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Title: USDA Farmers' Bulletin No. 54 - Some Common Birds In Their Relation to Agriculture
Author: Beal, F. E. L. (Foster Ellenborough Lascelles)
Language: English
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*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "USDA Farmers' Bulletin No. 54 - Some Common Birds In Their Relation to Agriculture" ***

Transcriber Note

Text emphasis denoted by _Italics_.


                     U. S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE.

                        FARMERS' BULLETIN No. 54·

                            SOME COMMON BIRDS



                          F. E. L. BEAL, B. S.,


                               [May, 1897.]



                       GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE.




  Introduction                                                          3

  The cuckoos (_Coccyzus americanus and C. erythophthalmus_) (fig. 1)   5

  The woodpeckers (figs. 2-5)                                           6

  The kingbird (_Tyrannus tyrannus_) (fig. 6)                          11

  The phœbe (_Sayornis phœbe_) (fig. 7)                                13

  The bluejay (_Cyanocitta cristata_) (fig. 8)                         14

  The crow (_Corvus americanus_)                                       15

  The bobolink, or ricebird (_Dolichconyx oryzivorus_) (fig. 9)        17

  The redwinged blackbird (_Agelaius phœniceus_) (fig. 10)             19

  The meadow lark, or old field lark (_Sturnella magna_) (fig. 11)     21

  The Baltimore oriole (_Icterus galbula_) (fig. 12)                   23

  The crow blackbird, or grackle (_Quiscalus quiscula_) (fig. 13)      24

  The sparrows (fig. 14)                                               26

  The rose-breasted grosbeak (_Zamelodia ludoviciana_) (fig. 15)       28

  The swallows (fig. 16)                                               30

  The cedarbird (_Ampelis cedrorum_) (fig. 17)                         31

  The catbird (_Galeoscoptes carolinensis_) (fig. 18)                  33

  The brown thrasher (_Harporhynchus rufus_) (fig. 19)                 34

  The house wren (_Troglodytes aëdon_) (fig. 20)                       35

  The robin (_Merula migratoria_) (fig. 21)                            37

  The bluebird (_Sialia sialis_) (fig. 22)                             39



It has long been known that birds play an important part in relation to
agriculture, but there seems to be a tendency to dwell on the harm they do
rather then on the good. Whether a bird is injurious or beneficial depends
almost entirely upon what it eats, and in the case of species which are
unusually abundant or which depend in part upon the farmer's crops for
subsistence the character of the food often becomes a very practical
question. If crows or blackbirds are seen in numbers about cornfields,
or if woodpeckers are noticed at work in an orchard, it is perhaps not
surprising that they are accused of doing harm. Careful investigation,
however, often shows that they are actually destroying noxious insects,
and also that even those which do harm at one season may compensate
for it by eating noxious species at another. Insects are eaten at all
times by the majority of land birds, and during the breeding season most
kinds subsist largely and rear their young exclusively on this food.
When insects are unusually plentiful, they are eaten by many birds which
ordinarily do not touch them. Even birds of prey resort to this diet, and
when insects are more easily obtained than other fare, the smaller hawks
and owls live on them almost entirely. This was well illustrated during
the recent plague of Rocky Mountain locusts in the Western States, when it
was found that locusts were eaten by nearly every bird in the region, and
that they formed almost the entire food of a large majority of the species.

Within certain limits, birds feed upon the kind of food that is most
accessible. Thus, as a rule, insectivorous birds eat the insects that
are most easily obtained, provided they do not have some peculiarly
disagreeable property. It is not probable that a bird habitually passes by
one kind of insect to look for another which is more appetizing, and there
seems little evidence in support of the theory that tire selection of
food is restricted to any particular species of insect, for it is evident
that a bird eats those which by its own method of seeking are most easily
obtained. Thus, a ground-feeding bird eats those it finds among the dead
leaves and grass; a flycatcher, watching for its prey from some vantage
point, captures entirely different kinds; and the woodpecker and warbler,
in the tree tops, select still others. It is thus apparent that a bird's
diet is likely to be quite varied, and to differ at different seasons of
the year.

In investigating the food habits of birds, field observation can be relied
on only to a limited extent, for it is not always easy to determine what
a bird really eats by watching it. In order to be positive on this point,
it is necessary to examine the stomach contents. When birds are suspected
of doing injury to field crops or fruit trees, a few individuals should be
shot and their stomachs examined. This will show unmistakably whether or
not the birds are guilty.

In response to a general demand for definite information regarding the
food habits of our native birds, the biological Survey of the Department
of Agriculture has for some years past been conducting a systematic
investigation of the food of species which are believed to be of economic
importance. Thousands of birds' stomachs have been carefully examined in
the laboratory, and all the available data respecting the food brought
together. The results of the investigations relating to birds of prey,
based on an examination of nearly 3,000 stomachs, were published in 1893,
in a special bulletin entitled The Hawks and Owls of the United States.
Many other species have been similarly studied and the results published,
either in special bulletins or as articles in the yearbooks. The present
bulletin contains brief abstracts of the results of food studies of about
30 grain and insect eating birds belonging to 10 different families.[1]

[1] The limits of this bulletin preclude giving more than a very brief
statement regarding the food of each bird, but more detailed accounts
of some of the species will be found in the following reports of the
Biological Survey (formerly Division of Ornithology and Mammalogy): The
Cuckoos--Bulletin No. 9, 1898, pp. 1-14; Crow--Bulletin No. 6, 1895,
pp. 1-98; Woodpeckers--Bulletin No. 7, 1895, pp. 1-39; Kingbird--Annual
Report Secretary of Agriculture for 1893, pp. 233-234; Redwinged
Blackbird--Yearbook for 1897, pp. 349-351; Baltimore Oriole--Yearbook
for 1895, pp. 426-430; Grackles--Yearbook for 1894, pp. 233-248;
Meadowlark--Yearbook for 1895, pp. 420-426; Cedarbird--Annual Report
Secretary of Agriculture for 1892, pp. 197-200; Catbird, Brown Thrasher,
and Wren--Yearbook for 1895, pp. 405-418.

These species comprise among others the crow blackbirds and ricebirds,
against which serious complaints have been made on account of the damage
they do to corn, wheat, rice, and other crops; and also the cuckoos,
grosbeaks, and thrashers, which are generally admitted to be beneficial,
but whose true value as insect destroyers has not been fully appreciated.
The practical value of birds in controlling insect pests should be more
generally recognized. It maybe an easy matter to exterminate the birds
in an orchard or grain field, but it is an extremely difficult one to
control the insect pests. It is, certain, too, that the value of our
native sparrows as weed destroyers is not appreciated. Weed seed forms
an important item of the winter food of many of these birds, and it is
impossible to estimate the immense numbers of noxious weeds which are thus
annually destroyed.

If birds are protected and encouraged to nest about the farm and garden,
they will do their share in destroying noxious insects and weeds, and a
few hours spent in putting up boxes for bluebirds, martins, and wrens will
prove a good investment. Birds are protected by law in many States, but
it remains for the agriculturalists to see that the laws are faithfully


(_Coccyzus americanus and C. erythophthalmus_)

Two species of cuckoos, the yellow-billed (fig. 1) and the black-billed,
are common in the United States east of the Plains, and a subspecies of
the yellow-billed extends westward to the Pacific. While the two species
are quite distinct, they do not differ greatly in food habits, and their
economic status is practically the same.

[Illustration: Fig. 1.--Yellow-billed cuckoo.]

An examination of 155 stomachs has shown that these cuckoos are much
given to eating caterpillars, and, unlike most birds, do not reject those
covered with hair. In fact, cuckoos eat so many hairy caterpillars that
the hairs pierce the inner lining of the stomach and remain there, so that
when the stomach is opened and turned inside out, it appears to be lined
with a thin coating of fur.

An examination of the stomachs of 40 black-billed cuckoos, taken during
the summer months, showed the remains of 900 caterpillars, 44 beetles,
96 grasshoppers, 100 sawflies, 30 stink bugs, and 15 spiders. In all
probability more individuals than these were represented, but their
remains were too badly broken for recognition. Most of the caterpillars
were hairy, and many of them belonged to a genus that lives in colonies
and feeds on the leaves of trees, including the apple tree. One stomach
was filled with larvæ of a caterpillar belonging to the same genus as the
tent caterpillar, while others contained that species. Other larvæ were
those of large moths, for which the bird seems to have a special fondness.
The beetles were mainly click beetles and weevils, with a few May beetles.
The sawflies were all found in two stomachs, one of which contained no
less than 100 in the larval stage.

