Read BIRDS OF THE ARID PLAIN of Birds of the Rockies , free online book, by Leander Sylvester Keyser, on ReadCentral.com.

Having explored the summit of Pike’s Peak and part of its southern slope down to the timber-line, and spent several delightful days in the upper valleys of the mountains, as well as in exploring several canyons, the rambler was desirous of knowing what species of birds reside on the plain stretching eastward from the bases of the towering ranges. One afternoon in the latter part of June, I found myself in a straggling village about forty miles east of Colorado Springs.

On looking around, I was discouraged, and almost wished I had not come; for all about me extended the parched and treeless plain, with only here and there a spot that had a cast of verdure, and even that was of a dull and sickly hue. Far off to the northeast rose a range of low hills sparsely covered with scraggy pines, but they were at least ten miles away, perhaps twenty, and had almost as arid an aspect as that of the plains themselves. Only one small cluster of deciduous trees was visible, about a mile up a shallow valley or “draw.” Surely this was a most unpromising field for bird study. If I had only been content to remain among the mountains, where, even though the climbing was difficult, there were brawling brooks, shady woodlands, and green, copsy vales in which many feathered friends had lurked!

But wherever the bird-lover chances to be, his mania leads him to look for his favorites, and he is seldom disappointed; rather, he is often delightfully surprised. People were able to make a livelihood here, as was proved by the presence of the village and a few scattering dwellings on the plain; then why not the birds, which are as thrifty and wise in many ways as their human relatives? In a short time my baggage was stowed in a safe place, and, field-glass in hand, I sallied forth for my first jaunt on a Colorado plain. But, hold! what were these active little birds, hopping about on the street and sipping from the pool by the village well? They were the desert horned larks, so called because they select the dry plains of the West as their dwelling place. They are interesting birds. The fewer trees and the less humidity, provided there is a spot not too far away at which they may quench their thirst and rinse their feathers, the better they seem to be pleased. They were plentiful in this parched region, running or flying cheerfully before me wherever my steps were bent. I could not help wondering how many thousands of them and millions, perhaps had taken up free homesteads on the seemingly limitless plains of eastern Colorado.

Most of the young had already left the nest, and were flying about in the company of their elders, learning the fine art of making a living for themselves and evading the many dangers to which bird flesh is heir. The youngsters could readily be distinguished from their seniors by the absence of distinct black markings on throat, chest, and forehead, and the lighter cast of their entire plumage.

Sometimes these birds are called shore larks; but that is evidently a misnomer, or at least a very inapt name, for they are not in the least partial to the sea-shore or even the shores of lakes, but are more disposed to take up their residence in inland and comparatively dry regions. There are several varieties, all bearing a very close resemblance, so close, indeed, that only an expert ornithologist can distinguish them, even with the birds in hand. The common horned lark is well known in the eastern part of the United States as a winter resident, while in the middle West, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, etc., are to be found the prairie horned larks, which, as their name indicates, choose the open prairie for their home. The desert horned larks are tenants exclusively of the arid plains, mesas, and mountain parks of the West. There is still another variety, called the pallid horned lark, which spends the winter in Colorado, then hies himself farther north in summer to rear his brood.

As I pursued my walk, one of these birds suddenly assumed an alert attitude, then darted into the air, mounting up, up, up, in a series of swift leaps, like “an embodied joy whose race has just begun.” Up he soared until he could no longer be seen with the naked eye, and even through my field-glass he was a mere speck against the blue canopy, and yet, high as he had gone, his ditty filtered down to me through the still, rarefied atmosphere, like a sifting of fine sand. His descent was a grand plunge, made with the swiftness of an Indian’s arrow, his head bent downward, his wings partly folded, and his tail perked upward at precisely the proper angle to make a rudder, all the various organs so finely adjusted as to convert him into a perfectly dirigible parachute. Swift as his descent was, he alighted on the ground as lightly as a tuft of down. It was the poetry of motion. One or two writers have insisted that the horned lark’s empyrean song compares favorably with that of the European skylark; but, loyal and patriotic an American as we are, honesty compels us to concede that our bird’s voice is much feebler and less musical than that of his celebrated relative across the sea. It sounds like the unmelodious clicking of pebbles, while the song of the skylark is loud, clear, and ringing.

