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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 2 of 2

and forthwith attacks. If victorious, she joins wings with her lord, and floats away down a cur-rent of bloom-scented air, to find a good place for a nest. So with all the wild, gay singers of the woods. Their days of glory are their days of battle. Like earnest knights of fairy-land, tricked in shining armor and richly tinted plumes, these little adventurers of the groves charge down the dusky aisles and across the bright glades to cross lances with all comers of whatever prowess or renown. You hear a sharp cry and a little crash as of suddenly crumpled velvet, when the tiny combatants collide in the lists, and after the fight is over, a brilliant feather, slowly falling through the soft air, is left as a souvenir of the momentous conflict. Two male orioles fighting in mid-air is a pretty sight. Think of animated " flakes of flames," as Dr. Holmes names them, whirling over and over, and round and round, now rushing together with a flash and a hiss, now flying apart to seek better advantage, and anon beginning a sparring process, with wing and beak, so rapid and involved that no human eye can follow the manoeuvres! Sharp, quick, snapping sounds of crossing quills and closing mandibles tell of sincere work going on in that revolving mist of jet and gold.

Birds seem to hold the law of hereditary right in high esteem, contesting every adversary claim to the death. The golden-winged woodpecker, though by no means an aggressive warrior, fights yearly battles for his ancestral hall in some half decayed tree defending his hereditament against the repeated and well-planned attacks of the white-tailed woodpecker, and the common bluebird. Naturalists have quite pardonably fallen into a mistake in attempting to explain this golden-wing's object in nearly always excavating the receptacle for its nest close up under a projecting knot or limb. This is not done in order to have a water-shed above the hole, but is a military precaution to prevent the white-tail and bluebird from stationing themselves directly above, while the golden-wing is in the cavity, and pecking his defenceless head as he comes out. I have often witnessed with great interest the efforts of bluebirds to dislodge a flicker in order to occupy its excavation for their own purposes. For days together a pair of bluebirds will worry and scold and peck at, and in every possible way annoy their victim, and if for a single moment it leaves the hole, in goes a blue-bird, and its home is gone! Nor is the flicker or golden-wing the bluebird's only subject of outrage and ouster. The little, hairy woodpeckers, the chickadees, and even the swallows and martins, are driven from their homes without being allowed to remove so much as the soft lining thereof. Then, in turn, these beautiful little vandals fight with each other for possession of the conquered castles.

The wrens, and chickadees, and pewees have their battles, and even the humming-birds are extremely bellicose. By watching diligently in a flower-garden for a few hours in fine spring weather, any one may see two humming-birds take a tilt in a style worthy of admiration. Usually, one bird sits on a flower-stem, holding his long, sharp bill in a perpendicular attitude, while the other sweeps back and forth, like an animated pendulum, through the arc of a circle, subtended by a cord of about ten feet in length, the middle point of which rests on the extremity of the sitting bird's bill. With each vibration the attacking party utters a keen rasping chirp, and tries to strike its antagonist with its wings; but the bill is always presented like a lance, on which to receive all blows. These Lilliputian battles are of short duration, and rarely end in noticeable damage to either combatant. The animus, however, is present, the birds giving every evidence of supreme anger and malice. A few of the stronger of our small birds are famous for their prowess in battle, and the black-headed fly-catcher is commonly called king-bird, on account of its ability to put to flight even the great hen-hawk. By some this fly-catcher is called "bee-martin," as it sometimes sits near a hive and destroys great numbers of the little workers. I have seen a pair of these birds assaulting a large hawk in mid-air and forcing it to mount higher and higher, till at length it looked no larger than a swallow assaiied by a couple of hornets. When an intelligent farmer finds that a bee-martin's nest is near his house he has no fear that the hawks will feast on his barn-yard fowls, or the crows get away with many eggs; nor will the woodpeckers have peaceful possession of his apple and cherry trees.

Speaking of woodpeckers, the red-headed, white-tailed variety is the most unruly, ill-tempered, and hopelesely quarrelsome bird in the world. He quarrels and fights for mere love of the business. He fights for cause and without pretence of cause. He actually neglects taking sufficient food in his hurry to be all the time in a brawl, consequently half the specimens I have taken were poor to emaciation when killed. I do not exaggerate in the least. For example, I once watched a white-tail for three hours constantly, during which time it did not take a morsel of food. I killed it, and found its stomach (craw) quite empty and its intestines almost so. But all this time it had been excitedly busying itself with attacking every bird it could find, all the time chattering and screaming at the top of its voice. It was late in autumn, and the oak and beech trees were loaded with mast, and these woodpeckers were pretending to store the acorns and beech-nuts away in every crevice they could find. My particular bird seemed to have taken upon himself the task of bothering every other one all he could, while all the rest seemed bent on the same errand. Such a noise as they made! Blackbirds would have been shamed into silence. A houseful of women hungry for a chat would have been silence impersonated beside them! One bird could not perch upon a limb or alight on the side of a tree trunk for a single moment, without being furiously assailed by from one to five others. Their continuous cries of "Che-e-e-w, chew, che-e-w!" were next to equalled by the ceaseless flapping of their gay wings. One little incident I well remember: I was closely following the movements of my bird and noting his plan of attack and defence, when suddenly he hid himself, as if from fear of attack, under a projecting knot. At the same time another one flew to the knot and perched himself on the top of it, holding an acorn in his bill. How closely my bird drew himself up to hide! How perfectly still he sat! I could not understand the game. The other bird, all unconscious of the proximity of mine, proceeded to pound the acorn into a crevice in the knot, then flew away. Instantly my bird took the vacated place, and, with one twitch of his beak, tweaked out the acorn and flung it away, screaming like a delighted demon. His ill-gotten joy was of short duration, however, for the wronged woodpecker knew the import of that scream, and came back like a bolt, striking my bird from the knot, and chasing him vigorously away. Evidently my bird was a coward, wreaking a mean revenge for some past indignity at the other's hands -or rather, beak-by thus watching his chance to rob his little treasure-houses.

