Bird field guideIt is an undisputed fact that a great many of our birds are becoming more scarce each year, while a few are, even now, on the verge of extinction. The decrease in numbers of a few species may be attributed chiefly to the elements, such as a long-continued period of cold weather or ice storms in the winter, and rainy weather during the nesting season; however, in one way or another, and often unwittingly, man is chiefly responsible for the diminution in numbers.
If I were to name the forces that work against the increase of bird life, in order of their importance, I should give them as: Man, the elements, accidents, cats, other animals, birds of prey and snakes. I do not take into consideration the death of birds from natural causes, such as old age and disease, for these should be counterbalanced by the natural increase.
There are parts that each one of us can play in lessening the unnatural dangers that lurk along a bird's path in life. Individually, our efforts may amount to but little, perhaps the saving of the lives of two or three, or more, birds during the year, but collectively, our efforts will soon be felt in the bird-world.
How Can We Protect the Birds? - Nearly all states have fairly good game laws, which, if they could be enforced, would properly protect our birds from man, but they cannot be; if our boys and girls are educated to realize the economic value of the birds, and are encouraged to study their habits, the desire to shoot them or to rob them of their eggs will be very materially lessened. It is a common practice for some farmers to burn their land over in the Spring, usually about nesting time. Three years ago, and as far back of that as I can remember, a small ravine or valley was teeming with bird life; it was the most favored spot that I know of, for the variety and numbers of its bird tenants. Last year, toward the end of May, this place was deliberately burned over by the owner. Twenty-seven nests that I know of, some with young, others with eggs, and still others in the process of construction, were destroyed, besides hundreds of others that I had never seen.
This year the same thing was done earlier in the season, and not a bird nested here, and, late in Summer, only a few clumps of ferns have found courage to appear above the blackened ground. Farmers also cut off a great many patches of underbrush that might just as well have been left, thus, for lack of suitable places for their homes, driving away some of their most valuable assistants. The cutting off of woods and forests is an important factor in the decrease of bird life, as well as upon the climate of the country.
Our winter birds have their hardships when snow covers the weed tops, and a coating of ice covers the trees, so that they can neither get seeds nor grubs. During the nesting season, we often have long-continued rains which sometimes cause an enormous loss of life to insect-eating birds and their young.
Birds are subject to a great many accidents, chiefly by flying into objects at night. Telephone and telegraph wires maim or kill thousands, while lighthouses and steeples often cause the ground to be strewn with bodies during migrations. Other accidents are caused by storms, fatigue while crossing large bodies of water, nests falling from trees because of an insecure support, and ground nests being trod upon by man, horses, and cattle.
In the vicinity of cities, towns, villages, or farms, one of the most fertile sources of danger to bird life is from cats. Even the most gentle household pet, if allowed its liberty out of doors, will get its full quota of birds during the year, while homeless cats, and many that are not, will average several hundred birds apiece during the season. After years of careful observation, Mr. E. H. Forbush, Mass., state ornithologist, has estimated that the average number of birds killed, per cat population, is about fifty. All homeless cats should be summarily dealt with, and all pets should be housed, at least from May until August, when the young birds are able to fly.
Of wild animals, Red Squirrels are far the most destructive to young birds and eggs; Chipmunks and Grays are also destructive but not nearly as active or impudent as the Reds. Skunks, Foxes, and Weasels are smaller factors in the decrease of bird life.
Birds of prey have but little to do with the question of bird protection for, with a few exceptions, they rarely feed upon other birds, and nearly all of them are of considerable economic value themselves. Jays, Crows, and Grackles, by devouring the eggs and young of our smaller birds, are a far greater menace than are the birds of prey, but even these have their work and should be left in the place that Nature intended for them; they should, however, be taught to keep away from the neighborhood of houses.
How Can We Attract Birds About Our Homes? - Many birds prefer to live in the vicinity of houses, and they soon learn where they are welcome. Keep your premises as free as possible from cats, dogs, and especially English Sparrows, and other birds will come. Robins, Orioles, Kingbirds, Waxwings and a few others will nest in orchard trees, while in dead limbs or bird boxes will be found Bluebirds, Wrens, Swallows, Woodpeckers, Chickadees, etc.
