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CHAPTER V

NATURE'S FIRST LAW

GREAT was the astonishment of a lady seated beside an open window sewing one May morning to have a Baltimore oriole fly from its half-built nest in the elm tree on the lawn to her window, alight on the sill, timidly advance toward her workbasket on the window-seat, and, while she sat motionless, breathless, to see it tug at the end of some darning cotton and then dart through the window with the cutting trailing from its bill. It did not take the delighted hostess long to prepare more tempting invitations for her guest to return. Breaking off short lengths of worsteds, some bright coloured, some brownish gray natural wool, she spread them about on the casement Presently the bird flew by the house again, caught sight of the worsteds, wheeled suddenly about, alighted on the shutter, hopped to the worsteds, selected a gray strand and flew off. Again the oriole returned; again she chose the natural wool. On the sixth trip her feminine taste was apparently sorely tempted by a bit of pink yarn, for she touched it twice with her bill before deliberately carrying away the last grayish piece. Every bright-colored strand was rejected. This set the lady thinking.

Of all our common birds, the oriole is perhaps the most æsthetic. That she is far in advance of most of her kind is shown by her marvellous skill as a weaver, and further proved by the attractions in a mate that are necessary to woo her — the most gorgeous of orange and black feathers, and, as if they were not enough, the most persistent of delicious songs throughout the courtship. Certainly, a bird with so keen an appreciation of form, colour and music must have some excellent reason for being so quietly clad and for choosing somber- coloured materials for her nest. The obvious reason explains also the motives of very many other birds respecting their plumage and homes.


Young whippoorwills feel a sense of security from protective security

A child less wise than Macaulay's schoolboy knows that various birds have adopted various methods of protecting themselves and their young, about whom they are even more concerned, every species having some special method of its own. By far the greatest number, however, depend chiefly on the protective colouring of their plumage, and the more closely it harmonizes with their surroundings the more likely are they to escape the ever-watch­ful eyes of their foes. Naturally, it is the female which requires the greater protection, for, as we have just seen, it is she who builds the nest in the great majority of cases, covers the eggs and cares for the young, often with little help from her mate. His chief business in life is to woo and win her, therefore on him Nature lavishes her choicest gifts of plumage and song, even if she sometimes skimps on his beauty of character.

The oriole, more than any other of our brightly coloured birds, has learned to confide in man, living on terms of neighbourly intimacy with him; and, finding itself comparatively safe, it has lost the fears that once must have beset all conspicuous birds. Yet there is need for the mother oriole to reflect in her feathers the olive green, soft grayish brown and yellow of the leaves, twigs and sunlight she lives among. She still swings her cradle from the tip of a high branch where small boys, cats, red squirrels and snakes fear to dangle, and, in regions where hawks are common, she makes the felt pouch deep enough to conceal her while she broods.


Young grouse confident they are hidden from the camera man

The mate of the brilliant scarlet tanager likewise mimics with her clothes the sunny green light of the tree tops. Except for the merest suspicion of blue in her plumage, one would never suspect the indigo bunting's dingy brown little mate of belonging to him. She, like her sparrow cousin of the dusty roadsides and dry fields, looks of the earth, earthy, while he, to win her, boldly dares to wear a deeper blue than heaven among the glistening verdigris tints of his coat. Nor are any telltale feathers worn by the wives of our most brilliant warblers, the blackburnian and the redstart, which must instantly arrest the dullest eye when they flash glowing bits of flame and salmon among the deep shadows of their favourite evergreens. The robin merely wears a deeper red on his breast than his mate. Such accenting of colour at the nesting season in males that are otherwise similar to the females is common when neither bird has much to fear from brilliancy of hue. Male woodpeckers always wear more or less red on their heads, literally setting their caps for a bride. The English sparrow need attempt nothing more showy than a black cravat to impress his easily pleased sweetheart.

Young birds of either sex and of many species usually look like their mother when there is anything to be lost by following their father's shining example. In the latter case young males come into their splendid heritage of feathers by degrees, that they may be as inconspicuous as possible while learning the ways of this wicked world — probably not because their heads might be turned before maturity. Thus it takes the purple finch two years to perfect his raspberry colour, and during his youth he, too, looks sparrowy, betraying his kinship. Partly because the plumage of no group of birds is more admirably protective in their environment, the sparrows are inheriting the earth.



WHAT BEAUTY COSTS

Necessarily, every bird has the means to conceal or defend itself, or to escape from its natural foes; but when, after ages of natural selection, especially beautiful feathers developed on many, neither shotguns nor milliners had entered into the birds' calculations. How could the snowy white heron of the Gulf States have foreseen that the exquisite plumes (aigrettes) that he wears on his back as a wedding decoration would some day be transferred to the unthinking heads of vain women in such enormous numbers as to cause the extermination of his species? And on the face of it, would it not seem ridiculous for any woman to wish to wear a stuffed parrot on her hat? Yet the Carolina parroquet, which was once common even as far north as New Jersey, has been practically annihilated for no more worthy end. The wonder is that, in spite of a slaughter of the innocents repeated year after year, there should now be any birds left. But so rapidly has public sentiment in favour of protection developed, in the last decade especially, that there is already a perceptible increase in the numbers of birds around our homes. "The earnest expectation of the creature" has not waited wholly in vain "for the manifestation of the sons of God."

