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OLD FRIENDS IN NEW PLACES
LAST winter and early spring in central Georgia I had great pleasure in the little glimpses of wild life, mostly bird-life, that I got from the windows of the cabin study which my friend built for me in one corner of an old unused building situated in a secluded place near a bushy spring run and a grove of pine- and oak-trees. Many of our more northern birds – such as song sparrows, bluebirds, juncoes, and white-throats – winter in Georgia and impart a sort of spring air to the more secluded places at all times. The mockingbird, the brown thrasher, the cardinal, the meadowlark, the crested titmouse, the Carolina wren, the blue jay, the downy woodpecker, and a few others are there the year round.
February in Georgia is like April in New York or New England, and March has many of the features of early May. In late February or early March the red maples are humming with honey-bees and the elms are beginning to unpack their floral budgets.
The sparrows – white-throats and song sparrows – were at home in the weedy and bushy ground around my little hermitage, and I soon encouraged them to come under my window by a plentiful sprinkling of finely cracked corn and bird-seed. They were always very shy, but they soon learned to associate me with the free lunch, so that, very soon after my appearance, – about nine o'clock in the morning, – they would begin to gather from the near-by coverts, one to two dozen white-throats, with four or five song sparrows, and now and then a female chewink. The chewinks remain there the year round, but the song sparrows and the whitethroats, like myself, were only there for a season.
By easy stages from one covert to another, traveling mostly at night, the birds were soon to begin the return journey northward. I think the same birds lingered with me day after day, though one cannot be sure in such a matter. The individual units in a stream of slowly passing birds of the same species do not differ from one another in appearance any more than do the separate ripples in a stream of flowing water. Outside of man's influence, the individuals of a species of wild creatures or wild flowers do not seem to differ from one another by as much as one hair or one feather or one petal. They are like coin stamped with the same die, and the wonder of it is that each and all, among the birds, at least, seem like new coin – not one blurred or imperfect impression. This fact always strikes one in gazing upon a flock of wild birds of any kind in the fall or in the spring. The wear and tear of life seems to leave no mark upon them. Take a hundred snow buntings in winter, or robins or bluebirds in the spring, and each individual seems up to the standard of its kind. Indeed, Nature has standardized them all.
Among the song sparrows and white-throats that gathered for their daily lunch under my window, I noted differences between male and female and between old and young, yet each individual seemed at the top of its condition. How free from spot or blemish they were, not one disheveled or unkempt, not one vagabond or unfortunate among them. How neatly groomed they were, every feather perfect and every feather in its place. How bright and distinct the pencilings of the song sparrows' backs! The surplices of the white-throats had just come from the laundry. Among all the wild creatures it is the same. Nature deals evenly and impartially with them. They differ markedly in this respect from birds and mammals under domestication. A brood of newly hatched chickens are fresh and clean enough, but they very soon deteriorate in appearance; but a brood of young grouse or quail keep as clean and bright as shells upon the beach. Then consider the chipmunks and red squirrels – how rarely is one of them below the standard of its kind! how rarely one shows any indication of hard luck, or a loss of standing among his fellows! None are poor; all are equally prosperous. Success is written on every one of them. Rarely is a single hair out of place.
How wise the white-throats are about cracked corn, taking nothing above a certain size! They pick up the larger pieces and test them with their beaks and drop them, then pick them up and feel them again to be quite sure they have made no mistake. Their little gizzards cannot grind the flinty corn except when taken in very small bits. The fruit- and insect-eating birds that sometimes come about your door in winter or spring with the whitethroats will examine the seeds and bits of corn, but will not eat them. One February a flock of whitethroats and juncoes came daily to the dooryard of a friend of mine near New York City. She sprinkled the ground with rolled oats and hominy grits and her visitors made the most of her bounty. One morning there was a newcomer – a thrush evidently hard put for food. He hopped about amid the feeding sparrows with drooping wings, picking up the seeds and grains and dropping them again, apparently wondering what the others found that was so appetizing. The bird was in desperate straits; he ate the snow, but I fancy it only aggravated his hunger.
