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XII

THE KINGBIRD

As a very small boy I spent much time in a certain piece of rather low ground partly grown up to bushes. Here in early spring I picked bunches of pretty pink and white flowers, which I now know to have been anemones. In the same place, a month or two later, I gathered splendid red lilies, and admired, without gather ing it, a tiny blue flower with a yellow centre. This would not bear taking home, but was al ways an attraction to me. I should have liked it better still, I am sure, if some one had been kind enough to tell me its pretty name — blue-eyed grass.

Here, also, I picked the first strawberries of the season and the first blueberries. They were luxuries indeed. A “gill-cup” full of either of them was good pay for an hour’s search.

In one corner of the place there were half a dozen or so of apple-trees, and on the topmost branches of these there used to perch continually two or three birds of a kind which some older boy told me were kingbirds. At these my brother and I — both of us small enough to be excusable for such mischief — were in the habit of throwing green apples; partly to see how near we could come to hitting them, partly for the fun of watching them rise into the air, circle about with sharp cries, and then settle back upon the perches they had left. Sometimes we stuck the half-grown apple on the end of a stick, swung the stick round our heads, and sent the apple flying to a tremendous distance. Stick or no stick, however, we were in no danger of killing anything, as I am glad now to remember.

What amazed us was that the birds did not go away. No matter how long we “appled” them, they were certain to be on hand the next day in the same place. We must have been very young and very green, — greener even than the apples, — for it never occurred to us that the birds had nests in the trees, and for that reason were not to be driven away by our petty persecutions.

Even then I noticed the peculiar flight of the birds — the short, quick strokes of their wings, and their habit of hovering. These are among the signs by which the kingbird can be recognized a long way off. He is dark-colored above, — almost black, — pure white underneath, and his tail, when outspread, shows a broad white border at the tip. On his crown is an orange-red patch, but you will probably never see it unless you have the bird in your hand and brush apart the feathers in search of it.

The kingbird’s Latin name has much the same meaning as his common English one. Tyrannus tyrannus he is called by scientific people. He belongs to a family known as flycatchers, birds that catch insects on the wing. That is the reason why the kingbird likes a perch at the tip of something, so that he can dart out after a passing insect, catch it, and return to his perch to wait for another. I should call him the “apple-tree flycatcher,” if the matter were referred to me.

He is not large, — little bigger than an English sparrow, — but he has plenty of courage and a strong disposition to “rule the roost,” as the saying goes. Every country boy has laughed to see the kingbird chasing a crow. And a very lively and pleasing sight it is: the crow making for the nearest wood as fast as his wings will carry him, and one or two kingbirds in hot pur suit. Their great aim is to get above him and swoop down upon his back. Sometimes you will see one actually alight on a crow’s back and, as boys say, “give it to him” in great style.

Another taking action of the kingbird is his trick of flying straight up in the air, almost perpendicularly, as if he were trying to see how near he could come to performing that impossible feat, and then tumbling about madly, with noisy out cries. Often it looks as if he actually turned somersaults. He cannot sing, and so has to let his high spirits bubble over in these half-crazy gymnastics. All in all, he is a very lively and entertaining customer.

His nest is built in a tree, often in an orchard, and is comparatively easy to find. The birds arrive in New England in the first week of May, having passed the winter in Central or South America, and remain till the end of August.

Like most birds, they are very punctual in their coming and going. No doubt they have an almanac of their own. You will do well to find one of them in Massachusetts after the first two or three days of September.

Toward the end of their stay, flycatchers though they are, they feed largely upon berries. I have seen a dozen in one small dogwood bush, all eating greedily.


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