Read A NOTABLE QUARTETTE of Birds of the Rockies , free online book, by Leander Sylvester Keyser, on ReadCentral.com.

On the plains of Colorado there dwells a feathered choralist that deserves a place in American bird literature, and the day will perhaps come when his merits will have due recognition, and then he shall have not only a monograph, but also an ode all to himself.

The bird to which I refer is called the lark bunting in plain English, or, in scientific terms, Calamospiza melanocorys. The male is a trig and handsome fellow, giving you the impression of a well-dressed gentleman in his Sunday suit of black, “with more or less of a slaty cast,” as Ridgway puts it, the middle and greater wing-coverts bearing a conspicuous white patch which is both a diagnostic marking and a real ornament. In flight this patch imparts to the wing a filmy, almost semi-transparent, aspect. The bunting is about the size of the eastern bobolink, and bears some resemblance to that bird; but bobolink he is not, although sometimes mistaken for one, and even called by that name in Colorado. The fact is, those wise men, the systematists, have decided that the bobolink belongs to the family Icteridae, which includes, among others, the blackbirds and orioles, while the lark bunting occupies a genus all by himself in the family Fringillidae that is, the family of finches, sparrows, grosbeaks, and towhees. Therefore, the two birds can scarcely be called second cousins. The bunting has no white or buff on his upper parts.

Sitting on a sunny slope one June evening, I surrendered myself to the spell of the bunting, and endeavored to make an analysis of his minstrelsy. First, it must be said that he is as fond as the bobolink of rehearsing his arias on the wing, and that is, perhaps, the chief reason for his having been mistaken for that bird by careless observers. Probably the major part of his solos are recited in flight, although he can sit quietly on a weed-stalk or a fence-post and sing as sweetly, if not as ecstatically, as if he were curveting in the air. During this aerial performance he hovers gracefully, bending his wings downward, after the bobolink’s manner, as if he were caressing the earth beneath him. However, a striking difference between his intermittent song-flights and those of the bobolink is to be noted. The latter usually rises in the air, soars around in a curve, and returns to the perch from which he started, or to one near by, describing something of an ellipse. The lark bunting generally rises obliquely to a certain point, then descends at about the same angle to another perch opposite the starting-point, describing what might be called the upper sides of an isosceles triangle, the base being a line near the ground, connecting the perch from which he rose and the one on which he alighted. I do not mean to say that our bunting never circles, but simply that such is not his ordinary habit, while sweeping in a circle or ellipse is the favorite pastime of the eastern bobolink. The ascent of neither bird is very high. They are far from deserving the name of skylarks.

We must give a detailed account of the bunting’s song. Whatever others may think of him, I have come under the spell of his lyrical genius. True, his voice has not the loud, metallic ring, nor his chanson the medley-like, happy-go-lucky execution, that marks the musical performances of the bobolink; but his song is more mellow, rhythmic, theme-like; for he has a distinct tune to sing, and sing it he will. In fine, his song is of a different order from that of the bobolink, and, therefore, the comparison need be carried no further.

As one of these minstrels sat on a flowering weed and gave himself up to a lyrical transport, I made careful notes, and now give the substance of my elaborate entries. The song, which is intermittent, opens with three prolonged notes running high in the scale, and is succeeded by a quaint, rattling trill of an indescribable character, not without musical effect, which is followed by three double-toned long notes quite different from the opening phrases; then the whole performance is closed by an exceedingly high and fine run like an insect’s hum so fine, indeed, that the auditor must be near at hand to notice it at all. Sometimes the latter half of the score, including the second triad of long notes, is repeated before the soloist stops to take breath. It will be seen that the regular song consists of four distinct phrases, two triads and two trills. About one-third of the songs are opened in a little lower key than the rest, the remainder being correspondingly mellowed. The opening syllables, and, indeed, some other parts of the melody as well, are very like certain strains of the song-sparrow, both in execution and in quality of tone; and thus even the experienced ornithologist may sometimes be led astray. When the bunting sails into the air, he rehearses the song just described, only he is very likely to prolong it by repeating the various parts, though I think he seldom, if ever, throws them together in a hodge-podge. He seems to follow a system in his recitals, varied as many of them are. As to his voice, it is of superb timbre.

