Here to return to
THE TRAVELS OF THE BOBOLINK
THE Bobolink has come! What welcome news this is to the bird-lover! Once more the meadows will ring with his wild, tinkling, rollicking song. From a perch, or on fluttering wings in the air, he pours out his “mad music.” When he begins to sing it seems impossible for him to stop until, like a music box, he has run down. A little rest, and he seems wound up again and ready to repeat the melody which has won him a place among our best songsters.
It is the first week in May and we have been expecting this black and buff musician of the pastures. He is as much a part of spring as the wild flowers or apple blossoms. We know almost to a day when he will come; just as we know when they will bloom.
The flowers and the trees have not left us. They are only waiting for the warm rays of the sun to break forth into bud and blossom. But Bob has thousands of miles to travel and many dangers to escape before he can keep his appointment with us. It is a marvel that he is so rarely late.
Where has he come
from? How did he get here? Now that he is here the best way to answer these
questions will be to go with him to his winter home. Then we can return with
him in the spring.
BOB AT HOME
Within a month after his arrival Bob and his plainly dressed, sparrow-like wife will have chosen a home. So cunningly will they hide it on the ground among the grasses, and so wary will they be in going to and from it, that we must watch them closely and hunt carefully, if we would see the five or six heavily spotted eggs it contains.
In about two weeks these will hatch, and the first week in July the young Bobolinks will be on the wing. All of them, whether brother or sister, following the law among birds, will look like their mother. Even Bob himself will now change his black and buff and white wedding dress for the streaked costume of his wife. It has doubtless served its purpose by making him a handsome fellow in the eyes of his bride. But it has also made him easy to be seen by foe as well as by friend. Why, therefore, should he wear it until he again woos a mate?
It is even more important that the young Bobs should wear a protecting coat. So now we have them all clad alike. In changing their plumage they have also changed their name. The Bobolink of summer has become the Reedbird or Ricebird of fall.
At this time the practice flights to roost in the marshes begin. The wild rice is approaching the milky stage and the birds gather in great flocks to feed on it. This fare not only gives them the only name by which many people know them, but it supplies them with fuel for the great journey they are about to begin.
Sadly enough it is this fuel—or fat—which makes the Ricebird so highly prized for food. Strange as it may seem, the much-loved musician of May is now hunted as though he were an outlaw. Thousands and thousands of these wonderful songbirds are killed by so-called sportsmen to eat. But surely there can be no sport in killing such small birds, while to kill them for food is just as unpardonable as it would be to make a potpie of Nightingales. Soon, let us hope, the law will forbid Bob’s murder. Then perhaps he may return to places from which in recent years he has vanished.
Long ago Bobolinks
were common in summer about my home. To hear them singing was one of the
delights of my boyhood. But it is years since they have nested there. Trapping
in the spring and shooting in the fall are doubtless the reasons for their
disappearance. What would I not give to bring them back again! The morsel which
makes a mouthful when dead had within its tiny throat, when living, the power
to give one weeks of pleasure.
THE JOURNEY SOUTH
On the Atlantic coast no Bobolinks nest south of Philadelphia. So when they are seen in Washington during the last week in July we know that they are already embarked on their great voyage to the South. They travel both by day and by night. The watchword is chink, a clear, metallic note which, once it is known, cannot be mistaken for that of any other bird. Often we may hear it from birds that are too high to be seen. But our eyes are not needed to tell us that Bob is traveling.
The wild rice marshes of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia have great attractions for the Ricebirds. It is not until the latter part of August that they reach Charleston, South Carolina. Great quantities of cultivated rice were once raised here on the coast. The Rice-birds’ time-table seemed to be arranged so as to bring them to South Carolina just as the kernels of rice had reached the milky stage.
In clouds they swarmed on the plantation. If they alighted in the rice field its crop was soon destroyed. No effort was spared to keep them on the wing. Negroes were placed on platforms built in the fields. Some were armed with whips having long lashes; others had guns.
When a great flock of birds appeared the whips were snapped with a pistol-like report, guns were fired, the men shouted. Everything was done that could be done to prevent the flock from alighting.
So numerous were the birds that killing seemed to make no decrease in their ranks. It was more important to frighten them than to kill them.
It must be confessed that Bob and his family did great damage to the rice crops. But he did equal harm to himself. His enemies, the gunners, accused him of being a pest. For this reason it has been impossible to have laws passed protecting the Bobolink south of the country in which he spends the summer.
