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IN the annual war of the seasons, March is the time of the most bitterly contested battles. But we and very likely the birds can look ahead and realise what the final outcome will invariably be, and, our sympathies being on the winning side, every advance of spring's outposts gladdens our hearts. But winter is a stubborn foe, and sometimes his snow and icicle battalions will not give way a foot. Though by day the sun's fierce attack may drench the earth with the watery blood of the ice legions, yet at night, silently and grimly, new reserves of cold repair the damage.
Our winter visitors are still in force. Amid the stinging cold the wee brown form of a winter wren will dodge round a brash pile a tiny bundle of energy which defies all chill winds and which resolves bug chrysalides and frozen insects into a marvellous activity. Other little birds, as small as the wren, call to us from the pines and cedars golden-crowned kinglets, olive-green of body, while on their heads burns a crest of orange and gold.
When a good-sized brown bird flies up before you, showing a flash of white on his rump, you may know him for the flicker, the most unwoodpecker-like of his family. He is more or less deserting the tree-climbing method for ground feeding, and if you watch him you will see many habits which his new mode of life is teaching him.
Even in the most wintry of Marches some warm, thawing days are sure to be thrown in between storms, and nothing, not even pussy willows and the skunk cabbage, yield more quickly to the mellowing influence than do the birds-sympathetic brethren of ours that they are. Hardly has the sunniest icicle begun to drop tears, when a song sparrow flits to the top of a bush, clears his throat with sharp chirps and shouts as loud as he can: "Hip! Hip! Hip! Hurrah!" Even more boreal visitors feel the new influence, and tree and fox sparrows warble sweetly. But the bluebird's note will always be spring's dearest herald. When this soft, mellow sound floats from the nearest fence post, it seems to thaw something out of our ears; from this instant winter seems on the defensive; the crisis has come and gone in an instant, in a single vibration of the air.
Bright colours are still scarce among our birds, but another blue form may occasionally pass us, for blue jays are more noticeable now than at any other time of the year. Although not by any means a rare bird, with us jays are shy and wary. In Florida their southern cousins are as familiar as robins, without a trace of fear of mankind.
What curious notes our blue jays have a creaking, wheedling, rasping medley of sounds coming through the leafless branches. At this time of year they love acorns and nuts, but in the spring "their fancy turns to thoughts of" eggs and young nestlings, and they are accordingly hated by the small birds. Nevertheless no bird is quicker to shout and scream "Thief! Robber!" at some harmless little owl than are these blue and white rascals.
You may seek in vain to discover the first sign of nesting among the birds. Scarcely has winter set in in earnest, you will think, when the tiger-eyed one of the woods the great horned owl will have drifted up to some old hawk's nest, and laid her white spheres fairly in the snow. When you discover her "horns" above the nest lining of dried leaves, you may find that her fuzzy young owls are already hatched. But these owls are an exception, and no other bird in our attitude cares to risk the dangers of late February or early March.
March is sometimes a woodpecker month, and almost any day one is very likely to see, besides the flicker, the hairy or downy woodpecker. The latter two are almost counterparts of each other, although the downy is the more common. They hammer cheerfully upon the sounding boards which Nature has provided for them, striking slow or fast, soft or loud, as their humour dictates.
Near New York, a day in March I have found it varying from March 8 to March 12 is "crow day." Now the winter roosts apparently break up, and all day flocks of crows, sometimes thousands upon thousands of them, pass to the northward. If the day is quiet and spring-like, they fly very high, black motes silhouetted against the blue, but if the day is a "March day," with whistling, howling winds, then the black fellows fly close to earth, rising just enough to clear bushes and trees, and taking leeward advantage of every protection. For days after, many crows pass, but never so many as on the first day, when crow law, or crow instinct, passes the word, we know not how, which is obeyed by all.
For miles around not a drop of water may be found; it seems as if every pool and lake were solid to the bottom, and yet, when we see a large bird, with goose-like body, long neck and long, pointed beak, flying like a bullet of steel through the sky, we may be sure that there is open water to the northward, for a loon never makes a mistake. When the first pioneer of these hardy birds passes, he knows that somewhere beyond us fish can be caught. If we wonder where he has spent the long winter months, we should take a steamer to Florida. Out on the ocean, sometimes a hundred miles or more from land, many of these birds make their winter home. When the bow of the steamer bears down upon one, the bird half spreads its wings, then closes them quickly, and sinks out of sight in the green depths, not to reappear until the steamer has passed, when he looks after us and utters bis mocking laugh. Here he will float until the time comes for him to go north. We love the brave fellow, remembering him in his home among the lakes of Canada; but we tremble for him when we think of the terrible storm waves which he must outride, and the sneering sharks which must sometimes spy him. What a story he could tell of his life among the phalaropes and jelly-fishes
Meadow larks are in flocks in March, and as their yellow breasts, with the central crescent of black, rise from the snow-bent grass, their long, clear, vocal "arrow" comes to us, piercing the air like a veritable icicle of sound. When on the ground they are walkers like the crow.