Another characteristic noted was that the buntings do not throw back their heads while singing, after the manner of the sparrows, but stretch their necks forward, and at no time do they open their mouths widely. As a rule, or at least very often, when flying, they do not begin their songs until they have almost reached the apex of their triangle; then the song begins, and it continues over the angle and down the incline until another perch is settled upon. What Lowell says of “bobolinkum” is just as true of bunting “He runs down, a brook o’ laughter, thru the air.” As the sun went down behind the snow-clad mountains, a half dozen or more of the buntings rolled up the full tide of song, and I left them to their vespers and trudged back to the village, satisfied with the acquirements of this red-letter day in my ornithological journey.

However, one afternoon’s study of such charming birds was not enough to satisfy my curiosity, for no females had been seen and no nests discovered. About ten days later, more attention was given them. In a meadow not far from the hamlet of Arvada, between Denver and the mountains, I found a colony of buntings one morning, swinging in the air and furnishing their full quota of the matutinal concert, in which many other birds had a leading part, among them being western meadow-larks, western robins, Bullock’s orioles, American and Arkansas goldfinches, mountain song-sparrows, lazuli finches, spurred towhees, black-headed grosbeaks, summer warblers, western Maryland yellow-throats, and Townsend’s solitaires. It has seldom been my fortune to listen to a finer pot-pourri of avian music.

At first only male buntings were seen. Surely, I thought, there must be females in the neighborhood, for when male birds are singing so lustily about a place, their spouses are usually sitting quietly on nests somewhere in bush or tree or grass. I hunted long for a nest, trudging about over the meadow, examining many a grass-tuft and weed-clump, hoping to flush a female and discover her secret; but my quest was vain. It is strange how difficult it is to find nests in Colorado, either on the plains or in the mountains. The birds seem to be adepts in the fine arts of concealment and secret-keeping. Presently several females were seen flying off over the fields and returning, obviously to feed their young. There was now some colorable prospect of finding a nest. A mother bird appeared with a worm in her bill, and you may rely upon it I did not permit her to slip from my sight until I saw her drop to the ground, hop about stealthily for a few moments, then disappear, and presently fly up minus the worm. Scarcely daring to breathe, I followed a direct course to the weed-clump from which she had risen. And there was a nest, sure enough my first lark bunting’s set in a shallow pit of the ground, prettily concealed and partly roofed over by the flat and spreading weed-stalk. Four half-fledged youngsters lay panting in the little cradle, the day being very warm. I lifted one of them from the nest, and held it in my hand for a minute or two, and even touched it with my lips, my first view of lark-bunting babies being something of an event I had almost said an epoch in my experience. Replacing the youngster in its crib, I stepped back a short distance and watched the mother bird returning with another mouthful of “goodies,” and feeding her bantlings four. She was not very shy, and simply uttered a fine chirp when I went too close to her nestlings, while her gallant consort did not even chirp, but tried to divert my attention by repeatedly curveting in the air and singing his choicest measures. This was the only bunting’s nest I found, although I made long and diligent search for others, as you may well believe when I state that a half day was spent in gathering the facts recorded in the last two paragraphs.

In the afternoon I watched a female in another field for a long time, but she was too wary to betray her secret. In this case the male, instead of beguiling me with song, flitted about and mingled his fine chirps with those of his anxious mate. On my way across the plains, some two weeks later, I discovered that the lark buntings do not dwell only in well-watered meadows, but also in the most arid localities. Still, I am inclined to think they do not build their nests far from refreshing streams. When the breeding season is over, they range far and wide over the plains in search of insects that are to their taste. From the car window many of them were observed all along the way to a distance of over sixty miles east of Denver. At that time the males, females, and young were moving from place to place, mostly in scattering flocks, the breeding season being past. A problem that puzzled me a little was where they obtain water for drinking and bathing purposes, but no doubt such blithe and active birds are able to “look out for number one.”

The second member of our lyrical quartette is the elegant green-tailed towhee, known scientifically as Pipilo chlorurus. The pretty green-tails are quite wary about divulging their domestic secrets, and for a time I was almost in despair of finding even one of their nests. In vain I explored with exhausting toil many a steep mountain side, examining every bush and beating every copse within a radius of many rods.