Of the yellow-billed cuckoo, 109 stomachs (collected from May to October,
inclusive) were examined. The contents consisted of 1,865 caterpillars, 93
beetles, 242 grasshoppers, 37 sawflies, 69 bugs, 6 flies, and 86 spiders.
Most of the caterpillars belonged to hairy species and many of them were
of large size. One stomach contained 250 American tent caterpillars;
another 217 fall webworms. In places where tent caterpillars are abundant
they seem to constitute a large portion of the food of these two birds.
The beetles were distributed among several families, but all more or less
harmful to agriculture. In the same stomach which contained the tent
caterpillars were two Colorado potato beetles; in another were three
goldsmith beetles and remains of several other large beetles. Besides
grasshoppers were several katydids and tree crickets. The sawflies were
in the larval stage, in which they resemble caterpillars so closely that
they are commonly called false caterpillars, and perhaps this likeness may
be the reason the cuckoos eat them so freely. The bugs consisted of stink
bugs and cicadas or dog-day harvest flies, with the single exception of
one wheel bug, which was the only useful insect eaten, unless the spiders
be counted as such.


Five or six species of woodpeckers are familiarly known throughout the
eastern United States, and in the west are replaced by others of similar
habits. Several species remain in the northern States through the entire
year, while others are more or less migratory.

Farmers are prone to look upon woodpeckers with suspicion. When the birds
are seen scrambling over fruit trees and pecking at the bark, and fresh
holes are found in the tree, it is concluded that they are doing harm.
Careful observers, however, have noticed that, excepting a single species,
these birds rarely leave any important mark on a healthy tree, but that
when a tree is affected by wood-boring larvæ the Insects are accurately
located, dislodged, and devoured. In case the holes from which the borers
are taken are afterwards occupied by colonies of ants, these ants in turn
are drawn out and eaten.

Two of the best known woodpeckers, the hairy woodpecker (_Dryobates
villosus_) (fig. 2) and the downy woodpecker (_D. pubescens_), including
their races, range over the greater part of the United States, and for the
most part remain throughout the year in their usual haunts. They differ
chiefly in size, for their colors are practically the same, and the males,
like other woodpeckers, are distinguished by a scarlet patch on the head.

[Illustration: Fig. 2.--Hairy woodpecker.]

An examination of many stomachs of these two birds shows that from
two-thirds to three-fourths of the food consists of insects, chiefly
noxious. Wood-boring beetles, both adults and larvæ, are conspicuous, and
with them are associated many caterpillars, mostly species that burrow
into trees. Next in importance are the ants that live in decaying wood,
all of which are sought by woodpeckers and eaten in great quantities. Many
ants are particularly harmful to limber, for if they find a small spot of
decay in the vacant burrow of some wood-borer, they enlarge the hole, and
as their colony is always on the increase, continue to eat away the wood
until the whole trunk is honey-combed. Moreover, these insects are not
accessible to other birds, and could pursue their career of destruction
unmolested were it not that the woodpeckers, with beaks and tongues
especially fitted for such work, dig out and devour them. It is thus
evident that woodpeckers are great conservators of forests. To them, more
than to any other agency, we owe the preservation of timber from hordes of
destructive insects.

One of the larger woodpeckers familiar to everyone is the flicker, or
golden-winged woodpecker (_Colaptes auratus_) (fig. 3), which is generally
distributed throughout the United States from the Atlantic Coast to the
Rocky Mountain. It is there replaced by the red-shafted flicker (_C.
cafer_), which extends westward to the Pacific. The two species are as
nearly identical in food habits as their environment will allow. The
flickers, while genuine woodpeckers, differ somewhat in habits from the
rest of the family, and are frequently seen upon the ground searching
for food. Like the downy and hairy woodpeckers, they eat wood-boring
grubs and ants, but the number of ants eaten is much greater. Two of the
flickers' stomachs examined were completely filled with ants, each stomach
containing more than 3,000 individuals. These ants belonged to species
which live in the ground, and it is these insects for which the flicker is
searching when running about in the grass, although some grasshoppers are
also taken.

[Illustration: Fig. 3.--Flicker.]

The red-headed woodpecker (_Melanerpes erythrocephalus_) (fig. 4) is well
known east of the Rocky Mountains, but is rather rare in New England.
Unlike some of the other species, it prefers fence posts and telegraph
poles to trees as a foraging ground. Its food therefore naturally differs
from that of the preceding species, and consists largely of adult beetles
and wasps, which it frequently captures on the wing, after the fashion
of flycatchers. Grasshoppers also form an important part of the food.
The red-head has a peculiar habit of selecting very large beetles, as
shown by the presence of fragments of several of the largest species in
the stomachs. Among the beetles were quite a number of predaceous ground
beetles, and unfortunately some tiger beetles, which are useful insects.
The red-head has been accused of robbing the nests of other birds; also
of attacking young birds and poultry and peeking out their brains, but
as the stomachs showed little evidence to substantiate this charge it is
probable that the habit is rather exceptional.

[Illustration: Fig. 4.--Red-headed woodpecker.]

It has been customary to speak of the smaller woodpeckers as "sapsuckers,"
under the belief that they drill holes in the bark of trees for the
purpose of drinking the sap and eating the inner bark. Close observation,
however, has fixed this habit upon only one species, the yellow-bellied
woodpecker, or sapsucker (_Sphyrapicus varius_) (fig. 5). This bird has
been shown to be guilty of pecking holes in the bark of various forest
trees, and sometimes in that of apple trees, from which it drinks the sap
when the pits become filled. It has been proved, however, that besides
taking the gap the bird captures large numbers of insects which are
attracted by the sweet fluid, and that these form a very considerable
portion of its diet. In some cases the trees are injured by being thus
punctured, and die in a year or two, but since comparatively few are
touched the damage is not great. It is equally probable, moreover, that
the bird fully compensates for this injury by the insects it consumes.

The vegetable food of woodpeckers is varied, but consists largely of small
fruits and berries. The downy and hairy woodpeckers eat such fruits as
dogwood, Virginia creeper, and others, with the seeds of poison ivy,
sumac, and a few other shrubs. The flicker also eats a great many small
fruits and the seeds of a considerable number of shrubs and weeds. None of
the three species is much given to eating cultivated fruits or crops.

The red-head has been accused of eating the larger kinds of fruit, such
as apples, and also of taking considerable corn. The stomach examinations
show that to some extent these charges are substantiated but that the
habit is not prevalent enough to cause much damage. It is quite fond of
mast, especially beechnuts, and when these nuts are plentiful the birds
remain north all winter, instead of migrating as is their usual custom.

[Illustration: Fig. 5.--Yellow-bellied woodpecker.]

Half the food of the sapsucker, aside from sap, consists of vegetable
matter, largely berries of the kinds already mentioned, and also a
quantity of the inner bark of trees, more of which is eaten by this
species than by any other.

Many other woodpeckers are found in America, but their food habits agree
in the main with those just described. Those birds are certainly the only
agents which can successfully cope with certain insect enemies of the
forests, and, to some extent, of fruit trees also. For this reason, if for
no other, they should be protected in every possible way.


(_Tyrannus tyrannus_)

The kingbird (fig. 6) Is essentially a lover of the orchard, and wherever
the native groves have been replaced by fruit trees this pugnacious bird
takes up its abode. It breeds in all of the States east of the Rocky
Mountains, and less commonly in the Great Basin and on the Pacific Coast.
It migrates south early in the fall, and generally leaves the United
States to spend the winter in more southern latitudes.

[Illustration: Fig. 6.--Kingbird.]

The kingbird manifests its presence in many ways. It is somewhat
boisterous and obtrusive, and its antipathy for hawks and crows is well
known. It never hesitates to give battle to any of these marauders, no
matter, how superior in size, and for this reason a family of kingbirds is
a desirable adjunct to a poultry yard. On one occasion in the knowledge of
the writer a hawk which attacked a brood of young turkeys was pounced upon
and so severely buffeted by a pair of kingbirds, whose nest was near by,
that the would-be robber was glad to escape without his prey. Song birds
that nest near the kingbird are similarly protected.

In its food habits this species is largely insectivorous. It is a true
flycatcher by nature, and takes a large part of its food on the wing. It
does not, however, confine itself to this method of hunting, but picks
up some insects from trees and weeds, and even descends to the ground in
search of myriapods or thousand legs. The chief complaint against the
kingbird is that it preys largely upon honeybees; and this charge has been
made both by professional bee keepers and others. Many observers have seen
the bird at work near hives, and there is no reason to doubt the honesty
of their testimony. One bee raiser in Iowa, suspecting the kingbirds of
feeding upon his bees, shot a number near his hives, but when the birds'
stomachs were examined by an expert entomologist not a trace of honeybees
could be found.

