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Home > Books > The Witchery of Archery > Chapter 12: The battles of the birds
Chapter XII
The battles of the birds
Part 1 of 2

THE history of battles has always been full of fascination. From the simple sentences of the Old Testament and the rolling phrases of Homer, wherein are embodied the exploits of king, patriarch, and demi-god, down to the carefully worded and prosaic modern histories, those records are most interesting which treat of conflict and death; especially attractive are the accounts of single combats, in which individual meets individual, and the strongest, quickest, or cleverest wins the field. More than half the charm of chivalry lay in these contests. Knight met knight with a crash, and he went down who could not bear the shock. Who of us does not still love the tales of our youth-"The Scottish Chiefs," "Ivanhoe," and all those romances whose central figure is an athletic hero who always slays everything before him? And who of us, if he will make free confession, can deny that often and often he has longed to be a " free lance," in a country of romance-a Robin Hood in a Sherwood Forest, or a mighty prince in disguise, riding away as a common knight to the Holy Land to fight for the sepulchre of Christ?

Whence conies this universal spirit of combativeness and love of mastery over our fellows-this secret or only half-hidden defiance of law and common right?

It is not peculiar to mankind The fishes, the beasts, the birds, the reptiles, the insects, every-thing possessed of the ordinary animal powers, all love adventure on the field of fight. It has been for years a part of my recreation in the wild woods to study with minute care the habits of birds; and some notes of them here may interest, if they fail to benefit, the archer in a practical way.

One whose acquaintance with the beautiful and happy songsters of the May groves has not been of the most intimate and unreserved sort cannot readily be made to believe that, the quiet and innocent-mannered nuthatch, the demure pewee, and the tender-eyed dove, to say nothing of the robins, the finches, the thrushes, and the starlings, some-times give themselves over to the most vulgar brawls and cruel combats ever witnessed by human eyes. Yet it is true beyond hint of dispute.

That trim, gentle-looking, drab-colored bird, erroneously called turtle-dove by dwellers in the United States, and generally deemed so utterly innocent and pure, that to kill it for the table or any other use is branded as heinous in the extreme, is not so innocent after all. Its moaning, sad-sounding voice is a mockery and a cheat. Its soft, dark eyes are a sham; its sober Quaker garb is calculated to deceive; its timid movements are not to be trusted. When once it has been insulted or injured by one of its kind, the dove becomes as cruel and outrageously heartless as any murderer can be. Some years ago I witnessed a fight between two female moaning-doves which for utter barbarousness could not be exceeded. I was angling in a brook for sun-perch, half prone on a grassy bank, lost in a brown study, with a cigar between my lips, when I happened to see a dove alight on a gnarled bough of a plane tree a few yards distant. Immediately it began to coo in that dolefully plaintive strain so well known to every lover of nature, and was soon joined by a male, who perched himself within a foot or two of her. I espied their nest, not yet finished, in the fork of an iron-wood tree near by. The birds made very expressive signs to each other with their heads by a series of bows, nods, and sideways motions, of which I understood enough to know that some intruder was near-perhaps they meant me. The fish were not biting any too well, but the shade was pleasant and the grass fragrant, the sound of the water very soothing, and the flow of the wind steady and cooling, so I did not care to move just to humor the whim of two billing doves. It proved, however, after all, I was not the cause of alarm. Another female dove presently dropped like a hawk from a dark, dense mass of leaves above the pair, and struck the first on the back with beak and wings. A fight ensued, witnessed with calm interest by myself and the male dove.

At first the combatants struggled desperately together on the bough, fiercely beating each other with their wings, and plucking out the feathers from the breast and neck, all the time uttering low, querulous notes, different from anything I had ever before heard. Pretty soon they fell off the bough, and came whirling down upon the ground, where they continued the battle with constantly increasing fury, their eyes fairly flashing fire, and cutting and thrusting with their beaks like swordsmen. Blood began to show itself about their heads, and in places their necks were quite bare of feathers. When at last one of them became so exhausted that further struggle was impossible, the other proceeded to take its stand upon its helpless opponent, and would have quickly made an end of it had I not interfered. The vanquished bird was minus an eye, and was unable to fly for some minutes. The secret of the battle was jealousy. The male sat by, and watched in a nonchalant way until it was all over, when he very lovingly strutted up to the victorious dove, and began cooing in a low, soothing tone. From that day to this I have repudiated the figure "innocent as a dove," and, whenever opportunity offered, have sped a two-ounce arrow full at the breast of the bird, widow or no widow. When properly cooked by par-boiling, stuffing, and baking, a dove is a choice bit for the table. While on this subject I may add that in the Southern States of our country doves often congregate in innumerable swarms, like pigeons, and do great damage to the pea-fields; yet even there the prejudice against killing them is so great that you rarely see a trap or spring set for them, or a gun levelled at them.