My purpose was to flush the female from her nest, a plan that succeeds with many birds; but in this instance I was disappointed. It is possible that, when an intruder appears in their nesting haunts, the males, which are ever on the lookout, call their spouses from the nests, and then “snap their fingers,” so to speak, at the puzzled searcher.

However, by watching the mother birds carrying worms in their bills I succeeded in finding two nests. The first was at Breckenridge, and, curiously enough, in a vacant lot at the border of the town, not on a steep slope, but on a level spot near the bank of Blue River. The mother bird had slyly crept to her nest while I watched, and remained firmly seated until I bent directly over her, when she fluttered away, trailing a few feet to draw my attention to herself. It was a cosey nest site in a low, thick bush, beneath a rusty but well-preserved piece of sheet-iron which made a slant roof over the cradle. It contained three callow bantlings, which innocently opened their carmine-lined mouths when I stirred the leaves above them. It seemed to be an odd location for the nest of a bird that had always appeared so wild and shy. The altitude of the place is nine thousand five hundred and twenty feet.

My second green-tail’s nest was in South Platte Canyon, near a station called Chaseville, its elevation being about eight thousand five hundred feet. I was walking along the dusty wagon road winding about the base of the mountain, when a little bird with a worm in her bill flitted up the steep bank a short distance and disappeared among the bushes. The tidbit in her bill gave me a clew to the situation; so I scrambled up the steep place, and presently espied a nest in a bush, about a foot and a half from the ground. As had been anticipated, it turned out to be a green-tailed towhee’s domicile, as was proved by the presence and uneasy chirping of a pair of those birds. While the nest at Breckenridge was set on the ground, this one was placed on the twigs of thick bushes, showing that these birds, like their eastern relatives, are fond of diversity in selecting nesting places.

This nest contained four bantlings, already well fledged. My notes say that their mouths were yellow-lined, and that the fleshy growths at the corners of their bills were yellow. Does the lining of the juvenile green-tail’s mouth change from red to yellow as he advances in age? My notes certainly declare that the nestlings at Breckenridge had carmine-lined mouths. For the present I cannot settle the question either affirmatively or negatively.

Here I perpetrated a trick which I have ever since regretted. The temptation to hold a baby green-tail in my hand and examine it closely was so strong that, as carefully as I could, I drew one from its grassy crib and held it in my palm, noting the green tinting already beginning to show on its wings and back. Its tail was still too stubby to display the ornamentation that gives the species its popular name. So much was learned, but at the expense of the little family’s peace of mind. As I held the bantling in my hand, the frightened mamma uttered a series of pitiful calls that were new to my ears, consisting of two notes in a low, complaining tone; it was more of an entreaty than a protest. Afterwards I heard the green-tails also give voice to a fine chirp almost like that of a chipping sparrow.

The mother’s call seemed to strike terror to the hearts of her infant brood, for, as I attempted to put the baby back into its crib, all four youngsters set up a loud to-do, and sprang, panic stricken, over the rim, tumbling, fluttering, and falling through the network of twigs to the ground, a couple of them rolling a few feet down the dusty bank. Again and again I caught them and put them back into the nest, but they would not remain there, so I was compelled to leave them scrambling about among the bushes and rocks. I felt like a buccaneer, a veritable Captain Kidd. My sincere hope is that none of the birdkins came to grief on account of their premature flight from the nest. The next morning old and young were chirping about the place as I passed, and I hurried away, feeling sad that science and sentiment must sometimes come into conflict.

One day in the latter part of June, as I was climbing the steep side of a mesa in the neighborhood of Golden, my ear was greeted by a new style of bird music, which came lilting sweetly down to me from the height. It had a kind of wild, challenging ring about it, as if the singer were daring me to venture upon his demesne at my peril. A hard climb brought me at length within range of the little performer, who was blowing his Huon’s horn from the pointed top of a large stone on the mesa’s side. My field-glass was soon fixed upon him, revealing a little bird with a long beak, decurved at the end, a grayish-brown coat quite thickly barred and mottled on the wings and tail, and a vest of warm white finely sprinkled with a dusky gray. A queer, shy, timid little thing he was. Afterwards I met him often, but never succeeded in gaining his confidence or winning a single concession from him. He was the rock wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) a species that is unknown east of the Great Plains, one well deserving a place in literature.

