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   Chapter 7 No.7

Two Years in Oregon By Wallis Nash Characters: 14806

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Birds in Oregon-?Lark-?Quail-?Grouse-?Ruffed grouse-?Wild-geese-? Man?uvres in the air-?Wild-ducks-?Mallard-?Teal-?Pintail-?Wheat-duck -?Black duck-?Wood-duck-?Snipe-?Flight-shooting-?Stewart's Slough-? Bitterns-?Eagles-?Hawks-?Horned owls-?Woodpeckers-?Blue-jays-?Canaries -?The canary that had seen the world-?Blue-birds-?Bullfinches-? Snow-bunting-?Humming-birds at home.

I have read comments on the scarcity of birds in America. This may be true in some parts; here, in Oregon, we have abundance, except of singing-birds. Of these last the meadow-lark is almost the sole example; and his song, in its fragmentary notes and minor key, does not even remind one distantly of his English cousin, who always seems to express by his gush of complete and perfect melody the joy that fills his being:

"... In a half sleep we dream,

And dreaming hear thee still, O singing lark!

That singest like an angel in the clouds."

The quail (Oreortyx pictus) has one long, sweet whistle, with the peculiarity that it is almost impossible to follow up and find the bird by his note; it sounds so close that you expect the bird is standing on the nearest log, but you look in vain; then it calls you from a hundred yards off, among the brush; again from the other side, and you try to drive him out of the left-hand thicket; but all the while your dog is working in the wood twenty yards ahead. You turn your head just in time to see a dark-brown bird flit like a flash across the road and disappear.

In the shooting-season the quail is one of the hardest birds to kill. They run in front of the dog in the brushwood with the greatest speed, then rise and fly for fifty or a hundred yards like lightning, and then take to their heels again.

In harvest-time the grouse (Tetrao obscurus), here called the partridge, come down from the fir-woods to the grain-fields and give good sport. They frequent the corners of the fields, nearest to the brush, and as the brood rise, ten or a dozen in number, and wing quickly across to shelter in the wood, it reminds one of old times and of partridge-shooting in Norfolk or Suffolk ten years ago.

When the grain is cleared off, the grouse keep to the slips and corners of brush nearest to the field for some weeks. As the season advances, they take to the fir-woods again, and lose their interest to the sportsmen by becoming in the first place almost impossible to find, and next worthless for the table from their turpentine taste. After the grouse have left the harvest-fields and got back into the woods, the shot-gun sportsman must be quick indeed to shoot as the bird rises and makes for the nearest tall fir. There he perches and defies you. The rifle-shot waits till the bird has taken up its place on the bough and peers over to look after the dog; then he shoots and often kills, though the head and neck of a grouse thirty or forty yards off is not a very big mark.

The ruffed grouse (Bonassa Sabinensis), here called the pheasant, is a fourth larger than the common grouse, with beautiful bright-brown plumage, dashed with yellow, and a spreading tail. He frequents the oak-grubs and scattering brush of the foot-hills, and is found all through the less dense portions of the woods of the Coast Range. He gives good sport, rising to the dog and giving a longer flight, and offering the sportsman a fairer chance.

WILD GEESE.As soon as the first half of October has passed by, the cry of the wild-geese is heard far away in the sky, and their V-shaped companies are seen winging their southward course. These first advance-guards do not stay, and scarcely ever descend low enough to tempt even the most sanguine shot. But in a week or so the main army arrives. Following up the general course of the Willamette River, they betake themselves to the sand- and gravel-bars of the river to spend the night, leaving in the early morning for the bare harvest-fields, where, after a vast amount of debate and consideration, and many long, circling flights, they descend to feed. Now every kind of firearms sees the light, and the gun-maker of the town begins to reap his harvest.

As you ride along the country roads in the valley, you see a lurking form behind almost every fence. It is a kind of sport exactly suiting the average Oregonian, who likes his game to come to him, and is great at watching for it.

