Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Cedar Bird

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Ornithological Biography by John James Audubon
The Cedar Bird
Cedar Bird (Audubon).jpg

THE CEDAR BIRD.

Bombycilla carolinensis, Briss.

PLATE XLIII. Male and Female.


Louisiana affords abundance of food and pleasant weather to this species, for nearly four months of the year, as the Cedar Birds reach that State about the beginning of November, and retire towards the Middle Districts in the beginning of March. The Holly, the Vines, the Persimon, the Pride-of-China, and various other trees, supply them with plenty of berries and fruits, on which they fatten, and become so tender and juicy as to be sought by every epicure for the table. I have known an instance of a basketful of these little birds having been forwarded to New Orleans as a Christmas present. The donor, however, was disappointed in his desire to please his friend in that city, for it was afterwards discovered that the steward of the steamer, in which they were shipped, made pies of them for the benefit of the passengers.

The appetite of the Cedar Bird is of so extraordinary a nature as to prompt it to devour every fruit or berry that comes in its way. In this manner they gorge themselves to such excess as sometimes to be unable to fly, and suffer themselves to be taken by the hand. Indeed I have seen some which, although wounded and confined in a cage, have eaten of apples until suffocation deprived them of life in the course of a few days. When opened afterwards, they were found to be gorged to the mouth.

It is a beautiful bird, but without any song, even during the breeding season, having only a note which it uses for the purpose of calling or rallying others of its species. This note is feeble, and as it were lisping, yet perfectly effectual, for when uttered by one in a flock within hearing of another party, the latter usually check their flight, and alight pell-mell on the same tree.

Their flight is easy, continued, and often performed at a considerable height. The birds move in close bodies, sometimes amounting to large flocks, making various circumvolutions before they alight, and then coming down in such numbers together as to seem to be touching each other. At this particular moment, or while performing their evolutions, some dozens may be killed at a single shot; but if this opportunity is lost, the next moment after they alight, the whole group is in motion, dispersing over every bough to pick the berries which attracted them from the air. Their crest is now erected, their wings are seen constantly moving, and so eagerly do they grasp at the berries that they suffer many of them to fall. Every flock passing within hearing is invited to join in the feast, and in a few hours the tree is entirely stripped of its fruit. In this manner they search the whole of the forests, and towards winter are even satisfied with the berries of the Dog-wood. As the cherries and mulberries ripen in the Middle Districts, the Cedar Bird pays them frequent visits, and when these are out of season, the blackberries and huckleberries have their turn. After this, the Cedars supply a new and favourite food. I think the name of Fruit-devourers would be more applicable to these birds than that of Chatterers, which they bear among naturalists.

They are excellent fly-catchers also, spending much of their time in the pursuit of winged insects. This is by way of dessert, and is not managed with the vivacity or suddenness of true Fly-catchers, but with a kind of listlessness. They start from the branches, and give chase to the insects, ascending after them for a few yards, or move horizontally towards them, perhaps rather farther than when ascending, and as soon as the prey is secured, return to the spot, where they continue watching with slow motions of the head. Towards evening, this amusement is carried on for half an hour, or an hour at a time, and is continued longer at the approach of autumn, the berries then becoming scarcer.

These birds come from the north, but the furthest place from which they have started I am unable to tell. They reach the Middle Districts about the beginning of April, and begin to pair in the beginning of June, when thousands of young birds of other species have already left the nest. Their favourite place for their nest is generally the branch of an Apple-tree in the Orchard, its horizontal direction being apparently best adapted for their taste, although here they are frequently very insecure, the nest being seldom higher than ten feet from the ground, and often so low as to be seen into. It is composed of coarse grasses externally, and is lined with a finer kind. The female usually lays four eggs, of a purplish white, marked with black spots, which are larger towards the great end. The young are at first fed on insects, but after a week the parents procure different kinds of fruits for them. The Cedar Bird nestles less frequently in the low lands than it does in the upper parts of the country, preferring the immediate neighbourhood of mountains. These birds are more careful of themselves during the intrusion of strangers to their nest, than perhaps any other species, and sneak off, in a very unparental manner, quite out of sight, without ever evincing the least appearance of sorrow on the occasion. I have not been able to ascertain whether they raise more than one brood in a season.

