Here to return to
THE DANGERS BY THE WAY: A CHAPTER OF ACCIDENTS
“HOVEL” is the name by which the farmers near my home called a certain kind of barn in which hay was stored. The entrance to the loft was through an opening large enough to admit a pitchfork full of hay. There was no way of closing this opening except by hay, which, after a good crop, sometimes filled it. But ere spring came most of the hay had been fed to the cows which slept beneath the hovel, and then the doorless doorway was hospitably open to the Barn Swallow.
Few hovels were without them; joyously, freely they darted in and out. One which I used often to visit had no less than twenty-two Swallows’ nests built bracket-like on the face of the rafters or supported by various projections.
At the proper time practically every nest would be overflowing with young Swallows, which, in this snug retreat, seemed to be removed from the many dangers which beset nestling birds.
So each season, beside the forty-odd old birds, some eighty young ones probably left this hovel to join others of their kind on the great journey to the tropics. But the following spring only forty-odd birds returned to the loft. What became of the others?
There were no colonies of Barn Swallows near by; nor, so far as I know, were any new ones started. Furthermore, in spite of their safe, well-protected nesting places, Barn Swallows did nOt seem to increase in the neighborhood.
So I could tell you of other bird communities with which I am familiar. Year after year many more birds leave in the fall than return in the spring; and we may well ask why so few come back.
Birds, of course,
like other animals, are mortal, and each year a certain proportion of them die,
but we must find other causes than death from old age if we would account for
the heavy toll which each year demands of bird life; and chief among the causes
are the dangers to which migrating birds are exposed.
BIRDS AT SEA
I do not think that I have ever made an ocean voyage during the season of migration without having bird travelers come aboard the steamer.
Sometimes, when we crossed their regular line of flight they visited us for only a short time, like the Curlew mentioned in a later chapter, which took passage with us for Ireland but decided to continue the trip alone. I remember, too, a Northern Water-Thrush which, early in May, flew aboard our steamer when we were in the Gulf of Mexico about midway between Tampico and Key West and, therefore, on the birds’ highway from Yucatan to the United States. It seemed in no way tired but moved about freely and fearlessly. Finally it entered the captain’s cabin, hopped about on the charts as though it were making an observation, and then it disappeared.
On another occasion, this time in the fall, a Myrtle Warbler flew aboard a great Atlantic liner just after it left New York Harbor.
Although the steamer’s larder was stocked with every variety of food the most exacting passenger could demand, no provision had been made for Myrtle Warblers. The bird made its headquarters in the smoking cabin—surely a strange choice—and in this emergency the passengers who gathered there devoted their time to hunting and catching flies for the little feathered stowaway, who soon became so tame that he readily took food from one’s hands.
But not all feathered waifs are so fortunate. Sometimes they themselves become food for larger bird passengers, and Gerald Thayer tells of a Chuck-Will’s-Widow which he saw catch and swallow Warblers that were following a steamer off the Carolina coast.
Even in clear weather birds may lose their way and perish at sea, and when they encounter severe storms they are wrecked in untold numbers.
A naturalist who chanced to observe such a disaster on the Gulf of Mexico describes it as follows: “April 2, 1881, found me in a small schooner on the passage from Brazos de Santiago, Texas, to Mobile, Alabama. At about noon of that day the wind suddenly changed from east to north, and within an hour it was blowing a gale; we were now about thirty miles south of the mouths of the Mississippi River, which would bring the vessel on a line with the river and the peninsula of Yucatan. Up to the time the storm commenced the only land birds seen were three Yellow-rumped Warblers that came aboard the day previous, keeping us company the most of the day; but within an hour after the storm broke they began to appear, and in a very short time birds of various species were to be seen in all directions, singly and in small flocks, and all flying toward the Mississippi River. These birds, of course, must have been far overhead and only came down near the surface of the water in endeavoring to escape from the force of the wind. By four o’clock it had come to be a serious matter with them, as the gale was too strong for them to make any progress. As long as they were in the trough of the sea the wind had very little effect on them, but as soon as they reached the crest of the wave it would catch them up and in an instant they were blown hundreds of yards back or else into the water and drowned.
“A great many flew on to the deck of the vessel to be washed about by the next wave that came over the side. Although I made no attempt to count the number of specimens that came aboard, I should estimate them at considerably over a hundred, and a great many more struck the sides and tumbled back into the water. It was very sad indeed to see them struggling along by the side of the vessel in trying to pass ahead of her, for as soon as they were clear of the bows, they were invariably blown back into the water and drowned. Most of those that came aboard were washed into the sea again, but the next day we found about a dozen dead bodies that had lodged underneath the galley.”
