The Birds in California by Ella M. Sexton

More than three hundred kinds of these dear feathered friends and visitors live in California. Along the sea-shore, in the great valleys and the mountain-forests and meadows, even in the dry, hot desert, the birds, our shy and merry neighbors, are at home. In many parts of the state they find sunshine and green trees the year round, and food always at hand. Yet sparrows, robins, and woodpeckers will stay in the snowed-in groves of the Sierras all winter, contentedly chirping or singing in spite of the bitter cold.

If you know these wanderers of wood and field, these birds of sea and shore, and their interesting habits, you will wish to protect them from stone or gun, and their nests from the egg collector. You will listen to the lark and linnet, and be glad that the happy songster trilling such sweet notes is free to fly where he wishes, and is not pining in a cage. And you, little girl, will not encourage the destruction of these pretty creatures by wearing a sea-gull or part of some dead bird on your hat.

To become better acquainted with birds, let us call them before us by classes, beginning with our sea-birds and those round the bays and on the coast. Some of these not only swim but dive in the salt waters, and to this class of divers belong the grebe, loon, murre, and puffin. They dive at the flash of a gun, and after what seems a long time, come up far away from the spot the hunter aimed at. These birds usually nest on bare, rocky cliffs near the ocean, or on islands like the Farallones, and their large green eggs hatch out nestlings that are ugly and awkward and helpless on land. But they ride the great ocean-breakers, or dive into their clear depths easily and gracefully; and as they live upon fish or small sea-creatures, the divers only seek land to roost at night and to raise their young.

Next come the gulls, who belong to a class known as "long-winged swimmers." They have strong wings and fly great distances, and with their webbed feet swim well, too. Most of the sea-gulls are white with a gray coat on their backs, but they look snowy-white as they fly. You may see them walking about the wharves, or perching on roofs and piles watching for food, and seeming very tame as they pick up bits of bread or the refuse floating in the water. They follow steamers for miles, scarcely moving their wings as they float in the air; and if you throw a cracker from the deck, some gull will make a swift swoop and snatch it before the cracker reaches the water.

Far out on the Pacific the albatross sails proudly on his broad wings, and cares nothing for high winds or storms. He rests and sleeps on the billows at night with his little companions, the stormy petrels. He is the largest and strongest of our birds of flight, the very king of the sea. The stormy petrels are not much larger than a swallow. Sailors call them. "Mother Carey's chickens," and are sure a storm is coming up when petrels follow the ship. The albatross, petrel, and a gull-like bird called a shearwater belong to the "tube-nosed swimmers," on account of their curious long beaks.

Along the coast, and wading in the shallow waters around the bays, are some strange birds known as pelicans and shags. They are good fishers, and drive the darting, finny fellows before them as they wade in the water till they can see and gobble them up. Most waders have under their beaks a skin-pocket deep enough to hold a fish while carrying it to their nestlings, or making ready to swallow it. All of these sea-birds raise their young as far from the shore and from hunters as possible. Great flocks of them roost on islands fifteen or twenty miles out in the ocean, and fly into the bays every morning.

Wild ducks, geese, the herons, mud-hens, sandpipers, and curlews are marsh and shore birds that feed and wade in the shallow salt water, and nest on the banks or, like the heron, in trees near the bay. The heron is a frog-catcher, and he will stand very still on his long legs and patiently wait till the frog, thinking him gone, swims near. Then one dart of the long bill captures froggy, and the heron waits for another. You know the red-head, green mallard, canvas-back, and small teal ducks, no doubt, and have seen the flocks of wild geese flying and calling in the sky, or standing like patches of snow as they feed in the marshes or grain-fields.

Down on the mud-flats at low tide you see birds called rails, and also "kill-dee" plovers. The shoveller ducks are there, too fishing up with broad, flat beaks little crabs and such creatures as are in the mud, straining out mud and water, but swallowing the rest. All these birds are "waders" and delight in mud and cold salt water. They are usually quiet, or make only strange, shrill cries.

In the sunny fields and woods we shall find many of the land-birds, and first comes a family whose habits are so like those of chickens that they are called "scratchers." These birds depend for food upon seeds and bugs or worms they scratch out of the ground. Up in the Sierra sugar-pines and fir-woods lives the largest of these "scratchers," the brown grouse. He is a shy creature, rising out of his feeding-ground with a great whirring of wings and out of sight before the hunter can fire at him. His peculiar cry, or "drumming," as it is called, sounds through the woods like tapping hard on a hollow log. His equally shy neighbor is the mountain-quail, while through the farming lands and all along the hillsides the valley—quail are plenty. Perhaps you have seen a happy family of these speckled brown birds. Papa quail has a black crest on his head, and he calls "Look right here" from the wrong side of the road to fool you, while Mamma and her little, cunning chicks scatter like flying brown leaves in the brush. After the danger is past, you hear her low call to bring them round her again. In the desert and sage-brush part of the state the sage-hen, another "scratcher," runs swiftly through the thickets, but many are caught and brought in by the Indians.

