August 8, 1915. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 50(45): 1-M. Includes five pictures of nests and four examples of mounted birds.
Feats of Feathered Genius in the Wilds of Elmwood
Odd Habits of the Shiftless Cowbird, the Defense of a Bird Home Against the Squirrel, and the Ubiquity of the Horned Lark about Omaha. Did You Ever Find a Wood Pewee's Nest?
By Miles Greenleaf.
Not so long ago it would be mighty difficult to visit a wooded glade or tangled copse without running into a misguided youth intent on the business of laying low some feathered songster my means of a slingshot or else of rifling some cunning nest of its eggs for the "collection" at home.
A campaign of education and bird-humanity within recent years has done away with this murder and vandalism. The birds of Nebraska and outer Omaha are nearly as safe in their nooks as they might be in some undiscovered forest of an unknown land. And this is the very grandest of evidence of the rapidly increasing respect held by true Americans, young or old, for the works of nature.
The nesting season of Nebraska's bird colony is practically concluded now, but there are still many of the songsters who are rearing their young, and who will continue to do so for many a week.
In the study of birds, which has become a real sport among many real sportsmen, the locating and observing of songbird nests is no small feature. That these more than humanly intelligent bits of fluff may interest the most cynical could scarcely be doubted after a single jaunt through any of the outlying rustic parks of the city.
Parks Interesting Fields.
Elmwood park has been the particular field of a casual campaign of research conducted weekly by the writer, but the observations made in this park, it should be remembered, would certainly apply to Riverview and any other verdant entanglement where a modern park system has not succeeded in turning the caretakers loose with the fatal wood-axe.
The nesting season among the songbirds is of particular engrossing interest, and the cowbird, perhaps the strangest of all the feathered friends of this community, is responsible for much of this interest.
As most everybody knows, this cowbird has a labor-saving system of his own, in which his wife concurs most heartily. They avoid a good deal of the high cost of living by refusing to build a nest, or to rear their own young. Mr. and Mrs. Cowbird merely wait until a Yellow Warbler or a Dickcissel or a Catbird or nearly any other bird you might mention, has constructed a nest, and then Mrs. Cowbird proceeds to lay an egg or two in the same. Then the Cowbird folks go away and forget the incident completely.
Very naturally this is a proposition that meets with but the scantest approval from the victims. It is pretty tough for a nice, respectable Yellow Warbler to have to "set" on her own eggs and a great big Cowbird egg besides. When these eggs have hatched, Mrs. Yellow Warbler finds that the Cowbird youngster consumes about eight times as many bugs and worms as her own offspring, which keeps herself and her Old Man proportionately busy.
Many bird victims of the stinginess of the Cowbird have arrived at the notion of building a flooring over the egg of the intruder, and then starting all over again. This custom is by no means unusual, and any earnest investigator will find plenty of evidences of the same during the nesting season. But the writer, with Billy Marsh, perhaps one of the best informed laymen of birdlore in the state, ran across an example of bird-cunning in this regard that is worth recording. Fortunately, too, the writer was able to secure a fairly good photograph of the situation.
A Yellow Warbler family had built a nest in a sumac bush along a ravine near the Missouri Pacific tracks south of Leavenworth street. As soon as this nest was completed a Cowbird came along and deposited an egg therein.
The disgusted Yellow Warblers, which many of you might rather term wild canaries, had an inspiration. Instead of building a flooring over the Cowbird egg, they built an addition to their home - off to one side, just like a second room built as an addition to any human house. So here was a sort of double-barreled birdnest, with one egg left off to one side with no motherly wing to cover it.
No sooner had these crafty Yellow Warblers completed this strange addition to their original home than another Cowbird - or, perhaps the same one - laid an egg in the addition. This should have been enough to baffle or discourage almost anybody or anything - but not so with this particular band of Yellow Warblers.
They promptly built a flooring over the second Cowbird egg and proceeded to lay four of their own, which hatched and produced, no doubt, a dandy bunch of youngsters - for they have disappeared, the broken eggs are still there, and the Cowbird eggs, one rotted and the other buried, are still in the double house!
It is a photograph of this remarkable domestic situation in bird life that is shown with this story. The nest is now in possession of the writer.