The Biological Survey has made an examination of 281 stomachs collected
in various parts of the country, but found only 14 containing remains of
honeybees. In these 14 stomachs there were in all 50 honeybees, of which
40 were drones, 4 were certainly workers, and the remaining 6 were too
badly broken to be identified as to sex.

The insects that constitute the great bulk of the food of this bird are
noxious species, largely beetles--May beetles, click beetles (the larvæ
of which are known as wire worms), weevils, which prey upon fruit and
grain, and a host of others. Wasps, wild bees, and ants are conspicuous
elements of the food, far outnumbering the hive bees. During summer
many grasshoppers and crickets, as well as leaf hoppers and other bugs,
are also eaten. Among the flies were a number of robber flies--insects
which prey largely upon other insects, especially honeybees, and which
have been known to commit in this way extensive depredations. It is thus
evident that the kingbird by destroying these flies actually does good
work for the apiarist. Nineteen robber flies were found in the stomachs
examined; these may be considered more than an equivalent for the four
worker honeybees already mentioned. A few caterpillars are eaten, mostly
belonging to the group commonly known as cutworms, all the species of
which are harmful. About 10 per cent of the food consists of small native
fruits, comprising some twenty common species of the roadsides and
thickets, such as dogwood berries, elder berries and wild grapes. The
bird has not been reported as eating cultivated fruit to an injurious
extent, and it is very doubtful if this is ever the case, for cherries
and blackberries are the only ones that might have come from cultivated
places, and they were found in but few stomachs.

Three points seem to be clearly established in regard to the food of the
kingbird--(1) that about 90 per cent consists of insects, mostly injurious
species; (2) that the alleged habit of preying upon honeybees is much less
prevalent than has been supposed, and probably does not result in any
great damage; and (3) that the vegetable food consists almost entirely of
wild fruits which have no economic value. These facts, taken in connection
with its well-known enmity for hawks and crows, entitle the kingbird to a
place among the most desirable birds of the orchard or garden.


(_Sayornis phœbe._)

Among the early spring arrivals at the North, none more welcome than the
phœbe (fig. 7). Though, naturally building its nest under an overhanging
cliff of rock or earth, or in the mouth of a cave, its preference for the
vicinity of farm buildings is so marked that in the more thickly settled
parts of the country the bird is seldom seen at any great distance from a
farmhouse except where a bridge spans some stream, affording a secure spot
for a nest. Its confiding disposition has rendered it a great favorite,
and consequently it is seldom disturbed. It breeds throughout the United
States east of the Great Plains, and winters from the South Atlantic and
Gulf States southward.

[Illustration: Fig. 7.--Phœbe.]

The phœbe subsists almost exclusively upon insects, most of which are
caught upon the wing. An examination of 80 stomachs showed that over 93
per cent of the year's food consists of insects and spiders, while wild
fruit constitutes the remainder. The insects belong chiefly to noxious,
species, and include many click beetles. May beetles, and weevils.
Grasshoppers in their season are eaten to a considerable extent, while
wasps of various species, many flies of species that annoy cattle, and a
few bugs and spiders are also eaten regularly. It is evident that a pair
of phœbes must materially reduce the number of insects near a garden or
field, as the birds often, if not always, raise two broods a year, and
each brood numbers from four to six young.

The vegetable portion of the food is unimportant, and consists mainly of a
few seeds, with small fruits, such as wild cherries, elder berries, and
juniper berries. The raspberries and blackberries found in the stomachs
were the only fruits that might have banged to cultivated varieties, and
the quantity was trifling.

There is hardly a more useful species than the phœbe about the farm,
and it should receive every encouragement. To furnish nesting boxes is
unnecessary, as it usually prefers a more open situation, like a shed, or
a nook under the eaves, but it should be protected from cats and other


(_Cyanocitta cristata._)

The blue jay (fig. 8) is a common bird of the United States east of the
Great Plains, and remains throughout the year in most of its range,
although its numbers are somewhat reduced in winter in the Northern
States. During spring and summer the jay is forced to become an
industrious hunter for insects, and is not so conspicuous a feature of
the landscape as when it roams the country at will after the cares of the
nesting season are over.

[Illustration: Fig. 8.--Blue Jay.]

Ornithologists and field observers in general declare that a considerable
portion of its food in spring and early summer consists of the eggs and
young of small birds, and some farmers accuse it of stealing corn to an
injurious extent in the fall. While there may be some truth in these
accusations, they have almost certainly been exaggerated. No doubt many
jays have been observed robbing nests of other birds, but thousands have
been seen that were not so engaged.

In an investigation of the food of the blue jay 292 stomachs were
examined, which showed that animal matter comprised 24 per cent and
vegetable matter 70 per cent of the bird's diet. So much has been said
about the nest robbing habits of the jay that special search was made
for traces of birds or birds' eggs in the stomachs, with the result that
shells of small birds' eggs were found in three and the remains of young
birds in only two stomachs. Such negative evidence is not sufficient to
controvert the great mass of testimony upon this point, but it shows that
the habit is not so prevalent as has been believed. Besides birds and
their eggs, the jay eats mice, fish, salamanders, snails, and crustaceans,
which altogether constitute but little more than 1 per cent of its diet.
The insect food is made up of beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and
a few species of other orders, all noxious, except some 3½ per cent of
predaceous beetles. Thus something more than 19 per cent of the whole food
consists of harmful insects. In August the jay, like many other birds,
turns its attention to grasshoppers, which constitute nearly one-fifth of
its food during that month. At this time, also, most of the other noxious
insects, including caterpillars, are consumed, though beetles are eaten
chiefly in spring.

The vegetable food is quite varied, but the item of most interest is
grain. Corn was found in 70 stomachs, wheat in 8, and oats in 2--all
constituting 19 per cent of the total food. Corn is evidently the favorite
grain, but a closer inspection of the record shows that the greater part
was eaten during the first five months of the year, and that very little
was taken after May, even in harvest time, when it is abundant. This
indicates that most of the corn is gleaned from the fields after harvest,
except what is stolen from cribs or gathered in May at planting time.

The jay's favorite food is mast (i. e., acorns, chestnuts, chinquapins,
etc.), which was found in 158 of the 292 stomachs and amounted to more
than 42 per cent of the whole food. In September corn formed 15 and mast
35 per cent, while in October, November, and December corn dropped to
an almost inappreciable quantity and mast amounted to 64, 82, and 83
per cent, respectively. And yet in these months corn is abundant and
everywhere easily accessible. The other elements of food consist of a few
seeds and wild fruits, among which grapes and blackberries predominate.

The results of the stomach examination show, (1) that the jay eats many
noxious insects; (2) that its habit of robbing the nests of other birds is
much less common, than has been asserted; and (3) that it does little harm
to agriculture, since all but a small amount of the corn eaten is waste


(_Corvus americanus._)

There are few birds so well known as the common crow, and unlike most
other species he does not seem to decrease in numbers as the country
becomes more densely populated. The crow is commonly regarded as a
blackleg and a thief. Without the dash and brilliancy of the jay, or the
bold savagery of the hawk, he is accused of doing more mischief than
either. That he does pull up sprouting corn, destroy chickens, and rob the
nests of small birds has been repeatedly proved. Nor are these all of his
sins. He is known to eat frogs, toads, salamanders, and some small snakes,
all harmless creatures that do some good by eating insects. With so many
charges against him, it may be well to show why he should not be utterly

The examination of a large number of stomachs, while confirming all the
foregoing accusations, has thrown upon the subject a light somewhat
different from that derived slowly from field observation. It shows that
the bird's nesting habit, as in the case of the jay, is not so universal
as has been supposed; and that, so far from being a habitual nest robber,
the crow only occasionally indulges in that reprehensible practice. The
same is true in regard to destroying chickens, for he is able to carry off
none but very young ones, and his opportunities for capturing them are
somewhat limited. Neither are many toads and frogs eaten, and as frogs are
of no great practical value, their destruction is not a serious matter;
but toads are very useful, and their consumption, so far as it goes, must
be counted against crow. Turtles, crayfishes, and snails, of which he eats
quite a large number, may be considered neutral, while mice may be counted
to his credit.

In his insect food, however, the crow makes amends for sins in the rest of
his dietary, although even here the first item is against him. Predaceous
beetles are eaten in some numbers throughout the season, but the number
is not great. May beetles, "dor-bugs," or June bugs, and others of the
same family, constitute the principal food during spring and early summer,
and are fed to the young in immense quantities. Other beetles, nearly all
of a noxious character, are eaten to a considerable extent. Grasshoppers
are first taken in May, but not in large numbers until August, when, as
might be expected, they form the leading article of diet, showing that
the crow is no exception to the general rule that most birds subsist,
to a large extent, upon grasshoppers in the month of August. Many bugs,
some caterpillars, mostly cutworms, and some spiders are also eaten--all
of them either harmful or neutral in their economic relations. Of the
insect diet Mr. E. A. Schwarz says: "The facts, on the whole, speak
overwhelmingly in favor of the crow."

