Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. November 26, 1916. [Bird Notes From St. Catherine Hospital]. Likes the Bluejay Best. A Pathetic Little Story. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 52(9): 10-W. Forest, Field and Stream.

Forest Field and Stream

While flat on my back in a bed of serious sickness, over at good St. Catherine's hospital, some two weeks or more since, I can not help but acknowledge that the All-wise Father, was, for some reason or other, particularly gracious to me, for most of what would have been dreary, lagging, painful hours of waiting, was enlivened and made rarely interesting by the sights and sounds that came to me from those stately old oaks and elms and maples surrounding the institute, through my windows.

As a mystic, yet beautiful instance, my favorite of all the birds, the flicker, a pair of them, by the way, were regular morning and afternoon visitors to the rugged old oak just a few yards from the window opening out to the west, and for hours they would occupy themselves frolicking among the naked branches, chasing each other from one tree to the other, and back again, and "ke-ucking" occasionally from sheer exuberance of ecstasy, I thought, and vainly, too, perchance, for my especial entertainment and happiness. The female bird made many visits to an old knot-hole on the big boil of the oak some fifteen feet from its base, and clinging to the rough bark would frequently stick her head in this orifice, and hold it there for several seconds, as if searching for food or arranging something on the inside. Several times she almost entered the hole bodily, but never entirely disappeared, and I took it for granted that it was in this cavity the birds had had their last summer's nest.

On several occasions a big, fat, old fox squirrel would make his appearance mysteriously within the branches of the tree, and with a querulous "cur-r-r-r-rack-ack-ack!" he would dash along a limb at one flicker or the other, sending it up into the air with a sharp "ke-uck!" or crackling cry, but reinforced by its mate it would quickly return, swooping fiercely down upon bunny, with fiercer notes than I ever thought a yellowhammer could make, and they would buffet him with their sturdy wings until he was glad to rundown to the ground, where the irate birds would chivy him here and there and everywhere, until they had chased him out of the yard or to some safe refuge in his den in some other and distant tree. While I learned much more that I ever knew before about my dear old yellowhammers, it is information that will keep, and as it was not what I originally intended to tell you in this simple and unpretentious little story, I will defer it until another Sunday.

What I wanted to relate was the fact that, in one of these self-same old oaks outside my window, on the day before I was brought home from St. Catherine's, which was dreary, cold, and auguring snow, I saw a little flock of birds, numbering a dozen or more, the like of which I haven't seen here for over a quarter of a century, and seldom anywhere in the state, yet formerly in the early winter days they were frequent and plentiful visitors here, but like several other species of birds formerly familiar callers, seem to have vanished forever. I mean the pine grosbeak.

Old residents will certainly remember the fluffy lavender arrayed birds, that used to visit them in the first cold, drab days of winter, about a third again as large as a sparrow, flying among the sidewalk shade trees or about their door yards, whistling in low, soft twittering tones, dropping to the ground and pecking indolently here and there, with their gray feathers fluffed up like an owl when he is mad, or as if trying to ward off the cold wintry airs, and so tame that you could approach within an arm's length of them. Even then, when they took wing, it was in an unruffled, satisfied, nonchalant way, as if they knew no fear. Well, those birds were pine grosbeaks, and although known to but few in those early days, almost any bird student of today, who has never even seen one of these birds, could tell you what they were if one should suddenly come under their observation.

He is a cunning little body, not quite as large as a robin, with a bright crimson vest, the escutcheon of the grosbeak tribe, like the scarlet crest marks all the woodpeckers, soft, gray underneath, dark on the back, with double bars of snow white across the sturdy wings and a conspicuous golden splotch over the rump and back of the head. The beak is short, thick and powerful, like all the grosbeaks. They are almost wholly tree birds, and when they do take to the ground, are awkward and clumsy, moving about after the fashion of the four-toed woodpecker.

They are birds of the hyperborean regions, but when the weather is terrifically intense and the snows heaped mountain-high in their Labrador homes, they will rise high in the air and come south, often going as far as the outer boundaries of the southern states. But they do not linger down here for any length of time, only through the stress of some unwonted frigid period, when they again make their way back to the bleak woods of the far north.

But the most wondrous thing about the pine grosbeak is the matchless song, robin-like, but a hundred-fold softer and more exquisite, of the male; seldom heard this far south, but I have listened to it by the hour in the lonely woods of the Upper Peninsula on my November deer hunts with my beloved comrades of the old Hockhocking Hunters club of Lancaster and Cincinnati, O., and can even close my eyes now, and behold the lofty spruce top where he perches, and listen and hear the flood of soft, warbling notes, tinkling like broken ice in the Platte river in March, sweet and mellow and caressing as even the eventide hymn of the hermit thrush, that gushes from his little throat.