Our birds of the plain find insects to their taste in the short grass which carpets the land with greenish or olive gray. The following morning a mother lark was seen gathering insects and holding them in her bill a sure sign of fledglings in the near neighborhood. I decided to watch her, and, if possible, find her bantlings. It required not a little patience, for she was wary and the sun poured down a flood of almost blistering heat. This way and that she scurried over the ground, now picking up an insect and adding it to the store already in her bill, and now standing almost erect to eye me narrowly and with some suspicion. At length she seemed to settle down for a moment upon a particular spot, and when I looked again with my glass, her beak was empty. I examined every inch of ground, as I thought, in the neighborhood of the place where she had stopped, but could find neither nest nor nestlings.

Again I turned my attention to the mother bird, which meanwhile had gathered another bunch of insects and was hopping about with them through the croppy grass, now and then adding to her accumulation until her mouth was full. For a long time she zigzagged about, going by provoking fits and starts. At length fortune favored me, for through my levelled glass I suddenly caught sight of a small, grayish-looking ball hopping and tumbling from a cactus clump toward the mother bird, who jabbed the contents of her bill into a small, open mouth. I followed a bee-line to the spot, and actually had to scan the ground sharply for a few moments before I could distinguish the youngster from its surroundings, for it had squatted flat, its gray and white plumage harmonizing perfectly with the grayish desert grass.

It was a dear little thing, and did not try to escape, although I took it up in my hand and stroked its downy back again and again. Sometimes it closed its eyes as if it were sleepy. When I placed it on the ground, it hopped away a few inches, and by accident punctured the fleshy corner of its mouth with a sharp cactus thorn, and had to jerk itself loose, bringing the blood from the lacerated part. Meanwhile the mother lark went calmly about her household duties, merely keeping a watchful eye on the human meddler, and making no outcry when she saw her infant in my possession. I may have been persona non grata, but, if so, she did not express her feeling. This was the youngest horned lark seen by me in my rambles on the plains.

Perhaps the reader will care to know something about the winter habits of these birds. They do not spend the season of cold and storm in the mountains, not even those that breed there, for the snow is very deep and the tempests especially fierce. Many of them, however, remain in the foothills and on the mesas and plains, where they find plenty of seeds and berries for their sustenance, unless the weather chances to be unusually severe. One winter, not long ago, the snow continued to lie much longer than usual, cutting off the natural food supply of the larks. What regimen did they adopt in that exigency? They simply went to town. Many of the kindly disposed citizens of Colorado Springs scattered crumbs and millet seeds on the streets and lawns, and of this supply the little visitors ate greedily, becoming quite tame. As soon, however, as the snow disappeared they took their departure, not even stopping to say thanks or adieu; although we may take it for granted that they felt grateful for favors bestowed.

Besides the horned larks, many other birds were found on the plain. Next in abundance were the western meadow-larks. Persons who live in the East and are familiar with the songs of the common meadow-lark, should hear the vocal performances of the westerners. The first time I heard one of them, the minstrelsy was so strange to my ear, so different from anything I had ever heard, I was thrown into an ecstasy of delight, and could not imagine from what kind of bird larynx so quaint a medley could emanate. The song opened with a loud, fine, piercing whistle, and ended with an abrupt staccato gurgle much lower in the musical staff, sounding precisely as if the soloist’s performance had been suddenly choked off by the rising of water in the windpipe. It was something after the order of the purple martin’s melodious sputter, only the tones were richer and fuller and the music better defined, as became a genuine oscine. His sudden and emphatic cessation seemed to indicate that he was in a petulant mood, perhaps impatient with the intruder, or angry with a rival songster.

Afterwards I heard him or, rather, one of his brothers sing arias so surpassingly sweet that I voted him the master minstrel of the western plains, prairies, and meadows. One evening as I was returning to Colorado Springs from a long tramp through one of the canyons of the mountains, a western meadow-lark sat on a small tree and sang six different tunes within the space of a few minutes. Two of them were so exquisite and unique that I involuntarily sprang to my feet with a cry of delight. There he sat in the lengthening shadows of Cheyenne Mountain, the champion phrase-fluter of the irrigated meadow in which he and a number of his comrades had found a summer home.

On the plain, at the time of my visit, the meadow-larks were not quite so tuneful, for here the seasons are somewhat earlier than in the proximity of the mountains, and the time of courtship and incubation was over. Still, they sang enough to prove themselves members of a gifted musical family. Observers in the East will remember the sputtering call of the eastern larks when they are alarmed or their suspicions are aroused. The western larks do not utter alarums of that kind, but a harsh “chack” instead, very similar to the call of the grackles. The nesting habits of the eastern and western species are the same, their domiciles being placed on the ground amid the grass, often prettily arched over in the rear and made snug and neat.

It must not be thought, because my monograph on the western larks is included in this chapter, that they dwell exclusively on the arid plain. No; they revel likewise in the areas of verdure bordering the streams, in the irrigated fields and meadows, and in the watered portions of the upper mountain parks.