As the kingfisher and loon appear to know long ahead when the first bit of clear water will appear, so the first insect on the wing seems to be anticipated by a feathered flycatcher. Early some morning, when the wondrous Northern Lights are still playing across the heavens, a small voice may make all the surroundings seem incongruous. Frosty air, rimmed tree-trunks, naked branches, aurora all seem as unreal as stage properties, when ph-be! comes to our ears. Yes, there is the little dark-feathered, tail-wagging fellow, hungry no doubt, but sure that when the sun warms up, Mother Nature will strew his aerial breakfast-table with tiny gnats, precocious, but none the less toothsome for all that.
Hark 'tis the bluebird's venturous strain
High on the old fringed elm at the gate
Sweet-voiced, valiant ou the swaying bough,
Dodging the fitful spits of snow,
New England's poet-laureate
Telling us Spring has come again!
THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH.
WAYS OF MEADOW MICE
DAY after day we may walk through the woods and fields, using our eyes as best we can, searching out every moving thing, following up every sound, and yet we touch only the coarsest, perceive only the grossest of the life about us. Tramp the same way after a fall of snow and we are astonished at the evidences of life of which we knew nothing. Everywhere, in and out among the reed stems, around the tree-trunks, and in wavy lines and spirals all about, runs the delicate tracery of the meadow mice trails. No leapers these, as are the white-footed and jumping mice, but short-legged and stout of body. Yet with all their lack of size and swiftness, they are untiring little folk, and probably make long journeys from their individual nests.
As far north as Canada and west to the Plains the meadow or field mice are found, and everywhere they seem to be happy and content. Most of all, however, they enjoy the vicinity of water, and a damp, half-marshy meadow is a paradise for them. No wonder their worst enemies are known as marsh hawks and marsh owls; these hunters of the daylight and the night well know where the meadow mice love to play.
These mice are resourceful little beings and when danger threatens they will take to the water without hesitation; and when the muskrat has gone the way of the beaver, our ditches and ponds will not be completely deserted, for the little meadow mice will swim and dive for many years thereafter.
Not only in the meadows about our inland streams, but within sound of the breakers on the seashore, these vigorous bits of fur find bountiful living, and it is said that the mice folk inhabiting these low salt marshes always know in some mysterious way when a disastrous high tide is due, and flee in time, so that when the remorseless ripples lap higher and higher over the wide stretches of salt grass, not a mouse will be drowned. By some delicate means of perception all have been notified in time, and these, among the least of Nature's children, have run and scurried along their grassy paths to find safety on the higher ground.
These paths seem an invention of the meadow mice, and, affording them a unique escape from danger, they doubtless, in a great measure, account for the extreme abundance of the little creatures. When a deer mouse or a chipmunk emerges from its hollow log or underground tunnel, it must take its chances in open. air. It may dart along close to the ground or amid an impenetrable tangle of briers, but still it is always visible from above. On the other hand, a mole, pushing blindly along beneath the sod, fears no danger from the hawk soaring high overhead.
The method of the meadow mice is between these two: its stratum of active life is above the mole and beneath the chipmunk. Scores of sharp little incisor teeth are forever busy gnawing and cutting away the tender grass and sprouting weeds in long meandering paths or trails through the meadows. As these paths are only a mouse-breadth in width, the grasses at each side lean inward, forming a perfect shelter of interlocking stems overhead. Two purposes are thus fulfilled: a delicious succulent food is obtained and a way of escape is kept ever open. These lines intersect and cross at every conceivable angle, and as the meadow mice clan are ever friendly toward one another, any particular mouse seems at liberty to traverse these miles of mouse alleys.
In winter, when the snow lies deep upon the ground, these same mice drive tunnels beneath it, leading to all their favourite feeding grounds, to all the heavy-seeded weed heads, with which the bounty of Nature supplies them. But at night these tunnels are deserted and boldly out upon the snow come the meadow mice, chasing each other over its gleaming surface, nibbling the toothsome seeds, dodging, or trying to dodge, the owl-shadows; living the keen, strenuous, short, but happy, life which is that of all the wild meadow folk.