Probably the most important item in the vegetable food is corn, and by
pulling up the newly sprouted seeds the bird renders himself extremely
obnoxious. Observation and experiments with tame crows show that hard, dry
corn is never eaten if anything else is to be had, and if fed to nestlings
it is soon disgorged. The reason crows resort to newly planted fields
is that the kernels of corn are softened by the moisture of the earth,
and probably become more palatable in the process of germination, which
changes the starch of the grain to sugar. The fact, however, remains that
crows eat corn extensively only when it has been softened by germination
or partial decay, or before it is ripe and still "in the milk." Experience
has shown that they may be prevented from pulling up young corn by
tarring the seed, which not only saves corn but forces them to turn their
attention to insects. If they persist in eating green corn it is not so
easy to prevent the damage; but no details of extensive injury in this way
have yet been presented and it is probable that no great harm has been

Crows eat fruit to some extent, but confine themselves for the most part
to wild species, such as dogwood, sour gum, and seeds of the different
kinds of sumac. They have also a habit of sampling almost everything
which appears eatable, especially when food is scarce. For example, they
eat frozen apples found on the trees in winter, or pumpkins, turnips,
and potatoes which have been overlooked or neglected; even mushrooms are
sometimes taken, probably in default of something better.

In estimating the economic status of the crow, it must be acknowledged
that he does some damage, but, on the other hand, he should receive much
credit for the insects which he destroys. In the more thickly settled
parts of the country the crow probably does more good than harm, at
least when ordinary precautions are taken to protect young poultry and
newly-planted corn against his depredations. If, however, corn is planted
with no provision against possible marauders, if hens and turkeys are
allowed to nest and to roam with their broods at a distance from farm
buildings, losses must be expected.


(_Dolichconyx oryzivorus_)

The bobolink (fig. 9) is a common summer resident of the United States,
north of about latitude 40°, and from New England westward to the Great
Plains, wintering beyond our southern border. In New England there are few
birds, if any, around which so much romance has clustered; in the South
none on whose head so many maledictions have been heaped. The bobolink,
entering the United States from the South at a time when the rice fields
are freshly sown, pulls up the young plants and feeds upon the seed. Its
stay, however, is not long, and it soon hastens northward, where it is
welcomed as a herald of summer. During its sojourn in the Northern States
it feeds mainly upon insects and small seeds of useless plants; but while
rearing its young, insects constitute its chief food, and almost the
exclusive diet of its brood. After the young are able to fly, the whole
family gathers into a small flock and begins to live almost entirely upon
vegetable food. This consists for the most part of weed seeds, since in
the North these birds do not appear to molest grain to any great extent.
They eat a few oats, but their stomachs do not reveal a great quantity of
this or any other grain. As the season advances they gather into larger
flocks and move southward, until by the end of August nearly all have
left their breeding grounds. On their way they frequent the reedy marshes
about the mouths of rivers and on the inland waters of the coast region,
subsisting largely upon wild rice. After leaving the Northern States they
are commonly known as reed birds, and having become very fat are treated
as game.

They begin to arrive on the rice fields in the latter part of August, and
during the next month make havoc in the ripening crop. It is unfortunate
that the rice districts lie exactly in the track of their fall migration,
since the abundant supply of food thus offered has undoubtedly served to
attract them more and more, until most of the bobolinks bred in the North
are concentrated with disastrous effect on the south east coast when the
rice ripens in the fall, there was evidently a time when no such supply of
food awaited the birds on their journey southward, and it seems probable
that the introduction of rice culture in the South, combined with the
clearing of the forests in the North, thus affording a larger available
breeding area, has favored an increase in the numbers of this species. The
food habits of the bobolink are not necessarily easily inimical to the
interests of agriculture. It simply happens that the rice affords a supply
of food more easily obtainable than did the wild plants which formerly
occupied the same region. Were the rice fields at a distance from the
line of migration, or north of the bobolinks' breeding ground, they would
probably never be molested; but lying, as they do, directly in the path
of migration, they form a recruiting ground, where the birds can rest and
accumulate flesh and strength for the long sea flight which awaits them in
their course to South America.

[Illustration: Fig. 9.--Bobolink.]

The annual loss to rice growers on account of bobolinks has been estimated
at $2,000,000. In the face of such losses it is evident that no mere
poetical sentiment should stand in the way of applying any remedy which
can be devised. It would be unsafe to assume that the insects which the
birds consume during their residence in the North can compensate for such
destruction. If these figures are any approximation to the truth, the
ordinary farmer will not believe that the bobolink benefits, the Northern
half of the country nearly as much as it damages the Southern half, and
the thoughtful ornithologist will be inclined to agree with him. But even
if the bird really does more harm than good, what is the remedy! For years
the rice planters have been employing men and boys to shoot the birds
and drive them away from the fields, but in spite of the millions slain
every year their numbers do not decrease. In fact, a large part of the
loss sustained is not in the grain which the birds actually eat, but in
the outlay necessary to prevent them from taking it all. At present there
seems to be no effective remedy short of complete extermination of the
species, and this is evidently impracticable even were it desirable.


(_Agelaius phœniceus._)

The redwinged, or swamp, blackbird (fig. 10) is found all over the United
States and the region immediately to the north. While common in most of
its range, its distribution is more or less local, mainly on account of
its partiality for swamps. Its nest is built near standing water, in
tall grass, rushes, or bushes. Owing to this peculiarity the bird may be
absent from large tracts of country which afford no swamps or marshes
suitable for nesting. It usually breeds in large colonies, though single
families, consisting of a male with several wives, may sometimes be found
in a small slough, where each of the females builds, her nest and rears
her own little brood, while her liege lord displays his brilliant colors
and struts in the sunshine. In the Upper Mississippi Valley it finds the
conditions most favorable, for the countless prairie sloughs and the
margins of the numerous shallow lakes form nesting sites for thousands
of redwings; and there are bred the immense flocks which sometimes do so
much damage to the grain fields of the West. After the breeding season is
over, the birds collect in flocks to migrate, and remain thus associated
throughout the winter.

Many complaints have been made against the redwing, and several States
have at times placed a bounty upon its head. It is said to cause great
damage to grain in the West, especially in the Upper Mississippi Valley;
and the rice growers of the South say that it eats rice. No complaints
have been received from the Northeastern portion of the country, where the
bird is much less abundant than in the West and South.

An examination of 725 stomachs showed that vegetable matter forms 74 per
cent of the food, while the animal matter, mainly insects, forms but
26 per cent. A little more than 10 per cent consists of beetles, mostly
harmful species, Weevils, or snout-beetles, amount to 4 per cent of the
year's food, but in June reach 25 per cent. As weevils are among the most
harmful insects known, their destruction should condone for at least some
of the sins of which the bird has been accused. Grasshoppers constitute
nearly 5 per cent of the food, while the rest of the animal matter is
made up of various insects, a few snails, and crustaceans. Several dragon
flies were found, but these were probably picked up dead, for they are
too active to be taken alive, unless by one of the flycatchers. So far as
the insect food as a whole is concerned, the redwing may be considered
entirely beneficial.

[Illustration: Fig. 10.--Redwinged blackbird.]

The interest in the vegetable food of this bird centers around the grain.
Only three kinds, corn, wheat, and oats, were found in appreciable
quantities in the stomachs, and they aggregate but little more than 13
per cent of the whole food, oats forming nearly half of this amount. In
view of the many complaints that the redwing eats grain, this record
is surprisingly small. The crow blackbird has been found to eat more
than three times as much. In the case of the crow, corn forms one-fifth
of the food, so that the redwinged blackbird, whose diet is made up of
only a trifle more than one-eighth of grain, is really one of the least
destructive species; but the most important item of this bird's food is
weed seed, which forms practically the whole food in winter and about 57
per cent of the whole year's fare. The principal weed seeds eaten are
those of ragweed, barn grass, smartweed, and about a dozen others. That
these seeds are preferred is shown by the fact that the birds begin to
eat them in August, when grain is still readily accessible, and continue
feeding on them even after insects become plentiful in April. The redwing
eats very little fruit and does practically no harm in the garden or

While it is impossible to dispute the mass of testimony which has
accumulated concerning its grain-eating propensity, the stomach
examinations show that the habit must be local rather than general. As
the area of cultivation increases and the breeding grounds are curtailed,
the species is likely to become reduced in numbers and consequently less
harmful. Nearly seven-eighths of the redwing's food is made up of weed
seed or of insects injurious to agriculture, indicating unmistakably that
the bird should be protected, except, perhaps, in a few places where it is
too abundant.


