentric, absurd, but inspired with a "fine frenzy," which is a passionate love for his mate and their nest, all his queer notes and equally queer stunts centre about his home. On moonlight nights, Punchinello entertains himself and Columbine with a series of inimitable performances which have earned him the title of yellow mockingbird. He can throw his voice so that it seems to come from quite a different direction, as you may sometime have heard a human ventriloquist do
When this exquisite little warbler flashes his brilliant salmon flame and black feathers among the trees, darting hither and thither, fluttering, spinning about in the air after insects caught chiefly on the wing, you will surely agree that he is the most beautiful as well as the most lively bird in the woods. The colour scheme of his clothes suggests the Baltimore oriole's, only the flaming feathers on the sides of his body, wings, and tail are a pinker shade of flame, and the black ones which cover his back, throat, and upper breast, are more glossy, with bluish reflections. Underneath he is white, tinged with salmon. But you could not possibly mistake this lovely little sprite for the oriole, he is so much smaller-about an inch shorter than the sparrow. His cousin, the Blackburnian warbler, a much rarer bird, with a colour scheme of black, white, and beautiful rich orange, not salmon flame, can be named instantly by the large amount of white in his tail feathers. There are so few brilliantly coloured birds that find their way to us from the tropics, that it should not take any boy or girl longer to learn them than it does to learn the first multiplication table. In Cuba the red-start is known as "El Candelita" -- the little candle flame that flashes in the deep, dark, tropical forest.
Who would believe that this small firebrand, half glowing, half charred, whirling about through the trees, as if blown by the wind, is a cousin of the sombre oven-bird that walks so daintily and leisurely over the ground? The redstart keeps perpetually in motion that he may seize gnats and other gauzy winged mouthfuls in mid-air-not as the flycatchers do, by waiting on a fence rail or limb of a tree for a dinner to fly past, then dashing out and seizing it, but by flitting about constantly in search of insect prey. The bristles at the base of his bill prevent many an insect from getting past it. He rests on the trees only long enough to snatch a morsel, then away he goes again. No wonder the Spaniards call all the gaily coloured, tropical wood warblers "Mariposas" -- butterflies.