Read CHAPTER III of The Bird Study Book , free online book, by Thomas Gilbert Pearson, on


It is a privilege to be so situated that one may watch from day to day the occurrences about a wild bird’s nest. Here feathered life reaches its greatest heights of emotion, and comedies and threatened tragedies are of daily occurrence. The people we know best are those whom we have seen at their play and at their work, in moments of elation and doubt, and in times of great happiness and dire distress. And so it is that he who has followed the activities of a pair of birds through all the joys and anxieties of nest building, brooding, and of caring for the young, may well lay claim to a close acquaintanceship with them.

In watching a nest one will learn, for example, that with most of our small birds both parents engage in the pleasant duty of feeding the young, at times shielding the little ones from the hot rays of the sun with their half-extended wings, and now and then driving away intruders. The common passerine birds also attend carefully to the sanitation of the nest and remove the feces, which is inclosed in a membrane and is thus easily carried in the bill. This is usually dropped several yards away. If allowed to accumulate on the ground beneath the nest it might attract the attention of some prowling enemy and lead to a disastrous discovery.

Parental Care of Young. There is a wide difference in the relative helplessness of nesting birds, and a corresponding difference in the methods of parental care. The young of praecocial birds are able to run or swim with their parents almost as soon as hatched, for they not only have the strength to do this, but their bodies being covered with down they are protected from the sun or cold. Examples of such birds are the Quail, Grouse, Sandpipers, Plovers, and Ducks. The young of these and allied species are able from the beginning to pick up their food, and they quickly learn from the example of their parents what is desirable. Soon they are able to shift for themselves, although one or both of the parents continue to attend them until grown.

With the altricial birds the young are hatched in an absolutely helpless condition, being both blind and naked, and it is necessary that they be fed by the parents, not only while occupying the nest, but also for several weeks afterward. To this group belong most of the small birds we are accustomed to see about the house. When newly born the food they receive is first digested in the crop or the stomach of the parent from which it is regurgitated into the mouth of the young. Flickers, Hummingbirds, Doves, and some others continue to feed their young in this manner, but usually the method soon gives way to that, more commonly observed, of simply supplying soft-bodied insects which have been captured and killed but not eaten.

In the case of Pelicans, Cormorants, and Ibises, the young thrust their bills far down the throats of the parents to procure the regurgitated food. From this custom the ancients may have got the idea that Pelicans feed their young with their own life blood. The suggestion still persists, and on the seal of one of our large life insurance companies of America a Pelican and her young are represented accompanied with the motto: “I live and die for those I love.” The great seal of the State of Louisiana uses a similar picture without the motto.

Hawks and Owls tear their prey to pieces and on this the young feed at infrequent intervals. Sometimes several hours pass between the visits of the food-laden parents, but the supply is usually adequate when at length it arrives.

Sharing the Labours. Most young birds, however, are fed with great frequency. For more than an hour one day the writer watched a pair of Georgia Mockingbirds feeding their young. The one that appeared to be the female visited the nest with food on an average once every two minutes, and the male made a similar trip about once in twelve minutes. He could have done better had he not spent so much time flying aimlessly about and scolding imaginary enemies.

Some birds have what seem to be very curious habits at the nesting time. The jealous-hearted Hornbill of the Old World never trusts his spouse to wander away from the nest after her duties there once begin. In order that he may always know just where she is he quite willingly undertakes to supply her with all her food during the days while the incubation of the eggs is going forward. With mud he daubs up the entrance to the hollow in the tree where she is sitting, leaving only a small opening through which food may be passed. When the mud has dried it becomes very hard and the patient mate is an absolute prisoner until the day comes when she passes the word to her lord that the eggs have hatched, and he sets her free.

In our own western country there dwells a bird known as the Phalarope, the females of which enjoy an immunity from domestic duties that might cause the lady Hornbill many an envious sigh did she know of the freedom of her American sister.

Mrs. Phalarope has no intention of being shut in with her eggs for a month while her mate goes roaming at large about the country, nor has she any idea of playing the part of the Georgia Mockingbird and bringing five-sixths of the food which the young require. Her method of procedure is first to permit her mate to search for a suitable nesting site. When some sheltered spot in the ground, quite to her liking, has been found she deposits the eggs and goes her way. Little companies of female Phalaropes may be seen at this time of the year frequenting the ponds and sloughs they inhabit. The dutiful and well-trained males are all at home, where they are responsible for the entire task of caring for, and incubating, the eggs.