(_Sturnella magna._)

The meadow lark (fig. 11) is a common and well-known bird occurring from
the Atlantic Coast to the Great Plains, where it gives way to a closely
related subspecies, which extends thence westward to the Pacific. It
winters from our southern border as far north as the District of Columbia,
southern Illinois, and occasionally Iowa. Although it is a bird of the
plains, finding its most congenial haunts in the prairies of the West, it
does not disdain the meadows and mowing lands of New England. It nests on
the ground and is so terrestrial in its habits that it seldom perches on
trees, preferring a fence rail or a telegraph pole. When undisturbed, it
may be seen walking about with a peculiar dainty step, stopping every few
moments to look about and give its tail a nervous flirt or to sound a note
or two of its clear whistle.

The meadow lark is almost wholly beneficial, although a few complaints
have been made that it pulls sprouting grain, and one farmer claims that
it eats clover seed. As a rule, however, it is looked upon with favor and
is not disturbed.

In the 238 stomachs examined, animal food (practically all insects)
constituted 73 per cent of the contents and vegetable matter 27 per cent.
As would naturally be supposed, the insects were ground species, such as
beetles, bugs, grasshoppers, and caterpillars, with a few flies, wasps,
and spiders. A number of the stomachs were taken from birds that had been
killed when the ground was covered with snow, but still they contained a
large percentage of insects, showing the bird's skill in finding proper
food under adverse circumstances.

Of the various insects eaten, crickets and grasshoppers are the most
important, constituting 29 per cent of the entire year's food and 69 per
cent of the food in August. It is scarcely necessary to enlarge upon this
point, but it can readily be seen what an effect a number of these birds
must have on a field of grass in the height of the grasshopper season.
Of the 238 stomachs collected at all seasons of the year, 178, or more
than two-thirds, contained remains of grasshoppers, and one was filled
with fragments at 37 of those insects. This seems to show conclusively
that grasshoppers are preferred and are eaten whenever they can be
procured. The great number taken in August is especially noticeable. This
is essentially the grasshopper month, i. e., the month when grasshoppers
reach their maximum abundance; and the stomach examination has shown that
a large number of birds resort to this diet in August, no matter what may
be the food during the rest of the year.

[Illustration: Fig. 11.--Meadow lark.]

Next to grasshoppers, beetles make up the most important item of the
meadow lark's food, amounting to nearly 21 per cent, of which about
one-third are predaceous ground beetles. The others are all harmful
species, and when it is considered that the bird feeds exclusively on the
ground, it seems remarkable that so few useful ground beetles are eaten.
Many of them have a disgusting odor, and possibly this may occasionally
save them from destruction by birds, especially when other food is
abundant. Caterpillars, too, form a very constant element, and in May
constitute over 28 per cent of the whole food. May is the month when the
dreaded cutworm begins its deadly career, and then the bird does some of
its best work. Most of these caterpillars are ground feeders, and are
overlooked by birds which habitually frequent trees; but the meadow lark
finds them and devours them by thousands. The remainder of the insect food
is made up of a few ants, wasps, and spiders, with a few bugs, including
some cinch bugs.

The vegetable food consists of grain, weed, and other hard seeds. Grain
in general amounts to 14, and weed and other seeds to 12 per cent. The
grain, principally corn, is mostly eaten in winter and early spring, and
must be therefore simply waste kernels; only a trifle is consumed in
summer and autumn, when it is most plentiful. No trace of sprouting grain
was discovered. Clover seed was found in only six stomachs, and but little
in each. Seeds of weeds, principally ragweed, barn grass, and smartweed,
are eaten from November to April, inclusive, but during the rest of the
year are replaced by insects.

Briefly stated, more than half of the meadow lark's food consists of
harmful insects; its vegetable food is composed either of noxious weeds
or waste grain, and the remainder is made up of useful beetles or neutral
insects and spiders. A strong point in the bird's favor is that, although
naturally an insect eater, it is able to subsist on vegetable food, and
consequently is not forced to migrate in cold weather any farther than is
necessary to find ground free from snow. This explains why it remains for
the most part in the United States during winter, and moves northward as
soon as the snow disappears from its usual haunts.

There is one danger to which the meadow lark is exposed. As its flesh is
highly esteemed the bird is often shot for the table, but it is entitled
to all possible protection, and to slaughter it for game is the least
profitable way to utilize this valuable species.


(_Icterus galbula._)

Brilliancy of plumage, sweetness of song, and food habits to which no
exception can be taken are some of the striking characteristics of the
Baltimore oriole (fig. 12). In summer this species is found throughout
the northern half of the United States east of the Great Plains, and
is welcomed and loved in every country home in that broad land. In the
Northern States it arrives rather late, and is usually first seen, or
heard, foraging amidst the early bloom of the apple trees, where it
searches for caterpillars or feeds daintily on the surplus blossoms. Its
nest commands hardly less admiration than the beauty of its plumage or the
excellence of its song. Hanging from the tip of the outermost bough of a
stately elm, it is almost inaccessible, and so strongly fastened as to bid
defiance to the elements.

By watching an oriole which has a nest one may see it searching among
the smaller branches of some neighboring tree, carefully examining each
leaf for caterpillars, and occasionally trilling a few notes to its mate.
Observation both in the field and laboratory shows that caterpillars
constitute the largest item of its fare. In 113 stomachs they formed 34
per cent of the food, and are eaten in varying quantities during all the
months in which the bird remains in this country, although the fewest
are eaten in July, when a little fruit is also taken. The other insects
consist of beetles, bugs, ants, wasps, grasshoppers, and some spiders. The
beetles are principally click beetles, the larvæ of which are among the
most destructive insects known; and the bugs include plant and bark lice,
both very harmful, but so small and obscure as to be passed over unnoticed
by most birds. Ants are eaten mostly in spring, grasshoppers in July and
August, and wasps and spiders with considerable regularity throughout the

Vegetable matter amounts to only a little more than 10 per cent of the
food during the bird's stay in the United States, so that the possibility
of the oriole doing much damage to crops is very limited. The bird has
been accused of eating peas to a considerable extent, but remains of peas
were found in only two stomachs. One writer says that it damages grapes,
but none were found. In fact, a few blackberries and cherries comprised
the only cultivated fruit detected in the stomachs, the remainder of the
vegetable food being wild fruit and a few miscellaneous seeds.

[Illustration: Fig. 12.--Baltimore oriole.]


(_Quiscalus quiscula._)

The crow blackbird (fig. 13) or one of its subspecies is a familiar
object in all of the States east of the Rocky Mountains. It is a resident
throughout the year as far north as southern Illinois, and in summer
extends its range into British America. In the Mississippi Valley it is
one of the most abundant birds, preferring to nest in the artificial
groves and windbreaks near farms instead of the natural "timber" which
it formerly used. It breeds also in parks and near buildings, often in
considerable colonies. Farther east, in New England, it is only locally
abundant, though frequently seen in migration. After July it becomes very
rare, or entirely disappears, owing to the fact that it collects in large
flocks and retires to some quiet place, where food is abundant and where
it can remain undisturbed during the molting season, but in the latter
days of August and throughout September it usually reappears in immense
numbers before moving southward.

[Illustration: Fig. 13.--Crow blackbird.]

It is evident that a bird so large and so abundant may exercise an
important influence upon the agricultural welfare of the country it
inhabits. The crow blackbird has been accused of many sins, such as
stealing grain and fruit and robbing the nests of other birds; but the
farmers do not undertake any war of extermination against it, and, for the
most part, allow it to nest about the premises undisturbed. An examination
of 2,258 stomachs showed that nearly one-third of its food consists of
insects, of which the greater part are injurious. The bird also eats a few
snails, crayfishes, salamanders, small fish, and occasionally a mouse. The
stomach contents do not indicate that it robs other birds' nests to any
great extent, as remains of birds and birds' eggs amount to less than one
half of 1 per cent.

It is, however, on account of its vegetable food that the grackle is most
likely to be accused of doing damage. Grain is eaten during the whole
year, and during only a short time in summer is other food attractive
enough to induce the bird to alter its diet. The grain taken in the
winter and spring months probably consists of waste kernels gathered from
the stubble. The stomachs do not indicate that the bird pulls sprouting
grain; but the wheat eaten in July and August, and the corn eaten in the
fall, are probably taken from fields of standing grain. The total grain
consumed during the year constitutes 45 per cent of the whole food, but
it is safe to say that at least half is waste grain, and consequently of
no value. Although the crow blackbird eats a few cherries and blueberries
in their season, and some wild fruit in the fall, it apparently does no
damage in this way.