Following with your eye the line of timber that betokens the river's course, you see six or seven great flocks of geese (Bernicla Canadensis) on the wing at once; some in the far distance, mere specks in the air, others near enough for you to overhear their conversation, which goes on continually. However confused the crowd that rises from the river, it is but a few seconds until order is taken. One flies to the head to guide the band, others take places on either side behind him; regular distances are kept, leaving just enough room for free motion, but no more. Inside the head of the V, and generally on its left side, fly two or three geese in a little independent group. I think it is from these that the officer appears in turn to lead the van.

How many times have I watched their evolutions with delight!-all the keener that the band was coming my way; that the quick, regular beats of the wings had nearly stopped, and the spread pinions showed they were about alighting in the very field under the snake-fence of which I crouched, double-barrel in hand.

The voices grow louder; the conversation and debate is perfectly confusing; they are near enough for you to note the outstretched necks and quick eyes glancing from side to side; the blue-gray colors on the wings, with the black bars, are plain. Waiting till they have passed over, some thirty yards to the right-for it is of no avail to shoot at them coming to you (the thick feathers turn the shot)-here go two barrels at the nearest birds. What a commotion! There is a perfect uproar of voices all declaiming at once, and away they scatter as hard as they can, resuming regular order in a hundred yards, but leaving one poor bird flapping on the ground. My dog runs to pick him up, but can't make out the big bird, and comes inquiringly back to know what on earth I mean by shooting at birds he surely has seen-"Yes, about the home-pond, master-what are you about?"

The geese are sorely destructive to the autumn-sown wheat; the farmer welcomes the sportsman from selfish motives, as well as from his usual hospitality, when he sees him, gun in hand.

The wild-geese are nearly all of one variety (Bernicla Canadensis); a few white ones (Anser hyperboreus) appear now and then, prominent among their gray brethren by their snowy plumage. Wild-ducks come next, and by the end of the first week of November the sportsman's carnival is in full swing. First come the mallard and his mate (Anas boschus), in small bands; next follow the whistling and the common teal (Querquedula cyanoptera and Nettion Carolinensis); then the pintail (Dafila acuta) in great bands; following these, the wheat-duck, or gadwall (Chaulelasmus streperus), in multitudes; then, at a short interval, the redhead (Fuligula Athya Americana) and the black duck (Fulix affinis). These stay with us all the winter, as do also the wood-duck (Dix sponsor), and until the crocuses cover the wild ground once again. We have the snipe (Gallinago Wilsonii) in our marsh-lands, but not in

large numbers, and one specimen of the great solitary snipe has been killed.

The snipe have a curious instinct for knowing exactly how many one piece of marsh will support. Near this house is a wet corner, fed by springs and also by ditches. The extent is about an acre; it is covered with rose-bushes and alder-shoots, and with rushes. In this are usually three snipe, never more. Several times each winter we have cleared the three out, but in a week or so successors fill their places.

FLIGHT-SHOOTING.Our favorite sport in winter is "flight-shooting"-killing the geese and ducks as they fly round the swamps at evening, preparing to settle for their night's feed. This comes in after the day's work is pretty nearly done. Mounting our ponies about four o'clock, we canter off to a big swamp about three miles off. Through this flows a little stream, whose water swells with the winter rains into two little lakes. Long grass and sedges cover the ground, and a good many patches of reeds give shelter.

Arriving just as the sun is setting behind the mountain south of Mary's Peak, his departing rays strike in brilliant red and yellow light along the surface of the pools, filling the valley with quivering, purple haze. We post ourselves at long intervals along the marsh, crouching while the light lasts, among the reeds. Just as the red light fades away, a group of black specks is seen against the sky, rising from the fir-timber that bounds the distant river. They grow quickly larger, and presently the rapid beat of wings is heard, as they whistle through the air overhead. The first flight round is high up in the sky, as they take a general view. Circling at the far end of the swamp, back they come, this time nearer to the ground. Just as you are debating if you dare risk the shot, whish! whish! comes the big band of teal close behind you, dashing by with a swoop worthy of the swiftest swallow, and defying all but a chance shot into the thick of them. By this time the big ducks are past, your chance at them is gone, and you hear in a second or two the bang! bang! from lower down the swamp, telling of one of your comrades' luck. Here come some more-right, left, overhead, behind-till an unlucky cartridge sticks in your gun, and the scene falls on an unhappy wretch cursing his luck, and devoting himself, his gun, his powder, the ducks, the swamp, and all Oregon to the infernal deities!