Length of Mated Life. The length of time which birds remain mated is a question often asked but seldom answered satisfactorily. The truth of the matter is that not much is known about the subject. Apparently a great many birds return to the same yard and even to the same tree to build their nest year after year. I say apparently because such birds are seldom marked in such a way as to enable one to be positive that they are the identical individuals which came the year before. It is probably somewhere near the truth to say that most small birds usually choose the same mates year after year if both survive the dangers of winter and in spring meet again on their old trysting grounds. It is safe to assert that as a rule birds retain the same mates throughout the breeding season if misfortune does not befall one of them. During the fall and winter months, when the impulses governing domestic duties are dormant, birds pay little or no attention to their mates.

A Much-married Bluebird. One spring a pair of Bluebirds came into our yard, and to the accompaniment of much cheerful bird conversation, in the form of whistles, twitters, chirps, and snatches of song, began hunting eagerly for some place to locate a nest. Out in the woodshed I found a box, perhaps six inches square and twice as long. Cutting a small entrance hole on one side, I fastened the box seven or eight feet from the ground on the side of a young tree. The newcomers immediately took possession and began carrying dry grasses into their adopted sanctuary. Several days elapsed and then one morning, while standing on the back of a garden settee and peeping into the hole, I discovered that a pale-blue egg had been laid. When the nest contained four of these little beauties incubation began.

One rainy night while the mother bird was on duty she must have heard the scratching of claws on the box outside. A moment later two yellow eyes blazed at the entrance and a long arm reached into the nest. The next morning on the grass beneath the window we found her wing tips and many other fragments of her plumage. All that day the distressed mate flew about the lawn and called continually. He seemed to gather but little food and the evidence of his suffering was pitiful. In fact, he stirred our feelings to such a pitch we at length closed the windows to shut out the sounds of his mournful calls.

Upon looking out next morning, the first note we heard was that of a Bluebird, but his voice seemed to have lost some of its sorrow. Walking around the corner of the house, I found him sitting on a limb near the box. Two feet from him sat another Bluebird a female. At eleven o’clock we saw her clinging to the side of the box and looking inquiringly into the entrance hole. We knew what this meant; incidentally we knew, too, that being a ladybird she would have no use for the nest and eggs that had been placed there by another, so I cleaned out the box.

We were anxious that the cat should have no chance to destroy our little friend’s second wife, so the box was suspended from a limb by a wire over two feet in length. Five eggs were laid and the mother bird began sitting. Then one night the cat found out what was happening. How she ever succeeded in her undertaking, I know not. She must have started by climbing the tree and creeping out on the limb. I have never seen a cat slide down a wire; nevertheless the next morning the box was tenantless and the feathers of the second female were scattered over the lawn. This time the Bluebird’s heart seemed really broken and his cries of lamentation filled the grove. Eleven days now passed before a third soul-mate came to share his fortunes. We could afford to take no more risks. On a sunny hillside in the garden the cat was buried, and a few weeks later four little Bluebirds left the lawn on their own wings.

The Faithful Canada Geese. Along the Atlantic Coast, where the shooting of wildfowl is an important industry with many people, the raising of Canada Geese is a common custom. Not only do these great birds serve as food, but they play the part of decoys when their owners go ahunting. They are genuine Wild Geese, some of them having been wounded and captured from the great flocks which frequent these waters during the colder months of the year. They retain their wild characteristics with great tenacity and it is necessary to keep them pinioned to prevent their flying away to the North when in spring the spirit of migration calls aloud to all the bird world.

The conduct of these decoys indicates that the losing of a mate is a much more serious matter among them than with the Bluebird and others of our small feathered friends. When a gander has chosen his goose and she has accepted his advances, the pair remain constantly together, summer and winter, as long as they live. If one is killed, many years may elapse before the survivor selects another companion.

In Currituck County, North Carolina, there was not long ago a gander that local tradition said was sixty-two years of age. The first thirty years of his life he remained unmated and for the last thirty-two he has been the proud possessor of a mate from whose side he has never strayed.

These Geese do not mate readily, and a man who has a company of thirty or forty may well be satisfied if six or eight pairs of them are mated. The truth of this statement is proved by the fact that on the local market a single Goose is worth about one dollar, while a pair of mated Geese will readily bring five dollars.