When crossing the
Great Lakes migrating birds are sometimes overtaken by a storm and before they
can reach land are beaten to the water by thousands. Probably only a part of
those so drowned are washed ashore, but Mr. H. W. Henshaw states that after a
heavy storm in early September on Lake Michigan the shore of the lake was so
thickly strewn with the bodies of dead birds that if they were as numerous on the
whole eastern shore as they were on the part of the shore he examined, over
half a million birds must have drowned and washed ashore in this one storm.
STORM BOUND TRAVELERS
It is not only when migrating over water that birds are killed by storms. Mr. H. P. Attwater writes from Rockport, Texas:
“Thousands of Warblers undoubtedly perished here last week during the ‘norther’ which lasted three days commencing on March 16.
“In the evening of that day flocks of Warblers were noticed around the gardens and houses here, and the next day many were found dead or were caught in a half-perished condition. About fifty per cent of them were Black and White Warblers. The remainder were about equally divided between Parulas and Sycamore Warblers. Many Sycamore Warblers and Parulas were captured alive in the houses.
“On the 19th, among many dead Warblers which were brought to us were a specimen of the Louisiana Water-Thrush and one Hooded Warbler. Many Yellow-rumps were in company with the rest, and, though much tamer than usual, none was found dead or was captured. On the 19th I made a trip for the purpose of observation, and found many Black and White Warblers and Parulas lying dead on the ground at the foot of live-oak trees. From many of the ranches in the country round here, came reports of similar occurrences and many dead birds of the species mentioned have been sent to me.”
Longspurs are hardy
birds of the Far North and no doubt can endure most severe weather. But on
March 13, 1904, when Longspurs were migrating northward in great numbers
through western Minnesota, they encountered so heavy a snowstorm that, becoming
exhausted and confused, they perished in vast numbers. In places the surface
of the snow was thickly dotted with their bodies and a careful survey of the
storm-swept region through which they were passing showed that several million Longspurs died on this one night.
THE LURE OF THE LIGHTHOUSE
It would be pleasant to think that man could in some way free the path of migrating birds from danger, or that they might find refuge from the storm with us. But, sadly enough, man has added not a little to the perils of their journeys.
Telegraph wires, tall buildings, and electric lights all prove fatal obstacles in the birds’ highway, while the lighthouses which have been erected to warn man of danger or guide him to safety yearly lure many thousands of feathered voyageurs to their death.
The night I passed in the Statue of Liberty, of which I have already written, although many birds fluttered into the statue none was actually killed or badly injured. Migrants do not always escape this great monument so easily, and on many mornings after a stormy night in the season of migration, hundreds of birds have been found dead or dying about the base of the statue. Fortunately it is not now so brilliantly lighted as it was when first it was erected, and is therefore not so destructive to the winged travelers.
But real lighthouses do not dim their beacons. The more powerful their light the greater their value to man and their danger to birds. Placed in exposed, conspicuous places they seem to be especially designed to destroy migrating birds. There is not a lighthouse along our coast which has not its ghastly record of birds killed, but some of them seem to do much more harm than others.
A naturalist who spent a misty October night in the lighthouse on Cape Hatteras tells of seeing thousands of small birds flying around the tower at one time; he writes: “The whole element was ablaze with them shining in the rays of the light like myriads of little stars or meteors.” So many struck the light that night that he gathered three hundred and fifty dead birds about the balcony of the watch room and one hundred and forty more were picked up on the ground at the base of the light.
Many of them were Warblers. These little feathered gems all migrate by night and for this reason, as well as because of their abundance, they always figure largely in the list of killed and wounded migrants at the lights.
Of three hundred
and ninety-five birds which were killed by striking Fire Island Light, Long
Island, On the night of September 23, 1887, over half the species represented
were Warblers, and of these no less than three hundred and fifty-six were
I might give many more sad facts of this kind, and then not tell of half the dangers which bird travelers encounter. When hundreds and thousands die we are apt to know of it, but of the many thousands of single birds which lose their way and, in the end, doubtless die, we know but little.
When we do find them we call them “Accidental Visitants” and record their presence in our bird magazines.
