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THE HIGH TIDE OF BIRD LIFE
FOR abundance and for perfection of song and plumage, of the whole year, May is the month of birds. Insects appear slowly in the spring and are numerous all summer; squirrels and mice are more or less in evidence during all the twelve months; reptiles unearth themselves at the approach of the warm weather, and may be found living their slow, sluggish life until late in the fall. In eggs, cocoons, discarded bird's-nests, in earthen burrows, or in the mud at the bottom of pond or stream, all these creatures have spent the winter near where we find them in the spring. But birds are like creatures of another world; and, although in every summer's walk we may see turtles, birds, butterflies, and chipmunks, all interweaving their life paths across one an-other's haunts, yet the power of extended flight and the wonderful habit of continental migration set birds apart from all other living creatures. A bird during its lifetime has almost twice the conscious existence of, say, a snake or any hibernating mammal. And now in early May, when the creatures of the woods and fields have only recently opened their sleepy eyes and stretched their thin forms, there comes the great worldwide army of the birds, whose bright eyes peer at us from tree, thicket, and field, whose brilliant feathers and sweet songs bring summer with a leap the height of the grand symphony, of which the vernal peeping of the frogs and the squirrels' chatter were only the first notes of the prelude.
Tantalus-like is the condition of the amateur bird-lover, who, book in hand, vainly endeavours to identify the countless beautiful forms which appear in such vast numbers, linger a few days and then disappear, passing on to the northward, but leaving behind a goodly assemblage which spends the summer and gives abundant opportunity for study during the succeeding months. In May it is the migrants which we should watch, and listen to, and "ogle" with our opera glasses. Like many other evanescent things, those birds which have made their winter home in Central America land yet beyond our travels and which use our groves merely as half-way houses on their journey to the land of their birth, the balsams of Quebec, or the unknown wastes of Labrador, seem most precious, most worthy at this time of our closest observation.
More confusing albeit the more delightful is a season when continued cold weather and chilly rains hold back all but the hardiest birds, until like the dammed-up piles of logs trembling with the spring freshets the tropic winds carry all before them, and all at once winter birds which have sojourned only a few miles south of us, summer residents which should have appeared weeks ago, together with the great host of Canadian and other nesters of the north, appear within a few days' time.
A backward season brings strangers into close company for a while. A white-throat sings his clear song of the North, and a moment later is answered by an oriole's melody, or the sweet tones of a rose-breasted grosbeak the latter one of those rarely favoured birds, exquisite in both plumage and song.
The glories of our May bird life are the wood warblers, and innumerable they must seem to one who is just beginning his studies; indeed, there are over seventy species that find their way into the United States. Many are named from the distribution of colour upon their plumage the blue-winged yellow, the black-throated blue, chestnut-sided, bay-breasted, and black poll. Perhaps the two most beautiful most reflective of bright tropical skies and flowers are the magnolia and the blackburnian. The first fairly dazzles us with its bluish crown, white and black face, black and olive-green back, white marked wings and tail, yellow throat and rump, and strongly streaked breast. The blackburnian is an exquisite little fellow, marked with white and black, but with the crown, several patches on the face, the throat and breast of a rich warm orange that glows amid the green foliage like a living coal of fire. The black poll warbler is an easy bird to identify; but do not expect to recognise it when it returns from the North in the fall. Its black crown has disappeared, and in general it looks like a different bird.
At the present time when the dogwood blossoms are in their full perfection, and the branches and twigs of the trees are not yet hidden, but their outlines only softened by the light, feathery foliage, the tanagers and orioles have their day. Nesting cares have not yet made them fearful of showing their bright plumage, and scores of the scarlet and orange forms play among the branches.
The flycatchers and vireos now appear in force little hunters of insects clad in leafy greens and browns, with now and then a touch of brightness as in the yellow-throated vireo or in the crest of the kingbird.
The lesser sandpipers, both the spotted and the solitary, teeter along the brooks and ponds, and probe the shallows for tiny worms. Near the woody streams the so-called water thrushes spring up before us. Strange birds these, in appearance like thrushes, in their haunts and in their teetering motion like sandpipers, but in reality belonging to the same family as the tree-loving wood warblers. A problem not yet solved by ornithologists is: what was the mode of life of the ancestor of the many warblers! Did he cling to and creep along the bark, as the black-and-white warbler, or feed from the ground or the thicket as does the worm-eating? Did he snatch flies on the wing as the necklaced Canadian warbler, or glean from the brook's edge as our water thrush? The struggle for existence has not been absent from the lives of these light-hearted little fellows, and they have had to be jack-of-all-trades in their search for food.
