Water bird

Some Notable Water Birds

From these relics of geologic antiquity the remainder of the birds now living, and their fossil ancestors as well, differ fundamentally, and are united in a division whose badge is the keel on the sternum; hence they are termed "carinate" birds (Carinatæ). The list begins with the most archaic order, that of the loons, of which three or four species are named, but they are hardly separable. They are as big as geese, have black backs checkered with white spots, white undersurfaces and heads purplish black, variously marked; and these heads and necks have a very reptilian look, as they stretch forward their heads inquiringly, or utter the "wild laughter" that seems so consonant with the lonely waters they frequent. The reptilian suggestion is even stronger in their cousins the grebes, known to gunners as "die-dappers," "hell-divers," etc., on account of the quickness with which they will disappear when alarmed. The family badge is on the feet, where the toes are not connected by a full web, as in loons, but every toe is margined by a flange of firm skin with a scalloped margin. Grebes have a way of swimming with the whole body under water, when the exposed head and neck look very "snaky." The brown and white plumage of grebes is exceedingly close and dense, and their indifference to wet and cold is shown by the fact that their nests are mere rafts of sodden weeds often so loosely tied to the rushes that they go adrift. Grebes abound on all northern waters and are rarely shot since the taking of their silvery breasts for hat ornaments has been stopped.

The penguins constitute an order limited in range to the antarctic region. Their picture is in everybody's mind—a bird that stands as erect as a soldier on two almost invisible legs and a short stiff tail, and carries a small head, sometimes plumed, with a strong pointed bill. The picture usually represents the great flocks that resort in the brief summer to their rocky breeding places on icy shores, each female guarding and incubating her two eggs in the rudest of nests on the ground. These antarctic "rookeries" sometimes hold tens of thousands. During the rest of the year the penguins are at sea, or under it, behaving more like seals than birds, for their scalelike plumage is impervious to water, and their stubby wings are in effect flippers by which they swim under water, the strong-webbed feet acting only as rudders until they come to the surface and can paddle. Penguins feed on crustaceans and mollusks mostly, but also on fish and sea weed.

Next comes that group of wide sea wanderers, the albatrosses and petrels, united in the family Procellariidæ, whose special mark is found in the two bony tubes along the top of the beak that contain the nostrils. Of the albatrosses many species are known, nearly all inhabitants of the southern oceans, although two or three of the largest regularly visit the North Pacific coast, and more rarely one strays into the North Atlantic; certain small species frequent the western coast of South America. The one best known is the "wandering" albatross, whose wings spread nine or ten feet, yet are only nine inches wide. They spend their whole lives on the open ocean, and undoubtedly sleep there, regardless of storm or calm; but in summer land on some lone antarctic island or lofty shore, and construct a heap of mud and rubbish on top of which they deposit two chalky eggs.

Their relatives, the oceanic petrels, are much smaller as a rule, and some no bigger than sparrows. They are of many kinds, including fulmars, shearwaters, etc., and nearly all are black or sooty brown, usually with touches of white. Most of the group are denizens of the southern hemisphere, but some belong to the north and are migratory; and the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean are the home of the original stormy petrels, which sailors call "Mother Carey's chickens" and regard with mingled superstition and affection; Leach's white-rumped petrel, of our New England coast, shares this name. Some of the far-southern species are almost as big as albatrosses. Petrels get their food from both the waves and the shore and follow ships on long voyages in hope of scraps of flesh thrown overboard. Most of them breed in holes dug in the topsoil of sea-fronting cliffs, and lay white eggs; many hide in these holes by day, and go out only at night, filling the air with wild cries while they hunt; but fulmars and shearwaters, which make rude nests on rough shores or on cliff ledges, often in vast colonies, go abroad in daylight, and throng on the Grand Banks and wherever else fishing is going on.

