The horticulturist, living as he does among stately trees, graceful shrubs, trailing vines, and showy flowers, must enjoy life to a greater extent than do most other people. Still, it appears to me that unless he is intimately acquainted with his almost constant companions, the birds, he loses much of the real enjoyment that might otherwise be his. These little creatures are so closely connected with all that interests the devotee of horticulture that there should be a mutual acquaintance struck up at once. What is true of the horticulturist in this connection is also true to a greater or less extent of all persons who are in any way related to the growth of trees, or even to the cultivation of the soil. I would even go further and say that everybody should be interested in the birds, be his occupation what it may. This being true, it gives me great pleasure at this time to be able to introduce to the readers of this paper our mutual friends, the birds of Nebraska,
Perhaps birds are better known, in a general way at least, than are the members of any other natural group among animal forms—in fact than all the others combined. Yet the ignorance of the general public as relates to the habits, modes of life, food, names, etc., of even our commoner species is simply appalling.
Although birds are comparatively few in species they are moderately numerous in individuals when compared with some other groups of animal forms. They are also quite general in their distribution over the earth’s surface.
In their relations to other animal forms, birds approach most closely to the reptiles. In fact, some of the earlier geological birds were more like reptiles than they were like the species of our day. Some of our species even now have very marked reptilian characteristics. Yet we seldom, if ever, think of birds in such a relation. Their beautiful forms, musical voices, gaudy plumages, smooth tempers, and many other pleasing features have endeared them to us from childhood. These, along with their general usefulness, have won for them our sincere friendship.
In size birds vary greatly, ranging from the minutest humming-bird, which is scarcely larger than a bumble-bee, to the largest ostrich that stands higher than the tallest man. Yet in size, color, form and habits they are perfectly fitted for the respective places which each fills in the vast sea of life about them.
Unlike most other animals, birds are much less restricted in their distribution over the earth’s surface. This is undoubtedly due to their power of locomotion, which enables them "to choose their climates and their seasons,—thus avoiding, in a great measure, one of the most destructive checks upon the multiplication of animals." And, by the way, the organs which they possess for locomoting the air are very characteristic of these creatures alone. They are made up of a series of modified scales, or, perhaps more properly speaking, hairs that grow out of the front pair of limbs and the tail. Consequently it is that in birds the law of migration reaches its climax. Directly related to this trait, and largely regulating its different phases, are such features as change in the seasons with their accompanying variations in heat and cold, food supply, reproduction, moulting of feathers, etc.
When applied to the entire feathered tribe, bird migrations are certainly more of a study than one would at first suppose. Hardly any two species seem to possess this trait in the same degree, nor to act in precisely the same manner during its performance. Some of them make the change from one region to another so gradually that the movement is barely noticed. Others remain either in the sunny south, where they revel among showy flowers and the giant trees of tropical forests dressed in their festoons of clinging vines and deep green mosses, or in the northland, where the memories of their wooings, and, more recently, the caring for their hungry little ones, occupied the long summer days. At last the moment for action has come, and they are up and away. Some birds travel in flocks, some by families, and others in pairs, or singly, as the case may be. These journeys are made with some only during the day-time, while others travel only by night, and still others move along as necessity demands. In spring they go northward, in fall towards the south. Some migrate principally for breeding, others on account of food supply, all of them seemingly of a necessity. During their migrations, as well as at other times, the speed attained in their flights by some birds is simply marvelous, if not almost incredible. Some ducks are said to travel at the rate of two miles or more per minute. The doves, hawks, and even the snipes, and many of the song birds are rapid fliers. A few of these are known to draw on a vast scope of country for their food supply, and it is not an uncommon occurrence for some of them to reach a point at least one hundred miles or more from their nests during a single day’s search.
Although not directly in the line of greatest interest to the cultivator of the soil, one of the most charming features in bird study is that connected with their nest building and the rearing of their young. So varied are the methods employed in nest building, and later in caring for the offspring among different birds, that the student never has learned all that is to be known on this topic alone, even though he has spent a lifetime in observing and remembering what he has seen. From no nest at all, as we find the night-hawk providing for its eggs, to the complicated structure made by the orioles, tailor bird, and allies, all variations of nest building are to be found. The locations where these structures are placed by their builders also vary much.
