Monday, 2 April 2007

About Birds


Don Pedro, My Pet Crow

Crows are very intelligent birds, as everybody knows. If they had not been intelligent, all of them would probably have been destroyed long ago, for every man's hand seems to have been raised against them.

Nearly everybody used to think it was all right to kill crows. But now people are beginning to understand that crows are really more useful than harmful. By examining the stomachs of crows, scientists have found that these big black birds live mostly upon insects, frogs, snakes, mice, and rats. They will eat corn, grain, and fruit, it is true, but they like insects and small animals better.

Because crows are such intelligent birds, they make most amusing pets. Some pet crows even learn to talk. When I was a boy, I once had a tame crow which was about the best pet I ever owned. I took him from his nest in a tall pine tree when he was too young to fly.

He was a very ugly baby. He had a blue skin, a few black pinfeathers, and a huge stomach. His feet and legs were much too big for his body, and he had a big wobbly head on a skinny neck.

At his first meal he ate a whole hard-boiled egg and then squawked for more. He never seemed to get enough to eat. Don Pedro, as I called him, was the hungriest bird I ever knew.

The little fellow wanted to eat so often that it took a great deal of time to feed him. I soon decided he must learn to eat more at each meal, so that he could get along with fewer meals.

For a time he made a fearful noise whenever he wanted more food. He was intelligent, however, like all crows. So he soon learned to be satisfied with three meals a day. I fed him eggs, soft bread, and fruit. He liked these foods and grew very fast.

Before long Don Pedro was covered with black feathers. He could walk and hop about and even fly a short distance. By this time he had learned to feed himself. As I never kept him in a cage, he spent much of his time hunting for worms and insects in the garden. When my father was busy among his plants, Don Pedro would always stay near. He used to stand a few inches from the spade, so that he could seize any worm or grub my father dug up. He liked to catch mice, too. Sometimes he would wait by a mousehole for hours, ready to pounce upon any mouse that appeared.

Once in a while Don Pedro would help himself to the neighbors' currants or would dine on the cherries in our yard. He never troubled other fruits, however. He did not even touch the grapes that grew on our vines.

Don Pedro was always playing tricks. We never knew what trick he would play next. One day our goldfish were missing from their bowl. We at once thought that the crow had stolen them. But several months went by before we discovered just what had happened. Then one day my father opened an old dictionary. And what do you think he found in it? There, between the leaves of the book, were the missing goldfish, where Don Pedro had hidden them.

Don Pedro did not seem to dislike dogs very much, though he always kept out of their reach. But how he hated cats! When he saw one, he would fly at it, cawing and snapping his big bill. The cats always rushed off as fast as they could. They kept well away from the yard after once meeting Don Pedro.

One of the first things the crow learned to imitate was a cat's "meow." He would "meow" so nearly like a cat that it would fool anyone.

After he had learned how to meow like a cat and to bark like a dog, Don Pedro learned a number of other sounds. He even learned to say several words. Early in the morning he would wake everyone by shouting, "Papa, Mama!" He knew his own name and could say it very well except that he could not give the sound of "r." But he never did learn to speak a whole sentence. He could also whistle several tunes, but he always mixed them up.

He imitated every sound he heard. A squeaking cartwheel, the whistle of a sawmill, the chirps of sparrows, and the cooing of doves were all imitated perfectly by Don Pedro.

He was always curious and would get very angry if he found a tin can or a covered pail or box which he could not open. This desire to find out all about everything was what brought him to his end. One day he found a pot of red paint and sampled it. That was too much for even Don Pedro's stomach, and the next day he died, much to the sorrow of all who knew him.

Sampson, My Pet Blue Jay

My next bird pet was a blue jay. Jays belong to the same family as crows and are just as intelligent. They too make splendid pets.

Sampson, as I named this blue jay, was taken from his nest before he could fly. He grew very fast on the hard-boiled eggs which I fed him.

He was even smarter than Don Pedro and very quickly learned to feed himself. He learned to fly quickly, too. Within a week from the time I took him from the nest, he was able to hop about and to fly a little.

By the time Sampson had learned to fly, he had had enough of hard-boiled eggs and would not touch them. But he would eat almost anything else that I gave him. Rice, oatmeal, bread, meat, fish, fruit, and potatoes all pleased him. He did not eat all of these kinds of food every day. He would take some kinds one day and other kinds another day.

Sampson was always ready to eat any kind of insect. To him even the bad-smelling raspberry bugs were welcome bits of food. Like the crow, he was allowed to go where he pleased. Each day he would take a long journey, searching for insects on all the fences near my home. Sometimes he would fly into the air to catch a passing insect.

