Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Kellscraft Studio Logo


HUMMING BIRDS have been aptly called “the jewels of ornithology.” And in truth they are perfect little jewels on the wing. We can only realize this fact after having been fortunate enough to hold one of the tiny, fairylike creatures in our hand; then the rubies, emeralds, and sapphires show themselves in all their astonishing, miniature beauty. The remarkable “gorget” (for so the humming bird’s ruby collar is named) under a magnifying glass is a blaze of resplendent red fire! The subtile color is far more beautiful than that which we see in the ruby; in proof of which hold the magnifying glass close to a spinel ruby and note its glassy lifelessness in comparison. John Ruskin was quite right when he said that there was far more preciousness of color in rainbows, dewdrops, and birds’ wings than in diamonds and rubies.1 It is well worth while to examine a peacock’s tail feather under the glass; what burning hues are there! Gold and copper, emerald green and cerulean blue, violet and ultramarine, purple, yellow, and even such remarkable tints as lilac and aquamarine green (these last are on the extreme outer edge of the broad, copper-colored field, in the center of which is the emerald-rimmed violet eye). We can not see the lilac and green without the glass, nor without its aid can we appreciate the jewel-beauty of the tiny little “hummer.” He is all golden-green above, with wings of dusky violet, and breast of dull pearly white; but his red collar is the most remarkable part of his coloring.

The Rubythroat.

The beautiful little rubythroat humming bird (Trochilus colubris) belongs to a very large family; he represents one of no less than five hundred species of hummers, most of which have been positively specified.2 Fifteen distinct species are common in the United States.

tropical portions of the southern continent, particularly to the United States of Colombia and Brazil. Humming birds, I might add, are peculiarly American; but they are mostly confined to the to the tropical portions of the southern continent, particularly to the United States of Colombia and Brazil. Our own little rubythroat is comparatively small beside the largest and most magnificent species but recently discovered in Arizona, named Eugenes fulgens. This gorgeous hummer is something like six inches in length! I believe he stands number four hundred and eight on the list.

We must not be disappointed if among more than half the little hummers that we see the ruby color is quite wanting. The female does not wear a red collar, but she has the same golden-green back and purple wings, although, perhaps, these are not quite as brilliant as those of her mate.3 The tongue of the humming bird is, I think, the most remarkable part of its anatomy; it is like a double-barreled shotgun, only instead of belching forth murderous shot, it sucks in the sweets of the flowers. This extraordinary little double-tubed tongue is guided into the honeysuckle’s long throat by well-developed, strong muscles; and while the bee is vainly bustling about, plunging his head “up to his ears” in the aggravating blossom all to no purpose, our little hummer makes one lightinglike dart at it and secures the honey with apparently no effort whatever.

I find the humming bird is very fond of nasturtiums, petunias, and delphiniums, and notwithstanding the fact that the milkweed blossom is cloyingly sweet, he passes it by, where it stands just beside the road near my garden fence, and makes a bee line for my brilliant, red King of Tom Thumbs and my ruby-spotted yellow Ladybird nasturtiums. Perhaps he does not fancy the aesthetic, lilac-drab colors of the ubiquitous milkweed.

The little fellow has mere apologies for legs; they are quite useless for locomotion, but are admirably adapted for a tiny perch. He can support himself firmly on a wire scarcely thicker than a hairpin. He stands on the wire screening which supports my sweet peas — very light wire it is, too — and preens his feathers with every appearance of security and contentment. While he is at the flowers feeding he utters a short, nervous “chip, chip,” as though he were not quite sure that some one would not take advantage of his position and catch him by the tail.

There is no bird that can build a nest as soft and beautiful as that of the humming bird. It is a tiny affair, about an inch and a quarter broad inside, lined with bits of cotton, soft hairs, and moss, and covered outside with patches of lichens. The nest usually contains two white, pearly eggs (I believe the humming bird never lays more than two). It is a curious fact that it is most frequently planted solidly on a good-sized horizontal bough, and looks more like a lichen-covered excrescence on the latter than it does like a bird’s nest.

The little rubythroat is not as wild and timid as might be supposed. If we are patient and quiet he will often perch very near us, and if we have a bunch of flowers in our hand, make bold enough to approaeh and help himself to their sweets.