That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble
Has cost thee moray a weary nibble!
Thou saw the fields laid bare and waste,
An' weary winter comin' fast,
An' nosey here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell.
THE principal problems which birds, and indeed all other creatures, have to solve, have been well stated to be Food, Safety, and Reproduction. In regard to safety, or the art of escaping danger, we are all familiar with the ravages which hawks, owls, foxes, and even red squirrels commit among the lesser feathered creatures, but there are other dangers which few of us suspect.
Of all creatures birds are perhaps the most exempt from liability to accident, yet they not infrequently lose their lives in most unexpected ways. Once above trees and buildings, they have the whole upper air free of every obstacle, and though their flight sometimes equals the speed of a railroad train, they have little to fear when well above the ground. Collision with other birds seems scarcely possible, although it sometimes does occur. When a covey of quail is flushed, occasionally two birds will collide, at times meeting with such force that both are stunned. Flycatchers darting at the same insect will now and then come together, but not hard enough to injure either bird.
Even the smallest and most wonderful of all flyers, the hummingbird, may come to grief in accidental ways. I have seen one entangled in a burdock burr, its tiny feathers fast locked into the countless hooks, and again I have found the body of one of these little birds with its bill fastened in a spiral tendril of a grapevine, trapped in some unknown way.
Young phoebes sometimes become entangled in the horsehairs which are used in the lining of their nest. When they are old enough to fly and attempt to leave, they are held prisoners or left dangling from the nest. When mink traps are set in the snow in winter, owls frequently fall victims, mice being scarce and the bait tempting.
Lighthouses are perhaps the cause of more accidents to birds than are any of the other obstacles which they encounter on their nocturnal migrations north and south. Many hundreds of birds are sometimes found dead at the base of these structures. The sudden bright glare is so confusing and blinding, as they shoot from the intense darkness into its circle of radiance, that they are completely bewildered and dash headlong against the thick panes of glass. Telegraph wires are another menace to low-flying birds, especially those which, like quail and woodcock, enjoy a whirlwind flight, and attain great speed within a few yards. Such birds have been found almost cut in two by the force with which they struck the wire.
The elements frequently catch birds unaware and overpower them. A sudden wind or storm will drive coast-flying birds hundreds of miles out to sea, and oceanic birds may be blown as far inland. Hurricanes in the West Indies are said to cause the death of innumerable birds, as well as of other creatures. From such a cause small islands are known to have become completely depopulated of their feathered inhabitants. Violent hailstorms, coming in warm weather without warning, are quite common agents in the destruction of birds, and in a city thousands of English sparrows have been stricken during such a storm. After a violent storm of wet snow in the middle West, myriads of Lapland longspurs were once found dead in the streets and suburbs of several villages. On the surface of two small lakes, a conservative estimate of the dead birds was a million and a half!
The routes which birds follow in migrating north and south sometimes extend over considerable stretches of water, as across the Caribbean Sea, but the only birds which voluntarily brave the dangers of the open ocean are those which, from ability to swim, or great power of flight, can trust themselves far away from land. Not infrequently a storm will drive birds away from the land and carry them over immense distances, and this accounts for the occasional appearance of land birds near vessels far out at sea. Overcome with fatigue, they perch for hours in the rigging before taking flight in the direction of the nearest land, or, desperate from hunger, they fly fearlessly down to the deck, where food and water are seldom refused them.
Small events like these are welcome breaks in the monotony of a long ocean voyage, but are soon forgotten at the end of the trip.
Two of these ocean waifs were once brought to me. One was a young European heron which flew on board a vessel when it was about two hundred and five miles southeast of the southern extremity of India. A storm must have driven the bird seaward, u there is no migration route near this locality.
The second bird was a European turtle dove which was captured not less than seven hundred and fifty miles from the nearest land Ireland. When caught it was in an exhausted condition, but it quickly recovered and soon lost all signs of the buffeting of the storm. The turtle dove migrates northward to the British Islands about the first of May, but as this bird was captured on May 17th, it was not migrating, but, caught by a gust of wind, was probably blown away from the land. The force of the storm would then drive it mile after mile, allowing it no chance of controlling the direction of its flight, but, from the very velocity, making it easy for the bird to maintain its equilibrium.