Plumage, as we find it with different birds, also offers much food for reflection. In the female and young it is usually modest, while the males of some species at least are very gaudily attired. In some it is protective, while with others it seems to be the reverse.
The habits and peculiarities of most birds coincide with their surroundings. The waders are long-legged, long-necked, and live about the margins of streams and bodies of water and in the depths of swamps. They are usually drowsy-appearing creatures, not especially noted for their beauty of form nor melody of voice, nevertheless many of them are gaily attired. The love-song of the Bittern is not of a kind that would produce within the reader poetical dreams. But to these birds accustomed to the coarse croak of the bull-frog and roar of alligators it is sweet music, no doubt. The soul-stirring, hair-lifting hoots of the Great Horned Owl are songs which in all probability produce reflective moods in these naturally wise-looking nocturnal prowlers among the feathered tribe. The predaceous forms delight in shrill, piercing cries, while the graminivorous ones habitually modulate their voices.
Aside from taking life very seriously, many birds seem to be imbued at times with a spirit of fun. The Meadow Lark will sometimes start out with a plaintive call, and after attracting its mate will go off into a paroxysm of laughter, as it were. Other birds, notably the domestic cock, will call up to himself hens and chicks to partake of some supposed dainty morsel, and then slap his leg with his wing and laugh at the practical joke he has perpetrated.
With these miscellaneous and general remarks about birds as an introduction, and for the uninitiated, it will be more to the point in the present paper to speak of the practical side of the subject.
Quoting from a paper by Professor S. A. Forbes, who has done much in the study of birds and their direct relation to man, we have the following: "Excluding the inhabitants of the great seas, birds are the most abundant of the Vertebrata, occupying in this great subkingdom the same prominent position that insects do among invertebrate animals." This position of the two groups in their respective divisions of the animal life of the globe cannot be due simply to chance. There must be some connection between them. Let us see.
In my former reports, to both this Society and to the State Board of Agriculture, it has been shown time and again that not only are the distinct kinds of insects almost myriads in number, but also that the individuals of each species are incalculable. That their powers of reproduction are simply wonderful, being limited only by the amount of food available, etc. Now, the disproportionate number of birds on the other hand, with "their universal distribution, the remarkable locomotive power which enables them readily to escape unfavorable conditions, and their higher rate of life, requiring for their maintenance an amount of food relatively enormous," give to them a significance which few seem ever to have realized. While naturally birds are quite numerous both in species and individuals, their greatest enemy, man, has so depleted their ranks in many localities that they have become scarce.
Perhaps few of us have ever thought much about what birds eat. Yet those who have studied these creatures assure us that a very large per cent of their food, possibly fully three-fourths, consists of insects. Even those species which are classed as graminivorous, during the summer months from choice partake chiefly of an insect diet.
Careful estimates of three conservative ornithologists have placed the bird-life of Illinois at three birds per acre during the six summer months. Now, if we place their number for Nebraska at one and one-half birds to each acre during a similar period, we would have in round numbers about 75,000,000 of birds. If, as has been estimated, three-fourths of the food of this host of birds should consist of insects, what would this mean? A very conservative estimate as to the number of insects eaten daily by each bird can be set down at twenty-five.1 This being true, it would take one billion eight hundred and seventy-five millions of insects for a single day’s rations for our birds during any one of the 175 days of summer. If these insects were spread out at the average of ten thousand to the acre, a day’s work of our birds would mean the complete clearing of 18,750 acres.
Professor Forbes says: "On this basis, if the operations of the birds were to be suspended, the rate of increase of these insect hosts would be accelerated about seventy per cent, and their numbers, instead of remaining year by year at the present average figure, would be increased over two-thirds each year. Any one familiar with geometrical ratios will understand the inevitable result. In the second year we should find insects nearly three times as numerous as now, and in about twelve years if this increase were not otherwise checked, we should have the entire state carpeted with insects, one to the square inch over our whole territory."2 What would be true in Illinois would apply equally well for Nebraska.