Many of our merriest singing-birds are very ill-tempered little vixens, spending full a quarter of their time in noisy quarrels and stubborn assaults and defences. The cat-bird, that sleek, slate-colored little mocker, which haunts our privet-hedges and red-haw bushes, is an inveterate brawler and bully. I saw one attack a blue-jay once and get killed in a twinkling for its pains. When first assaulted the jay evidently thought his assailant a hawk. He fled precipitately, squealing out his terror vociferously; but no sooner did he discover his mistake than he whirled furiously about and broke the cat-bird's neck with one snap of his powerful bill. I have often seen a cat-bird dog at the heels, so to speak, of a brown thrush or great crested fly-catcher, and never rest satisfied till it received a sound drubbing, and had to fly ingloriously away to save his scalp from being pecked off.

By a fiction of the poets, birds all sing praise, if they sing at all, to the great Creator. Of course, this sounds well, and may have some moral foundation; but I can come as near proving that a cat-bird curses, and swears, and flings out all sorts of abusive epithets at its enemies, when angry, as any one can to establishing the song-praise theory. How these little fellows can fret, and scold, and hiss, and imprecate-yes, imprecate! Let a sparrow hawk, or screech-owl, or butcher-bird go near one's nest, and, if you observe closely, your imagination must be very torpid indeed, if you cannot hear "Sacré-bleu," and all that, scattered around pretty freely. I have seen one fairly dance in ecstasy of anger when nothing but a poor little brown lizard came near it. A pair of cat-birds had their nest and young in a currant-hedge of the garden belonging to a farm-house where I was lodging one spring, and I used to amuse myself by exciting the anger of the mother-bird. To do this I had only to hang a bit of red cloth near the nest in her absence, and await the result. No sooner would she return than such a twittering, and squeaking, and scolding would begin as only a cat-bird could generate; and when she found out there was " no fight" in the rag, she would eye me sitting at my window, and mew triumphantly, as if she well knew who it was that troubled her equanimity. A war of words-or rather a war of notes-is a thing of frequent occurrence between a cat-bird and common brown thrush. Early in the morning through the month of May they may be heard screaming their respective medleys at the extreme pitch of their voices from neighboring trees, each songster maliciously bent on drowning the other's voice. The common barn-yard cock is given to a like ambition in the matter of "crowing down " all competitors. Speaking of the brown thrush reminds me that I ought to record right here a very singular combat witnessed by myself and brother, between one of these gay singers and a blue-jay (what bird is not compelled to fight the latter?), and in which the jay was finally discomfited and beaten. We were lymg in the shade of a wide-spreading wild-plum tree on the edge of a little glade. Near us was a clump of sugar-haw bushes, in one of which we had discovered a brown thrush's nest. The bird was incubating. A blue-jay, flitting about on mischief intent, as, in fact, a blue-jay always is, happened to spy her, and immediately attacked her, driving her for refuge into the thick, thorny foliage above the nest. This seemed an easy turn for the jay, which at once prepared to have a feast of the eggs. But no sooner had it perched on the rim of the nest than the thrush, with a savage squall, plunged down from its hiding-place and struck it a heavy blow in the back. The jay re-treated in disorder, but warily returned again when all seemed still. With infinite caution in every movement, it hopped from twig to twig, turning its crested head this way and that, till it reached the nest. Again, with a shrill scream, the thrush pounced from its hiding-place, using its long, sharp beak for a sword to stab the jay's exposed and de-fenceless back. Again and again the would-be robber fled and returned, each time to get rougher usage, and, finally, as if utterly outdone, with rapidly repeated cries of "De jay! de jay! de jay! ". it flitted away into the depths of the woods, to come no more.