Unmated Birds. A little reflection will make the student realize the fact that out in the fields and woods, in the swamps and on the mountains, on the beaches, as well as far away on the ocean, there are many birds that are not mated. Among them are widows and widowers, heartfree spinsters and pining bachelors. Just what per cent. of the bird life is unmated in any one season it would, of course, be impossible to tell. The information which the writer has gathered by a careful census of a certain species in a given limited territory enabled him to determine that in this particular case only about three-fifths of the individuals are mated any one season.

Polygamy Among Birds. As with mankind, some races have well-developed tendencies toward polygamy. In the warmer regions of the United States there dwells a great, splendid, glossy Blackbird, the Boat-tailed Crackle. The nest of this bird is a wonderfully woven structure of water plants and grasses and is usually built in a bush growing in the water. When you find one nest of the Crackle you are pretty certain to find several other occupied nests in the immediate vicinity. From three to six of these marvellous cradles, with their quiet brown female owners, often appear to be watched over by one shining, iridescent lord Crackle, who may be husband to them all. He guards his own with jealous care. Evidently, too, he desires the whole country to know that he is the most handsome, ferocious bird on the earth; for all day long his hoarse shoutings may be heard, and when he launches into the air, the sound of the ponderous beating of his wings can, on a still day, be heard half a mile away, across the lake.

One of the best-known polygamous birds of North America is the Wild Turkey. Go into any part of the country where this fast-disappearing game bird still survives, and the experienced local gunners will tell you that in the mating season you will usually find a gobbler accompanied by two or more Turkey hens. When a female gets ready to make her nest she slips away from her sultan and the other members of the seraglio and, going to some broom-sedge field or open place in the woods, constructs her nest on the ground beneath some slight, convenient shelter. Day after day she absents herself for a short time, and the speckled treasures grow in number until from twelve to fifteen have been deposited. All this time her movements are characterized by absolute secrecy, for if the gobbler by any chance comes upon the nest he immediately breaks every egg. He is perhaps wise enough to know that when his hens begin to set lonely times are in store for him.

The Outcast. One of our wild birds whose domestic relations are not fully understood is strongly suspected of being promiscuously polygamous. Suspicion on this point is heightened by the fact that it never has a nest even of the most humble character, and shuns absolutely all the ordinary dangers and responsibilities of parentage. We call this seemingly unnatural creature the Cowbird, probably because it is often seen feeding in pastures among cattle, where it captures many insects disturbed into activity by the movements of the browsing animals.

The Cowbird lays its eggs in the nests of various other birds, distributing them about the neighbourhood. Here they are left to be hatched and the young to be reared by the foster parents. Cowbird’s eggs have been found in the nests of nearly one hundred species of birds, and nearly always the nest of some smaller bird is chosen. Despite this fact the Cowbird’s eggs are often first to hatch. The young grow rapidly and, being strong and aggressive, not only secure the lion’s share of the food, but frequently crowd the young of the rightful owner out of the nest to perish on the ground beneath.

As soon as the young leave the nest the greedy Cowbird follows the little mother about the thickets, shouting loudly for food. Its fierce clamour drowns the weaker cries of the legitimate young, which I have reason to believe even then often die for lack of nourishment. So insistent is the young Cowbird and so persistently does it pursue the foster parent that it is well cared for and invariably thrives. It is no uncommon sight, during the days of June and July, to see a worn, bedraggled Song Sparrow working desperately in a frantic effort to feed one or more great hulking Cowbirds twice its size. It is little wonder that discerning people are not fond of the Cowbird. Even the birds seem to regard it as an outcast from avian society, and rarely associate with it on friendly terms. This is the only species of North American birds that exhibits such depravity.

All other birds display great willingness to attend to their home duties, and often give evidence of keen delight while so engaged. One of the most exquisite and dainty forms of bird life found in the United States is the little Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. When occupied in building the nest, which is usually saddled on the limb of some forest tree, the birds call to each other constantly; and even after the eggs are laid there is no attempt to restrain their expressions of happiness. Unlike the Crow and Jay, that sometimes appropriate the nests of other birds, these little creatures have no sins to answer for to their neighbours. One of the most pleasing sights I have witnessed was a male Gnatcatcher that had relieved his mate at the nest. He was sitting on the eggs and, with head thrown back, sang with all his might, apparently unconscious of the evil which such gaiety might bring upon his household.