More than twenty-five years ago Benjamin Walsh, the first state entomologist of Illinois, estimated the damage done by insects in that state at twenty million dollars annually. Again splitting these figures in the middle and allowing only half as much for our state, or ten million dollars. Supposing that by some means or other we could increase the efficiency of our birds only one per cent, the saving that would result could be plainly set down at $100,000. This increase in the efficiency of our birds, like all other estimates, is very low. Supposing it should be five per cent instead, then the saving would be an even half million dollars annually. The sparing of a single bird annually for each inhabitant of the state would more than meet the above estimates.
Even if birds do destroy alike the injurious and the parasitic insects, no dire result will follow. It is not from the depredations of the masses of insect species that we lose our crops or suffer severe losses in a single direction; but on the contrary, from the few that at times become abnormally numerous. This being true, the birds naturally turn their attention to these latter for the bulk of their food supply. We may infer from this statement then that even a bird is not fool enough to ignore a plentiful food supply for that which is difficult to obtain.
While a very large per cent of our birds retire toward the south as winter approaches, a few of the species remain with us over winter. Of course these that remain must be fed, and if left to themselves they will find that food. Most of them now change to a vegetable diet of which they find a plentiful store in the numerous weeds and other, to man, useless seeds that lie strewn about the country everywhere. These seeds, which are quite rich in oils, give the necessary fuel supply and energy that warm the small snow-buntings and sustain their powers as they hurl themselves into the very teeth of the arctic blasts when the thermometer registers many degrees below zero. Even here the birds befriend the tiller of the soil by searching out and destroying the seeds of many a noxious weed that would quickly grow up and occupy the ground to the disadvantage or destruction of that which is being cultivated.
There are instances where a bird may be harmful during one part of the year and exceedingly beneficial during the remainder. In such cases, if we apply business principles, we will carefully estimate both sides of the account before a summary settlement is made by destroying the bird. He is a poor business man who pays ten dollars for that which he knows must later be sold for fifteen cents, or even less. Yet I have known of instances where a robin that had saved ten to fifteen bushels of apples that were worth a dollar per bushel, by clearing the tree from canker worms in spring, was shot when he simply pecked one of the apples that he had saved for the grateful or ungrateful fruitgrower. Some persons would gladly sell cherries to their neighbors at the rate of ten cents per quart, but would refuse to let a bird have them at ten cents apiece after they had been paid for in advance. The ordinary Red-headed Woodpecker, which is almost universally credited with being an insect destroyer, has been found by actual examination to take more corn and other vegetable food than is taken by any of the thrushes-birds which most of us brand as rascals.
Some birds, but these are comparatively few, are harmful throughout the year; i. e., their food-habit is such as to count against them when the ledger is balanced. Two of our hawks, the Blue Jay and English Sparrow will fall in this category, but aside from these it would not be safe to begin killing birds indiscriminately, for in so doing we might be injuring ourselves financially.
It is true that reports have reached us at the University of Nebraska to the effect that certain birds like the blackbirds, Robin, Brown Thrush, English Sparrow, and orioles had done great injury by pecking apples full of holes as they hung on the trees. It has also reached us that these same birds had occasionally been observed to destroy certain injurious insects.
On the following pages is given as nearly a complete list of the different species and varieties of Nebraska birds as could at this time be compiled from the data available. While it has been impossible to give an account of the food-habits of each one separately, or even of each group fully, I trust that in most cases sufficient has been said to warrant the reader in looking into the subject more closely for himself before he ruthlessly kills birds about which he knows nothing or but little. In certain special cases where birds have been known to attack fruit and other crops the food-habits, along with other notes, will be found in connection with the bird’s name at its proper place in the list.
In closing this preliminary chapter to a list of our Nebraska birds, it might be well to suggest that the subject is of sufficient importance to call for its being taught in our public schools to a limited extent at least. We should have a "Bird" day just as we have an "Arbor" day, and a "Flag" day, when suitable exercises should be held commemorative of the occasion.
It might also be well to add that we have laws in this state against the indiscriminate slaughter of birds which it might be worth knowing about. These will be found incorporated in the appendix to the list which follows.
1 These figures, large as they seem, are much too small. Most birds eat at least two meals each day. and the stomach contents of all birds examined by those engaged in the study of their food-habits would indicate that seventy-five or a hundred insects per day would be more nearly correct.