It would take quite a volume to tell the many atrocities I have seen committed by blue-jays. These birds are the cunningest, smartest, most wise, and the least scrupulous, of all feathered things. There is no depth of infamy and outrage to which the jay has not descended. I have seen one deliberately devour, one by one, a nest full of young sparrows, and then chase their mother for a like purpose. Another was caught in the act of pecking, with savage brutality, at the eyes of a hare fast in a negro's steel trap; while such tricks as wantonly destroying a finch's or pewee's nest are of daily occurrence with the bird in spring and summer. No wild thing, feathered or furred, less than an eagle or a fox, escapes this universal tormentor and executioner. The owls and hawks are, however, his special objects of hate, and the observant sportsman or naturalist rarely spends a day in the woods without seeing a hen-hawk, a great horned-owl, or an unfortunate screech-owl, surrounded and assailed by a noisy pack of blue-jays. For hours they will follow one of these victims, screaming at it, pouncing upon it at every safe opportunity, their numbers constantly increasing, until finally the hawk or owl, by a long, strong flight, or by diving into some hollow tree, evades and frustrates them. I once saw a great swarm of jays thus annoying and maltreating a little screech-owl, and I was delighted to the full when the big-eyed victim of their malignity suddenly pounced upon one of them, and, despite their screams and attacks, deliberately devoured it. It is not often that a screech-owl can master so large a prey, which leads me to believe that desperation gave it unwonted courage and strength. Not unfrequently a pack of blue-jays will spend the larger portion of a day vainly squealing and chattering about the hollow of a tree or bough in which a flying-squirrel has taken up its abode; and one of the commonest sights in western or southern woods in summer is a poor, jaded, and worried whip-poor-will, or bull-bat, beating blindly about from place to place, with a jeering swarm of merciless jays following it. But the yellow-billed cuckoo has a most summary way of dealing with jays, which works like a charm. No sooner does the latter appear in the vicinity of the yellow-hill's nest than, without warning or a moment's time for preparation, it is vigorously assailed and beaten off to a great distance, glad to escape alive. Blue-jays destroy large numbers of eggs and young birds every season, and not unfrequently the weaker finches, even when full-grown, are killed and eaten by them. Their victims are held between their feet, and plucked to pieces as a hawk or owl does it. In the Middle and Southern States, where the cardinal red-bird is abundant, fierce battles constantly occur between them and the jays.

I was fishing for bass on that beautiful rivulet, the Oothcaloga. The cry of a red-bird attracted my attention, and I looked just in time to see one of those little hawks, commonly called blue-tailed darters, pouncing upon the grossbeak. The poor little victim flew in a right line for a short distance, then darted over and under a large limb of a sycamore tree. Now commenced a most singular exhibition. The grossbeak and its pursuer began flying round and round that limb in a vertical cir­cle of about two feet in diameter. With each revolution their velocity increased. Here was a struggle for life-one of those flights to which the first white settlers of Kentucky became used be-fore their pioneer days were over. I could not help getting excited. No race was ever more earnestly contested; the stake was life and death. The body of the branch around which they were making this singular flight was, perhaps, fifty feet above the level of the stream and directly over it. No foliage intervened, so I had a fair view of the whole struggle. At first the hawk was about half the circumference of the circle of flight behind the cardinal, and for several rounds this difference was evenly maintained. Presently, however, the pur­suer began slowly to close on his victim as their dizzy rounds became swifter and swifter. The hawk whirled over and over laterally in his flight, thus accelerating his forward movement by a kind of screw propulsion. The flight of the grossbeak was an ecstasy of effort. It seemed to use every feather of its body. As space between the pursuer and pursued gradually closed, both birds began to utter short, sharp cries, full of intense excitement. I put aside my fishing-rod and gazed 0n this strange scene with every nerve strung to the highest. You need not smile. There was something akin to the awful in this exhibition, no matter if the actors were mere tiny birds. A tiger chasing a man would not have been more exciting for the moment.

Suddenly the birds put on a great burst of speed. The movement of their wings became so rapid that a low humming sound like that of a spinning-wheel was distinctly audible. So swift, indeed, did their flight become, that the hawk looked like a wreath of grayish blue smoke and the grossbeak a belt of scarlet flame. Of course this did not last long. It could not. Such intense muscular exertion rarely extends over a lapse of many seconds. In less time than it takes to write the words of this sentence, the hawk struck his victim, and, so exhausted were they, both fell int0 the stream. This saved the red-bird. No sooner did they strike the water than I gave a yell, which so frightened the hawk that he abandoned his hard earned game. The grossbeak rose heavily from the water and slowly, droopingly flew away. I never think of that wonderful circular flight for life, that red-and-blue wheel of fate, with its intensely excited living periphery, without a thrill that is indescribable.

The season of love-making is the season of song, and likewise the season 0f battles, among the birds. About the time the males begin to strut and look about them for wives, rumors 0f strife and hints of war begin to pervade the sweet air and sunshine of spring. The males fight for possession 0f the comely females, and in turn the females struggle and boldly battle for the queenship of the gayly-feathered males. Then the woods are stirred with song and shaken with combat. The rustle of wings is continuous, and the cries of triumph and shrieks of defeat are blended together into what the pious have named "anthems of praise." Here sits a yellow-throated warbler, rocking 0n a green spray of young leaves, gurgling a very rapture of music in his tiny mouth, and in answer t0 his sweetly erotic song a soberer-tinted mate comes to rock by his side. Like a flash of flame, another male strikes him, and the two roll 0ver and over in the air, fighting desperately. The female joins the victor, and away they g0 on their love-journey through cool, green groves. Another female comes along, likes the look of Mr. Yellowthroat,

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