From South Carolina the Ricebirds continue their journey southward through Florida. Then they cross directly to Cuba, where they arrive in September.
Still the birds fly southward. Some may fly directly across the Caribbean Sea to Colombia, a journey of about 500 miles; others follow the coast of Central America. Many stop for a while in Jamaica. They reach this island in October, and because of their fatness are called Butterbirds.
Whether some Ricebirds fly all the way from southern Cuba to northern South America we do not really know. But beyond question they must fly from Jamaica to the mainland of Central or South America. This is a journey of not less than 400 miles. Probably the birds make it in one night.
One might think that having reached South America the Ricebirds would find suitable winter quarters on the great savannas of Venezuela and Colombia. But still the way leads southward. Down the Andes they go; over the great tropical forests, across the Amazon, beyond the campos of Brazil to the great plains and marshes on the upper waters of the Paraguay River. Here they are all crowded into a region not more than one-third as large as that in which they live during the summer.
We have been following the Bobolinks of the North Atlantic states, but the Bobolink’s summer home stretches across the continent from the Atlantic almost to the Pacific.
It is a pleasure for us to know that if Bobolinks have been becoming rare in some parts of the eastern United States they have been growing more common in some western states.
Bob is a true pioneer. He has followed the farmer to the West. When irrigation turns the desert places into fields of grain and alfalfa, the Bobolink in time appears. In recent years he has crossed the Rockies to Utah and Nevada and British Columbia. But like the children that might have gone from Oregon to New York by way of Dakota and St. Louis, Bob goes to his winter home in Brazil over the route which his ancestors gradually opened.
practically unknown in Texas and Mexico. So we know that even the Bobolinks of
Nevada and Utah leave the United States by way of Florida. There they probably
join others from the eastern states and journey with them to South America.
THE RETURN IN THE SPRING
The winter is passed with no household cares. It has sometimes been supposed that birds might rear a family in their winter as well as in their summer home. But this is not so. No bird, so far as I know, nests in two widely separated places.
The return journey is begun in early March when Bob’s summer home is still icebound. But before leaving Bob again completely changes his clothing and puts on a curious-looking costume of dark, dull yellow, with bits of black showing in places. The truth is that he really has on his black, buff, and white wedding dress. But almost every feather of it is fringed with dull yellow. It is as though he wore a traveling coat. As he goes northward the fringes slowly wear off, as if he were losing a disguise. By the time he reaches his summer home they have all gone and Bob shows his true colors.
In the spring Bobolinks follow backward over the route they used in the fall. Then young and old, male and female travel together; but now the males go alone, some days ahead of the females. They reach Jamaica and Cuba early in April.
About April 15 they arrive in southern Florida and some of them remain in the state until May. For this reason they are called Maybirds. Few people who use this name know that they are giving it to the same bird they called Ricebird in the fall.
While in the South the Bobolinks remain in close flocks, like Red-winged Blackbirds. Like the Red-wings they sing in chorus. Multiply the song of one Bobolink one or two hundred times and you may have some idea of the music a whole flock of Bobolinks can make.
Although the last Bobolink does not leave Florida until late in May, the advance guard reaches Washington the last week in April. May 1 they are due at New York, and a week later at Boston.
The Bobolinks of
northern New England and New Brunswick have been traveling for two months over
a route about four thousand miles long, and they make this great journey twice
a year to spend but little more than two months on their nesting grounds. But
in this short time they can rear their families. This is what they come for.
Why, then, should they stay longer?
SUGGESTIONS FOR STUDY
Have you ever seen a Bobolink? When? Where? Describe the colors of the male and female in the spring; of the male in fall and winter. When does the Bobolink reach your latitude in the spring? Describe the Bobolink’s call-note; his song. Where does the Bobolink place his nest? When do the young take wing? Is there a second brood? Outline on the map the area in which Bobolinks are found during the summer. By what name is the Bobolink known in the fall? When does the fall migration begin? By what is it preceded? Trace on the map the route followed by a Bobolink in traveling from Massachusetts to its winter home. When does it reach Jamaica? How far is it from Jamaica to the nearest part of the coast of South America. What has induced the Bobolink to extend its summer range westward? Trace on the map the route of a Bobolink in traveling from British Columbia to its winter home. Why does it not go southward overland through Mexico?