The gnats and other flying insects have indeed to take many chances when they slip from their cocoons and dance up and down in the warm sunlight! Lucky for their race that there are millions instead of thousands of them; for now the swifts and great numbers of tree and barn swallows spend the livelong day in swooping after the unfortunate gauzy-winged motes, which have risen above the toad's maw upon land, and beyond the reach of the trout's leap over the water.
It would take an article as long as this simply to mention hardly more than the names of the birds that we may observe during a walk in May; and with bird book and glasses we must see for ourselves the bobolinks in the broad meadows, the cowbirds and rusty blackbirds, and, pushing through the lady-slipper marshes, we may surprise the solitary great blue and the little green herons at their silent fishing.
No matter how late the spring may be, the great migration host will reach its height from the tenth to the fifteenth of the month. From this until June first, migrants will be passing, but in fewer and fewer numbers, until the balance comes to rest again, and we may cease from the strenuous labours of the last few weeks, confident that those birds that remain will be the builders of the nests near our homes nests that they know so well how to hide. Even before the last day of May passes, we see many young birds on their first weak-winged flights, such as bluebirds and robins; but June is the great month of bird homes, as to May belong the migrants.
Robins and mocking birds that all day long
Athwart straight sunshine weave cross-threads of song.
WARM spring days bring other changes than thawing snowbanks and the swelling buds and leaves, which seem to grow almost visibly. It is surprising how many of the wild folk meet the spring with changed appearance beautiful, fantastic or ugly to us; all, perhaps, beautiful to them and to their mates.
As a rule we find the conditions which exist among ourselves reversed among the animals; the male "blossoms forth like the rose," while the female's sombre winter fur or feathers are reduplicated only by a thinner coat for summer. The "spring opening" of the great classes of birds and animals is none the less interesting because its styles are not set by Parisian modistes.
The most gorgeous display of all is to be found among the birds, the peacock leading in conspicuousness and self-consciousness. What a contrast to the dull earthy hued little hen, for whose slightest favour he neglects food to raise his Argus-eyed fan, clattering his quill castanets and screaming challenges to his rivals I He will even fight bloody battles with invading suitors; and, after all, failure may be the result. Imagine the feelings of two superb birds fighting over a winsome browny, to see her as I have done walk off with a spurless, half-plumaged young cock!
The males of many birds, such as the scarlet tanager and the indigo bunting, assume during the winter the sombre green or brown hue of the female, changing in spring to a glorious scarlet and black, or to an exquisite indigo colour respectively. Not only do most of the females of the feathered world retain their dull coats throughout the year, but some deface even this to form feather. beds for the precious eggs and nestlings, to protect which bright colours must be entirely foregone.
The spring is the time when decorations are seen at their best. The snowy egret trails his filmy cloud of plumes, putting to shame the stiff millinery bunches of similar feathers torn from his murdered brethren. Even the awkward and querulous night heron exhibits a long curling plume or two. And what a strange criterion of beauty a female white pelican must have! To be sure, the graceful crest which Sir Pelican erects is beautiful, but that huge, horny "keel" or "sight" on his bill! What use can it subserve, ζsthetic or otherwise? One would think that such a structure growing so near his eyes, and day by day becoming taller, must occupy much of his attention.
The sheldrake ducks also have a fleshy growth on the bill. A turkey gobbler, when his vernal wedding dress is complete, is indeed a remarkable sight. The mass of wattles, usually so gray and shrunken, is now of most vivid hues scarlet, blue, vermilion, green, the fleshy tassels and swollen knobs making him a most extraordinary creature.
Birds are noted for taking exquisite care of their plumage, and if the feathers become at all dingy or unkempt, we know the bird is in bad health.
What a time the deer and the bears, the squirrels and the mice, have when changing their dress! Rags and tatters; tatters and rags! One can grasp a handful of hair on the flank of a caribou or elk in a zoological park, and the whole will come out like thistledown; while underneath is seen the sleek, short summer coat. A bear will sometimes carry a few locks of the long, brown winter fur for months after the clean black hairs of the summer's coat are grown. What a boon to human tailors such an opportunity would be to ordain that Mr. X. must wear the faded collar or vest of his old suit until bills are paid!
It is a poor substance, indeed, which, when cast aside, is not available for some secondary use in Nature's realm; and the hairs that fall from animals are not all left to return unused to their original elements. The sharp eyes of birds spy them out, and thus the lining to many a nest is furnished. I knew of one feathered seeker of cast-off clothing which met disaster through trying to get a supply at first hand a sparrow was found dead, tangled in the hairs of a pony's tail. The chickadee often lights on the backs of domestic cattle and plucks out hair with which to line some snug cavity near by for his nest. Before the cattle came his ancestors were undoubtedly in the habit of helping themselves from the deer's stock of "ole clo's," as they have been observed getting their building material from the deer in zoological parks.