The newcomer turned out to be a hermit thrush. I told my friend to take any dried fruit she happened to have – raisins, dried currants, dried cherries, or dried berries, and cut them up and sprinkle them among the seeds. She did so, and it was not long before the thrush began to examine them and taste them doubtingly, but very soon he was eating them. That afternoon his drooping wings were getting back to their normal place, and in a day or two he was a changed bird, brisk and bold, domineering over the other birds, – in a very courteous way, however, – and very much set up in life.
A bird never appears emaciated; it will starve and retain its plump appearance. Robins will famish amid a world of seeds and grains. They must have fruit or worms. Three years ago, while spending the winter in Georgia, I had evidence that a vast number of robins starved to death in March. People picked them up in their yards and in the fields and along the edge of the woods. They seem to have started north from Florida and the Gulf States too soon. A sudden cold snap kept the worms and insects below the surface of the ground, and there was no fruit but the white, dry china-berries, and these appear to poison or to paralyze the robins when they eat them. In my walk one morning I picked up a cock robin that was unable to fly. As it did not appear to have been injured in any way, and was of very light weight, I concluded it was starving. I took it into the house and let it perch on the back of a chair in the study. It showed little signs of fear and made no effort to escape. I dug a handful of earthworms, and dangled one of them before its beak. After eyeing it a moment it opened its beak and I dropped the worm into its mouth. Others soon followed, and still others. The bird began to wake up and come to itself. In a little while it was taking the food eagerly and without any signs of fear. I could stroke it with one hand while I fed it with the other. It would sit on my knee or arm and take the food that was offered it. I was kept pretty busy supplying its wants till in the afternoon it began to fly and to run about the room and utter its call-note. Before night it had become so active and so clamorous for its freedom that we opened the window. With a dash and a cry it was out of the house and on the wing to a near-by tree. I trust, with the boost I had given it, it was soon safely on its northward journey.
The incident shows how extreme hunger in a wild creature banishes fear. One March day, when I was a boy, I found a raccoon wandering about the meadow so famished that he allowed me to pick him up by the tail and carry him to the house. He ate ravenously the food I offered him.
The struggle for life among the birds and other wild creatures is so severe that the feeble and malformed, or the handicapped in any way, quickly drop out. Probably none of them ever die from old age. They are cut off in their prime. A weeding-out process goes on from the time they leave the nest. A full measure of life, the perfection of every quill and feather, and unerring instinct carry them along. They are always in the enemy's country; they are always on the firing-line; eternal vigilance and ceaseless activity are the price of life with them. The natural length of life of our smaller birds is probably eight or ten years, but I doubt if one in a thousand reaches that age. Not half a dozen times in my life have I found the body of a dead bird that did not show some marks of violence.
Next to the trim, prosperous, well-dressed appearance of a flock of wild birds, one is struck with their caution and watchfulness, not to say nervousness, at all times, especially when feeding in the open. My band of sparrows were apprehensive of danger every moment. Here are some notes made on the spot: –
Now there are over two dozen sparrows, among them a solitary female chewink, feeding on the ground in front of my window. An ever-present fear possesses every one of them. They pick up the seeds hurriedly, looking up every few seconds. Suddenly they all stop, and, crouching, look toward the near-by weeds and bushes. Some vague alarm has seized them. Then two of them dart away; then the whole flock rushes to cover. I see no cause for the panic; there is none; the strain has become too great to be longer borne. Though no danger is near, yet their instinct, developed and sharpened by the experiences of untold generations, tells them danger might be near – a hawk, a cat, or other enemy – and that safety demands a frequent rush to cover. After a few minutes they return, one by one, flying from weed-stalk to weed stalk, and dropping upon the ground where the seed is scattered, with many a suspicious flip of wing and flirt of tail. A dozen or more are soon hurriedly feeding again, now and then running spitefully at one another, as if the aggressors felt a prior claim, but not actually coming to blows.
