Here to return to
ONE of the best ways to prepare for a long journey is to make a short one. So we find that before many birds embark on their great air voyage which is to take them from their summer to their winter home, they first make daily trips between their sleeping quarters and their feeding grounds.
This is the habit of our Robin. Robins raise two and sometimes three families in one season. When the first family leaves the nest, early in June, it is taken by the father Robin to some dense, leafy growth of young trees to pass the night. To this place they return every night. Many other Robins, sometimes thousands of them, come to the same woods. Such resorts are known as Robin roosts. In flying to and from them the young birds learn how to find their way.
Meanwhile mother Robin is patiently sitting on her blue eggs from which in about two weeks’ time another little family will appear. In two weeks more they also will be large enough to leave the nest and can join their brothers and sisters in the roost.
Grackles, or Crow Blackbirds, have the same habit. But since they have only one family, or brood, both the parent birds go to the roost with their young.
Sometimes the Robins are joined by the Grackles, and both by the European Starlings, which, brought to this country and released in Central Park in 1890, have since become one of the most abundant birds in our Middle Atlantic States. Such a roost is visited nightly by many thousands of birds. It is very interesting, at sunset, to watch them come streaming in from every point of the compass and to hear their good-night chorus before they all go to sleep.
In the morning they begin to leave soon after daybreak and by sunrise few are left. The place which was thronged by myriads is deserted.
Late in the afternoon they begin to return and ere long the roost is again teeming with feathered forms.
The little journeys of Swallows from their sleeping resorts to their hunting grounds begin in July and do not end until late September or early October. Swallows sleep in the reeds or cat-tails which grow in vast marshes. There they are so hidden that you might pass very near them without seeing a bird. But suddenly, like an exploding firework which fills the air with sparks, they burst from their roost and there is a swarm of happy, twittering birds above you. A moment later they have gone, each one to hunt its breakfast.
At midday and in the early afternoon, one may see them resting in long rows on the electric wires. Late in the afternoon they begin to return to the marshes, darting for mosquitoes and other insects as they go. During the day they have flown far. Thus they gain the practice which makes them ready for the great journey to the South.
How they know when
it is time to start, who can say? But that they all know it is certain. On that
day all the Swallows which have been roosting within miles of one another rise
up in the air together. From a distance they look like a snowstorm of great
black flakes. There seems to be much excitement. The great day has come! Soon
they leave the marsh not to return until the following spring.
Chimney Swifts in their daily journeys scatter far and wide over the country. One may see a Swift coursing through the air here, and another there. But in the evening they all come racing in toward the chimney in which they are to pass the night. Before this country was settled the Swifts nested and roosted in hollow trees. Now, as we all know, they use chimneys, and the roosting chimney is usually a large one.
The early arrivals do not enter the chimney at once. In fact no Swifts go to bed until practically all have come. Then they fly in a great, irregular troop around and around in the air over the chimney. Faster and faster they go, nearer and nearer they come to the chimney-top. Then, like a whirling column of smoke, a part of them pour into the chimney. The others go flying madly onward. Again they approach the chimney and another group of birds darts spirally into it. This performance is repeated until not a Swift remains outside. What a singular appearance the walls of the chimney must present at this time, with its hundreds and often thousands of soot-colored birds clinging to them! In the morning the Swifts leave in small parties, and at once separate widely over the country in search of food.
In southwestern Minnesota there is a small lake, about five miles long and three wide, called Heron Lake. It is the favorite resort in the fall of the beautiful Franklin’s or Prairie Gull. There are many thousands of them there and their daily journey from the lake to gather food out on the prairies is one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen in bird life.
The Gulls sleep near the center of the lake, all crowded closely together. They leave before sunrise. All rise at once and the air is then so filled with birds that one can scarcely see across the lake. Many drop back to the water, while others begin their day’s wanderings. Again they all arise; a part take leave; those remaining return to the water, but within half an hour all have gone.