"No longer now the winged habitants 
 That in the woods their sweet lives sing away,
 Flee from the form of man; but gather round
 And preen their sunny feathers on the hands
 Which little children stretch in friendly sport
 Toward dreadless partners of their play.
                                           ........Happiness
 And science dawn, though late, upon the earth." 


Letting his chivalry outweigh his prudence.   Cardinal near nest

We are wont to think of altruism as confined to the human species alone. Many conspicuously beautiful birds — even those brilliant targets for the gun and sling-shot, the Baltimore oriole, the scarlet tanager and the cardinal — risk their lives to carry dainties to brooding mates and help them rear the young. The rose-breasted grosbeak, frequently letting chivalry get the better of prudence, actually sits on the nest to relieve his plain little sparrowlike spouse.



A CHANGE OF CLOTHES

Fine feathers having been given many male birds for courting purposes only, why should not some of the hunted creatures seek protection in quiet clothes when the nesting season ends? Many do. All birds undergo at least one molt a year; those that put on a special wedding garment must molt twice.

After family cares are over and our rollicking, tuneful bobolink has stopped singing — and he is the first to become silent — he changes his beautiful black, white and buff suit for a winter one of streaked brown like his mate's, because they will go South to live among the ripe brown grasses and sedges. In spite of Nature's kindly protective colouring, thousands of bobolinks (reedbirds, so- called) fall a prey to pot-hunters every autumn when the best beefsteak costs only twenty cents a pound, and it takes a dozen plucked reedbirds to make a handful!

Who that did not know him the year round would recognize the bright-yellow, black-winged little goldfinch of sunny pastures after he has exchanged his nuptial clothes for the drab-brown family dress? So cleverly does it match the colouring of weedy foraging grounds after frost, that one may pass a flock of goldfinches in late autumn without suspecting there is a bird in the field. Except for their waving flight one might mistake them for a flock of sparrows.


Seasonal plumages of ptarmigan
From specimens in the American Museum of Natural History
a. summer; b. postnuptual or autumn; c. winter

Arctic birds, like Arctic animals, turn white in winter so as to be scarcely detected in the snowy landscape. It is a poor rule that won't work both ways: white enemies are quite as likely to approach unseen as white prey is likely to escape. Occasionally a great snowy owl comes over the Canadian border, — a ghostly apparition among our birds. The ptarmigan, which lives above the timber line in our western mountains as well as at the far north, is white while the snow lasts, but by the time there are eggs and chicks to be covered the mottled gray, black and brown feathers, which have gradually taken the place of the white ones, may be scarcely distinguished from the soil and stones among which the hen broods.



RELIANCE ON DECEPTION

Feeling absolute confidence in the harmonious blending of their feathers with their natural surroundings, many birds keep perfectly still even in the actual presence of danger, thinking themselves overlooked, as, indeed, they are apt to be. Another advantage of deceptive colouring is that their prey often come unawares within striking distance. The bittern standing motionless in his marshy home, his neck stretched upward, looks far less like a bird when in this attitude than like a stump or snag among the bushes. But look out for his wing slap and thrust of the sharp beak if he thinks his clever deception has failed! A weapon intended to impale frogs makes an ugly wound on the human body.

It takes very sharp eyes indeed to tell bird from tree when the nighthawk flattens and stretches herself lengthwise along the log or horizontal limb, with whose mottled colouring her own blends so perfectly. Certain rocks match not only her plumage but her eggs too, which is why she often chooses a depression in such a rock to cradle them when a decayed stump or suitable site on the bare ground among dry leaves cannot be found. Indeed, the mottled eggs of both the nighthawk and the whippoorwill are as difficult to detect as any laid, although neither bird takes the trouble to build a nest.

Certain beach birds which lay their eggs among the sand and pebbles above high-water mark allow the sun to do most of the incubating while they ply the waters for food with an easy mind, feeling quite sure that the sharpest-eyed enemy cannot detect their treasures scattered among the shingle. Gulls and terns, which have favourite islands off our coast, return to them generation after generation to rear their families. Colonies of terns choose a nesting site on the mottled beach among rounded pebbles of the same size, shape and colour as their eggs, on which one may innocently tread, so perfectly are they concealed while yet completely exposed. Young terns, when running about the beach for food, stop short the instant danger threatens and keep still instinctively — their colouring usually affords all the protection necessary.


A nighthawk asleep by her egg

Every sportsman knows how wary the woodcock is, yet so confidently does the hen rely on the mimicry of plumage amid the dry leaves and fallen logs around her, that one can place a camera squarely in front of her ground nest and photograph her on it without causing her concern enough to wink an eyelid. There was no need for birds so protected to build in trees. Seated among last year's leaves, the brown ruffed grouse feels sure, as well she may, that you can scarcely distinguish her from them. When danger threatens her chicks, the youngest downy ball knows enough to stand or squat motionless, while the mother, by feigning lameness or a broken wing, tries to decoy you away. Standing even in the midst of a surprised covey of young grouse, who is clever enough to count them all?