I shall never forget the pleasure with which, soon after I began the study of birds, I discovered a Lark Finch near my home in New Jersey. This is a bird of the Mississippi Valley and the West, which had been recorded from New Jersey only once before, and its visit caused me quite as much excitement as though I had found a wholly new species.
During migrations, particularly in the fall, thousands of birds stray from the proper line of flight and are lost in this way. Generally they are born during the preceding summer and hence are young and inexperienced.
However much we may regret their misfortune, I must confess that long after one has learned to know all the birds that should come, the probability of seeing some stranger from a distant part of the country adds not a little to the keen interest with which we watch the migrants stream by.
Nor should we lack
for all of them that feeling we have for those who we know are about to face a
BIRD TRAVELERS AS WARDS OF THE GOVERNMENT
We have seen that through the erection of lighthouses, towers, and tall buildings, and of wires for conducting electricity, man has added greatly to the dangers which beset traveling birds. He has also claimed for his own purposes vast areas which once teemed with bird life and are now the sites of cities or under cultivation.
This is an inevitable consequence of man’s progress in his conquest of the world. Still he will never reach a point where he can afford to do without the service rendered him by insect-eating birds. They are nature’s guardians of our forests, fields, orchards, and gardens.
Our insect enemies seem to increase with the size of our crops. Potato beetles, cotton-boll weevils, alfalfa weevils, coddling moths, and scores of others have only become pests since man supplied the food on which they thrive and increase in such numbers as to threaten the very existence of their own chief source of nourishment. So, more than ever before, man needs the help of those birds which are nature’s principal means of keeping injurious insects from becoming unduly abundant.
As we have already seen, these birds, as a group, are among the greatest of bird travelers. By far the larger number leave the United States in the fall to winter in the tropics, some going south of the Equator. It follows, therefore, that besides all those dangers that threaten the lives of birds during the nesting season, these feathered allies of ours are also exposed to the great perils of migration. Not only that, but twice each year they must run the gantlet of glaring lighthouses, shadowy towers, and wire entanglements which we seem to have placed in their path with the express object of destroying them.
If not from a sense of fairness and humanity, it seems clear, then, that in our own interests we should surely do something to make the lives of this feathered army of insect fighters as safe as we can under the circumstances. We cannot abandon our lighthouses and electric wires; we cannot control fogs and storms; but we should be able to control those of our fellowmen who are so short-sighted as to want to kill these birds for one reason or another.
Not so many years ago they were killed in countless numbers to be placed on women’s hats; long after this was prohibited by law in some states, it was permitted in others; while in certain markets in the South one could see great bunches of small insect-eating birds hung up for sale.
It is impossible, of course, for the law of one state to follow these wonderful little travelers on their long journeys. Here today, they may be hundreds of miles away tomorrow. No state, therefore, can claim them as her citizens. They are more nearly citizens of the Republic, and as such they should be wards of the United States Government. This is the conclusion reached by eminent lawmakers who are also familiar with the ways of our migratory birds and their value to man. A law known as the Federal Migratory Bird Law has therefore been passed by Congress. Under this law migratory game birds can be legally shot only during a certain time in the fall or early winter, and not at all in the spring when they are traveling to their nesting grounds, while all the host of migratory insectivorous birds cannot be legally killed at any season or any place in the United States or its territories.
It is true that
this law does not follow these birds beyond our boundaries, but let us hope
that some day we may have treaties with Canada to the north and with other
countries to the south, which will insure safe conduct to Citizen Bird
throughout the length and breadth of the countries in which he travels
SUGGESTIONS FOR STUDY
Mention some birds which build their nests in our houses or barns. In becoming our tenants, how have they changed their nesting habits? Do you know of any birds which have either increased or decreased in numbers? What caused their change in numbers? To what dangers are migrating birds exposed? Have you ever seen land birds board a vessel at sea? Have you ever found a dead bird? What do you think was the cause of its death? Why are more lost birds found in the fall than in the spring?
Why are insect-eating birds especially valuable to man? Describe some of the ways in which birds catch insects. What kinds of birds feed on the wing? What kinds feed from the leaves, buds, or blossoms? What kinds feed on bark-haunting insects, insects’ eggs and larvae?
Mention some insects injurious to agriculture; to fruits; to forests. Why are insect-eating birds exposed to more dangers than seed-eating birds? For what purposes have birds been destroyed? Why can a Federal law give migratory birds better protection that a state law? How are birds protected in your state?