An interesting question is the following: Are the eastern and western meadow-larks distinct species, or only varieties somewhat specialized by differences of locality and environment? It is a problem over which the scientific professors have had not a little disputation. My own opinion is that they are distinct species and do not cohabit, and the conviction is based on some special investigations, though not of the kind that are made with the birds in hand. It has been my privilege to study both forms in the field. In the first place, their vocal exhibitions are very different, so much so as to indicate a marked diversity in the organic structure of their larynxes. Much as I have listened to their minstrelsy, I have never known one kind to borrow from the musical repertory of the other. True, there are strains in the arias of the westerners that closely resemble the clear, liquid whistle of the eastern larks, but they occur right in the midst of the song and are part and parcel of it, and therefore afford no evidence of mimicry or amalgamation. Even the trills of the grassfinch and the song-sparrow have points of similarity; does that prove that they borrow from each other, or that espousals sometimes occur between the two species?

The habiliments of the two forms of larks are more divergent than would appear at first blush. Above, the coloration of neglecta (the western) is paler and grayer than that of magna, the black markings being less conspicuous, and those on the tertials and middle tail-feathers being arranged in narrow, isolated bars, and not connected along the shaft. While the flanks and under tail-coverts of magna are distinctly washed with buff, those of neglecta are white, very faintly tinged with buff, if at all. The yellow of the throat of the eastern form does not spread out laterally over the malar region, as does that of the western lark. All of which tends to prove that the two forms are distinct.

Early in the spring of 1901 the writer took a trip to Oklahoma in the interest of bird-study, and found both kinds of meadow-larks extremely abundant and lavish of their melodies on the fertile prairies. He decided to carry on a little original investigation in the field of inquiry now under discussion. One day, in a draw of the prairie, he noticed a western meadow-lark which was unusually lyrical, having the skill of a past-master in the art of trilling and gurgling and fluting. Again and again I went to the place, on the same day and on different days, and invariably found the westerner there, perching on the fence or a weed-stem, and greeting me with his exultant lays. But, mark: no eastern lark ever intruded on his preserve. In other and more distant parts of the broad field the easterners were blowing their piccolos, but they did not encroach on the domain of the lyrical westerner, who, with his mate now on her nest in the grass had evidently jumped his claim and held it with a high hand. In many other places in Oklahoma and Kansas where both species dwell, I have noticed the same interesting fact that in the breeding season each form selects a special precinct, into which the other form does not intrude. They perhaps put up some kind of trespass sign. These observations have all but convinced me that S. magna and S. neglecta are distinct species, and avoid getting mixed up in their family affairs.

Nor is that all. While both forms dwell on the vast prairies of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, yet, as you travel eastward, the western larks gradually diminish in number until at length they entirely disappear; whereas, if you journey westward, the precise opposite occurs. I have never heard neglecta east of the Missouri River, nor magna on the plains of Colorado. Therefore the conclusion is almost forced upon the observer that there are structural and organic differences between the two forms.

After the foregoing deductions had been reached, the writer bethought him of consulting Ridgway’s Manual on the subject, and was gratified to find his views corroborated by a footnote answering to an asterisk affixed to the name of the western lark:

“Without much doubt a distinct species. The occurrence of both S. neglecta and S. magna together in many portions of the Mississippi Valley, each in its typical style (the ranges of the two overlapping, in fact, for a distance of several hundred miles), taken together with the excessive rarity of intermediate specimens and the universally attested radical difference in their notes, are facts wholly incompatible with the theory of their being merely geographical races of the same species.”

This has been a long excursus, and we must get back to our jaunt on the plain. While I was engaged in watching the birds already named, my ear was greeted by a loud, clear, bell-like call; and, on looking in the direction from which it came, I observed a bird hovering over a ploughed field not far away, and then descending with graceful, poising flight to the ground. It proved to be the Arkansas flycatcher, a large, elegant bird that is restricted to the West. I had never seen this species. Nothing like him is known in the East, the crested flycatcher being most nearly a copy of him, although the manners of the two birds are quite unlike. The body of the western bird is as large as that of the robin, and he must be considerably longer from tip of beak to tip of tail. He is a fine-looking fellow, presenting a handsome picture as he stands on a weed-stalk or a fence-post, his yellow jacket gleaming in the sun. He is the possessor of a clear, musical voice, and if he had the vocal organs of some of the oscines, he certainly would be one of the best feathered lyrists of America. Unfortunately he is able to do nothing but chirp and chatter, although he puts not a little music into his simple vocal exercises.