EVERY FEATHER MEANS SOMETHING

The most casual observer must have noticed that many birds are dark above and lighter underneath, like the cuckoos, vireos, flycatchers, and sparrows, to mention only a few groups. Of what bird, indeed, is the reverse true? This colouring, of course, accords with a law of optics whereby dark upper parts receiving the most light appear no darker when seen from a distance than pale under parts which receive less direct light. The result, so far as birds are concerned, tends to uniformity and makes them inconspicuous. His great advantage in this respect is well known to the dusky kingbird, for he calmly sits unobserved on the fence rail or other point of vantage, waiting for an unsuspecting fly to sail by, when off he dashes, clicks his bill over his victim, and returns to the same lookout to watch for another.


A foe of the air and its victim

As he flew off; you may have noticed the white band across the end of his tail. In common with many other birds that must migrate thousands of miles every year, he shows the white feather, yet not to his enemies — for his pugnacity often amounts to tyranny — but to his friends that travel with him in flecks. Were it not for such showy white signals as the vesper sparrow likewise wears in his tail, the flicker on his lower back, and various other birds display on tail, back and wings, many a migrant would be lost, unable to follow the travellers just ahead through dusk or fog.


Young Richardson's grouse learning to perch above the reach of prowling enemies

When he goes courting, the flicker takes ridiculous pains to show only his beauty marks in front to the well beloved. How silly feathered Benedicts are, too! Many a modestly attired little bird is as conscious of his charms at the wooing season, and displays them with as much pride, as if he were a peacock. In human beings, touch is the sense most acutely developed; in animals, smell; in birds, sight. Feathered lovers charmed the eye ages before they appealed to the ear.



OTHER MEANS OF PROTECTION

To insure themselves against being overtaken in a chase on land, some birds, like the ostrich, have developed extraordinary powers of running and kicking. The loon dives at the flash of a gun, several seconds before the shot reaches the place where he disappears into the lake. Chimney swifts and wild ducks, among others, travel on the wing faster than the fastest locomotive, and woe betide any weakly or maimed bird that straggles behind the flock, offering an invitation to dine that hawks are not slow to accept Indeed, the weak and sickly have little chance in Nature when all laws converge toward perpetuating only the best there is in life. Beside their foes of the air — marauding hawks that swoop upon them by day, and stealthy, silent owls that snatch the dreamers from their perches — prowling animals from mice to foxes, and big and little snakes in the grass, are ever seeking whom they may devour.

The unarmed turkey vultures or buzzards, so common in our Southern States, keep adversaries away by the foul trick of disgorging over them the contents of their carrion- filled stomachs. Roosters fight with spurs; eagles and hawks with beak and talons; geese and other birds still strike as effective a blow with their wings as did those which wore ivory spurs long ago. Even the tiny humming-bird is a desperate fighter and will lunge his rapier-like bill at a rival like any duelist. The largest animal fears having his eyes put out by the pecks of the smallest bird. Why should the guilty crow fly away from the outraged kingbird's nest at his fastest speed if not that the big, powerful thief fears blindness from the stabs of the infuriated little parent dashing about his head in hot pursuit? No bird is so poor as to he without some method of self-defense. The tree of life in Nature, as in Eden, must be guarded.


An egg-sucker. A foe of the ground



"ACCUSE NOT NATURE, SHE HATH DONE HER PART; DO THOU BUT THINE"

Certainly, birds banded together for mutual protection as instinctively as ever men did, yet through men have come the chief failures of their flocking habit. Enormous flocks of wild pigeons, consisting of millions of birds, so many that they darkened the sky, were a not uncommon sight in this land of liberty less than fifty years ago. But because pigeons nested in vast roosts, they were easily netted and slaughtered wholesale, until it is difficult to obtain a single pair of these exquisite birds for museum specimens to-day. Audubon found auks in numbers beyond computing around the gulf of St. Lawrence. But when a bird lays only one egg a year as the auk did, and when lawless men not only robbed a colony of all its eggs but clubbed thousands of old birds to death, extinction followed speedily. Far better for pigeons and auks had they scattered themselves over a wide area and had pairs nested apart. Better, too, for their race, if instead of prolonged grief over a lost mate they had followed the example of the happy-go-lucky English sparrows.


Woodcock on nest showing protective colouring. The beak is ever
stuck under twigs and straws till it looks much like them

A pair of these prolific little pests began to build in the shutter of a New Jersey country house. The ornithologist who lived there shot the male, but in less than an hour the widow returned triumphantly with his successor. He likewise was promptly killed, and so was the third mate and the fourth, and so on and on until sixty cheerful volunteers had been ensnared to their death through the charms of the equally cheerful widow. Of course, the ornithologist claims that he did this execution purely in the interests of science!


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