Of course the hair of deer and similar animals falls out with the motions of the creatures, or is brushed out by bushes and twigs; but we must hope that the shedding place of a porcupine is at a distance from his customary haunts; it would be so uncomfortable to run across a shred of one's old clothes if one were a porcupine!
The skin of birds and animals wears away in small flakes, but when a reptile changes to a new suit of clothes, the old is shed almost entire. A frog after shedding its skin will very often turn round and swallow it, establishing the frog maxim "every frog his own old clothes bag!"
Birds, which exhibit so many idiosyncrasies, appear again as utilizers of old clothes; although when a crested flycatcher weaves a long snakeskin into the fabric of its nest, it seems more from the standpoint of a curio collector as some people delight in old worn brass and blue china! There is another if less artistic theory for this peculiarity of the crested flycatcher. The skin of a snake a perfect ghost in its completeness would make a splendid "bogie." We can see that it might, indeed, be useful in such a way, as in frightening marauding crows, who approach with cannibalistic intentions upon eggs or young. Thus the skin would correspond in function to the rows of dummy wooden guns, which make a weak fort appear all but invincible.
THE ancient Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hindus, Japanese, and Greeks all shared the belief that the whole world was hatched from an egg made by the Creator. This idea of development is at least true in the case of every living thing upon the earth to-day; every plant springs from its seed, every animal from its egg. And still another sweeping, all-inclusive statement may be made, every seed or egg at first consists of but one cell, and by the division of this into many cells, the lichen, violet, tree, worm, crab, butterfly, fish, frog, or other higher creature is formed. A little embryology will give a new impetus to our studies, whether we watch the unfolding leaves of a sunflower, a caterpillar emerging from its egg, or a chick breaking through its shell.
The very simplest and best way to begin this study is to go to the nearest pond, where the frogs have been croaking in the evenings. A search among the dead leaves and water-soaked sticks will reveal a long string of black beads. These are the eggs of the toad; if, however, the beads are not in strings, but in irregular masses, then they are frogs' eggs. In any case take home a tumblerfuI, place a few, together with the thick, transparent gelatine, in which they are encased, in a saucer, and examine them carefully under a good magnifying glass, or, better still, through a low-power microscope lens.
You will notice that the tiny spheres are not uniformly coloured but that half is whitish. If the eggs have been recently laid the surface will be smooth and unmarked, but have patience and watch them for as long a time as you can spare. Whenever I can get a batch of such eggs, I never grudge a whole day spent in observing them, for it is seldom that the mysterious processes of life are so readily watched and followed.
Keep your eye fixed on the little black and white ball of jelly and before long, gradually and yet with never a halt, a tiny furrow makes its way across the surface, dividing the egg into equal halves. When it completely encircles the sphere you may know that you have seen one of the greatest wonders of the world. The egg which consisted of but one cell is now divided into two exactly equal parts, of the deepest significance. Of the latter truth we may judge from the fact that if one of those cells should be injured, only one-half a polliwog would result, either a head or a tail half.
Before long the unseen hand of life ploughs another furrow across the egg, and we have now four cells. These divide into eight, sixteen, and so on far beyond human powers of numeration, until the beginnings of all the organs of the tadpole are formed. While we cannot, of course, follow this development, we can look at our egg every day and at last see the little wiggle heads or polliwogs (from poi and wiggle) emerge.
In a few days they develop a fin around the tail, and from now on it is an easy matter to watch the daily growth. There is no greater miracle in the world than to see one of these aquatic, water-breathing, limbless creatures transform before your eyes into a terrestrial, four legged frog or toad, breathing air like ourselves. The humble polliwog in its development is significant of far more marvellous facts than the caterpillar changing into the butterfly, embodying as it does the deepest poetry and romance of evolution.
Blue dusk, that brings the dewy hours,
Brings thee, of graceless form in Booth.
PIRATES AND SUBMARINES
FAR out on the ocean, when the vessel is laboriously making her way through the troughs and over the crests of the great waves, little birds, black save for a patch of white on the lower back, are a common sight, flying with quick irregular wing-beats, close to the surface of the troubled waters. When they spy some edible bit floating beneath them, down they drop until their tiny webbed feet just rest upon the water. Then, snatching up the tidbit, half-flying, they patter along the surface of the water, just missing being engulfed by each oncoming wave. Thus they have come to be named petrels little Peters because they seem to walk upon the water. Without aid from the wings, however, they would soon be immersed, so the walking is only an illusion.
But in our smallest ponds and brooks we may see this miracle taking place almost daily, the feat being accomplished by a very interesting little assemblage of insects, commonly called water skaters or striders. Let us place our eyes as near as possible to the surface of the water and watch the little creatures darting here and there.