It is nonsense to suppose that only a few possess the knack of becoming the intimate friends of wild birds and animals; if there is such a thing as a gift of this nature it is a very commonplace, practical one, composed of tact and patience rather than sentiment. The squirrel will run across our toes if it suits his convenience, and the bird will take crumbs from our hand if he is hungry enough; all depends upon our own patience and willingness to stand or sit still for an indefinite period. As there are many restless people who can not do this, I am inclined to believe that they are the only ones who never can become the favored friends of squirrels and birds. It is doubtful, however, whether even inanimate stones are counted as friends by the wary crow — that steely blue-black4 beauty of the cornfield. He is a cynic of the bird family, suspicious of everything and everybody, to whom the merest novelty (no matter what its nature) is part of a plot for his destruction. A dozen or so of four-foot sticks, connected by harmless lines of white twine, placed here and there in the cornfield, are, according to his way of thinking, a substantial menace to public safety — that is, the safety of the tribe, Corvus Americanus. But the crow is wily; he is sagacious beyond calculation, and he fully understands the value of sentinel duty. Before we can get within gunshot of the ten marauders which we see are plainly engaged in “hoeing the farmer’s corn,” a sharp signal “caw-r-rrr” comes from the edge of the copse near by — the game is up, and the birds are flown!

The crow’s nest is a rough affair, built high up in the tree; it contains from four to six generally blue-green (rarely white) eggs speckled brown.

There is another bird, not so distant a relative of the crow either, who when he is hungry does not hesitate to help himself from a plate of food, accidently exposed in the preparation of a meal in camp, or even from a hand holding an enticing crust. This is the Canada jay (Perisoreus Canadensis), a bright, quaker-drab-colored, gray-vested, white-breasted individual, as bold as his crow cousin is wary. He is a large bird, eleven inches in length, with wing feathers mostly white-tipped; I first became acquainted with him on the summit of Mount Osceola, one of the southern peaks of the White Mountains, situated in Waterville. Here, several years ago, in midsummer, while my companion and myself were resting and refreshing ourselves with our luncheon, we fed three Canada jays from our hands. So greedy was one of them that he crammed two fair-sized crusts in his bill and endeavored to seize the third; one of his feet rested in my palm and the other grasped my thumb. Several tree sparrows (Spizella monticola) near by also seemed anxious to have a share of the feast, but no quietude nor persuasiveness of manner on our part sufficiently encouraged them to feed from our hands; they would fly quite near, and one even ventured to snatch a crumb from off my knee. Rarely the Canada jay has appeared down in the valley near my cottage, probably with a view of filching some tidbits around by the kitchen way. He has a hoarse voice similar to that of the blue jay, but not so boisterous; sometimes he gives a low, nervous whistle. The nest is usually found in a spruce tree; it contains from four to five white eggs speckled with light olive-brown.

Canada Jay.

The Canada jay has a cousin who is decked in far finer feathers; this is the blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata); he is also related to the crow. But he is a bold creature, full of pranks and nonsense, who always creates a sensation in the bird world. His costume is a perfect “symphony in blue”; cadet blue, ultramarine, pale blue, gray, black, and white — these are his regimentals.

The blue jay’s voice is a familiar one; we all immediately recognize his catlike “ja-ja-ja, ja, jay!” Then, too, he has a vehement whistle:

and another:

It is a characteristic of the blue jay that he is ever on the move and never quiet when he moves; if he leaves one apple tree for another he does so vociferously, no matter if the flight is only a matter of ten feet.

The nest of the blue jay is usually snugly fixed in the crotch of a tree branch fifteen feet or so above the ground. It is built mostly of small rootlets, and contains from four to six brown-gray eggs marked with rust-colored spots.

The delightful, good-natured bluebird (Sialia sialis), whose azure wings flit with a charming effect of color through the thin, budding foliage of early April, is (excepting his blueness) more nearly like the English robin redbreast than any of our other birds; in fact, the early settlers of New England called him the “blue robin.” He is a sociable little ereature, who approves of and patronizes the bird house, and is pleased to pick up a few crumbs from the piazza steps; he even perches on the railing with an evident feeling of confidence in the good-will of mankind.