Some mornings they fly in one direction, on others in another direction. I think that they are apt to fly towards the point from which the wind blows. Their favorite feeding grounds are freshly plowed fields. Often they follow directly behind the plow, and it is a charming sight to see the snowy-plumaged birds hover over the plowman and alight in furrows to pick up grubs exposed in the black earth. In this way they destroy many harmful insects.
The return to the lake begins late in the afternoon. At times they fly in even rows, perhaps half a mile in length but not more than three or four gulls deep. Or they may come home in V-shaped flocks with as many as seventy-five or one hundred Gulls in each arm of the V. But whether in long, billowy lines or even, flying wedges, the flights of the Gulls teach us in what an orderly manner birds perform these little journeys.
With the Robins, Grackles, Swallows, Swifts and Gulls, these daily trips to and from their sleeping quarters precede the real migration to their winter homes, where, in some cases, new roosts may be found and new flocks formed.
There are other birds which gather nightly in certain roosting places but which migrate little, if at all. Among these are Herons, which every evening gather in some marshy woods or thicket which perhaps has been used many years.
Crows flock together in great roosts in the winter. Some Crow roosts have as many as two or three hundred thousand tenants nightly. When the birds leave in the morning they fly low and search for food. When they return in the afternoon they fly high, heading straight for the roost. Hence the expression, “as the Crow flies.”
Like the Chimney Swifts, Crows do not enter their sleeping place until practically the last bird has arrived. In the meantime they alight on the ground in near-by fields. As bird after bird returns and drops down among the others, the ground becomes black with Crows. I have seen several acres covered with them. They seem to have very little to say about their day’s experience. It is almost dark before they go to bed. Then they arise from the ground and in orderly procession silently fly to their roost in the woods.
Beside these daily journeys to and from their sleeping place some birds, during the winter, wander about over land and sea. Their chief object in life at this time is to hunt for food, and they go almost any place where it may be found.
So in the winter we may have visits from Crossbills, or Pine Grosbeaks. These birds feed on the seeds of cone-bearing trees. When there is an abundant supply of this kind of food in the Far North we see very few or none of them. But when the pines and spruces produce a small crop, then the Crossbills and Grosbeaks come to us in unusual numbers.
It is said that Herring Gulls have been known to follow a steamer across the Atlantic. They were not attracted by the steamer, we may be sure, but by the food which was thrown overboard from it.
The great Albatross ranges so far over the southern seas that it is called the Wandering Albatross. In the museum of Brown University there is a mounted specimen of a Wandering Albatross, which shows how well this name is deserved. When captured off the coast of Chili, on December 20, 1847, the bird had a small vial hung on a string about its neck. This vial contained a piece of paper, on which was written the fact that the bird had been caught and the vial attached on December 12, 1847, by the captain of a whaling vessel when it was about 800 miles off the coast of New Zealand. The Albatross had therefore wandered about 3400 miles in eight days.
But if a bird is a,
migrant, its wanderings or its daily trips to and from the roost will end when
the call comes for the great journey. Let us now see when this call will come.
SUGGESTIONS FOR STUDY
Have you ever seen birds go to roost? What kind of birds were they? Were thy flying singly or in flocks? Where did they pass the night? When did they leave in the morning?
If you have ever found a Robin’s nest, describe the situation in which it was built. What did it contain? Do you know whether it was a first or second brood? Have you ever seen a summer Robin roost? When do Robins begin to go to such a roost? If you have ever seen a European Starling, compare it with a Grackle. When was the Starling brought to this country, and where were the first-comers released? Is the Starling considered a desirable bird? How do Swallows feed? What is their principal fare? What makes them among the most valuable birds to man? Have you ever seen a Chimney Swift’s nest? Where was it placed? Where did these Swifts build their nests before there were chimneys in this country? Describe a Chimney Swift’s nest. How do the birds gather the twigs of which it is composed? What is used to glue them together? Have you ever seen Crows flying over on a winter morning? Were they flying high or low? Have you seen them returning in the afternoon? At what height were they flying then? Why should they not fly at the same height both morning and afternoon? Have you ever seen Gulls following a vessel? Do you think the same Gulls followed it day after day? In what ways are Gulls useful to man? What famous poem mentions the Albatross?