I was especially impressed with his peculiar style of minstrelsy, so different from anything I had ever heard in the bird realm. While the song was characterized by much variety, it usually opened with two or three loud, clear syllables, somewhat prolonged, sounding, as has been said, like a challenge, followed by a peculiar bubbling trill that seemed fairly to roll from the piper’s tongue. Early one morning a few days later I heard a brilliant vocalist descanting from the top of a pump in a wide field among the foothills. How wildly his tones rang out on the crisp morning air! I seemed to be suddenly transported to another part of the world, his style of music was so new, so foreign to my ear. My pencilled notes say of this particular minstrel: “Very musical great variety of notes clear, loud, ringing several runs slightly like Carolina’s others suggest Bewick’s but most of them sui generis.”

Let us return to the first rock wren I saw. He was exceedingly shy, scurrying off to a more distant perch another stone as I approached. Sometimes he would run down among the bushes and rocks like a mouse, then glide to the top of another stone, and fling his pert little aria at the intruder. It was interesting to note that he most frequently selected for a singing perch the top of a high, pointed rock where he could command a view of his surroundings and pipe a note of warning to his mate at the approach of a supposed enemy. Almost every conspicuous rock on the acclivity bore evidence of having been used as a lookout by the little sentinel.

This wren is well named, for his home is among the rocks, in the crannies and niches of which his mate hides her nest so effectually that you must look long for it, and even after the most painstaking search you may not be able to find it. The little husband helps to lead you astray. He will leap upon a rock and send forth his bell-like peal, as if he were saying, “Right here, right here, here is our nest!” but when you go to the spot, he flits off to another rock and sounds the same challenge. And so you can form no idea of the nest site. My nearest approach to finding a nest was among the rocks and cliffs on the summit of a mountain a few miles from Golden, where an adult bird was seen to feed a youngster that had already flown from the nursery. It was interesting to know that the rock wrens breed at so high an altitude. However, they are not an alpine species, none having been seen by the writer over eight thousand feet above sea-level, although they have been known to ascend to an altitude of twelve thousand feet.

The fourth member of our feathered quartette was the oddest of all. On the thirtieth of June my companion and I were riding slowly down the mountain side a few miles below Gray’s Peak, which we had scaled two days before. My ear was struck by a flicker’s call above us, so I dismounted from my burro, and began to clamber up the hillside. Presently I heard a song that seemed one moment to be near at hand, the next far away, now to the right, now to the left, and anon directly above me. To my ear it was a new kind of bird minstrelsy. I climbed higher and higher, and yet the song seemed to be no nearer. It had a grosbeak-like quality, I fancied, and I hoped to find either the pine or the evening grosbeak, for both of which I had been making anxious search. The shifting of the song from point to point struck me as odd, and it was very mystifying.

Higher and higher I climbed, the mountain side being so steep that my breath came in gasps, and I was often compelled to throw myself on the ground to recover strength. At length a bird darted out from the pines several hundred feet above me, rose high into the air, circled and swung this way and that for a long time, breaking at intervals into a song which sifted down to me faintly through the blue distance. How long it remained on the wing I do not know, but it was too long for my eyes to endure the strain of watching it. Through my glass a large part of the wings showed white or yellowish-white, and seemed to be almost translucent in the blaze of the sunlight. What could this wonderful haunter of the sky be? It was scarcely possible that so roly-poly a bird as a grosbeak could perform so marvellous an exploit on the wing.

I never worked harder to earn my salary than I did to climb that steep and rugged mountain side; but at last I reached and penetrated the zone of pines, and finally, in an area covered with dead timber, standing and fallen, two feathered strangers sprang in sight, now flitting among the lower branches and now sweeping to the ground. They were not grosbeaks, that was sure; their bills were quite slender, their bodies lithe and graceful, and their tails of well-proportioned length. Save in color, they presented a decidedly thrush-like appearance, and their manners were also thrush-like.