Our birds of prey are eagles, vultures, hawks, owls, and the turkey-buzzards, those big black scavengers that hang in the air. In circles high above woods and fields some of these birds of prey sweep on broad wings, searching with keen sight for their food in some dead animal far below. The California condor, a great black vulture-like bird, is almost extinct, and is only found in the highest mountains. It is very large of wing, and strong enough, it is said, to carry off a sheep. Both golden and bald eagles nest in tall trees in the wildest parts of the state. The chicken-hawk, whose swift sailing over the poultry-yard calls out loud squawking from the frightened hens, you have often seen, and the wise-looking brown owls, too. A small burrowing owl lives in the squirrel holes, and you may catch him easily in the daytime, when he cannot see.

The road-runner is of the cuckoo family of birds. It seldom flies, but runs swiftly along the roads, or in the desert, and is said to kill rattlesnakes by placing a ring of thorny cactus leaves around the snake as it lies asleep. The rattler is then pecked to death, since it cannot get out of its prickly cage. This fowl is like a slender brown hen in size.

In the redwoods you hear the tap, tap, of the "carpenter" woodpecker, with his black coat and gay red cap. He drills holes in the bark of a tree with his strong beak and then fits an acorn neatly into each safe little storehouse. It is thought that worms and grubs fatten while living in these acorns, so that the woodpecker always has a meal ready in the winter when the ground is wet, or the squirrels have carried off the acorns under the trees.

Humming-birds, or "hummers," as the boys call them, are plenty in city and country and so fearless that they will take a bath in the spray of the garden-hose, or dart their long bills in the fuchsias almost within your reach. The bill shields a double tongue, which gets not only honey, but small insects from the flower or off the leaves. The humming-bird's tiny nest is a soft, round basket, not much bigger than half a walnut-shell, and holding two eggs, which are like small-white beans. Bits of moss and gray cobwebs are woven in this nest till it looks like the branch itself; and here the little mother in her plain brown dress hatches out and feeds the baby "hummers." Her husband has glistening ruby feathers at his throat and green spots on his head and back that glow in the sun like jewels.

The highest class of birds is the "perchers," and many friends of yours belong to this. There are two families, however, of perchers, those that call and the song-birds. Calling over and over their peculiar note, the pewees, flycatchers, and king-birds, fly through the forests. The crow and blue jay belong to the singers, you will be surprised to hear. And what a crowd of these song-birds there are trilling and warbling in the sunshine! Have you ever watched the meadow-lark singing as he sits on guard on the fence, while the rest of his brown-coated yellow-vested flock run along the field picking up seeds and insects?

From photographs
by Elizabeth Grinnell.

Then there are the linnets, or "redheads," who sing their sweet, merry tunes all summer, and if they do take a cherry or two the farmer should not grumble. They destroy many bugs and caterpillars and eat weed-seeds that might trouble the fruit-grower more than the missing cherries. The yellow warbler, sometimes called the wild canary, flits through bush and tree and trills its gay notes in town and country. Song-sparrows, thrushes, and bluebirds warble far and near, while the red-winged blackbird makes music in wet, swampy places. The robin, who comes to city gardens in the winter, has a summer home in the mountains or redwoods. There, too, the saucy jay screams and chatters, and flashes his blue wings as he flies, scolding all the time.

In Southern California, among the orange groves or in gardens, the mocking-bird trills in sweet, liquid notes his wonderful song. He mimics, too, many sounds he hears, and sometimes when caged will whistle tunes or say words. The mocker can crow or cackle like the chickens, or mew like the cat. Then he will whistle clear and loud till dogs or boys answer his call. When they find themselves fooled, it is said, he mimics a laugh.


From April to July the birds are busy, nesting, feeding their families, or teaching them to fly. Many eggs never hatch, and some are destroyed by wild animals. Boys often rob a whole nest to have one little blown egg in their collections. Then again the mother is killed and her brood starves to death. When the parent birds are teaching the nestlings to fly, cats also catch the little ones. So you see the poor feathered things have many enemies.

Let us try to protect the birds, and to let them live happy lives in freedom. Each one will thank you, either with sweet songs or with being a beautiful thing to see on land or ocean.