The bluebird is evenly colored with pale ultramarine from his crown to the middle of his back and wings; the brightest color is at the shoulders; under his bill is a little white, but his breast is rusty red. The long feathers of his wings and those of his tail are slate-gray tinged blue; beneath he is white. I can conceive of nothing more beautifully soft in color than the plumage of the bluebird in early spring, when the incipient green grass and the yet leafless but budding twigs of the orchard trees are but a welcome promise of color to come. But if once our eyes are fortunate enough to catch the gleam of the bluebird’s wings against the leaden hue of a cloudy New England sky we are satisfied; and amid the gray surroundings the touch of cerulean blue seems as precious as it is beautiful.

It is not strange that the farmer rejoices at the advent of the bluebird, either, for it has been estimated that each pair destroys in one season from fifty to one hundred thousand worms and grubs.

The female bird is very plainly attired in brownish gray with only a suggestion here and there of greenish blue. She selects a bird house for her nest, or the hole in some old apple tree or fence post. Mr. Burroughs says she shows no affection for her gallant mate and no pleasure in his society, and if he is killed she goes in quest of another husband in a most businesslike manner. The nest is a simple hollow in the center of some dried grass; in it there are from four to six very pale-blue eggs.

The bluebird’s song impresses me with its scrappy nature; he has only three or four notes at his command, and these are in the minor key. Like the robin, he often sings in triplets, thus:

but his notes are sweeter and not so strong; unlike the robin, though, he says very plainly as he sings:

These notes are not like those of the canarylike yellowbird; they have a more bell-like quality. As early as the latter end of March the bluebirds begin to appear in the Arnold arboretum, near Boston, and in the township of Campton, N. H., where patches of snow still remain plentiful beside the road.

One of the most charming little birds which frequents the roadside and sings throughout August is the intensely blue indigo bunting, or indigo bird (Passerina cyanea). He is about five and a half inches long. The blue is an even indigo-ultramarine, darker on the head, wings (somewhat brown-tinged), and tail; indeed, it is a much bluer bird than the bluebird, and is perhaps more deserving of the name.5

The nest is usually built among the bushes, and in it there are generally four or five white or bluish white eggs. The male bird has a really beautiful but not strong, canarylike voice, with something of a lisping character. He sings in the top of a tree, and very frequently close beside the road. I have timed him on several occasions, and have found his song from five to seven seconds long. It generally begins with a moderate fortissimo and ends in a pianissimo trill, or sometimes with two short faint notes:

But I imagine it may not be so easy to distinguish the musical indigo bird from several other chirping singers, so far as “style” is concerned, and I would advise those who are unfamiliar with the song sparrow’s and the yellowbird’s notes to make a careful comparison of the music of all three birds as I have represented it here. There are two or three comparisons which I can make that should aid one considerably in the attempt to distinguish these songs apart. The indigo bird’s voice is sprightly, thin, irregular, and lisping, and the sang lasts longer than that of the song sparrow. The latter frequently sings a tune three and a half seconds long, composed of three notes, a trill, and three strong final notes.6 The indigo bird never does this. We can not divide his song into distinct parts any more than we can that of a canary; it is all one rapid medley. The yellowbird’s notes can always be heard toward sunset, when the happy little fellow is on the wing, dipping along in his billowy lines of flight. This song is entirely his own, and the indigo bird never sings a single passage which remotely resembles it.

Another remarkably brilliant bird is the scarlet tanager (Piranga erythromelas); he is about seven inches long, and is vivid scarlet, all except his wings and tail, which are jet black. So splendid a bird, if he flies across the road from one patch of woods to another, can not fail to catch the eye on a bright day.

But the flash of color is sudden and momentary, he is gone in less time than it takes to tell it! This is the male bird, though; the female is dressed in a modest costume of yellow-olive green, a splendid foil for her scarlet mate. She builds her very slight nest in an orchard tree, perhaps, and in it lays four light green - blue eggs speckled with madder brown.

Scarlet Tanager.