Large flocks of crow blackbirds no doubt do considerable injury to grain
crops, and there seems to be no remedy except the destruction of the
birds, which is in itself expensive. During the breeding season, however,
the species does much good by eating insects and by feeding them to its
young, which are reared almost entirely upon this food. The bird does the
greatest amount of good in spring, when it follows the plow in search
of large grub worms, of which it is so fond that it sometimes literally
crams its stomach full of them. The farmer must decide for himself
whether or not these birds cause more damage than can be repaid by insect
destruction; but when they destroy an entire crop it is no consolation to
know that they have already eaten a multitude of insects which, if left
alone, would have accomplished the same result.


[2] The sparrows here mentioned are all native species. For a full
account of the English sparrow, including its introduction, habits, and
depredations, see Bull. No. 1 of the Division of Ornithology, published in

Sparrows are not obtrusive birds, either in plumage, song, or action.
There are some forty species, with nearly as many subspecies, in North
America, but their differences, both in plumage and habits, are in most
cases too obscure to be readily recognized, and not more than half a dozen
forms are generally known in any one locality. All the species are more or
less migratory, but so widely are they distributed that there is probably
no part of the country where some can not be found throughout the year.

While sparrows are noted seed eaters, they do not by any means confine
themselves to a vegetable diet. During the summer, and especially in the
breeding season, they eat many insects, and probably feed their young
largely upon the same food. An examination of the stomachs of three
species--the song sparrow (_Melospiza_), chipping sparrow (_Spizella
socialis_), and field sparrow (_Spizella pusilla_) (fig. 14)--shows
that about one third of the food consists of insects, comprising many
injurious beetles, such as snout-beetles or weevils, and leaf beetles.
Many grasshoppers are eaten, and in the case of the chipping sparrow
these insects form one eighth of the food. Grasshoppers would seem to
be rather large morsels, but the bird probably confines itself to the
smaller species; indeed, this is indicated by the fact that the greatest
amount (over 36 per cent) is eaten in June, when the larger species are
still young and the small species most numerous. Besides the insects
already mentioned, many wasps and bugs are taken. Predaceous and parasitic
Hymenoptera and predaceous beetles, all useful insects, are eaten only
to a slight extent, so that as a whole the sparrows' insect diet may be
considered beneficial.

Their vegetable food is limited almost exclusively to hard seeds. This
might seem to indicate that the birds feed to some extent upon grain, but
the stomachs examined show only one kind--oats--and but little of that.
The great bulk of the food is made up of grass and weed seed, which form
almost the entire diet during winter, and the amount consumed is immense.

[Illustration: Fig. 14.--Field sparrow.]

Anyone acquainted with the agricultural region of the Upper Mississippi
Valley can not have failed to notice the enormous growth of weeds in every
waste spot where the original sward has been disturbed. By the roadside,
on the borders of cultivated fields, or in abandoned fields, wherever they
can obtain a foothold, masses of rank weeds spring up, and often form
impenetrable thickets which afford food and shelter for immense numbers
of birds and enable them to withstand great cold and the most terrible
blizzards. A person visiting one of these weed patches on a sunny morning
in January, when the thermometer is 20° or more below zero, will be struck
with the life and animation of the busy little inhabitants. Instead of
sitting forlorn and half frozen, they may be seen flitting from branch to
branch, twittering and fluttering, and showing every evidence of enjoyment
and perfect comfort. If one of them be killed and examined, it will be
found in excellent condition--in fact, a veritable ball of fat.

The snowbird (_Junco hyemalis_) and tree sparrow (_Spizella monticola_)
are perhaps the most numerous of all the sparrows. The latter fairly
swarms all over the Northern States in winter, arriving from the north
early in October and leaving in April. Examination of many stomachs shows
thats in Winter the tree sparrow feeds entirely upon seeds of weeds; and
probably each bird consumes about one-fourth of an ounce a day. In an
article contributed to the New York Tribune in 1881 the writer estimated
the amount of weed seed annually destroyed by these birds in the State of
Iowa. Upon the basis of one-fourth of an ounce of seed eaten daily by each
bird, and supposing that the birds averaged ten to each square mile, and
that they remain in their winter range two hundred days, we shall have
a total of 1,750,000 pounds, or 875 tons, of weed seed consumed by this
one species in a single season. Large as these figures may seem, they
certainly fall far short of the reality. The estimate of ten birds to a
square mile is much within the truth, for the tree sparrow is certainly
more abundant than this in winter in Massachusetts, where the food supply
is less than in the Western States, and I have known places in Iowa where
several thousand could be seen within the space of a few acres. This
estimate, moreover, is for a single species, while, as a matter of fact,
there are at least half a dozen birds (not all sparrows) that habitually
feed on these seeds during winter.

Farther south the tree sparrow is replaced in winter by the white-throated
sparrow, the white-crowned sparrow, the fox sparrow, the song sparrow,
the field sparrow, and several others; so that all over the country there
are a vast number of those seed eaters at work during the colder months
reducing next year's crop of worse than useless plants.

In treating of the value of birds, it has been customary to consider them
mainly as insect destroyers; but the foregoing illustration seems to
show that seed eaters have a useful function, which has never been fully


(_Zamelodia ludoviciana._)

The beautiful rose-breasted grosbeak (fig. 15) breeds in the northern half
of the United States east of the Missouri River, but spends its winters
beyond our boundaries. Unfortunately it is not abundant in New England,
and nowhere as plentiful as it should be. It frequents groves and orchards
rather than gardens or dooryards, but probably the beauty of the male is
the greatest obstacle to its increase; the fully adult bird is pure black
and white, with a broad patch of brilliant rose color upon the breast and
under each wing. On account of this attractive plumage the birds are
highly prized for ladies' hats; and consequently heave been shot in season
and out, till the wonder is not that there are so few, but that any remain
at all.

When the Colorado potato beetle first swept over the land, and naturalists
and farmers were anxious to discover whether or not there were any enemies
which would prey upon the pest, the grosbeak was almost the only bird seen
to eat the beetles. Further observation confirmed the fact, and there can
be no reasonable doubt that where the bird is abundant it has contributed
very much to the abatement of the pest which has been noted during the
last decade. But this is not the only good which the bird does, for many
other noxious insects besides the potato beetle are also eaten.

[Illustration: Fig. 15.--Rose-breasted grosbeak.]

The vegetable food of the grosbeak consists of buds and blossoms of forest
trees, and seeds, but the only damage of which it has been accused is the
stealing of green peas. The writer has observed it eating peas and has
examined the stomachs of several that had been killed in the very act. The
stomachs contained a few peas and enough potato beetles, old and young, as
well as other harmful insects, to pay for all the peas the birds would be
likely to eat in a whole season. The garden where this took place adjoined
a small potato field which earlier in the season had been so badly
infested with the beetles that the vines were completely riddled. The
grosbeaks visited the field every day, and finally brought their fledged
young. The young birds stood in a row on the topmost rail of the fence and
were fed with the beetles which their parents gathered. When a careful
inspection was made a few days later, not a beetle, old or young, could be
found; the birds had swept them from the field and saved the potatoes.

It is easy to advise measures either for increasing the numbers of this
bird or inducing it to take up its residence on the farm. Naturally it
inhabits thin, open woods or groves, and the change from such places to
orchards would be simple--in fact, has already been made in some parts
of Pennsylvania and Ohio. In New England the bird is somewhat rare, and
perhaps the best that can be done here or elsewhere it to see that it is
thoroughly protected.


There are seven common species of swallows within the limits of the United
States, four of which have, to some extent, abandoned their primitive
nesting habits and attached themselves to the abodes of man. As a group,
swallows are gregarious and social in an eminent degree. Some species
build nests in large colonies, occasionally numbering thousands; in the
case of others only two or three pairs are found together; while still
others nest habitually in single pairs.

Their habits are too familiar to require any extended description. Their
industry and tirelessness are wonderful, and during the day it is rare to
see swallows at rest except just before their departure for the South,
when they assemble upon telegraph wires or upon the roofs of buildings,
apparently making plans for the journey.

[Illustration: Fig. 16.--Barn swallow.]