Next, in the classification based on structure rather than on superficial resemblances, comes a large assemblage of water birds, some exclusively marine, others of inland waters. Here are placed those long-winged, graceful, oceanic flyers, the tropic birds, and the many kinds of gannets, snowy white, that soar and plunge like falcons as they sweep over the waves and pick up incautious squids, fishes, etc. Most of them are tropical, but one gannet is well known on both shores of the North Atlantic where it nests in thousands on the cliff faces that bound such lofty islets as the Bass Rock near Edinburgh, the Hebrides, and Bird Rock in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The flight is easy and powerful, and the food is caught by a hawklike plunge.

The nearest relatives of these white birds are the cormorants, which are shining black, glossy, with blue or green reflections. They are scattered over the whole globe, most of them along seashores, but many breed on inland lakes and swamps, usually in large companies. Unlike the sweeping and beautiful flight of the far-wandering gannets, these birds appear heavy on the wing; and instead of snatching their food from the surface they dive after the fishes on which they feed, and pursue their slippery prey under water, swimming with both wings and feet, and dodging here and there in a most surprising way. Their bills are peculiarly well adapted to holding what they catch; and a near relative of the West Indies and southward often spears its prey with its bill. This is the darter or snakebird, so called because its long neck and small head give it a peculiarly snakelike appearance as it swims with nothing above the surface but the slender head, and that making scarcely a ripple.

Far more of a wanderer is the tropical long-tailed, long-winged, black frigate bird, which is the hawk of the sea, for it hovers about the flocks of fishing birds and forces them to disgorge their catch, which it appropriates as it falls. Among the birds that suffer most from its robberies are the pelicans, several species of which live close to salt water in various parts of the world, while others prefer the lakes and swamps inland. We have two common species in the United States, the white pelican, seen all over the interior of the country in summer, and the brown, which is southern and maritime; both are gregarious not only in their annual migrations but in their breeding, building nests on bushes in large companies. Their food is mainly fish, caught both by diving and by scooping them up as they swim. The well-known peculiarity of the pelican is the bag of naked skin that hangs from the underside of the bill, and serves as a receptacle for the catch; when it is filled the bird returns to its resting place to consume its food at leisure, or to open wide its mouth and allow its nestlings to pick out the contents of the bag.

All the foregoing are mainly marine and have short legs and webbed feet, used principally in swimming; but we now come to the fresh-water "waders"—the herons, bitterns, storks, ibises, and the like, whose bodies are perched on stiltlike legs, and whose habits require them to wade about in marshes and swamps in search of their miscellaneous food; hence the neck also is long and the bill straight and sharp-edged to fit it for seizing and holding the active prey by a sudden thrust. All warm and temperate countries possess herons in a great variety of species, varying in size from a bird three and one-half feet long, such as our great blue heron, to one a few inches only in length; but the colors are usually light and prevailingly bluish or greenish; while the marsh-loving bitterns are streaked brown. Some are pure white, as is our elegant egret, which has been all but exterminated in the United States by men who kill it in the breeding season, when the beautiful plumes that then adorn its back are at their best, and are marketable as ornaments for hats and military shakos. Every plume bird so killed means the loss of a family of young. Herons are shy, solitary birds, as a rule, nesting on trees in remote swamps in "rookeries" to which they return year after year from their winter retreats in the tropics; and they get their food, which includes every sort of living thing they can find, mostly by standing motionless in the water until it comes near enough to be picked up by a swift stroke.