It is something remarkable that our great destructive birds of prey, the eagles, hawks, and owls, are not at all quarrelsome or bellicose, excepting when in search of food or when attacked. True, they are all pirates and robbers, never hesitating to acquire food by any foul means; but they rarely unbend their dignity and reserve enough to engage in foolish brawls. An eagle will strike a fish-hawk, but it is only to make him give up his fish; and the great horned bird of night will occasionally make the screech-owl hand over its field-rat. In these cases there is no fight. The weaker is simply robbed by the stronger bird. But occasionally these mighty kings of the air undertake to do battle. At such times they perform no mincing work. They literally tear each other to shreds. One of the combatants must die, sometimes even both. A friend described to me a contest he had witnessed between a great horned-owl and a hen-hawk. It arose from a struggle over a hare which the owl had seized and which the hawk attempted to take possession of. The sun was down, but not yet dark. In the struggle the hare escaped, and the powerful birds, enraged at being cheated out of an excellent supper, fell at each other with the fury of demons. The owl soon destroyed the hawk; but while the fight lasted it was, as my friend described it, desperately cruel and bloody. He said that the carcass of that unfortunate hawk looked, after death, much as if it "had been run through a dull sausage-grinding machine!" An old negro, whose reputation for "truth and veracity in the neighbor-hood in which he lived" was above the average, is my authority for the following: The aforesaid negro was somewhat of a chicken-fancier in his humble way, and among a small collection of poultry in his collection was a red game-cock possessed of great strength and dangerous spurs. The chicken-house was an old log-cabin, with no shutters to door or window. One bright moonlight night in the wee sma' hours our colored friend heard a hen squall. Suspecting that some of his brethren were making too free with his property, he leaped out of bed and rushed to the poultry-house. Just as he reached the door his game-cock rushed out bearing an owl upon his back. Taken somewhat aback by this strange display, the old negro stood gazing in mute surprise, till the cock, bearing his heavy burden, had run out from the shadows of the house into the bright moonlight, where he suddenly stopped and shook off his assailant, and then, quick as lightning, dealt it a blow with his spurs in the head. According to my informant, "Dat rooster did eberlastin'ly knock dat owl to hell and back!"

The aquatic birds have generally been considered among the inoffensive creatures, and consequently very little is to be found in the books of natural history touching their ways of warfare. But the herons and cranes, the geese and ducks, the plovers and rails-in fact, all the water-birds, great and small-are good fighters, and much given to squabbling. It has often chanced, in my wanderings by the streams and lakes of the West and South, that combats, especially in the heron family, have taken place directly under my sight. The common green-heron, or fly-up-the-creek, is a notorious bully among the lesser fry of aquatic birds-the sandpipers, kildees, teetersnipes, and small plovers having a deadly fear of him; while the great blue-heron, though much inclined to a dignified, musing-alone way of deporting himself, is quite often guilty of assault and battery upon the person of any and every one of the whole list of swimmers and waders. In the heron nesting-places on the borders of the Southern lagoons and lakes, where every tree is heavy with great, uncouth stick-heaps having each a heron on it, occasionally everything goes wrong with the rookery-and then what muttering and fighting! what flapping of long wings and what wriggling of serpent-like necks! what darting of sharp, cruel beaks! It is a free, promiscuous fight, and soon over, without much hurt being done to any of the contestants. The pretty wood-ducks and green and blue-winged teals, the tiny bufflehead ducks and the tidy scaup-ducks, all are given to insulting and wantonly injuring each other, whether of kin or not. The drakes, especially of the wood-ducks, do some desperate fighting, though from the nature of things they cannot inflict serious injury.

I could fill a volume with the wars of the feathered tribes; but I have already set the reader to thinking. I feel a little like an iconoclast in thus breaking up one of the prettiest of the fictions of poets and rhapsodists; but it is the business of the investigator to blow the mist off from things, even if it is rose-colored.