When wounded by a shot, they fall to the ground as if dead, and remain there in a stiffened posture, as if absolutely stupid. When taken up in the hand, they merely open their bill, without ever attempting to bite, and will suffer a person to carry them in the open hand, without endeavouring to make off. Their crest at such times is laid flat and close to the head. It is lowered or raised at the will of the bird, but more usually stands erect. Their plumage is silky. The females do not exhibit the waxen appendages on the wings so soon as the males; but these appendages form no criterion as to the sex. I have seen males and females with them, both at the extremities of the scapulars and tail-feathers, seldom more than two or three attached to the latter, whilst there were five or six at the former. Very few of these birds remain the whole winter in the Middle States.

Now, kind reader, can you give a reason why these birds are so tardy in laying their eggs and rearing their young? It cannot be through want of fruit for the food of their progeny, as the young birds, being at first fed on insects, might continue to be so, at a season when these abound, and as the old birds themselves evince pleasure at seizing them on the wing on all occasions.


Bombycilla carolinensis, Briss. vol. ii. p. 337—Ch. Bonaparte, Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 59.

Ampelis garrulus, var. Linn. Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 297.—Lath. Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 364.

Chatterer of Carolina, Lath. Synops. vol. iii. p. 93.

Cedar Bird, Ampelis americana, Wils. Amer. Ornith. vol. i. p. 107. Fig. 1.


Adult Male. Plate XLIII. Fig. 1.

Bill short, straightish, broader than deep at the base, compressed towards the end; upper mandible convex in its dorsal outline, with the edges sharp, overlapping, and marked with a notch close upor the declinate, acute tip; lower mandible nearly straight, a little bulging toward the end. Nostrils basal, oval, partially concealed by the recumbent feathers. Head and neck of ordinary size. Body bulky. Legs rather short; tarsus compressed, anteriorly scutellate; toes scutellate above, the outer toe united at the base to the middle one, the inner shorter than the outer; claws arched, compressed, acute.

Plumage blended, soft and silky; an erectile tuft on the head. Wings rather long, the first quill longest. Tail slightly rounded, of twelve straight, broad feathers.

Bill, eyes, and feet, brownish-black. A black band on the forehead, passing backwards, tapering behind the eye, to the occiput, and margined above and below by a narrow white band. Head, neck, and breast yellowish-brown, or fawn colour, fading into yellow on the abdomen, and yellowish-white under the tail. Chin black. Back and wing-coverts greyish-brown, passing on the lower back into light bluish-grey, of which colour are the tail-coverts. Quills brownish-black, some of the secondaries tipped with a small flat, oblong appendage, of the colour of red sealing-wax. Of these appendages there are also frequently some on the tail, which is greyish at the base, passing into brownish-black, and terminated by a band, of pale yellow.

Length 6¾ inches, extent of wings 11; bill along the ridge 5/12, along the gap ¾; tarsus ¾.


Adult Female. Plate XLIII. Fig. 2.

The female is slightly smaller, and in external appearance differs from the male only in being a little lighter in the tints of the plumage, and in having the crest shorter. The waxen appendages also occur in the female.




The Red Cedar.


Juniperus virginiana, Willd. Sp. Pl. vol. iv. p. 863. Mich. Arbr. Forest. de l'Amer. Septent. vol. iii. p. 42. Pl. 5.—Diœcia Monadelphia, Linn. Coniferæ, Juss.


This plant is very generally distributed in the United States, and frequently attains a height of from forty to fifty feet, with a diameter of a foot or fifteen inches at the base. It is distinguished by its ternate leaves, which are adnate at the base, and imbricated. The berries are oval, small, and of a bluish colour. The wood is red, close-grained, very durable, and has a strong scent. Its growth is extremely slow, and this circumstance, together with the great destruction of the tree for various purposes, has rendered it difficult to procure cedar-wood of tolerable size in the more accessible parts of the country.