When the dry grass and weeds cover the seed a song sparrow may be seen now and then executing a quick movement upon it with both feet, a short double jump forwards and backwards. This is the way the sparrow scratches – a crude and awkward way, certainly. She has not yet learned to stand alternately upon one foot and scratch with the other, as do the hen and all other true scratchers, and she probably never will. The sparrows, and many other birds, move the two feet together. They are hoppers, and not walkers or runners. Such birds make a poor show of scratching. The chewink scratches in the same way, but being a much larger bird, she rakes or kicks obtruding weeds about quite successfully.
In less than two minutes the birds again take the alarm and dart away to their weedy refuge.
This is the habit of all birds that feed in numbers in this way in open places. Snow buntings, juncoes, sparrows, reed-birds, blackbirds – all are haunted by a vague sense of impending danger when they are feeding, and are given to sudden flights to cover, or to circling in the air.
I remember that the flocks of passenger pigeons that I used to see in my youth would burst up from the ground when they were feeding, at short intervals, in the same sudden, alarmed way. It is easy to see how the fear of all ground-feeders has become so developed and fixed. Hawks are doubtless the main cause of it. The hawk comes suddenly and strikes quickly, and is doubtless as old an enemy as the birds have. For ages he had been wont to swoop down from the air or from the cover of a tree, or has skimmed over the hill and in a twinkling snatched a feeding bird. I have seen the sharp-shinned hawk in winter sweep over a garden fence and snatch an English sparrow from a flock feeding in the street. I have seen one of the smaller hawks pick up a high-hole feeding in the fields in the same way. Birds feeding singly are less easily alarmed than when feeding in flocks, just as you and I would be. Fear is contagious, and a bird feeding alone has no alarms or suspicions but its own to disturb it.
Since these birds left Canada and northern New England last October they have probably traveled over two thousand miles, beset by their natural enemies at all times and places – in fields and marshes and woods; in danger of hawks and shrikes and cats by day, and of owls and other prowlers by night; compelled to hustle for food at all times, and to expose themselves to a thousand dangers. Is it any wonder that they are nervous and watchful?
In returning they will be exposed to the same dangers. Their traveling is mostly done by night and it is probably by easy stages. But just how long any single flight is we have no accurate means of knowing. It would be interesting to know if the song sparrows and juncoes traveled in company with the white-throats, as they are usually found together by day. If they do, the song sparrows would begin to drop out of the procession by the time they reached the Potomac, and continue dropping out more and more all through New York and New England, but some of them keeping on well into Canada. The juncoes would begin to drop out in the Catskills, where they breed, and a few white-throats may do so likewise, as I have found them in midsummer in some of the higher regions of these mountains.
Fear and suspicion are almost constant companions of most of the wild creatures. Even the crow, who has no natural enemies that I know of, is the very embodiment of caution and cunning. That peculiar wing-gesture when he alights or walks about the fields – how expressive it is! It is a little flash or twinkle of black plumes that tells you how alert and on his guard he is. It is a difficult problem to settle why the crow is so suspicious and cunning, since he has few or no natural enemies. No creature seems to want his flesh, tough and unsavory as it evidently is, and we can hardly attribute it to his contact with man, as we can the wildness of the hawk, because, on the whole, mankind is rather friendly to the crow. His suspicion seems ingrained, and probably involves some factor or factors in his biological history that we are ignorant of.
On the whole, it is only the birds and animals which are preyed upon that show excessive caution and fear. One can well understand how the constant danger of being eaten does not contribute to the ease and composure of any creature, and why these which are so beset are in a state of what we call nervousness most of the time. Behold the small rodents – rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, woodchucks, and the like; they act as if they felt the eyes of the mink or the weasel or the cat or the hawk upon them all the time.
Among the birds some are much more nervous and "panicky" than others. The woodpeckers are less so than the thrushes and finches; the jays less than the starlings and the game-birds. The seedeaters and fruit-eaters are probably preyed upon much more than the purely insectivorous birds, because doubtless their flesh is sweeter.
Birds of prey have few enemies apart from man. Among the land animals we ourselves prefer the flesh of the vegetable-eaters, and the carnivora do the same. We all want to get as near to the vegetable as we can, even in our meat-eating.