The conclusion I have reached is that bird-life, so far from being that happy, song-glorified, praiseful existence so extolled by poets, sacred and profane, is one scene of restless struggle and strife, hunger and dread, and fear, and pain. Beset on all sides by deadly foes, continually pressed by hunger, all the time under the influence of some controlling passion, roaming continually by day, and hovering in dark dread by night, how can they be happy? Look closely at the eyes of the canary or mocking-bird while it is singing in the cage. Is the expression there a happy one? You see a sad, worried, longing gleam that has no joy at its root. Just so with the wild ones. Their eyes betray the soulless shallowness of their so-called songs. Do not dispute this until you have investigated for yourself, and then you will not. Go lie in the shadow of a hedge bordering a wheat or oats plat in early summer, and wait till a meadow-lark or field-sparrow perches near you, then with a good opera-glass scan him while he sings. Once you have caught the expression of his eyes, his song never again will sound the same. Ever afterwards you will hear in it nothing but meaningless, inarticulate rasping, or, at best, a liquid medley of involuntary notes. Put yourself in the oriole's place. It is May. The leaves are coming out on the maples, and the tassels adorn the oaks. It is early morning of a cloudless day. You spread your bright wings, and start in search of breakfast. From twig to twig, from spray to spray you flit, finding here a little larva, and there a bit of worm, just enough to keep you hungry. A blue-jay attacks you and drubs you; a house-cat makes a lunge at you as you fly past a garden wall; a boy throws a stone at you. Frightened almost to death, you seek the depths of a thick grove, where a goshawk tries to catch you, and, escaping from it, you come near flying right into the claws of a blue-tailed darter! And so all day you flit from place to place, all the time in deadly fear, till night comes and hangs its shadows in the woods. Then from dusk to dawn you sit on a bough, and hear the owls hoot and the foxes patter about, and the raccoons clamber among the neighboring tree-tops. What a day of watchfulness and terror -what a night of awful fear! Day comes again, and with it hunger, and strife, and danger, and consequent restlessness. Who would be an oriole, with its three or four years of trouble? Let its nest swing in the sunshine of May, with the bird on its rim like a flame-I would rather be a lonely, naked, weaponless man in the savagest forest of Africa than to be that bird!

But to close this chapter, I will give an account of a battle, witnessed by my brother and me, in which quite an army of birds were engaged on each side. We were mere boys, just beginning our life in the woods with bow and quiver, and, early in the morning of one of the first days of June, were in a vast forest in a valley of North Georgia. We came upon a sort of natural orchard of wild mulberry trees, upon which the fruit was beginning to ripen. The sedge-grass of that region grew in dense tufts under the trees, and between these was spread a carpet of short wire-grass. Through the midst of ali this ran a clear spring-stream, a yard or so in width, tumbling among its stones with much bubbling and gurgling, as it sought the Coosawattee, a small river whose white-plane trees we could see a little way off. Here in this orchard the battle was raging. We had heard it long before we reached the spot. Woodpeckers, blue-jays, grossbeaks, blue-birds, cuckoos, thrushes of three or four kinds, fly-catchers, and chewinks, all flying back and forth, in and out, round and round, their feathers turned the wrong way, and their voices apparently hoarse with rage. Here a sap-sucker and a nuthatch fluttered together on the grass, engaged in madly pecking at each other's eyes; there a blue-jay and a grossbeak, like muffs of turquoise and ruby sprays, gayly exchanged blows; yonder a knot composed of two or three chewinks, a brown thrush, a fly-catcher, and a cuckoo, waged a genuine riot; while all around, everywhere, the rustle of struggling wings and the vicious shrieking of infuriated songsters stirred the air into martial ripples. Now and then a cowed and defeated bird, followed by its victorious enemy, whisked past us into the dark recesses of the woods. The reddening mulberries hung untouched on the dusky trees. The dancing swarm of ephemeral flies had their will of the sun-shine, undisturbed by the red-eyed fly-catcher or sober-feathered pewee. The pots of the sap-sucker were full to overflowing with the sweet juice of the vigorous young trees, but he noticed it not.. All business was forgotten. It was a carnival of fight. The painted finches swept this way, the sombre thrushes flew that way; and now and then, careering through the orchard like some black-mailed knight of old, we saw a great Hylotomus pileatus, that giant of the woodpecker tribe, charging upon the lines of his foes, uttering his loud battle-cry. What this was all about we could not ascertain. The price of a wooden bucket has caused a bloody war among men; no doubt something less note-worthy had started this tumultuous struggle between the birds. But the end of the battle came in a most mysterious way. Suddenly, as if by some spell of magic, the din ceased, the wings were still, and then one by one and two by two the birds flitted away, till in all the orchard a jay uttering its mellow too-loo-loo, and a sap-sucker tending his pots, were all we could see or hear. There were no dead or wounded, not even a broken feather left on the field of battle.

We ate our fill of mulberries, took a shot each at the sap-sucker, and then strayed down to the Coosawattee, and enjoyed a swim as only healthy and happy boys can. O le bon temps!

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