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?
BABY YELLOW WARBLERS.
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.