A noticeable characteristic of several of the species is their attachment
to man. In the eastern part of the country the barn swallow (_Chelidon
erythrogastra_) (fig. 16) now builds exclusively under roofs, having
entirely abandoned the rock caves and cliffs in which it formerly nested.
More recently the cliff swallow (_Petrochelidon lunifrons_) has found a
better nesting site under the eaves of buildings than was afforded by the
overhanging-cliffs of earth or stone which it once used, and to which it
still resorts occasionally in the East, and habitually in the unsettled
West. The martin (_Progne subis_) and white-bellied swallow (_Tachycineta
bicolor_) nest either in houses supplied for the purpose, in abandoned
nests of woodpeckers, or in natural crannies in rocks. The other species
have not yet abandoned their primitive habitats, but possibly may do so as
the country becomes more thickly settled.

Field observation will convince any ordinarily attentive person that the
food of swallows must consist of the smaller insects captured in mid-air,
or perhaps in some cases picked from the tops of tall grass or weeds. This
observation is borne out by an examination of stomachs, which shows that
the food consists of many small species of beetles which are much on the
wing; many species of Diptera (mosquitoes and their allies), with large
quantities of flying ants and a few insects of similar kinds. Most of them
are either injurious or annoying, and the numbers destroyed by swallows
are not only, beyond calculation, but almost beyond imagination.

The white-bellied swallow eats a considerable number of berries of the
bayberry, or wax myrtle. During migrations and in winter it has a habit of
roosting in these shrubs, and it probably obtains the fruit at that time.

It is a mistake to tear down the nests of a colony of cliff swallows from
the eaves of a barn, for so far from disfiguring a building the nests make
a picturesque addition, and their presence should be encouraged by every
device. It is said that cliff and barn swallows can be induced to build
their nests in a particular locality, otherwise suitable, by providing a
quantity of mud to be used as mortar. Barn swallows may also be encouraged
by cutting a small hole in the gable of the barn, while martins and
white-bellied swallows will be grateful for boxes like those for the
bluebird, but placed in some higher situation.


(_Ampelis cedrorum._)

The cedar waxwing, or cherry bird (fig. 17), inhabits the whole of the
United States, but is much less common in the West. Although the great
bulk of the species retires southward in winter, the bird is occasionally
found in every State during the colder months, especially if wild berries
are abundant. Its proverbial fondness for cherries has given rise to its
popular name, and much complaint has been made on account of the fruit
eaten. Observation has shown, however, that its depredations are confined
to trees on which the fruit ripens earliest, while later varieties are
comparatively untouched. This is probably owing to the fact that when wild
fruits ripen they are preferred to cherries, and really constitute the
bulk of the cedar bird's diet.

In 152 stomachs examined animal matter formed only 13 and vegetable 87
per cent, showing that the bird is not wholly a fruit eater. With the
exception of a few snails, all the animal food consisted of insects,
mainly beetles--and all but one more or less noxious, the famous elm
leaf-beetle being among the number. Bark or scale lice were found in
several stomachs, while the remainder of the animal food was made up of
grasshoppers, bugs, and the like. Three nestlings were found to have been
fed almost entirely on insects.

[Illustration: Fig. 17.--Cedar bird.]

Of the 87 per cent of vegetable food, 74 consisted entirely of wild fruit
or seeds and 13 of cultivated fruit, but a large part of the latter was
made up of blackberries and raspberries, and it is very doubtful whether
they represented cultivated varieties. Cherry stealing is the chief
complaint against this bird, but of the 152 stomachs only 9, all taken in
June and July, contained any remains of cultivated cherries, and these
aggregate but 5 per cent of the year's food. As 41 stomachs were collected
in those months, it is evident that the birds do not live to any great
extent on cultivated cherries.

Although the cherry bird is not a great insect destroyer, it does some
good work in this way, since it probably rears its young mostly upon
insect food. On the other hand, it does not devour nearly as much
cultivated fruit as has been asserted, and most, if not all, of the
damage can be prevented. The bird should therefore be considered a useful
species, and as such should be accorded all possible protection.


(_Galeoscoptes carolinensis._)

The catbird (fig. 18), like the thrasher, is a lover of swamps, and
delights to make its home in a tangle of wild grapevines, greenbriars,
and shrubs, where it is safe from attack and can find its favorite food
in abundance. It is found throughout the United States west to the Rocky
Mountains; occurs also in Washington, Idaho, and Utah, and extends
northward into British America. It winters in the Southern States, Cuba,
Mexico, and Central America.

[Illustration: Fig. 18.--Catbird.]

The catbird always attracts attention, and the intruder upon its haunts
soon understands that he is not welcome. There is no mistaking the meaning
of the sneering voice with which he is saluted, and there is little doubt
that this gave rise to the popular prejudice against the bird; but the
feeling has been increased by the fact that the species is sometimes a
serious annoyance to fruit growers. All such reports, however, seem to
come from the prairie country of the West. In New England, according
to the writer's experience the catbird is seldom seen about gardens
or orchards; the reason may possibly be found in the fact that on the
prairies fruit-bearing shrubs which afford so large a part of this bird's
food are conspicuously absent. With the settlement of this region comes an
extensive planting of orchards, vineyards, and small fruit gardens, which
furnish shelter and nesting sites for the catbird, as well as for other
species, with a consequent large increase in their numbers, but without
providing the native fruits upon which they have been accustomed to feed.
Under these circumstances, what is more natural than for the birds to
turn to cultivated fruits for their supplies? The remedy is obvious;
cultivated fruits can be protected by the simple expedient of planting
wild species or others which are preferred by the birds. Some experiments
with catbirds in captivity showed that the Russian mulberry was preferred
to any cultivated fruit that could be offered.

The stomachs of 213 catbirds wore examined and found to contain 44 per
cent of animal (insect) and 56 per cent of vegetable food.[3] Ants,
beetles, caterpillars, and grasshoppers constitute three-fourths of the
animal food, the remainder being made up of bugs, miscellaneous insects
and spiders. One-third of the vegetable food consists of cultivated
fruits, or those which may be cultivated, such as strawberries,
raspberries, and blackberries; but while we debit the bird with the whole
of this, it is probable--and in the eastern and well-wooded part of the
country almost certain--that a large part was obtained from wild vines.
The rest of the vegetable matter is mostly wild fruit, such as cherries,
dogwood, sour gum, elder berries, greenbriar, spice berries, black alder,
sumac, and poison ivy.

[3] The investigation of the food of the catbird, brown thrasher, and
house wren was made by Mr. Sylvester D. Judd and published in the Yearbook
of the Department of Agriculture for 1895, pp. 405-418.

Although the catbird sometimes does considerable harm by destroying small
fruit, the bird can not be considered injurious. On the contrary, in most
parts of the country it does far more good than harm, and the evil it does
can be reduced appreciably by the methods already pointed out.


(_Harporhynchus rufus._)

The brown thrasher (fig. 19) breeds throughout the United States east
of the Great Plains, and winters in the south Atlantic and Gulf States.
It occasionally visits the garden or orchard, but nests in swamps or in
groves standing upon low ground. While it generally prefers a thickly
grown retreat, it sometimes builds in a pile of brush at a distance from
trees. On account of its more retiring habits it is not so conspicuous
as the robin, although it may be equally abundant. Few birds can excel
the thrasher in sweetness of song, but it is so shy that its notes are
not heard often enough to be appreciated. Its favorite time for singing
is the early morning, when, perched on the top of some tall bush or low
tree, it gives an exhibition of vocal powers which would do credit to a
mockingbird. Indeed, in the South, where the latter bird is abundant, the
thrasher is known as the sandy mocker.

The food of the brown thrasher consists of both fruit and insects. An
examination of 121 stomachs showed 30 per cent of vegetable and 64 of
animal food, practically all insects, and mostly taken in spring before
fruit is ripe. Half the insects were beetles, and the remainder chiefly
grasshoppers, caterpillars, bugs, and spiders. A few predaceous beetles
were eaten, but, on the whole, its work as an insect destroyer may be
considered beneficial.

[Illustration: Fig. 19.--Brown thrasher.]

Eight per cent of the food is made up of fruits like raspberries and
currants which are or may be cultivated, but the raspberries at least
are as likely to belong to wild as to cultivated varieties. Grain, made
up mostly of scattered kernels of oats and corn, is merely a trifle,
amounting to only 3 per cent, and though some of the corn may be taken
from newly planted fields it is amply paid for by the May beetles which
are eaten at the same time. The rest of the food consists of wild fruit or
seeds. Taken all in all, the brown thrasher is a useful bird, and probably
does just as good work in its secluded retreats as it would about the
garden, for the swamps and groves are no doubt the breeding grounds of
many insects that migrate thence to attack the farmers' crops.