A house for Purple Martins may contain many apartments; it should be erected in an open space, on a ten or twelve foot pole. Boxes for other birds should have but one compartment, and should be about six by six by eight inches, with a hole at least one and one-half inches in diameter in one side; these can be fastened in trees or on the sides or cornices of barns or sheds. It is needless to say that English Sparrows should not be allowed to use these boxes. By tying suet to limbs of trees in winter, and providing a small board upon which grain, crumbs, etc., may be sprinkled, large numbers of winter birds may be fed; of these, probably only the Chickadees will remain to nest, if they can find a suitable place.
How to Study Birds. - This refers, not to the scientific, but to the popular study of our birds, chiefly in the field. We can learn many very interesting things by watching our birds, especially during the nesting season, and the habits and peculiarities of many are still but imperfectly known. One thing to be impressed upon the student at the start is the need of very careful observation before deciding upon the identity of a bird with which you are not perfectly familiar.
A bird's colors appear to differ greatly when viewed in different lights, while in looking up in the tree tops, it is often impossible to see any color at all without the aid of a good field glass. By the way, we would advise every one to own a good pair of these, for, besides being almost indispensable for bird study, they are equally valuable for use at. the seashore, in the mountains, or at the theatre. We have examined more than a hundred makes of field glasses to select the one best
adapted to bird study, and at a moderate price. We found one that was far superior to any other at the same price, and was equal to most of those costing three times as much. It gives a very clear image, magnifies about four diameters, and has a very large field of view. It comes in a silk lined leather case, with cord for suspending from the shoulder, and is of a convenient size for carrying in the pocket.
We should also advise everyone to keep a notebook, apart from the Bird Guide. At the end of the season you can write neatly with ink on the top of the pages of the Guide, the dates of the earliest arrivals and latest departures of the birds that you have recorded.
If you see a bird that you do not recognize, make the following notes, as completely as possible: Length (approximately); any bright colors or patches; shape of bill, whether most like that of a finch, warbler, etc.; has it a medium or superciliary line, eye ring, wing bars, or white in the tail; what are its notes or song;. does it keep on or near the ground, or high up; are its actions quick or slow; upon what does it appear to be feeding; is it alone or with other birds, and what kind; where was it seen, in dry woods, swamp, pasture, etc.; date that it was seen.
With this data you can identify any bird, but usually you will need only to glance over the pictures in the Bird Guide to find the name of the bird you have seen.
I should advise any one by all means to make a complete local list of all the birds that are found in his neighborhood, but of far greater value than the simple recording of the different species seen on each walk, will be the making a special study of one or more birds, even though they be common ones. While, of course, noting any peculiarities of any bird that you may see, select some particular one or ones and find out all you can about it.
The following most necessary points are cited to aid the student in making observations: Date of arrival and whether in large flocks, pairs. or singly; where found most abundantly; upon what do they feed at the different seasons; what are their songs and calls at different seasons; when and where do they make their nests; of what are they made and by which bird or both; how long does it take, and when are the first and. the last egg laid; how long does it take them to hatch, and do both birds or only one incubate them; upon what. are the young fed at different ages; how long do they remain in the nest, and do they return after once leaving; how long before they are able to feed themselves, and do they remain with their parents until they migrate. These and other notes that will suggest themselves will furnish interesting and valuable instruction during your leisure time.
The numbers and names used in this website are those adopted by the American Ornithologists' Union, and are known both in the United States and abroad. The lengths given are averages; our small birds often vary considerably and may be found either slightly larger or smaller than those quoted.
On some of the pages a number of sub-species are mentioned. Sub-species often cause confusion, because they are usually very similar to the original; they can best be identified by the locality in which they are found. Of course the writing of birds' songs is an impossibility, but wherever I have thought it might prove of assistance, I have given a crude imitation of what it sounds like to me. The nests and eggs are described, as they often lead to the identity of a bird. I would suggest that you neatly, and with ink, make a cross against the name of each bird that you see in your locality, and also that you write at the top of the page the date of the arrival and departure of each bird as you note it; these dates vary so much in different localities that we have not attempted to give them.