Sunday, 30 October 2011

Strange Birds and their Habits

Later, Verrill in 1938 published ‘Strange birds and their stories. Mysteries of bird life. Migrations. Nesting habits. Birds of beaches and deserts. Winged jewels. Clowns of birddom. Valuable birds. Bird law courts. Bird communists. Flightless birds’.

Strange Birds and their Habits

A. Hyatt Verrill

Popular Science; Dec 1, 1899; researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, October 2011.

Probably every stamp collector who has seen the Guatemalan stamps has noticed the beautiful and graceful bird whose portrait adorns them. This bird, the Quetzal or Resplendent Trogon, is found only in the heavy mountain forests of Mexico and Central America, and would have been far more appropriate as the national emblem of Mexico than of Guatemala, for when Cortez first visited the land of the Montezumas, he found the kings and high priests wearing robes and head dresses composed of the brilliant feathers of the sacred Quetzal.

The male bird is a bright iridescent golden green above, and vivid scarlet below, with a graceful soft green crest, and curved green feathers hanging over the wings, while two or three of the ferny green tail-coverts extend far beyond the black and white tail, often reaching a yard or more in length. The female is much more modestly dressed, hardly a trace of the scarlet appearing on her dull gray breast, while the tail coverts are scarcely longer than the real tail.

Like nearly all the members of the Trogon family, the Quetzal lays its eggs in holes in trees, and the male bird does his share of the sitting. Unless the hole were very large this would be impossible without injury to the ornamental tail coverts, of which these birds are very proud. To overcome this difficulty the Quetzal resorts to the simple but ingenious plan of digging the hole entirely through the trunk of the tree. Thus when sitting on the nest the tail projects outside, and the birds can enter and leave the nest without the necessity of turning about.

In the same forests with the Quetzal may be found a cousin of his, a handsome fellow with burnished steel-blue back and pale yellow breast, who has a still more unique manner of nesting. One day while walking through the woods of Costa Rica, I noticed one of these Trogons perched motionless on a branch near a large hornets' nest. While watching him, he suddenly darted forward, snapped up a hornet and disappeared. Puzzled at the way in which he vanished, I carefully scrutinized the limb, expecting to see him hidden among the leaves. Presently, to my great surprise, he emerged from the opening in the hornets' nest. As these tropical hornets are unusually large and lively, I did not attempt further investigation at that time, but discovered later, that these Trogons always make their nests within the home of the hornets, and, adding insult to injury, feed themselves and young on their hosts.

If, while in these Central American forests, we walk along some mountain stream, and look sharply among the orchid-covered branches of the trees, we may spy a "Motmot" sitting quietly in the deepest shadows of the leaves. These Motmots are rather pretty fellows, bright olive-green above and rusty-green below, with bright blue wings and tail. The top of the head and the cheeks are shining black, bordered with turquoise-blue and violet, which is again edged with black, while in the center of the breast are one or two black feathers.

The most peculiar feature of this bird's plumage, however, is the tail, the two central feathers of which are much longer than the others, and are bare shafts with the exception of a small space at the tip and base. When these feathers first grow out they are like the others, but for some reason the owner thinks he can improve upon nature by shaving. This he does by bending his head down and his tail forward, and using his strong notched bill for a razor, strips off the plumes.

The housekeeping methods of this queer bird are as strange as his shaving, for while the home itself, a long tunnel in some sandy river's bank, is dry and warm, it is far from clean or inviting. Motmots, so lazy as to be averse to foraging for their young day by day, pile the nest full of dead fish and small animals, which soon becomes a mass of maggots, upon which the young birds feed until able to care for themselves. You can readily see that such a nest is not a pleasant one to rob, therefore the Motmots are seldom molested and become so tame and unsuspicious that they are called "Bobos," or fools, by the natives.

Along the fences and roadsides in Central America, one may sometimes catch a glimpse of a small reddish-brown bird, with a short stub tail, from which project two long stiff feathers. This shy and suspicious little chap is a species of wren, and judging from his size no one would believe him to be the maker and owner of the huge nests which are so common in the brushy localities where he lives.

These nests are not nearly so remarkable for their great size as for their curious and clever construction. When the wrens are ready to commence housekeeping, they select a bush or small tree with horizontal branches; across two of these are laid sticks which are fastened securely in place with tough grass and roots until a platform about six feet long and two feet wide is formed. On the end of this platform nearest the tree they build a dome-shaped nest about a foot high, with thick sides of interwoven thorns. From this they build a zigzag or curved tunnel to the outer end of the platform. Across the entrance and at intervals along this passage, are built little thorn fences, leaving holes barely large enough for the birds to squeeze in and out. When leaving the nests the wrens close the doors behind them by placing thorns across these holes. The big dome is filled half full of leaves, soft grass and cotton from the silk-cotton tree, and on this warm bed the mother wren lays the dainty speckled eggs and raises the young she has taken such care to protect from intruders.

On the broad level plains or Llanuras of tropical America are many giant trees standing singly or in groups, and in these the "Caziques" or " Pendulas" build their wonderful swinging nests, sometimes fairly covering the trees, so that from a distance they look like huge pear-shaped fruit. The Pendulas (of which there are several species, the largest about the size of a crow), are relations of our northern Orioles. They are all much alike in color,—dark seal-brown, with the exception of the tail, which is a bright golden yellow, and hence they are known as "yellow-tails" in Nicaragua, Their bill is very large and strong, with a broad horny shield on the forehead and a point like a needle.

The nests of the Pendulas are woven entirely of long tough grass and are often six or eight feet in length, and so strong and closely made that, although they sway with the slightest breeze, yet even in the hurricanes they are seldom blown down or the eggs broken. The lower part of the nest is a large pouch which tapers to a point and is fastened to the tip of a branch by a single strand. The opening is about half-way up the side and so cunningly designed that it is very difficult to discover, being merely a small slit held tightly closed by the weight of the lower part of the nest. In the tropics the greatest enemies of the birds' eggs are the monkeys, and it is to foil these mischievous pests that the Pendulas build such curious nests and select such open situations in which to place them, for doubtless the yellow-tails have learned by experience that the monkeys rarely venture out of the protection of the forests.

You have all read of the "tailor bird," who builds his home within leaves sewn together by the aid of his bill for a needle and a tough root for a thread. But this feathered tailor is not unique in his manner of nesting, for in the same country with the "yellow-tails" and motmots is found a little black and orange oriole, who uses the needle given him by Nature with even greater skill than the better known tailor bird. This brilliant fellow selects for a home a new and large banana leaf, the two drooping sides of which he sews together with grass. Not only are the stitches so fine as to be hardly noticeable, but the little sewer even takes the precaution to run the stitches with the grain of the leaf and close beside one of the narrow veins. Inside of the green and living pocket thus formed, the nest of soft grass and hair is built, and the mother rears her young in safety, with never an outward sign of the hidden treasures within.

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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.