Indeed, the colors and markings puzzled me not a little. The upper parts were brownish-gray of various shades, the wings and tail for the most part dusky, the wing-coverts, tertials, and some of the quills bordered and tipped with white, also the tail. The white of both wings and tail became quite conspicuous when they were spread. This was the feathered conundrum that flitted about before me. The birds were about the size of the hermit thrushes, but lither and suppler. They ambled about gracefully, and did not seem to be very shy, and presently one of them broke into a song the song that I had previously heard, only it was loud and ringing and well articulated, now that I was near the singer. Again and again they lifted their rich voices in song. When they wandered a little distance from each other, they called in affectionate tones, giving their “All’s well.”

Then one of them, no doubt the male, darted from a pine branch obliquely into the air, and mounted up and up and up, in a series of graceful leaps, until he was a mere speck against the blue dome, gyrating to and fro in zigzag lines, or wheeling in graceful circles, his song dribbling faintly down to me at frequent intervals. A thing of buoyancy and grace, more angel than bird, that wonderful winged creature floated about in the cerulean sky; how long I do not know, whether five minutes, or ten, or twenty, but so long that at last I flung myself upon my back and watched him until my eyes ached. He kept his wings in constant motion, the white portions making them appear filmy as the sun shone upon them. Suddenly he bent his head, partly folded his wings, and swept down almost vertically like an arrow, alighting safe somewhere among the pines. I have seen other birds performing aerial evolutions accompanied with song, but have never known one to continue so long on the wing.

What was this wonderful bird? It was Townsend’s solitaire (Myadestes townsendii) a bird which is peculiar to the West, especially to the Rocky Mountains, and which belongs to the same family as the thrushes and bluebirds. No literature in my possession contains any reference to this bird’s astonishing aerial flight and song, and I cannot help wondering whether other bird-students have witnessed the interesting exploit.

Subsequently I found a pair of solitaires on the plains near Arvada. The male was a powerful singer. Many of his outbursts were worthy of the mocking-bird, to some of whose runs they bore a close resemblance. He sang almost incessantly during the half day I spent in the neighborhood, my presence seeming to inspire him to the most prodigious lyrical efforts of which he was master. Sometimes he would sit on the top of a bush or a fence-post, but his favorite perches were several ridges of sand and gravel. His flight was the picture of grace, and he had a habit of lifting his wings, now one, now the other, and often both, after the manner of the mocking-bird on a chimney-top. He and his mate did not utter a chirp, but made a great to-do by singing, and finally I discovered that all the fuss was not about a nest, but about a hulking youngster that had outgrown his kilts and looked very like a brown thrasher. Neither of this second pair of solitaires performed any evolutions in the upper air; nor did another pair that I found far up a snow-clad mountain near Breckenridge, on the other side of the Continental Divide.

The scientific status of this unique bird is interesting. He is a species of the genus Myadestes, which belongs to the family Turdidae, including the thrushes, stone-chats, and bluebirds, as well as the solitaires. He is therefore not a thrush, but is closely related to the genus Turdus, occupying the same relative position in the avi-faunal system. According to Doctor Coues the genus includes about twenty species, only one of which the one just described is native to the United States, the rest being found in the West Indies and Central and South America. Formerly the solitaires comprised a subfamily among the chatterers, but a later and more scientific classification places them in a genus under the head of Turdidae.

The range of Townsend’s solitaire is from the plains of Colorado to the Pacific coast and north to British Columbia. According to Robert Ridgway, he has even been met with “casually” in Illinois. In Colorado many of the solitaires are permanent residents in the mountains, remaining there throughout the winter. Some of them, however, visit the plains during the fall, winter, and spring. In the winter they may be found from the lower valleys to an elevation of ten thousand feet, while they are known to breed as high as twelve thousand feet. The nests are placed on the ground among rocks, fallen branches and logs, and are loosely constructed of sticks and grass. From three to six eggs compose a set, the ground color being white, speckled with reddish brown. Doctor Coues says the birds feed on insects and berries, and are “capable of musical expression in an exalted degree.” With this verdict the writer is in full accord.