Tragedies of Bird World.
There are tragedies, too, resulting from the constant battle of the other birds against the campaign of the Cowbird.
A picture is here reproduced of a nest of a family of Field Sparrows, taken after the Field Sparrows and the Cowbirds had each deposited two eggs. After the photograph was taken, the builders of the nest succeeded in throwing one of the vagrant eggs overboard, where it was found. Evidently unable to cope with the remaining cowbird egg, which they even tried to cover with flooring, they abandoned the home entirely, and built in some other clump of grass close to the ground.
But enough of the Cowbird. The study of nests records the triumphs of the birds as well as their adversities.
Squirrel Often Routed.
It is popularly supposed that squirrels are death to young birds and eggs in the nest, and it cannot be denied that the nuthunters destroy a good deal of bird life. But this much is true, from personal observation, that the squirrel doesn't have any too soft a time of it in raiding a bird nest. It is no uncommon occurrence to see a Robin or almost any other sizable songster, running a squirrel to cover with the wildest squawks of mingled anger, grief and fear.
As for the nests themselves, they have as much individuality as their architects and builders. One bird will create a wonderfully complicated and beautiful haven of weeds and grasses, while another will throw together a shack of twigs and other bric a brac that would seem too fragile to withstand the mildest of zephyrs. Yet ordinary storms will damage one no less than the other, so clever is the engineering of the bird families.
The Mourning Dove builds about as flimsy a nest as any of his pals, and yet there seems to be plenty of Mourning Doves around these parts. He and his frau simply sling together a bunch of twigs in some horizontal crotch and then raise their young on the somewhat dubious platform. These nests are difficult to see, because they are so inconsequentially frail. Once found, you are bound to wonder how the eggs stay in the nest while Pa and ma are absent.
Find a Wood Pewee.
To make the sport of nest-hunting worth while, with the distinct understanding that the nests are not to be disturbed, it might be a good stunt to challenge someone to locate a Wood Pewee nest.
There are plenty of them to be found in the parks and ravines, but to locate them would tax the patience of a Klondike prospector. The Pewee nest is built of grass fibers, quilted together and ornamented with rock lichens - one of the most exquisite of bird creations. It is placed upon the upper side of a horizontal limb, generally far from the ground over some ravine, and having the exact appearance of a mere knob or knot in the branch.
In order to make the game worth while, it might be added that there are two of them within twenty yards of the first bridge over the Elmwood park creek when entering by the first driveway opening out from Dodge street. There is one on each side of the bridge - one north and one south. If you locate these nests it will be by watching the birds, for they are fly-catchers and flit vehemently back and forth across the ravine in search of their prey. By this time they may have finished feeding their young, but they will still be about the neighborhood.
The Towhee, sometimes known as the Chewink, is not only one of the commonest and most beautiful birds hereabouts, but is likewise one of the cleverest nest-builders. He, with his good wife, construct a cozy nook of bark, grass and leaves, nearly invariably upon the ground under some fallen branch or dense bush. It is next to impossible to locate one of these nests unless you chance to flush the bird from the eggs, and this, also, is difficult, because the Towhee will stay by his guns until your foot seems fairly upon him - or her.
Towhee an Odd One.
This Towhee is called by that name because he says it, and is likewise termed Chewink because he says that too - in a very firm and precise manner. When you have once found the Towhee nest - if you are that lucky - the family will gather mighty near your head and protest most vigorously. The female is likely to pull that famous broken-wing stunt on you, to have you follow her away.
The Towhee nest is almost impossible to see without the aid of a surveyor's transit, for so cleverly are the leaves and twigs arranged over the same that the cozy home seems absolutely a part of the ground itself. The photograph of a Towhee nest accompanying this story was taken by the writer after Billy Marsh had located it and actually staked it out. Even with this means of locating the Chewink home, it took us twenty minutes to ascertain under exactly what twig the nest was situated. Which brings up the question - how did the Cowbird find it> For there was a Cowbird egg in the nest.