We see that they progress securely on the top of the water, resting upon it as if it were a sheet of ice. Their feet are so adapted that the water only dimples beneath their slight weight, the extent of the depression not being visible to the eye, but clearly outlined in the shadows upon the bottom. In an eddy of air a tiny fly is caught and whirled upon the water, where it struggles vigorously, striving to lift its wings clear of the surface. In an instant the water strider pirate of the pond that he is reaches forward his crooked fore legs, and here endeth the career of the unfortunate fly.
In the air, in the earth, and below the surface of the water are hundreds of living creatures, but the water striders and their near relatives are unique. No other group shares their power of actually walking, or rather pushing themselves, upon the surface of the water. They have a little piece of the world all to themselves. Yet, although three fifths of the earth's surface consists of water, this group of insects is a small one. A very few, however, are found out upon the ocean, where the tiny creatures row themselves cheerfully along. It is thought that they attach their eggs to the floating saragassum seaweed. If only we knew the whole life of one of these ocean water striders and all the strange sights it must see, a fairy story indeed would be unfolded to us.
However, all the Lilliputian craft of our brooks are not galleys; there are submarines, which, in excellence of action and control, put to shame all human efforts along the same line. These are the water boatmen, stout boat-shaped insects whose hind legs are long, projecting outward like the oars of a rowboat. They feather their oars, too, or rather the oars are feathered for them, a fringe of long hairs growing out on each side of the blade. Some of the boatmen swim upside down, and these have the back keeled instead of the breast. Like real submarine boats, these insects have to come up for air occasionally; and, again like similar craft of human handiwork, their principal mission in life seems to be warfare upon the weaker creatures about them.
Upon their bodies are many short hairs that have the power of enclosing and retaining a good-sized bubble of air. Thus the little boatman is well supplied for each submarine trip, and he does not have to return to the surface until all this storage air has been exhausted. In perfectly pure water, however, these boatmen can remain almost indefinitely below the surface, although it is not known how they obtain from the water the oxygen which they usually take from the air.
All of these skaters and boatmen thrive in small aquariums, and if given pieces of scraped meat will live in perfect health. Here is an alluring opportunity for anyone to add to our knowledge of insect life; for the most recent scientific books admit that we do not yet know the complete life history of even one of these little brothers of the pond.
Clear and cool, clear and cool,
By laughing shallow, and dreaming pool;
Cool and clear, cool and clear,
By shining shingle, and foaming weir.
THE time is not far distant when the bottom of the sea will be the only place where primeval wildness will not have been defiled or destroyed by man. He may sail his ships above, he may peer downward, even dare to descend a few feet in a suit of rubber or a submarine boat, or he may scratch a tiny furrow for a few yards. with a dredge: but that is all.
When that time comes, the animals and birds which survive will be only those which have found a way to adapt themselves to man's encroaching, all-pervading civilisation. The time was when our far-distant ancestors had, year in and year out, to fight for very existence against the wild creatures about them. They then gained the upper hand, and from that time to the present the only question has been, how long the wild creatures of the earth could hold out.
The wolf, the bison, the beaver fought the battle out at once to all but the bitter end. The crow, the muskrat, the fox have more than held their own, by reason of cunning, hiding or quickness of sight; but they cannot hope for this to last. The English sparrow has won by sheer audacity; but most to be admired are those creatures which have so changed their habits that some product of man's invention serves them as well as did their former wilderness home. The cave swallow and barn swallow and the chimney swift all belie their names in the few wild haunts still uninvaded by man. The first two were originally cliff and bank haunters, and the latter's home was a lightning-hollowed tree.
But the nighthawks which soar and boom above our city streets, whence come they? Do they make daily pilgrimages from distant woods? The city furnishes no forest floor on which they may lay their eggs. Let us seek a wide expanse of flat roof, high above the noisy, crowded streets. Let it be one of those tar and pebble affairs, so unpleasant to walk upon, but so efficient in shedding water. If we are fortunate, as we walk slowly across the roof, a something, like a brownish bit of wind-blown rubbish, will roll and tumble ahead of us. It is a bird with a broken wing, we say. How did it ever get up here? We hasten forward to pick it up, when, with a last desperate flutter, It topples off the edge of the roof; but instead of falling helplessly to the street, the bird swings out above the house-tops, on the white-barred pinions of a nighthawk. Now mark the place where first we observed the bird, and approach it carefully, crawling on hands and knees. Otherwise we will very probably crush the two mottled bits of shell, so exactly like pebbles in external appearance, but sheltering two little warm, beating hearts. Soon the shells will crack, and the young nighthawks will emerge, tiny fluffs, in colour the very essence of the scattered pebbles.
In the autumn they will all pass southward to the far distant tropics, and when spring again awakens, the instinct of migration will lead them, not to some mottled carpet of moss and rocks deep in the woods, but to the tarred roof of a house in the very heart of a great city.