Hundreds of birds must perish when left by storms far out at sea, and the infinitely small chance of encountering a vessel or other resting-place makes a bird which has passed through such an experience and survived, interesting indeed.
In winter ruffed grouse have a habit of burrowing deep beneath the snow and letting the storm shut them in. In this warm, cosey retreat they spend the night, their breath making its way out through the loosely packed crystals. But when a cold rain sets in during the night, this becomes a fatal trap, an impenetrable crust cutting off their means of escape.
Ducks, when collected about a small open place in an ice-covered pond, diving for the tender roots on which they feed, sometimes become confused and drown before they find their way out. They have been seen frozen into the ice by hundreds, sitting there helplessly, and fortunate if the sun, with its thawing power, releases them before they are discovered by marauding hawks or foxes.
In connection with their food supply the greatest enemy of birds is ice, and when a winter rain ends with a cold snap, and every twig and seed is encased in a transparent armour of ice, then starvation stalks close to all the feathered kindred. Then is the time to scatter crumbs and grain broadcast, to nail bones and suet to the tree-trunks and so awaken hope and life in the shivering little forms. If a bird has food in abundance, it little fears the cold. I have kept parrakeets out through the blizzards and storms of a severe winter, seeing them play and frolic in the snow as if their natural home were an arctic tundra, instead of a tropical forest.
A friend of birds once planted many sprouts of wild honeysuckle about his porch, and the following summer two pairs of hummingbirds built their nests in near-by apple trees; he transplanted quantities of living woodbine to the garden fences, and when the robins returned in the spring, after having remained late the previous autumn feeding on the succulent bunches of berries, no fewer than ten pairs nested on and about the porch and yard.
So my text of this, as of many other weeks is, study the food habits of the birds and stock your waste places with their favourite berry or vine. Your labour will be repaid a hundredfold in song and in the society of the little winged comrades.
Worn is the winter rug of white,
And in the snow-bare spots once more,
Glimpses of faint green grass in sight,
Spring's footprints on the floor.
Spring here by what magician's touch?
'Twas winter scarce an hour ago.
And yet I should have guessed as much,
Those footprints in the snow!
FRANK DEMPSTER SHERMAN.
TO many of us the differences between a reptile and a batrachian are unknown. Even if we have learned that these interesting creatures are well worth studying and that they possess few or none of the unpleasant characteristics usually attributed to them, still we are apt to speak of having seen a lizard in the water at the pond's edge, or of having heard a reptile croaking near the march. To avoid such mistakes, one need only remember that reptiles are covered with scales and that batrachians have smooth skins.
Our walks will become more and more interesting as we spread our interest over a wider field, not confining our observations to birds and mammals alone, but including members of the two equally distinctive classes of animals mentioned above. The batrachians, in the northeastern part of our country, include the salamanders and newts, the frogs and toads, while as reptiles we number lizards, turtles, and snakes.
Lizards are creatures of the tropics and only two small species are found in our vicinity, and these occur but rarely. Snakes, however, are more abundant, and, besides the rare poisonous copperhead and rattlesnake, careful search will reveal a dozen harmless species, the commonest, of course, being the garter snake and its near relative the ribbon snake.
About this time of the year snakes begin to feel the thawing effect of the sun's rays and to stir in their long winter hibernation. Sometimes we will come upon a ball of six or eight intertwined snakes, which, if they are still frozen up, will lie motionless upon the ground. But when spring finally unclasps the seal which has been put upon tree and ground, these reptiles stretch themselves full length upon some exposed stone, where they lie basking in the sun.
The process of shedding the skin soon begins; getting clear of the head part, eye-scales and all, the serpent slowly wriggles its way forward, escaping from the old skin as a finger is drawn from a glove. At last it crawls away, bright and shining in its new scaly coat, leaving behind it a spectral likeness of itself, which slowly sinks and disintegrates amid the dead leaves and moss, or, later in the year, it may perhaps be discovered by some crested flycatcher and carried off to be added to its nesting material
When the broods of twenty to thirty young garter snakes start out in life to hunt for themselves, then woe to the earthworms, for it is upon them that the little serpents chiefly feed.
Six or seven of our native species of snakes lay eggs, usually depositing them under the bark of rotten logs, or in similar places, where they are left to hatch by the heat of the sun or by that of the decaying vegetation. It is interesting to gather these leathery shelled eggs and watch them hatch, and it is surprising how similar to each other some of the various species are when they emerge from the shell.