September 16, 1894. Omaha Sunday Bee p. 10.
Where's Our Summer Birds.
A Brief Treatise Upon the Feathered Family of Nebraska.
What becomes of our summer birds? Many have already gone and others are going, daily and nightly, and as little is known generally about bird life, this is an appropriate time for the above question.
All of our summer birds, in the main, are migratory, there being but two directions of flight, north and south, to and from pole and equator. The Canada goose, the brant, speckled brant and white, while they cannot be classed with our summer birds, will serve to furnish much information. In the summer time these choice game birds, particularly the two latter species, perform journeys to the hyperborean regions before which our most intrepid arctic explorers would falter; while in the winter the golden oriole and cat-bird, common in our dooryards for a brief sojourn from June until August, are piping and flirting away amid the perennial foliage of the equator. At either extreme of this extensive scope of the feathered family's pilgrimage there are wide stretches of country, which, either by reason of their climatic conditions, the character of their topography, or the shelter and food they supply, attract the bird tourists, thus curtailing many journeys, that originally had been more extensively mapped out. Every season there may be found in this latitude—perhaps in some sheltering neck of timber, along some spring-fed stream, like the Elkhorn or Niobrara, or in the intricate tangle of some low lying marshy swamp land, in the severer months, birds, whose kind, as a whole, are carolling in the warm climes of the gulf, in the West Indies or sunny Central America. Migration, after all, with some species of the winged tribe, is largely a matter of disposition or inclination, and either of these qualities may make the summer songster a winter resident.
According to my years of observation here in Nebraska, the yellow breasted sparrow and the dainty blue bird are the first to greet us with their sweet notes in the spring time—the sparrow ever preceding his cerulean hued little cousin. Here the blue bird departs with the first stinging manifestation of frost or with the falling leaves, but in isolated cases they have been known to linger until bitter cold comes, aye, even to remain here throughout the winter. This, however, is rare. His appearance and disappearance is sudden, but timely. The sparrow does not linger as long, but puts in an appearance earlier, facing his hardships in the spring time of life rather than in the tail end of the year.
The robin—I guess a favored bird the world over—is another of our early spring harbingers. He follows the blue bird, makes a long summer of it, and often in midwinter may be flushed and startled to wing in the denser thickets and woody shelters of our river bottoms. He is a different sort of a fellow, though, is robin redbreast, in the bleak, dreary days of cold and snow. He is then alert, wild and querulous. In the summer he is the pet of the door yard and orchard, rhythmic, melodious and docile. They flock like turtle doves in the late fall, and linger in great numbers, often long after the time they should be swinging in the foliage or hopping over the sward of the softer south. When thus found, though pity it is, he is a legitimate prey of the gunner, legitimate I mean so far as his qualifications for the table are concerned, but being insectivorous and a song bird, here in Nebraska he is always properly protected by the statutes. In some states, especially in the south, he is included in the list of game birds, and is compelled to take his chance with Bob White, the waders and reed birds. While the robin is strictly migratoria, he frequently does his love making and his family raising as far north as Hudson bay, while hundreds of his kind are performing and enjoying the same functions within the sultry marshes of the isthmus.
The turtle dove, very similar to the robin in his coming and going, is materially different. He is first seen on rail fence, dead tree, or in the road way, long in the first mild days of April, coming in goodly numbers about the middle of May, and departing, generally, in a body, early in October. Some few linger in the stubble well into November, but by the first day of December they are generally completely gone, and their mournful plaint is lost until the warm winds once again blow from the south. The turtle dove, while protected throughout many states, including our own, is as choice a game bird as gastronome or epicure could crave, equal almost, in my esteem, to either the reed bird, the upland plover or the yellow leg, but not quite up to the par excellent standard of a quail or jack snipe. In various parts of the country, notably in California and the south, there are regularly prescribed seasons for his protection and slaughter, the same as governs the balance of feathered game. Nebraska is a favorite haunt for the turtle dove, and he breeds and multiplies here as possibly no place on earth; but like the robin, he also puts in much of his time in the south in the summer season, and abounds in great numbers from the Carolinas to the Sierra mountains.
The catbird, not so familiarly known in Nebraska as in the same latitude in the eastern states, although quite plentiful, is a late comer and an early goer. He is a delicate bird, and is not to be met with north of the British line, and on his trip south hardly halts this side of Central America.
The meadow lark is much like the robin and the dove, that is, while migratoria, he often lingers in the northern states long after the regular time for departing southward. In mild winters he is to be found throughout Nebraska almost any day in the week, the tall grass of our limitless hay fields affording him ample shelter and food. He is always to be met with plentiful during the summer months in almost every state in the union, and while a beautiful bird, with a beautiful bit of song, is also a delicate morsel for the table—in fact, in some parts of the United States is highly thought of for his excellent game qualities. His cousins, the bobolinks and orioles, speed away before killing frosts, and await the fullest foliage and abundance of insect life before returning. They are never to be encountered in this region, even as stragglers, later than the middle of October, and rarely as late as that. From Panama to Ontario they ride up on the vernal ebb, and whenever the tender bud of shrub or tree and odorous blossoms are opening, there they are today, trilling their tinkling and sweetly plaintive songs.