One of the most trusting and persistent of nesters is the well known Brown Thrasher, oftener called Brown Thrush. He and his mate will take turns on the eggs most religiously and can scarcely be driven off. When finally flushed, the bird will fly no farther than ten feet, and will there "cuk-cuk-cuk" in an ecstasy of anxiety while one examines the nest. Brown Thrashers have actually been caught under hats while on the nest. Their's is a very heavy and substantial creation of twigs and rootlets, generally built in hedges, thickets or thornbushes. The Brown Thrasher nest is an easy mark for the Cowbirds.
Methods of Protection.
Birds have various and interesting ways of protecting their nests. Some employ brute force and others the keenest of strategy. For instance there is the Crested Flycatcher, fairly common here, which builds its home in a hole in a tree and invariably leaves a snakeskin hanging therefrom, as if to frighten intruders away. The Wood Thrush, beautiful soloist of our woodland, is likewise certain to have a piece of white cloth or a shred of white or brightly colored paper dangling from its nest, flapping a danger signal to the enemy.
The Loggerhead Shrike, better known as the Butcher Bird, has a different system. He builds a nest for his mate in shrubby hedges and thickets, of twigs, leaves and weeds, and then declares war on anyone or anything that may threaten. He willingly attacks a human prowling about the place, driving his sharp beak straight at the face and flapping furiously with the wings. The female is particularly vindictive when there are eggs or young birds in the nest. It is know, of course, that the Loggerhead Shrike often kills other birds and impales them on thorns or the barbs on wire fences for future reference.
Every schoolboy is acquainted with the nest of the Baltimore Oriole, whose clever little sack is suspended from a swinging branch far up in almost any tree. Just how this swaying home survives the terrible storms and steady gales which sweep across Nebraska this year is hard to understand - but it does.
A Newspaper Bird.
The Red Eyed Vireo is a journalist at heart, for it weaves its tiny nest largely of newspaper fibres. This pretty little creation hangs in the fork of some tiny branch of a bush, cleverly hidden, a good deal like that of the Baltimore Oriole except that it is an "open face" affair, and not a sack.
Under nearly every bridge or culvert in the woods or parks near Omaha, in the springtime you will discover a Phoebe nest, marvelously put together of mud and rootlets and placed upon some beam, or in any little notch or crevice. The Phoebe occasionally builds beneath roots protruding over some ravine, but the bridge is his favorite residence.
And the Chimney Swift, twittering bravo of the skies when a storm is brewing, builds his nest in some abandoned chimney, using mud and sticks in the process. he has a spiked tail to enable him to prop himself against the vertical chimney wall while engaged in his architectural pursuits.
One of the freak nest-builders of this part of the country is the common Marsh Wren, which may be found about Carter lake every now and then. This bird builds a delightful sort of cocoon with a tiny hole in the side, in which many eggs are laid. The funny part about Mr. and Mrs. Marsh Wren is that they build several nests each year, seemingly just for practice, as they only rear their brood in one.
Horned Lark Common.
The Horned Lark sings on the wing, and is said to be the only real lark in America, the Meadow lark being a base imitation. The Horned Lark nest has not been discovered as yet by the author of these lines, for it is merely a grass-lined hollow in some tiny gully, generally concealed by an overhanging stone or tuft of grass. Late in June we watched two Horned Larks feeding their young. They perched on a telegraph wire near the recently opened tract of Evanston near Elmwood park. One of them would soar upward until almost out of sight and then "volplane" downward at a terrific speed with some tiny bug or insect. The nest could not be located by watching the parent birds, but two of the young larks were found under little gullies where they had the appearance of muddy stones - so motionless was their pose. The youngsters had cleverly wandered away from the nest when danger was scented, probably advised by their somewhat astute parents.
This story is intended merely as an invitation to real sports to tackle the nest-hunting game, in connection with the identification and protection of songbirds. A volume could be written about Omaha and Nebraska bird nests, so this is merely a nibble.
But you will find the game an interesting one, and well worth while. If you can't get out into the park today, and are chained to a desk in some office, just look on the gravel roof and there you may find the nest of a night hawk, for this bird merely lays his eggs on any warm stone or gravel place, very often selecting the top of a downtown building.
Take a look - or take a walk and then look! The birds and their lives will give you many an hour of unsullied pleasure.