Often the blue jay would hop about on the lawn hunting for earthworms. Sometimes he would tear down a tent caterpillar's nest and eat the caterpillars.

He would not touch currants or berries, and he would not eat cherries unless they were overripe. Fallen pears always interested him, however, and he would peck them to pieces looking for worms.

No matter how hungry Sampson was, he never ate all of his food. He would always hide some of it in a crack or a hole in a fence, post, or tree. When he was hungry again and had no other food, he would go to his cupboard and dig out the stored food.

Like Don Pedro, he hated cats and would drive them away. He hated dogs, too, and would fly at them and peck them. He was so quick and had such a strong, sharp bill that he could drive off a dog quite easily.

Sampson soon learned to imitate many sounds and to speak several words. He liked best of all to whistle.

He was as curious as the crow, and was always interested in anything bright and shining. Very often he would sneak up behind my grandmother when she was sewing. If she laid her thimble down, he would seize it and fly off with it. The only way she could get it back was to offer Sampson something that was brighter than the thimble.

He was fond of playing and seemed to like a good joke. One day my father placed a paper cone over Sampson's head. For a minute or two the jay did not move, but squawked as if begging us to take off the cone. Then he shook his head and tried to hop about, but he fell over and rolled about helplessly.

Finally he rid himself of the cone. But instead of going away he looked up at my father as if saying, "You tricked me, didn't you?" Then to our surprise, he put his head back into the cone and tried to hop about with it, just as he had done before.

One day not long after that, Sampson played a trick on my father. Hopping onto my father's desk, he dipped his bill in the bottle of ink. Then he smeared it all over Father's letters and papers.

Sampson lived with us for two years, but at last he died. We never knew the cause of his death.

Another Pet Blue Jay

Last year I had another tame blue jay. He was even smarter than Sampson. I named this blue jay Johnny.

Johnny learned to whistle several tunes and to say "Hello." He could speak his own name and would cry, "Nice Johnny, pretty Johnny." He also learned to imitate songs of birds and many other sounds. Every morning he would awaken us with sounds of many different kinds. He would sing a few notes like those of songbirds. Then he would give cat-calls, yelps, cries like those of a child, and would imitate other noises he had heard.

Johnny loved to peck holes in anything new or strange. He could use his bill as well as any woodpecker. With his strong beak he would bang away at a piece of wood or would crack a hard nut. He was very fond of tearing burned-out matches into tiny shreds. He also liked to play ball and would catch anything that was tossed to him.

When we went to Florida, we took Johnny with us. Until this time he had never shown any desire to fly away. But when we reached our camp in the woods, he heard other jays in the trees and became restless.

One day, when I opened his cage door to give him water, he slipped past my hand and flew into the nearest tree. For a time he stayed close to camp and even came down and perched on our shoulders. But in a few days he flew away with a flock of wild jays.

Johnny never quite forgot us. From time to time he would come back, whistle a few notes of some tune we had taught him, and then fly away once more. Even when we moved our camp to a new spot several miles away, Johnny found us and made us a short visit.

I wonder if he will still know us and come to visit us when we go back to Florida again.


Bird Flights

Every winter the robins, orioles, bobolinks, and many other kinds of birds go away from the northern part of our country. In the spring they come back again.

These flights which the birds make in spring and autumn are known as migrations. The migrations of the birds are wonderful and mysterious journeys. Let us see where some of the birds go.

Robins do not go very far, for they are hardy birds and are able to stand very cold weather. Most of our northern robins go to the southern states for the winter. But many robins stay in the North all winter. They are not seen very often, for they keep to the thick evergreen trees in sheltered places. Then in the spring, when they come back to our lawns and gardens, we think they have returned from some faraway place.

The orioles, bobolinks, and many other birds travel much farther than the robins. The orioles go to Central America, while the merry bobolinks journey much farther south. They go all the way to Argentina.

As the bobolinks travel south, other bobolinks join them here and there. By the time they reach North Carolina there are thousands of these birds, in great flocks. The people in North Carolina never know these birds as bobolinks. They call them "reed birds."

The bobolinks travel on. When they reach the rice fields, farther south, they are called "rice birds." Here they do great harm to the growing rice. They eat and eat until they become very fat, for they will need to fly thousands of miles before they eat again.

Then on they go, flying across the Gulf of Mexico and over South America. They never stop until they reach the wheat fields of Argentina. These wheat fields are five thousand miles or more from their summer homes.