The storks are similar birds, but with rather heavier bodies and a way of standing erect, and of holding the head straight out in flight (the herons draw it back by curving the neck), which distinguishes them. They are white and black as a rule, and mainly Oriental or African, no typical species occurring in the United States. Storks are more inclined to search the land for food than are the herons, and an Egyptian species is locally called "a bird of blessing," because it cleans the villages, while the stately "adjutant" of India is carefully protected as a similar scavenger. The most familiar of the storks, however, is the white one that in Europe nests on the roofs of houses, chimney tops and similar places, and is generally regarded with an affection that has been expressed in many a poem and story. Ibises are much like storks, the common "sacred" ibis of Egypt probably owing its religious distinction to its fondness for lizards and snakes—a service highly appreciated in that country. Several ibises inhabit America, one of which is not uncommon along the border of the Gulf of Mexico, while another is noted for the splendid scarlet of its plumage. In the same family is the beautiful spoonbill of our Gulf Coast, whose name refers to the spatulate expansion of the end of the beak. Its richly roseate hue is reproduced in the dress of the flamingos, that need not be described.

(Phœnicopterus ruber )

We pass from the flamingos to the ducks by an intermediate form—the curious chahas and horned screamers of northern South America—large, turkeylike birds, often tamed and made of service on country places, where they guard the poultry against hawks and other enemies.

The ducks are a cosmopolitan family (Anatidæ) of about 200 species, divisible into five groups, namely, mergansers, river ducks, marine ducks, geese and swans. These have many features in common, one of which is that in the early autumnal molt all the wing quills drop out at once, so that for a time none of them is able to fly. The mergansers, sheldrakes, or "saw bills," are fish eaters, catching their prey under water, where they move expertly, by means of the narrow, tooth-studded bill that reminds us of the ichthyornis. They frequent rivers, and most of them prefer rushing streams. Of our three species two breed only in the Far North, the third on the Pacific slope. During the winter they resort to a marine life in warmer latitudes. The river ducks (Anatinæ) are distinguished from the seafaring ducks (Fuligalinæ) not only by their preference for inland lakes and marshes, but by the fact the hind toe bears no lobe, while in the sea ducks it is somewhat webbed and functional. This group includes such well-known species as the mallard, black duck, gadwall, widgeon, baldpate, teals, shoveler, pintail, and the exquisite wood duck, to speak of American species alone. The mallard and wood duck breed all over the continent, the latter having the peculiarity of making its nest in trees, but the others rarely nest south of Canada, except among the mountains of the Pacific slope.

The seafaring ducks in North America also include several species that are found on inland bays and salt marshes, such as Chesapeake Bay and its borders, and do not limit their migratory routes to the seacoast, but fly overland. Such are the redhead and canvasback, the scaups and golden-eyes and the ringneck; but the eiders, the scoters, and some others are truly oceanic. Most of these breed in the Far North, always nesting on the ground, as is the rule of the whole family, except the golden-eyes, which choose hollows in stumps and trees. None of the ducks lays spotted eggs.

While among the ducks the male is likely to wear, at least in the breeding season, more gayly colored plumage than the female—often of extraordinary beauty—among the geese both sexes are alike, and either white throughout, as in most of our species, or brown or gray, with more or less black, as in the brants, and in our common "wild" or Canada goose. Geese are far more terrestrial than ducks and visit the land to nip the herbage, young corn, or cereals; in California doing serious damage to growing crops. All our species breed in arctic lands except the Canada goose, which still makes its nest in the northern parts of the United States and throughout Canada; and most of them spend the winter south of our country. They represent to most persons the idea of bird migration. "We see the living wedge of long-necked birds," says Chapman, "passing high overhead; the unbroken sound waves bring the sonorous 'honks' with unexpected distinctness to our ears; and we receive an impressive lesson in the migration of birds. They are embarked on a journey of several thousand miles, but they come and go as surely as though they carried chart and compass."

As these geese are larger than the ducks, so the swans surpass the geese in size and are indeed the largest of water birds. The eight species are distributed all over the world, everywhere frequentingfresh waters alone; and all are white except a black-headed Argentine species, and the wholly black swan of Australia. Before the discovery of this Australian curiosity a black swan was the proverbial rara avis —something incredible! Swans live mainly on weeds and roots pulled up from the bottom, but also eat snails, and so forth. Two species, the whistling and the trumpeter swans, belong to the American fauna, but both are now rare.