Individuality in Birds

EARLY in the bright, still September morning, as I lie hidden among the bushes which fringe the shores of my lonely lake in the birch wood, watching the mists moving over the surface of the water and rising to obscure the trees on the farther shore, I hear a sudden creaking of wings in the air, and see shadows passing swiftly across the water. Then there is a splash, the lake breaks into ripples, frogs give startled croaks, and the gray squirrels in the oaks cease frolicking, and hide themselves in the armpits of great limbs, waiting for fresh signs of danger. A fleet has been launched upon the lake, and, in proud array, it stands away across the mist-hung ripples. Six trim little craft in close order plough the deep. Why is it that I have to lie very still, as I watch this energetic squadron at its sunrise manœuvres? Why can I not stand upon the sand and wave my friendly welcome to the beautiful wood ducks which have come to my lake ? I should love to call them to me, feed them, caress their exquisite plumage, and marvel at the play of color in their lustrous feathers; but were I to move a hand so that their keen eyes saw it, or to snap a stick so that their keener ears heard it, their wings would pound the water into foam, and in one brief moment all their grace and beauty would have vanished from my sight.

When the first snow falls upon the frozen November pastures, burying the dry grass and brown ferns, and leaving only the ghost-flowers of goldenrod, aster, and fireweed, fox-tracks are many upon the telltale carpet of winter. They begin upon the flanks of Chocorua, or away to the west among the boulders on Great Hill and Marston Hill, where the battle of the wolves was fought long ago, and come southward or eastward through birch wood and pasture, larch grove and swamp, to the lakeside and meadow. Many a mile every hungry son of Reynard travels over that first snow, searching for mice or a plump blue jay to pounce upon. If, as I lean upon a great gray boulder in the middle of the wide upland pasture, I see a slender, sharpeared fox trotting towards me, can I whistle to him as to a dog, and tempt him to me by holding up to him the mouse I have just taken from my trap ? With the speed of a thought he will dash from me towards yonder beech wood; at its edge he will pause for one last look of hatred and terror, and then silence and the snow will seem to deny his ever having been within their dominion. Why does he shun me, when I have never harmed him, and would not have harmed him had he come to me ?

If I steal ever so softly to the mossy bank of the meadow brook, and peep through the ferns into the deep pool overhung by the thick turf, the wary trout which lies poised in the cool current, with filmy fins pulsating, will see me, and, seeing, strain every muscle of his marvelous form to hurl himself from me into some hidden grotto far down the stream. If a butterfly, opening and shutting its yellow wings on the milkweed flower, sees my shadow creeping towards it, the golden wings will move with vehement power, and, high above me in the August sunlight, the distrustful insect will linger, bidding me by its restless unhappiness depart from its milkweed.

By night, as by day, the life of the forest, the field, and the water shuns me. The bat, which flits back and forth with crazy flight above the lake, avoids me; the hare, leaping lazily through the grass where the moonlight sparkles in the dew, bounds from me, panic - stricken ; the owl, with silent wing, floats from me down the forest aisles, and hoots no more. What have I done that creation should spurn me as a leper, and that all which is most beautiful in animal life should hasten from me as from death ? The answer is plain: my crime is that I am a man.

There are hundreds of intelligent men and women in New England who do not know a bluebird from a blue jay, a chickadee from a junco, a catbird from a cow bunting. They know them all as birds, and love them as such, after a vague fashion, but of the racial or specific characteristics of these charming creatures they know nothing. What, then, will they say to the avowal that not only do species of birds differ from one another, as Irishmen differ from Swedes, and Spaniards from Chinese, but that individual birds of the same species have, in proportion to the sum total of their characteristics, as much variation as individual men ? Of course, there is not nearly the same chance for individuality in birds as in men, for their methods of life and their mental qualities are simple, while those of men are complex.

To the wood ducks, the fox, the trout, and the butterfly I am merely a man, one of that horrible race of gigantic destroyers which occupies the land and the water, and, with merciless hand, traps, maims, or kills with indiscriminate cruelty. For centuries, all that dwells within the woods or beside the waters has held firmly to life in direct proportion to its distrust of man and its ability to elude him. No wonder that, to the bird, a man is merely a man. The preponderance of evil in man’s treatment of the lower animals makes it impossible for wood duck, fox, or trout to delay flight to determine whether the individual man who appears by the lake or in the pasture is impelled by kindness or by a desire to commit murder.