Then, in the spring, back to the North they come. They fly all the way up over South America, across the Gulf of Mexico, and on to the northern states. Here they sing their happy songs once more, in the same fields where they have nested for many years.

Many birds take much longer journeys than the bobolinks. Of them all, the arctic tern travels farthest. These birds nest in the far north. But each fall they fly to the antarctic region. In the spring they fly back to the far north again. Think of a bird that flies halfway around the earth twice in six months!

No one knows why some birds go only as far as our southern states or to Mexico to pass the winter, while others go to the antarctic. No one knows how the birds find their way across land and sea. And no one knows why some birds follow certain routes when going south, and very different routes when going north. Yet the birds never seem uncertain how to go. They travel the same routes year after year, as if they followed real roads, with signposts along the way.

Nesting Habits

The nesting habits of many kinds of birds are also puzzles which no one can understand. Why should the cow bunting lay its eggs in the nests of other birds, instead of making a nest for itself? Why should some birds build beautiful, deep, strong nests, while others build flimsy, flat nests in which the eggs are not safe? For that matter, why should many birds build nests or lay eggs on the ground, where many enemies can reach them, instead of placing their nests high in trees? And why do some birds nest very early in the spring, while others wait until midsummer?

These are all puzzles. But the greatest puzzle of all is how some kinds of birds recognize their own eggs or young among thousands of others of the same kind.

Many sea birds, such as gulls and terns, gather by thousands upon small islands. Here they lay their eggs on the bare sand or among the stones. Very often the nesting places are so crowded that one cannot walk about there without stepping on eggs or young birds. The eggs of each kind of bird all look alike, and the young of each kind all look alike, too. Yet the old birds fly off to catch fish, and when they return they always go straight to their own eggs or young birds. Even after the young birds are able to move about, their parents instantly pick them out from among the tens of thousands of young birds of the same kind.

Birds' Feet and Bills

If you look at a bird's feet and bill, you usually can tell what its habits are and what it eats. The sharp, hooked beaks of the hawks, owls, and eagles, and their strong, sharp claws tell us a story. They tell us that these birds are fierce killers and that they feed upon live animals and insects.

Chickens, quails, and pheasants have long, heavy toes with short, broad claws, and their beaks are short and strong. These claws and beaks tell us that the birds spend much of their time on the ground and scratch for food.

Swallows catch insects while flying, and light only to rest and to sleep. Nature has given these birds big mouths. But their bills are small and weak, and so are their feet.

If we look at a woodpecker closely, we shall find that he has a very strong beak with a point on it which helps him to bore holes in wood. He has two strong toes with sharp claws on the front of each foot, and two on the back of each foot. These claws help him to cling to the bark of trees.

We know from the long legs and slender beaks of herons and storks that they wade in water and catch fish. But the kingfisher, which also catches fish, has a long sharp bill and very small, weak legs and feet. This is because he has no need for long legs, for he perches on a branch and darts after a fish.

Hummingbirds have bills of many forms, but all are long and slender. With their long bills the birds can reach deep into flowers to get insects.

The bills of all kinds of sparrows are short but powerful, and are suited for cracking hard seeds.

Nature has seen to it that each kind of bird has the kind of beak and feet that are best suited to its needs.

Birds’ Feathers

Birds have different kinds of feathers, too. The owls and whippoorwills have very soft, fluffy feathers, and so they may fly silently. Swallows and hawks have close, smooth feathers, so that the birds may pass easily and swiftly through the air. The feathers of ducks, geese, and other water birds are thick and stiff, with soft down beneath them. The outer feathers are oily and are waterproof, while the thick down keeps out the cold.

Perhaps you may have wondered why some birds are bright colored or white and others are dull brown or gray. That is something that even the scientists cannot explain.

Sometimes, of course, a bird's coloring helps him to keep from being seen. The coloring of a bird may blend so well with his surroundings that when the bird is motionless, he is almost invisible. This is true of the brown thrushes, the olive-green flycatchers, the gray-streaked sparrows, and the black-and-white woodpeckers. We need very sharp eyes to see a nighthawk resting upon a dead limb, and the whippoorwills are even more like their surroundings. The feathers of the whippoorwills are the same color as the dead leaves and old logs where these birds rest and lay their eggs.

Even bright-colored birds are not always easily seen. There are many bright red, yellow, and orange-colored leaves and flowers. If a red, yellow, or orange-colored bird does not move when surrounded by them, it is hard to see him.