The birds, even the prettiest of them, are little savages. In watching from my window the feeding white-throats and song sparrows, I cannot help noticing how ungenerously they behave toward one another – apparently not one of them willing to share the feast with another. Each seems to think the food his or her special discovery and that the others are trespassers. They charge spitefully upon one another, but rarely come to blows. Just what makes one give way so readily before another, without any test of strength, is a puzzle. Is the authority in the eye, in the bearing, or is it just a matter of audacity and self-assertion? There may be timid and retiring souls among the birds as well as among other folk. I am inclined to think that usually it is the males bullying the females. Occasionally two males, known by their more conspicuous markings, confront each other and rise in the air a yard or two, beak to beak, and then separate.
During the mating season there is mutual aid and cooperation between the sexes, the male bird often feeding the female. But at other times there is little friendliness, certainly no gallantry. The downy woodpecker in winter will drive the female spitefully away from the bone or the suet on the tree in front of my window till he is first served. I have never seen crows quarrel or strive with one another over their food. On the contrary, if the crow discovers food in winter, he seems glad to be joined by a companion or several of them. The crow is a generous bird; he has the true social instinct. He will watch while his fellow feeds; he cheerfully shares his last morsel with a comrade. How different from any of the hawk tribe! A farm-boy living near me brought up four young sparrow hawks in a cage. They were as jealous of one another over their food as cats are, and when they were nearly full-grown, and the food was insufficient, they proceeded to devour one another. I kept two of the survivors a few days, but they were so utterly cruel and savage that I was glad to let them escape.
Most of our rodents are as free from guile as our birds; they have none of the subtlety and cunning of their enemies the fox and the wolf; they are simply wild and shy. The rabbit has little wit, yet she manages to run the gantlet of her numerous enemies. Some of her arts of concealment are as old as mankind – the art of hiding where no one would think of looking – concealment where there is little to conceal her. One March day I started a rabbit from her form in a broad, open cultivated field. She had excavated a little place in the soft ground just deep enough to admit the hind part of her body and there she crouched in the open sunlight with only a little dry grass partly screening her. When I was within two paces of her she bounded away like the wind and directed her course toward a bushy ravine several hundred yards away. The advantage of her position was that she commanded all approaches; nothing could steal a march upon her, and she could flee in any direction. In a tangle of weeds or bushes she would have been where every one of her natural enemies prowl or beat about, and where concealment would have been more or less confinement. A few yards farther along I came upon another vacant form – the perfection of art without any art. When the rabbit builds her nest and has her young she does not seek out a dense cover, but comes right out into the clear open spaces where you would never think of looking. She excavates a little cradle in the ground, gathers some dry grass, weaves a little blanket of dry grass and fur from her own body, just large enough to cover it, and her secret is well kept – most hidden when hidden the least. Quail and grouse know something of the same art, and never make their nests in a thick tangle. I have seen a quail's nest with twenty eggs in it on the edge of a public highway. The brooding bird allowed me almost to touch her with my hand before she flew away.
If every bushy and weedy spring run in Georgia embracing not more than an acre or two of ground has two dozen sparrows, to say nothing of a pair or two of cardinals, Carolina wrens, and mockingbirds, one can get some idea of what a vast number of birds such a large State – over three hundred miles long and two hundred miles wide – holds. With two pairs of birds to the acre, a fair estimate, it would count up to over seventy millions. The farm of about one hundred and thirty acres upon which I passed February and March probably held several dozen sparrows and as many juncoes, a score or two blue jays, and two or three dozen meadowlarks, a pair each of cardinals, Carolina wrens, and brown thrashers, besides other birds. In one ploughed field I saw, day after day, ten or fifteen killdee plovers. Their wild cries, their silver sides glancing in the sun, and their long powerful wings were always a welcome sight and sound.
Probably more kinds of birds feed on insects than upon seeds and fruits, though the seed- and fruit-eaters are the more numerous, and abide with us more months in the year. It is true also that the seed-eaters nearly all eat insects at times, and start their young in life upon insect food. One can easily see, then, what an inevitable part the birds play in keeping down the insect pests that might otherwise overwhelm us.