It was surprising to note on how slender a weed-stalk so large a bird was able to perch. There being few trees and fences in this region, he has doubtless gained expertness through practice in the art of securing a foot-hold on the tops of the weed-stems. Some of the weeds on which he stood with perfect ease and grace were extremely lithe and flexible and almost devoid of branches.

But what was the cause of this particular bird’s intense solicitude? It was obvious there was a nest in the neighborhood. As I sought in the grass and weed-clumps, he uttered his piercing calls of protest and circled and hovered overhead like a red-winged blackbird. Suddenly the thought occurred to me that the flycatchers of my acquaintance do not nest on the ground, but on trees. I looked around, and, sure enough, in the shallow hollow below me stood a solitary willow tree not more than fifteen or twenty feet high, the only tree to be seen within a mile. And that lone tree on the plain was occupied by the flycatcher and his mate for a nesting place. In a crotch the gray cottage was set, containing three callow babies and one beautifully mottled egg.

In another fork of the same small tree a pair of kingbirds the same species as our well-known eastern bee-martíns had built their nest, in the downy cup of which lay four eggs similarly decorated with brown spots. The birds now all circled overhead and joined in an earnest plea with me not to destroy their homes and little ones, and I hurriedly climbed down from the tree to relieve their agitation, stopping only a moment to examine the twine plaited into the felted nests of the kingbirds. The willow sapling contained also the nest of a turtle dove.

“If there are three nests in this small tree, there may be a large number in the cluster of trees beyond the swell about a mile away,” I mused, and forthwith made haste to go to the place indicated. I was not disappointed. Had the effort been made, I am sure two score of nests might have been found in these trees, for they were liberally decorated with bird cots and hammocks. Most of these were kingbirds’ and Arkansas flycatchers’ nests, but there were others as well. On one small limb there were four of the dangling nests of Bullock’s orioles, one of them fresh, the rest more or less weather beaten, proving that this bird had been rearing broods here for a number of seasons.

Whose song was this ringing from one of the larger trees a little farther down the glade? I could scarcely believe the testimony of my ears and eyes, yet there could be no mistake it was the vivacious mimicry of the mocking-bird, which had travelled far across the plain to this solitary clump of trees to find singing perches and a site for his nests. He piped his musical miscellany with as much good-cheer as if he were dwelling in the neighborhood of some embowered cottage in Dixie-land. In suitable localities on the plains of Colorado the mockers were found to be quite plentiful, but none were seen among the mountains.

A network of twigs and vines in one of the small willows afforded a support and partial covert for the nest of a pair of white-rumped shrikes. It contained six thickly speckled eggs, and was the first nest of this species I had ever found. The same hollow, if so shallow a dip in the plain can be called a hollow, was selected as the home of several pairs of red-winged and Brewer’s blackbirds, which built their grassy cots in the low bushes of a slightly boggy spot, where a feeble spring oozed from the ground. It was a special pleasure to find a green-tailed towhee in the copse of the draw, for I had supposed that he always hugged close to the steep mountain sides.

A walk before breakfast the next morning added several more avian species to my roll. To my surprise, a pair of mountain bluebirds had chosen the village for their summer residence, and were building a nest in the coupler of a freight car standing on a side track. The domicile was almost completed, and I could not help feeling sorry for the pretty, innocent couple, at the thought that the car would soon be rolling hundreds of miles away, and all their loving toil would go for naught. Bluebirds had previously been seen at the timber-line among the mountains, and here was a pair forty miles out on the plain quite a range for this species, both longitudinally and vertically.

During the forenoon the following birds were observed: A family of juvenile Arkansas flycatchers, which were being fed by their parents; a half-dozen or more western grassfinches, trilling the same pensive tunes as their eastern half-brothers; a small, long-tailed sparrow, which I could not identify at the time, but which I now feel certain was Lincoln’s sparrow; these, with a large marsh-harrier and a colony of cliff-swallows, completed my bird catalogue at this place. It may not be amiss to add that several jack-rabbits went skipping over the swells; that many families of prairie dogs were visited, and that a coyotte galloped lightly across the plain, stopping and looking back occasionally to see whether he were being pursued.

It was no difficult task to study the birds on the plain. Having few hiding-places in a locality almost destitute of trees and bushes, where even the grass was too short to afford a covert, they naturally felt little fear of man, and hence were easily approached. Their cousins residing in the mountains were, as a rule, provokingly wary. The number of birds that had pre-empted homesteads on the treeless wastes was indeed a gratifying surprise, and I went back to the mountains refreshed by the pleasant change my brief excursion upon the plains had afforded me.