Some birds know that all they have to do, to keep out of sight, is to remain motionless. Some birds, however, try to make themselves look like something else. The common bittern is one of these. His feathers are brown, black, white, and yellow. At the first sign of danger he stands motionless, with his neck stretched up and his beak pointed toward the sky. In this position he can easily be mistaken for a patch of reeds beside a pond. An owl often crouches close to a branch so that he will look like a knot, or stretches out his body as far as possible, so that he will look like a broken-off branch. Many shore birds remain motionless and pretend to be stones or pebbles when they are in danger.

However, the coloring of a bird is not always a protection. Some herons are white, and a white heron can be seen a long distance away. The feathers of a blue or green heron help to protect him, but those of a white heron do not. Yet one kind of heron needs protection just as much as the other.

There are many bright-colored birds, and there are many which have dull colors. But why it is that some birds have bright-colored feathers and some have not, we do not know.


How Birds Help Us

Of all wild creatures, the birds are man's best friends. Some birds are thought to be harmful, yet there probably is no bird which does not do more good than harm.

Even hawks, owls, and eagles are useful birds. They may kill a few chickens, but they destroy hundreds of rats, mice, and insects for every chicken they eat. .

Many people think that the kingbirds should be destroyed because they eat a few bees. But one kingbird eats more than a thousand mosquitoes and five hundred flies in a single day.

The purple martins and the swallows destroy many insects, too. Each swallow and each martin eats more than two thousand mosquitoes and countless other insects every day.

Even the waxwings, or cherry birds, and the blue jays more than pay the farmer for the fruit they eat. Scientists who have examined the stomachs of hundreds of birds have proved this to be true. They found that the stomach of each cherry bird examined held more than one hundred canker-worms. The stomachs of blue jays were filled with worms, spiders, crickets, grasshoppers, and chinch bugs.

Robins do great harm to fruit, but they eat many insects and worms, including grasshoppers, caterpillars, and cutworms. So why should we mind if they do eat a little fruit? Robins are very useful birds.

Killing insects is only one of the useful habits of birds. Many birds feed upon seeds and in this way destroy millions of weed seeds every season. The stomach of one bobwhite, or quail, proved that he had eaten one thousand seven hundred weed seeds, and another had eaten five thousand.

Mourning doves are usually useful birds. The stomachs of a pair of these birds held more than seven thousand seeds of sorrel and nearly ten thousand seeds of grasses. But large flocks of these birds are sometimes harmful.

In northern Florida flocks of hundreds of these doves gather in. the cornfields and eat the corn. However, in Florida the mourning doves can be killed for game. Great numbers are killed there during the hunting season. If men were not allowed to kill these birds, there would soon be so many of them that they would do great harm to the crops.

How Birds Are Protected

Most persons are very fond of birds. It seems strange that anyone should think it sport to kill them. Yet every year thousands of men go hunting and kill tens of thousands of birds.

If hunters killed only the kinds known as game birds, it would be bad enough. But they also shoot hawks, owls, jays, crows, blackbirds, woodpeckers, and other useful birds. Fortunately, every state has game laws which protect the birds during most of the year. If it were not for these laws, some kinds of birds would all have been killed off long ago. As it is, the laws came too late to save several kinds of birds.

Fifty years ago there were millions and millions of passenger pigeons in this country. The flocks were so great that at times they darkened the sky. Thousands upon thousands of these birds were killed to feed pigs. Carload after carload was sent to the markets of great cities. People thought there would always be plenty of these birds. Yet now, so far as we know, there is not a single live passenger pigeon in the whole world.

When I was a small boy, the Carolina parakeets were very common in the southern states and as far north as Illinois. Great flocks of the bright-colored parakeets gathered in the cornfields and the fruit trees. They were pretty birds, they were good to eat, and they helped themselves to the farmers' crops. Thousands were killed so that their feathers could be used on ladies' hats. Thousands more were shot by farmers because they harmed the crops. More thousands were killed by hunters. Today there are only a few pairs of live Carolina parakeets and these are in the heart of the Everglades in Florida.

Now our game laws help to keep birds from being destroyed. Another way in which they are protected is by sanctuaries. A bird sanctuary is a place where it is unlawful to disturb or hurt birds in any way. There are many of these sanctuaries in our country, and the birds seem to know that in them they are safe from man.

No one can explain how birds know where and when they are safe from harm. But they do know. In many of our city parks the wild ducks and geese are very tame. They swim about the ponds with no fear of people. They eat food from people's hands, and they build nests and raise their young in the parks too. But the same ducks and geese, when they are away from the city parks, are very wild and shy and will not let anyone come near them.