Those who know birds only as birds, without separating them into races, species, or individuals, have no such excuse to offer for their failure to distinguish and appreciate. They are not hunted to death by the fair creatures which people the wild world around them. They have ample time and more than ample provocation to learn something of these shy, sweet neighbors. No lifetime is long enough to learn all about even one bird ; but there are few men who do not sometimes pass beyond the limits of brick walls and cobblestone pavements, and whenever they do pass such limits the birds are with them. In our own Boston, gulls, crows, and several kinds of ducks are constantly present along the water’s edge, between late autumn and spring. The Common and weed-grown vacant lots are not owned by house sparrows alone, conspicuous as those immigrants are. A Sunday afternoon in May spent in the groves and fields of the suburbs gives acquaintance with more species than there are hours in the day, and close watch for an hour of any one bird may yield a fact which no naturalist has ever recorded.

I have a friend who lives alone, summer and winter, in a tiny hut amid the woods. The doctors told him that he must die, so he escaped from them to nature, made his peace with her, and regained his health. To the wild creatures of the pasture, the oak woods, and the swamps he is no longer a man, but a faun; he is one of their own kind, shy, alert, silent. They, having learned to trust him, have come a little nearer to men. I once went to his hut when he was absent, and stretched myself in the sunlight by his tiny doorstep. Presently two chickadees came to a box of birdseed swinging from the pine limb overhead, and fed there, cracking the seeds one by one with their bills. Then, from the swamp, a pair of catbirds appeared, and fed upon crumbs scattered over the ground just at my feet; a chipmunk ran back and forth past them, coming almost within reach of my hand ; soon after a song sparrow drove away the catbirds, and then sang a little sotto - voce song to me before helping itself to the crumbs. When my friend returned, he told me the story of this song sparrow; how he had saved its life, and been rewarded by three years of gratitude, confidence, and affection on the part of the brave little bird. He seemed fearful lest I should think him over - imaginative in his recital, so he gave me details about the sparrow and its ways which would have convinced a jury of the bird’s identity and strong individuality. The secret of my friend’s friendship with these birds was that, by living together, each had, by degrees, learned to know the other. A man had become the man, and in time he had developed into protector, provider, and companion. They, from being chickadees, catbirds, and song sparrow, had separated themselves from their several species, and, by little habits and peculiarities of color, had made themselves plainly recognizable as individuals, having characteristics not common to all their species.

It is easier to feel sure that these individual peculiarities of a bird are real if the bird is a captive, or if, as a wild bird, it is marked in some unmistakable way. My chief experience with birds of whose identity I could feel no doubt while watching them, hearing their voices, or seeing their pictures has been with a number of owls which I have retained as captives for various terms of months or years. To a stranger, these birds would be quite indistinguishable both from one another and from wild birds of the same species. He would notice only the points of resemblance, the marks by which he determined their species. I should notice only their points of difference; and I should find among such points color, size, posture, gesture, expression, and manner. Not only would these points make it impossible for me to mistake one owl for another, but they would give me some passing impression as to the bird’s temper at the moment; for a placid, sleepy, well-fed owl is a very different bird from the same owl irritable, wide awake, and starving, after a three days’ fast.

We distinguish members of our family or of our circle of acquaintances one from another by the differences in their figures, features, and dress ; the motions they make, the sounds they utter; their conduct, opinions, tempers, appetites, virtues, and failings. I distinguish my three barred owls from one another by slight differences in size, in coloration, attitude, motions, notes, temper, appetite, and degrees of intelligence. They are not always in the same plumage; their appetites vary; they make different sounds under different conditions; and the one which is most docile in midwinter may, when moulting, be most irritable and prone to bite. One of them almost always whines when I approach his cage; the other two never whine unless unusually hungry. One comes to me when I call him, provided he thinks he is to be fed; the other two have never learned their names. One is a coward, and always seeks safety in swift escape when any danger threatens, while his original nest companion is as brave as a lion. I once placed the latter in a small room with two hounds. The dogs advanced towards the owl with faces expressive of great curiosity. The owl spread his broad wings, ruffled the feathers upon his back, snapped his beak, and then, as the dogs came nearer, darted at them, drove them under a sofa, and held them at bay until they were thankful to be allowed to slink out by a back door. Nothing would induce either dog to return to the room that day.

These three barred owls were reared in the same nest, two in 1888, the third in 1891. They were all taken from the nest before they could fly, and they have been subjected to the same conditions while in captivity. So far as I know, they are of the same sex. In spite of these facts, they are no more alike than three dogs raised in the same kennels, three horses pastured in the same field, or three urchins starved and whipped in the same tenement house. They are not equally hungry, sleepy, or skillful in striking living game; they are not equally fond of sunlight or darkness ; they select different perches, and look at life and their master in three very different ways. In fact, they are individuals, not three dittos to the name “ barred owl.”