Such is the pine grosbeak's song as sung at sunrise, and in the evening, within the deep evergreen woods and by the lonely rivers of the far north.

Just before the first dawn, a liquid note is heard, followed by a bewildering long trill; next a chirp, a few sweet notes and then a perfect rapture of full-throated melody, changing wonderfully every second or two. The dear bird seems so delighted to be alive that it cannot suppress its glad tunefulness, and often for five minutes, without stopping for more than a few seconds at a time, it will pour out such rich and mellifluous notes that a bird lover wonders how that tiny throat could possibly produce the exquisite harmony and keep it up for an hour or more, without break or intermission. The singer seems to be overflowing with happiness all the time. It will sing at the top of its voice sometimes while flying from one high point to another, and often may be heard from this towering spruce, a few moments later fro the top of another. My birds lingered in the oaks out in the hospital yard for nearly an hour that morning, and then disappeared and I saw them no more.

A Rare Visitor Here.

In response to H.L.B. of Silver Creek I will say that the bird he sends me for identification is a Western grebe, rare in this section of the country, and during the pst quarter of a century I have encountered but three or four of the species. This Silver Creek bird was about two-thirds the size of a fully-matured loon, which it greatly resembles in all details, save the coloration of the plumage. Above, it was a blackish gray, with a pale edging to the feathers, darkening on the hind neck and top of the head; the lower region gray; quills ashen brown, bases of the primaries and most of the secondaries white; below, from bill to tail, pure silken white, with dark touches on the sides; bill obscurely olivaceous brighter along the edges and tip.

Likes the Bluejay Best.

34 Lafayette Apartment, Oct. 20. - To Sandy Griswold, Sporting Editor of the World-Herald: I always read your delightfully entertaining articles in the forest, field and stream department of Sunday's World-Herald with the utmost interest. The robin, I notice, is the most discussed of all our birds, and I cannot refrain from writing to you and telling you how I adore the bluebird - our bluejay. He is my favorite and you must give us a story on him some of these days. I cannot understand how a bird with such gorgeous plumage can be the saucy fellow he is, and deserves the abuse that is heaped upon his pretty head. To me he always seems to bring a cheery message, and I stop in admiration whenever I see him.

I recall, with much amusement, one spring day, when the trees were growing scarlet with their cherries, a hungry little squirrel was helping himself to all he could lay paws upon, as he hurried from limb to limb, when suddenly a bluejay appeared upon the scene, but despite his scolding and angry words, the squirrel kept right on enjoying his feast little concerning himself about the angry protestation of the bird. Yes, the robin is a dear bird, but my favorite is the much maligned jay. You must excuse the liberty I have taken, and believe me, cordially to be one of your many admirers - Mrs. Julia D. Reese.

No excuses necessary, my dear Mrs. R., and some time soon I'll tell you what I think of the bluejay, also one of my prime favorites despite his bad name. - Sporting Editor.

A Pathetic Little Story.

And, en passant, all this unqualified arraignment of this luckless member of the bird tribe from across the water, reminds one of a most interesting and pathetic incident that came under my observation one bitter cold day last January in my own dooryard out in the village of Dundee.

A little hen sparrow, half frozen and rapidly gasping out the remaining life that remained within its little gray body, had fallen from the roof of the bungalow, under whose eaves a horde of sparrows had taken up their winter quarters, to the cement walk below my bed room window from which we were watching the birds. A moment or two before Mrs. G. had thrown out a bowl full of bread crumbs and other refuse from the luncheon table, as it was her daily task to feed the little vagabonds, notwithstanding our prejudice throughout the summer months, all through the cold and snowy season. When the badly frozen little hen had tumbled from the roof, there was a half score of its famished kind voraciously seizing upon the bounty of the good housewife, but when the dying bird fell and lit some two or three yards from the spot, where they were feeding, the whole bevy flew up and hovered over her for a little while, and finally three or four of them alighted near the unfortunate hen, and after much pulling, hauling and tugging, much distraught fluttering of wings and hopping of tiny feet, dragged the dying bird by wing and tail tip over to where considerable of the scattered bread crumbs still lay upon the snow-packed and frozen earth, and there they left her, by this time cold and stiff in death.

Just what the meaning of all this was, we did not pretend to solve, whether the birds felt that their gasping comrade might be restored by the repast that had been so fortuitously thrown them, or what, of course, we could not tell. But rest assured it filled our breast with instant pity and for the nonce, all ill-feeling for those little birds was obliterated in this one emotion.