The blackbirds of all kinds, yellow-necked and red-winged, rusty, crow and cow, close relatives of the bobolink, also follow the same waves southward for both health and happiness. The myriads of red-winged and the rusty are still here, but will shortly be thronging the regions south of Mason and Dixon's line, but the yellow-necked and the big crow blackbird invariably winter on the table lands of old Mexico. They all come north with the first warm wave and in a day the landscape becomes alive with their shifting colors and impatient yet musical chirp and twitter. They are the companions of the farmer and follow him gleefully along in the furrows, and wherever the plow is upheaving the black soil and revealing its hordes of larvae and flies they are to be seen fluttering up and on from tuft to tuft and roll to roll, chuckling and cackling as if in the highest state of bird life felicity.
And the martins, with their sheeny purple garb of black, and the swallows, with their forked tails and rufous throat, are mostly already in the lower southern states or across the gulf, and soon the last bird of them all will disappear from dizzy space and be gone. Just where the chimney swallow, that mysterious little swift, spends the frigid epochs of the year is something I have never as yet been able to learn. Only early in April he makes himself known along the lower Floridian coast, but not until May's suns have materially softened our atmosphere here do they arrive in Nebraska.
Both the bluejay and the scarlet grosbeak, our common redbird, are tough and hardy, and can endure very severe cold. Still, in a large measure, they are migratoria. The bluejay, I might add here, like the wild turkey, is purely an American bird, and one of the sauciest, jauntiest and prettiest of all our natives. In manner, habit and characteristic the jay and the redbird bear the closest propinquity to each other. The redbird, however, is a charming vocalist, while the jay has a wild, discordant scale of notes, which he keeps working for all they are worth the year round—the winter cry differing somewhat from that of summer. Thousands of these birds spend the winter here and those that do emigrate go no further south than the territory.
The little indigo bird, the thrush, both wood and hermit, scarlet tanager, rain crow, or cuckoo, shipping sparrow, black and yellow-throated warbler, vireos and the finches, which make our groves and thickets resonant with their ecstatic serenades during the sunny summer time, pass their winters south of our confines. Some halt in Florida, among the orange blossoms and along the north gulf shore, but the majority pass on to Guatemala and equatorward. All of the species that subsist in the air, like the flycatcher and the whippoorwill, the ash-throated and king bird, but seldom, if ever, tarry this side of Cuba or South America. The phoebe bird may rest content a little further north, but generally goes on to the lands of permanent summer. They come back only when spring is well on, and the buzz and hum of insect life has awakened field and wood.
The woodpecker family, the picidae, is a numerous and an interesting one; they are both resident and migratoria. The common yellow hammer, which is known also as the flicker, the highholder and the golden woodpecker, depending on locality, derives much of his sustenance from the ground, about old stumps and logs and fences. He goes far enough south late in November to be beyond the danger of frozen earth. But the redheaded woodpecker, a natural concomitant of our landscape, sap-sucker or nuthatch, the hornbill and other birds of the picus genera, derive the best part of their living from the trunks of trees above the snow line, and as there is always a never-ending source of livelihood for them, and as they are tough and indurated to all kinds of exposure, besides being warmly clad, a large proportion of them stay with us through the most severe winters. The titmouse is another hard little nut, as is the chickadee, and they defy both storm and cold, and on the bleakest day in January their melancholy call, sweet as an aeolian harp, may be heard on the depth of the snowy timber lands of our river bottoms.
Of our game birds, the quail and chicken and grouse, although they evince a tendency toward southern migration when the weather turns keen for keeps, are to be found with us the year round, while the plover and sandpiper ken are lovers of warm climates and make extensive flights to reach them. There is a queer thing noticeable to ornithologists, and that is the birds that go farther north to breed may be expected to go the farthest south to winter, and most all of the long-legged genus, such as the uplands and waders, are of this sort. Long-legged birds of a gamey order also have long wings, of which they make the best of use. The golden plover, however, is not a long-legged bird, and is with us but a brief period in the spring and fall. He burrows a shabby little hole in the ground on the shores of the Bering sea for his nest, but revels in the winter amid the swales of Patagonia. The killdeer and upland plover both breed here, but when once on their southern journey, the last of this month, they rarely settle down for any lengthy sojourn this side of the broad and majestic Amazon. The woodcock, a rare avis, indeed, in Nebraska, halts in the southern states, but the jack snipe, wilsoni gallinago, and incomparable as he is, goes on over the gulf or into the southern districts of Mexico. He is here now on his way south, and will remain until Jack Frost begins to stiffen the muck in the swamps, when his sensitive bill is inadequate to the task for which nature has designed it—boring for worms and larvae.
All birds of prey, from the royal eagle down to the sparrow hawk, the raven, buzzard and crow, are all inclined to southward flight in the fall. Many go on for thousands and thousands of miles, while some halt just south of us at the line of demarcation between the rain and snow belt.