One summer I caught and caged three young sap-sucking woodpeckers, as they were preparing to fly from their ancestral castle tower in the Chocorua forest. It might fairly be presumed that three birds just out of the nest, and that nest a dark hole far up in a poplar trunk, would be as nearly alike as three dimes from the same mint. The opposite was true. Number One was a hardy bird, which flew the moment the axe was struck into the poplar’s bole. Number Three was a weakling, that stayed in the hole until pulled out by hand. So it was later, as they grew older and larger. One was a bully, with a loud voice and too much animal spirits for the size of his cage. Another was quiet, meditative, and fond of a sunny corner of his box. In the autumn, when I let the birds out to frolic in a barn chamber, this quiet bird was always the last to quit his perch in favor of half-freedom. Number Three continued to be the smallest, weakest, and least hungry of the three birds ; but she was quicker than Number Two, and seemed to get more out of life than he did. From the hour when I took these little birds away from their nest, I never failed to recognize each of them as having individual characteristics not possessed by the others.

The wild sap-sucking woodpeckers in the New Hampshire forests derive the chief of their diet from the sap of the common deciduous trees. Attacking the trees in April, often before the snow has wholly disappeared from the shady hollows and north slopes, they riddle the bark with dozens of small holes, from which the sap flows freely. Red squirrels, downy woodpeckers, and humming birds like this flowing sap quite as well as do the sap-suckers, and they frequent the “ orchards” more or less persistently. No stronger proof of individual differences in bird character has come to my notice than that afforded by the opposite kinds of treatment accorded the pilfering humming birds by various families of sapsuckers. At some orchards, it is only necessary for a humming bird to be heard approaching the trees for the woodpeckers to be on the watch, ready to drive the intruder away. Fierce attacks are made upon the little birds, and they are never permitted to drink at the sap holes if woodpeckers are on guard. At other orchards the opposite is the rule, and a favorite humming bird is allowed to drink when and where he pleases, provided he does not actually buzz in the face of his host, and attempt to sip from the cup in use. This difference in the treatment of the humming birds is not a matter of daily whim, but is the rule throughout successive seasons. I say this after having, by close watch of certain orchards, convinced myself that not only the same woodpeckers, but the same humming birds, return to particular groups of trees year after year.

Once, on an August day, as I sat working at the north door of my big barn, near the foot of Chocorua, a small bird came hopping and fluttering towards me. As it drew near I saw that it was a young redstart, somewhat raggedly clad. The little creature was catching tiny flies and other insects, and seemed completely absorbed in its occupation to the exclusion of fear or even ordinary caution. Presently it entered the barn, and hopped back and forth between the horse’s heels, as he stood and stamped in his stall. Then it crossed the floor to me, and perched for a moment on my foot. I caught it, and it sat upon my hand fearlessly, going because a passing fly drew it from me. Finally it continued its course through the south door into the wide sunshine beyond, and so away forever. Truly, that tiny redstart was unlike all others of its species which I have seen, or ever expect to see. Daft it may have been, but it did me more good than fifty sane warblers.

Less clear evidence of individuality in birds comes in the way of every observer many times during each year. Spring after spring birds return to favorite nesting places, and autumn after autumn migrants appear on favorite hunting grounds: sometimes we feel sure that the robins which return to the apple-tree, the bluebirds to the box on the post, the orioles to the trailing elm branch, are the same birds which built in those spots in preceding summers; but, as a rule, positive evidence to this effect is lacking, and our moral certainty is not capable of justification to others. Generally, the fact which makes us most sure in our own minds that the birds in question are old friends is some hint of individuality on their part. They arrive on a fixed date in the spring, build their nest in a particular spot or in a particular way; and the exactness of the coincidence induces us to believe in individuality, rather than in the nature of all birds of a species to do precisely the same thing under similar circumstances.

Where there is a wide variety in the nesting ways of a species, the ability to fix upon certain birds and feel confident of their identity is increased. For example, I have known the song sparrow to build upon the ground in the middle of a dry field, or close to a tussock of grass at a brookside; a few inches from the ground, in a pile of brush in a meadow ; in a dark pocket in the hollow trunk of a willow ; two feet from the ground, in a spruce; and finally, eight feet above the ground, in a cup-shaped hollow in a birch stump. It is evident that a species which varies the location of its home as widely as this must contain individuals which have their power of selection highly developed. The kingfisher’s instinct takes him to a gravel bank, in the face of which he digs a hole. He is satisfied with one set of conditions, and those conditions are simple in kind. The song sparrow, which builds in a hollow willow, or in a depression in a high stump, has not been satisfied with simple conditions, but has exercised her power of selection to a remarkable degree in finally choosing very unusual surroundings for her home.