Night has fallen; the pale gold-and-green light has faded from the sky; the dark purple line of mountains has turned into a solid mass of the darkest neutral tint; one star after another has shown out overhead, to be reflected in the still, shallow water in which you stand.

A low voice calls out of the darkness, "Time to go home, I suppose." And a quick canter along the muddy road, possible only because the horses know every step of the way, soon brings us home to a late meal, where all our battles are fought over again, and the spoils, in their various beauty, are proudly shown. Among the game-birds may be included the blue crane, which flies in bands of from ten to twenty, high in the air. But it does not remain here, and is only killed by chance.

The other day a bittern (Ardeid? minor) was shot-a bird somewhat larger than the European bittern, but exactly resembling it in all essentials.

EAGLES, HAWKS, HORNED OWLS.Eagles and hawks we have in abundance, and of all sizes. The former are destructive to the young lambs even in the valley. How bold they are, too! One flew into a bush the other day as I rode across a wide pasture, and watched me as I came close by him, never taking to flight, though I passed within twenty yards of him-near enough to note the defiant, proud expression of his great black eye. Last summer we lost chicken after chicken. I could not make out the robber, having taken precautions against rats, et id genus omne. One night, about ten o'clock, our English servant burst into the sitting-room with-"Sir, sir, bring your gun; here's a heagle come down on to the roof of the barn!" One of us ran out with a gun, and made out a big bird against the starlit sky. A shot, and down it came on the roof of the stable, making the horses jump and rattle their halter-blocks. It turned out to be a splendid specimen of the great horned owl. After his death the depredations among the chickens ceased for the time. Very often a pair of owls, just like the English barn-owl, are seen beating the swampy ground, I suppose after rats; quartering the ground, and examining every sedgy patch like a setter-dog.

Two kinds of woodpeckers are common; the smaller sort abounds in the burned timber, and again and again in the course of the day's ride you hear the tap, tap, and see the little fellow propping himself against the black trunk with his strong tail. The larger woodpecker is a beautiful bird, with a bright brown-and-gray speckled and barred chest, and a scarlet head and top-knot. These birds are eagerly sought by the Indians, who adorn themselves with the red feathers, and use them also as currency among themselves in various small transactions.

The blue-jays are as noisy in our woods as in other parts of the world, and as inquisitive and impertinent.

In summer we have flights of little yellow-birds just like canaries. One of my boys brought his pet canary from England in a little cage. He cared for and tended it all the long journey, and until we were on board the steamer coming up the Willamette. In the course of the morning he thought he would clean out his bird's cage. The open door was too strong a temptation. Out slipped the captive, and, after a short flight or two in the cabin, away he went into the outer air and perched on the upper rail of the pilot-house. After a moment he caught sight of a flock of little yellow-birds flitting round a big tree by a farmhouse on the bank. Off flew the little traveler to join them, and the last we saw of him was that he was joyfully joining the new company, while his master stood disconsolately watching the escape of his favorite.

Flocks of little bluebirds (Sialia Mexicana) frequent the town, the whole of their plumage a bright metallic blue. Among them is sometimes seen the golden oriole (Icterus Bullockii), making, with his orange jacket and black cap, a brilliant contrast with his blue companions.

Along the fences, and in the clumps of bushes filling their angles, is the favorite haunt of a pretty bird (Pipilo Oregonus), in plumage almost exactly resembling the European bullfinch; like him too in habit, as he accompanies you along the road in little, jerky flights.

HUMMING-BIRDS AT HOME.When the winter day has closed in, and the lamps are lighted, several times the little snow-bunting (Iunco Oregonus) has come tapping at the window, attracted by the light, and seeking refuge in the warmth within from the rough wind and driving rain without. In the honeysuckle, which covers the veranda and climbs over the face of the house, two sets of humming-birds (Selasphorus rufus) made their home. It was pretty to watch them as they poised themselves to suck the honey, and then darted off to one flower after another among the beds, returning every instant to their nests, close to our heads, as we sat out in the cool evening air. We were taken in several times by the humming-bird moths, which imitated exactly the motions of the birds.

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