The scarlet tanager is most frequently heard on the edge of the wood that borders the road; he rarely comes out in the open to sing. Like the thrush he prefers the forest, but he sings a very different kind of a song. Listen: here are the notes:

Mark how much they resemble the robin’s. But again we may hear another tanager sing, and we think his soft warblings are nearer like those of the Baltimore oriole, except that the music of the latter is not soft. It is very plain in any event that he delivers his notes in groups of twos and threes, and this is quite characteristic of the oriole.

The scarlet tanager is, on the whole, rather a rare bird, I think, for in my own experience he makes a short season of it, and leaves for the South long before the other birds do. In the Pemigewasset Valley he arrives in late May and disappears as early, I should think, as the end of September. I never heard him sing after the middle of June. Wilson says his food is principally winged insects, such as wasps, hornets, bees, and so forth. His taste is not confined to insects, however, as he relishes the berries which grow beside the road — especially huckleberries. I have also noticed that he likes the bird cherry (Prunus Pennsylvanica).

A rather rare brilliantly feathered bird we may possibly see on the highway in midsummer, called the cardinal grosbeak (Cardinalis cardinalis). He is bright, light red of a pure tone, closely allied to scarlet; the bird in captivity I have been surprised to see is greatly faded in color. We may know the grosbeak by his large bill, his striking crest, which he lowers and raises at will, and his black face and throat. In song the cardinal grosbeak is not to be compared with the thrushes or the thrasher; his notes are whistled, and quite similar to those of the scarlet tanager. Very rarely I have caught sight of this beautiful bird on the wooded roadsides of New Jersey. In Virginia he is quite common.

The most brilliant bird which appears on the roadside — and he is always to be found in the elm or the maple, near some old homestead — is the Baltimore oriole7 (Icterus galbula). He is about seven and a half inches long. His lower back and breast are brilliant orange, the head and wings are black, and a white band marks the latter. The female is olive-backed and yellow-olive-breasted. She lays about five buff-tinged white eggs marked on the larger ends with purple-brown spots. The nest is a remarkable, woven pouch, from five to seven inches deep, usually hung from an upper, slender branch.8 Bits of hemp, rope, twine, hair, wool, thistle-down, or, in fact, anything shreddy which can be picked up around the house, the bird weaves into the nest with consummate skill.

It is often the case that the mother-bird (she most frequently does all the work) gets entangled with a bit of string while she is building the nest, and sometimes it is at the cost of her life. I have seen one bird so badly mixed up with a snarl of hair and string that her wings were helpless, and she fluttered to the ground in dangerous proximity to an ever-watchful cat; but she was rescued in time and released from the tangle. For four successive years this oriole built her nest in a sugar maple within ten feet of the hotel, and only a few yards from the highway, at Blair, N. H., where the mountain woods were near enough to satisfy birds of the most fastidious social habits; but the oriole is not content to nest farther than a dozen yards from one’s doorstep.

The oriole’s notes are so familiar that I do not need to give more than a few of the commoner ones to refresh our memory:

The couplets are very clear and distinct, and have a better pitch, perhaps, than those of the robin. However similarly the two birds may sing, we can always tell one from the other by the quality of their notes; those of the oriole are more bell-like or liquid, but the robin’s are robust, and most generally confined to a low-pitch warble. Both, however, are loud whistlers.


1 In the Lectures on Art he says, after praising the plumage of the peacock and kingfisher: “Entirely common and vulgar compared with these ... we have the colors of gems. The green of the emerald is the best of these, but at its best is as vulgar as house-painting beside the green of bird’s plumage or of clear water.... The ruby is like the pink of an ill-dyed and half- washed-out print compared to the dianthus.”

2 It is astounding to learn that within the eighty odd years succeeding his time nearly four hundred new species have been discovered, and over four hundred specifically labeled! It seems strange that Wilson knew of only this one species.

3 There are other differences, too: the tail of the male is forked, that of the female is double-scallop-shaped with black bars, and lateral feathers white-tipped.

4 The beautiful iridescent black of the crows feathers is no ordinary color; its brilliancy is unattainable so far as the artist’s paint box is concerned.

5 The plumage, in parts, is iridescent, like that of the peacock; sometimes it appears quite greenish blue.

6 See the first music I have given of this sparrow in a foregoing chapter.

7 Named for the first Lord Baltimore because the black and orange of its plumage were the colors forming his livery.

8 See also the mention of oriole nest-building on page 132.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.