Much as birds of a species resemble one another, every collecting ornithologist knows how rare it is to find two individuals whose coloration and measurements correspond exactly. In series containing hundreds of specimens of the same species, it is almost impossible to find two skins which agree so closely as to be indistinguishable. Moreover, in such extended series, it is common to find specimens which vary in a radical way from the average. Not only does albinism occur, but other unusual features appear in color and form in a way to suggest reversion to some earlier stage in the development of the species. For example, I have seen several specimens of the cedar bird which had white markings of a kind to suggest at once a common ancestor to both cedar bird and Bohemian waxwing. Differentiation increased the white plumage in the Bohemians, and allowed it to disappear in the cedar birds.

So sharp are the distinguishing lines of color between desert races of birds and mammals and races living amid verdure that it is natural to surmise that habits and conduct may also be considerably modified by arid surroundings. Taken as a great group, birds which live upon the sea are certainly very different from typical forest birds. Sea birds’ voices, when they use them, are harsh and shrill, and they can scarcely be said to have a suggestion of song in their vocal performances. Nearly all land birds have music in their natures. If they cannot sing, they at least try to play. The grouse, the woodpeckers, the snipe, the woodcock, the bittern, are all instrumentalists. Land birds which sing, like the thrushes, the purple finch, fox sparrow, ruby-crowned kinglet, orchard oriole, water thrush, and other brilliant performers, are well known to vary in the individual success of their efforts. Now and then I hear a song sparrow or a hermit thrush which sings so much better than its fellows that I return to it day after day, to listen to it as to a Nilsson or a Scalchi.

If I, with dull human ears, can detect the differences in birds’ songs, how much more quickly can the birds themselves distinguish one another’s voices ! Watch a nestful of fledgelings whose eyes are incapable of distinct sight, and one of the first facts to be noted will be the sudden excitement of the young when the parent bird, in returning, comes within a few rods of the nest. The clamor of the young can be instantly silenced by a note of alarm from the parent, while no other sound in the neighborhood will cheek their glad uproar. Among full-grown birds, similar notes of warning are wonderfully effective. Crows chortling together in the woods will be quieted and called to wing by a single hoarse “ caw ” from their sentinel. A flock of blue jays, feeding in the oaks, will scatter like leaves in the wind at hearing a cry of alarm from one of their number. I never see or hear a crow “ caucus ” without feeling sure that certain individuals have more weight in the assembly than others, and that their cawing means something to their fellows. Of course, these indications of the appreciation of individuality by some birds in dealing with their mates are vague and unsatisfactory as compared with the more direct evidence afforded by personally watching captive birds until their characters are thoroughly learned.

Two great horned owls which I owned for a few months were so radically different in temper that every one who came near them recognized the fact. One was quiet, dignified, and comparatively tractable; the other was belligerent, cross, and untamable. To my eyes, the expressions of their faces were as different as they would have been in two persons of opposite temperaments. That this difference in bird faces is real, and not based upon the circumstances of the moment, accidents of position and color, or my own state of mind, seems to me to be established by the fact that, in a series of photographs of my barred owls, taken at different periods, the identity of each owl in a picture is as evident to me, and to others who know the birds intimately, as though they were men and women instead of birds.

With me, belief in the individuality of birds is a powerful influence against their destruction. Like most men familiar with out-of-door life, I have the hunting instinct strongly developed. If a game bird is merely one of an abundant species, killing it is only reducing the supply of that species by one; if, on the contrary, it is possessed of novel powers, or a unique combination of powers, and can be distinguished from all its fellows, killing it is destroying something which cannot be replaced. No one with a conscience would extinguish a species, yet I already feel towards certain races that their individuals are as different from one another as I formerly supposed one species of bird to be from another. At one time I should have shot a barred owl without a twinge of conscience ; now I should as soon shoot my neighbor’s Skye terrier as kill one of these singularly attractive birds.

Sentiment aside, bird individuality, if real, is of deep scientific interest. If we knew more of the influence of individuals, we might have a clearer perception of the forces governing evolution. Serious science is now so fully given up to laboratory as distinguished from field study that but little thought is given to problems of this kind. This fact makes it all the more possible for amateurs to work happily in the woods and fields, encouraged by the belief that they have innumerable discoveries still to make, countless secrets of nature still to fathom.

Frank Bolles.