(_Troglodytes aëdon._)

The diminutive house wren (fig. 20) frequents barns and gardens, and
particularly old orchards in which the trees are partially decayed.
He makes his nest in a hollow branch where perhaps a woodpecker had a
domicile the year before, but he is a pugnacious character, and if he
happens to fancy one of the boxes that have been put up for the bluebirds
he does not hesitate to take it. He is usually not slow to avail himself
of boxes, gourds, tin cans, or empty jars placed for his accommodation.

As regards food habits, the house wren is entirely beneficial.
Practically, he can be said to live upon animal food alone, for an
examination of 62 stomachs showed that 98 per cent of the stomach
contents was made up of insects or their allies, and only 2 per cent was
vegetable, including bits of grass and similar matter, evidently taken by
accident with the insects. Half of this food consisted of grasshoppers
and beetles; the remainder of caterpillars, bugs, and spiders. As the
house wren is a prolific breeder, frequently rearing from twelve to
sixteen young in a season, a family of these birds must cause considerable
reduction in the number of insects in a garden. Wrens are industrious
foragers, searching every tree, shrub, or vine for caterpillars, examining
every post and rail of the fence, and every cranny in the wall for insects
or spiders. They do not, as a rule, fly far afield, but work industriously
in the immediate vicinity of their nests. In this way they become valuable
aids in the garden or orchard, and by providing suitable nesting boxes
they may be induced to take up residence where their services will do most
good. Their eccentricities in the selection of a home are well-known.
Almost anything, from an old cigar box to a tomato can, an old teapot, a
worn-out boot, or a horse's skull, is acceptable, provided it be placed
well up from the ground and out of reach of cats and other prowlers.

[Illustration: Fig. 20.--House wren.]

It does not seem possible to have too many wrens, and every effort should
be made to protect them and to encourage their nesting about the house.


(_Merula migratoria._)

The robin (fig. 21) is found throughout the United States east of the
Great Plains, and is represented farther west by a slightly different
subspecies. It extends far north through Canada, and is found even in
Alaska. Although the great bulk of the species leaves the Northern States
in winter, a few individuals remain in sheltered swamps, where wild
berries furnish an abundant supply of food.

The robin builds its nest in orchards and gardens, and occasionally takes
advantage of a nook about the house, or under the shelter of the roof of
a shed or outbuilding. Its food habits have sometimes caused apprehension
to the fruit grower, for it is fond of cherries and other small fruits,
particularly the earlier varieties. For this reason many complaints have
been lodged against it, and some persons have gone so far as to condemn
the bird. The robin is, however, too valuable to be exterminated, and
choice fruit can be readily protected from its depredations.

[Illustration: Fig. 21.--Robin.]

An examination of 330 stomachs shows that over 42 per cent of its food is
animal matter, principally insects, while the remainder is made up largely
of small fruits or berries. Over 19 per cent consists of beetles, about
one-third of which are useful ground beetles, taken mostly in spring and
fall, when other insects are scarce. Grasshoppers makeup about one-tenth
of the whole food, but in August comprise over 30 per cent. Caterpillars
form about G per cent, while the rest of the animal food, about 7 per
cent, is made up of various insects, with a few spiders, snails, and
angle-worms. All the grasshoppers, caterpillars, and bugs, with in large
portion of the beetles, are injurious, and it is safe to say that noxious
insects comprise more than one-third of the robin's food.

Vegetable food forms nearly 58 per cent of the stomach contents, over 47
being wild fruits, and only a little more than 4 per cent being possibly
cultivated varieties. Cultivated fruit amounting to about 25 per cent was
found in the stomachs in June and July, but only a trifle in August. Wild
fruit, on the contrary, is eaten in every month, and constitutes a staple
food during half the year. No less than forty-one species were identified
in the stomachs of these, the most important were four species of dogwood,
three of wild cherries, three of wild grapes, four of greenbriar, two
of holly, two of elder; and cranberries, huckleberries, blueberries,
barberries, service berries, cranberries, and persimmons, with four
species of sumac, and various other seeds not strictly fruit.

The depredations of the robin seem to be confined to the smaller and
earlier fruits, and few, if any, complaints have been made against it
on the score of eating apples, peaches, pears, grapes, or even late
cherries. By the time these are ripe the forests and hedges are teeming
with wild fruits, which the bird evidently finds more to its taste. The
cherry, unfortunately, ripens so early that it, is almost the only fruit
accessible at a time when the bird's appetite has been sharpened by a
long-continued diet of insects, earthworms, and dried berries, and it is
no wonder that at first the rich juicy morsels are greedily eaten. In view
of the fact that the robin takes ten times as much wild as cultivated
fruit, it seems unwise to destroy the birds to save so little. Nor is this
necessary, for by a little care both may be preserved. Where much fruit is
grown, it is no great loss to give up one tree to the birds; and in some
cases the crop can be protected by scarecrows. Where wild fruit is not
abundant, a few fruit-bearing shrubs and vines judiciously planted will
serve for ornament and provide food for the birds. The Russian mulberry
is a vigorous grower and a profuse bearer, ripening at the same time as
the cherry, and, so far as observation has gone, most birds scorn to
prefer its fruit to any other. It is believed that a number of these trees
planted around the garden or orchard would fully protect the more valuable

Many persons have written about the delicate discrimination of birds for
choice fruit, asserting that only the finest and costliest varieties are
selected. This is contrary to all careful scientific observation. Birds,
unlike human beings, seem to prefer fruit like the mulberry, that is
sweetly insipid, or that has some astringent or bitter quality like the
chokecherry or holly. The so-called black alder (_Ilex verticillata_),
which is a species of holly, has bright scarlet berries, as bitter as
quinine, that ripen late in October, and remain on the bushes through
November, and though frost grapes, the fruit of the Virginia creeper,
and several species of dogwood are abundant at the same time, the birds
eat the berries of the holly to a considerable extent, as shown by the
seeds found in the stomachs. It is moreover a remarkable fact that the
wild fruits upon which the birds feed largely are those which man neither
gathers for his own use nor adopts for cultivation.


(_Sialia sialis._)

The common and familiar bluebird (fig. 22) is an inhabitant of all the
States east of the Rocky Mountains from the Gulf of Mexico northward into
Canada. It winters as far north as southern Illinois, in the Mississippi
Valley, and Pennsylvania in the east; in spring it is one of the first
migrants to arrive in the Northern States, and is always welcomed as an
indication of the final breaking up of winter. It frequents orchards and
gardens, where it builds its nest in hollow trees, or takes advantage of a
nesting box provided by the enterprising farmer's boy.

[Illustration: Fig. 22.--Bluebird.]

So far as known, this bird has not been accused of stealing fruit or of
preying upon any crops. An examination of 205 stomachs showed that 76 per
cent of the food consists of insects and their allies, while the other
24 per cent is made up of various vegetable substances, found mostly in
stomachs taken in winter. Beetles constitute 28 per cent of the whole
food, grasshoppers 22, caterpillars 11, and various insects, including
quite a number of spiders, comprise the remainder of the insect diet. All
these are more or less harmful, except a few predaceous beetles, which
amount to 8 per cent, but in view of the large consumption of grasshoppers
and caterpillars, we can at least condone this offense, if such it may be
called. The destruction of grasshoppers is very noticeable in the months
of August and September, when these insects form more than 60 per cent of
the diet.

It is evident that in the selection of its food the bluebird is governed
more by abundance than by choice. Predaceous beetles are eaten in spring,
as they are among the first insects to appear; but in early summer
caterpillars form an important part of the diet, and are replaced a
little later by grasshoppers. Beetles are eaten at all times, except when
grasshoppers are more easily obtained.

So far as its vegetable food is concerned, the bluebird is positively
harmless. The only trace of any useful product in the stomachs consisted
of a few blackberry seeds, and even these more probably belonged to wild
than cultivated varieties. Following is a list of the various seeds
which were found: Blackberry, chokeberry, juniperberry, pokeberry,
partridgeberry, greenbriar, Virginia creeper, bittersweet, holly,
strawberry bush, false spikenard, wild sarsaparilla, sumac (several
species), rose haws, sorrel, ragweed, grass, and asparagus. This list
shows how little the bluebird depends upon the farm or garden to supply
its needs, and indicates that by encouraging the growth of some of these
plants, many of which are highly ornamental, the bird can be induced to
make its home on the premises.

Bluebirds are so well known that it seems unnecessary to urge anything
more in their favor; but in view of the fact that large numbers were
destroyed during the severe storm of 1895, more than ordinary vigilance
should be exercised in protecting them until they have regained their
normal abundance.

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber Note

Figures were moved so as to prevent splitting paragraphs. Hyphenation
was standardized to the most prevalent form used in the publication.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "USDA Farmers' Bulletin No. 54 - Some Common Birds In Their Relation to Agriculture" ***

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