Bird Study – 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 some-where 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 Blue-bird’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 deter-mine that in this particular case only about three-fifths of the individuals are mated any one sea-son.

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 Grackle. 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 Grackle 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 Grackle, 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 domes-tic 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 neighbour-hood. Here they are left to be hatched and the young to be reared by the foster parents. Cow-)bird’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.