« PreviousContinue »
THE PURPLE MARTIN.
It is seldom in these days we hear the sweet hilarious notes of the Purple Martin in Eastern Massachusetts. From some not very accountable cause the species have left many of their former habitations, and we are no longer pleasantly roused from our sleep by their sportive garrulity near our dwellings. The absence of these birds is a truly sorrowful bereavement. When I visit the places where I formerly heard them and note their absence, I feel as I do when strolling over some old familiar ground upon which every scene has been changed, where wood has become open space, old houses are removed and replaced by new, and strangers occupy the homes of the old inhabitants.
We no longer see any large assemblages of Purple Martins in Eastern Massachusetts; and in almost all parts of New England, where they were formerly the most common of our birds, their numbers are greatly diminished. Why, it may be asked, have they so generally left these parts, especially the vicinity of Boston ? May it not be that the Wood-Swallows, which have multiplied in the same ratio as the Purple Martins have decreased, have been the cause of their disappearance? They breed in the boxes formerly used by the Martins, who, upon their later arrival, finding them preoccupied by the Wood-Swallow, and failing to obtain other accommodations, fly away to another vicinity. In a contest for a box the Purple Martin would be the victor, but would prefer seeking a habitation elsewhere to making an attempt to dislodge birds which had already built their nests there.
The Purple Martin is the largest of the American Swallows, with plumage of a bluish-black intermingled with purple and violet. In beauty it is not surpassed by any of the species. It seems to have no fear of man, who from immemorial time has protected it. The aboriginal inhabitants set hollowed gourds upon the trees to draw the · Martins to their huts. And when the white man came, he provided them with a ineeting-house, considering it a fitting structure for their musical congregations.
The Purple Martin utters a series of notes which are so varied and continued as to deserve to be called a song. This song has attracted less attention from those who have described the habits of our birds than it merits. In my early days I have listened for hours to the peculiar notes of the Purple Martin, in which a variety of chattering and chuckling is combined with a low guttural trill, resembling certain parts of the song of the Red-Thrush. The Martin, however, does not give himself up to song. His notes are heard chiefly while on the wing; but they are almost incessant. He is constantly in motion, and his song seems to me one of the most animated and cheerful sounds uttered by any American bird except the ‘Bobolink.
The flight of the Purple Martin and his peculiar ways render him exceedingly interesting and amusing. Surpassed by no bird in swiftness, there is none that equals him in the beauty of his movements on the wing, uniting grace and vivacity in a remarkable degree. Often skimming the surface of ponds, or swiftly gliding along a public road a few feet from the ground, then soaring above the height of the lower clouds, he sails about with but little motion of the wings, till he is out of sight. These flights seem to be made for his own amusement; for it cannot be supposed that he finds the larger insects that constitute his prey at so great a height.
The boldness displayed by the Purple Martin in driving Hawks and Crows from his neighborhood accounts for the respect in which he was held by the Indians, who were great admirers of courage. “So well known," says Wilson, “is this to the lower birds and to the domestic poultry, that as soon as they hear the Martin's voice engaged in fight, all is alarm and consternation." The Martin is often victor in contests with the Kingbird, perhaps when one is tired of the contest another takes his place with fresh vigor, so that the Kingbird is finally driven away and conquered.
The Chimney-Swallow attracts general attention on account of its practice of building its nest in the unused flue of a chimney. In village and town this family of birds are very abundant, some deserted chimney being always appropriated for the rearing of their young. It is remarkable that their desertion of their original breeding-places and their present selection of chimneys should be so universal. Though they are known at the present time to build, as formerly, in hollow trees, they do so only in forests very distant from town or village. It cannot be said that they are fond of the companionship of man. The small flies that constitute their food are probably more numerous in towns than in forests. Hence the birds for convenience resort to the chimney rather than the hollow tree, which is farther from their supplies of food.
The Chimney-Swallow is the smallest of our American species, and is partially nocturnal in its habits, being most active during morn and early twilight. Its nests are nicely woven with sticks, fastened to the chimney with a glutinous saliva. Says Samuels : “ About sunset, great multitudes of these birds are out, and the numbers of insects they destroy must be immense. Everywhere they may be seen; away up in the blue sky, as far as the eye can reach, they are coursing in wideextended circles, chasing each other in sport, and even caressing and feeding their mates while on the wing. A little lower they are speeding over the tops of trees, gleaning the insects that have just left the foliage ; over the surface of the lake or river they fly so low, in the pursuit of aquatic insects that their wings often touch the water. Everywhere are they, busy.”
THE KINGBIRD OR BEE-MARTIN.
The true Flycatchers take all their food while it is flying in the air, though they do not sail round, like a Swallow, to catch it. They are commonly seated quietly on their perch, and seize it by sallying out a few yards, and then returning. If we watch the ways either of the Kingbird or the Pewee, we shall observe this peculiar habit of all the Flycatchers. One of the most common of our birds, well known by his lively manners, his shrill notes, and twittering flight; always apparently idle, sitting on the branch of a tree as if he were a sentinel of the field, is the Kingbird. From this branch you may observe his frequent sallies when darting upon his prey. You may often see him pursuing a Hawk or a Crow, and annoying it by repeated attacks, always made in the rear of his victim. His usual custom is to rise a little above the object of his harassment, and then swoop down in such a manner that the bird cannot turn upon him. I have frequently seen him rise almost out of sight when engaged in such encounters. His victim constantly endeavors to rise above his pursuer, while the Kingbird by his activity as invariably balks him. I could never determine which of the two was the first to tire. But the Kingbird may probably be relieved by another of his species who may take his place. This pugnacious habit is said to continue only during the breeding-season.
It is amusing to watch his movements when flying. He sails rapidly along the air with but little motion of his outspread wings, save the vibrations of his extended feathers, all the time screaming with a sharp and rapid twitter. You observe this habit of the bird at short distances from the ground, when pursuing an insect. Upon seizing it he returns immediately to his post. He is watching all the while for the larger insects. He will not quit his perch, upon a fence, the branch of a tree, or a mullein-stalk, to catch small flies. He leaves all minute insects to the Swallows and small Flycatchers. The farmers complain of him as a bee-eater, whence the name of Bee-Martin which is often applied to him. Some observers say he discriminates between the different kinds of bees, selecting only the drones for his repast. But among the offences charged against him, he is never accused of stealing grain or fruit. Hence he is seldom molested, and enjoys great security compared with many other equally useful birds.
The Kingbird has not much beauty of plumage ; but he is so neatly marked with black and white, with a bluish color above, and a white band at the extremity of his dark tail-feathers, and he displays his form and plumage so gracefully in his vibrating flights, that he cannot escape notice. The crest, containing a vermilion centre, is hardly discernible, save when the bird is excited, when it is slightly elevated. The Kingbird more frequently builds in an orchard than in a wood, an open cultivated place being more productive of those insects which afford him subsistence.
If we stroll at any hour of the day in summer and sit under a rustic bridge for coolness or shelter, while