Many other kinds of wild birds know they are safer in the cities than in the woods and fields. Blue jays, hawks, owls, and many other shy birds are quite common in our cities and towns, where they show little fear of people. So, in a way, every city or town is a bird sanctuary.

Even bird sanctuaries and game laws will not save some of our birds. When trees and bushes are sprayed with poisons to kill insect pests, thousands of birds die from eating the poison on fruits, seeds, and insects. Few persons know that great numbers of useful, beautiful birds are destroyed in this way. A friend of mine found twenty-two dead robins in his orchard after it had been sprayed with poison. I myself have seen dozens of small birds lying dead under trees that had been sprayed.

In some places mockingbirds, cardinals, and other songbirds have almost disappeared because so many have been killed by poison sprayed upon trees and bushes.

Perhaps we must spray our trees and plants with poison to kill the insects. On the other hand, birds also kill the insects. It seems a pity that we should kill birds when we are trying to kill the insects which many birds eat.


This story was told to me by a Sioux Indian. When I asked him if it were a true story, he said, "It must be true, because wood ducks all have red eyes."

Many, many years ago, in the old times before even the Indians were in this land, a big spider started out on a long journey. On his back he carried a bag filled with food. Now, after several days of traveling, the bag was empty. The spider was very hungry. As he went along, he tried to think of some way of getting food.

By and by, when he was walking up a little hill, he saw a pond on which many kinds of ducks were swimming. There were black ducks, redhead ducks, pintail ducks, and a wood duck.

"Ah, ha!" thought the spider, "how nice a good fat duck would taste!" As he sat watching the ducks, he felt more hungry every minute. But he did not know how he could catch a duck!

At last he thought of a fine plan. He knew that ducks are very curious birds and always want to find out about anything new or strange.

He gathered a great deal of dry grass and filled his bag with it. Putting his bag on his back, he went toward the pond. As soon as the ducks saw the spider with his load, they all began to quack, all asking at once what he had in his bag.

"Don't trouble me," said the spider. "Don't ask questions. Just stop your noise, and I'll tell you. I've been sent to carry a bagful of new songs to a place a long distance from here."

Of course that answer made the ducks all the more curious. They quacked more loudly than ever and asked him to sing one of the new songs. But the spider told them he could not do that, because some of the songs were "medicine" songs and had magic power. If he opened his bag and took out a song, it might be a medicine song. This would be bad for them all, he said.

One song, he told them, always brought on a tornado, and before it was sung a strong, tornado-proof lodge must be built. Perhaps, he said, this might be the song on top in the bag. So it would not be wise to try to take out a song.

As he talked, the spider kept walking about the pond as if in a great hurry. But the ducks were so curious to hear a new song that they did not notice that he was just going round and round. They kept following him, quacking and begging him to sing. At last he stopped, as if out of patience. "If you must have a song, I'll take a look and see which one is on top," he said. Then he opened the bag and made believe he was looking inside.

"Just as I thought," he told the ducks. "The first song is the tornado song."

Then he told them that if they wanted to hear it, they must all help build a strong lodge of willows and mud. "It will have to be very tight," he said, "with only one small door. Then we shall be safe when the song brings the tornado."

When the lodge was built, the spider told the ducks to go inside and shut their eyes. It was a magic song, he told them. If any duck kept its eyes open while the magic song was being sung, its eyes would turn bright red.

After all the silly ducks had gone into the dark lodge, the spider went in, too, and shut the door behind him. Then he began to sing. But as he sang, he swung his war club and began knocking the ducks over their heads.

He had killed two or three ducks when the wood duck decided to take a peep. He wanted to see what was happening. '

"Quack! Quack!" cried the wood duck, when he saw what was going on. "The spider is killing us. Run away, brothers, before he knocks you on the head."

The spider stopped singing and rushed at the wood duck. But the wood duck was small and very quick. He slipped between the spider's legs and got away. While the spider was chasing the wood duck, the other ducks ran from the lodge.

The eyes of the other ducks did not change color. But the wood duck had opened his eyes while the spider was singing. Ever since that day, the wood duck has had red eyes.


1 comment:

Bob Burke said...

Hi Doug

Thanks for the info on why woodducks have red eyes. I got a report last week that a male woodduck was recently spotted near one of my boxes on Porter's Lake(Digby Co.)I hope that they will be nesting there again this year.

Looks like you had a great trip to Cuba.

Bob Burke

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.