Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/September 1894/The Humming Birds of Chocorua

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WHILE snow still sparkles in the frost furrows on Chocorua's peak, the first rubythroats appear in the warm meadows and forest glades at the south of the mountain. They love the flowers as others of their race love them, and when apple blossoms bless the air with perfume and visions of lovely color and form, the humming birds revel in the orchards of the North as their brothers delight in the rich flowers of the tropics. It is not, however, among flowers that the Chocorua rubythroats are happiest or most frequently seen. Were some one to ask me to find a humming bird quickly, it would make no difference what the age of the summer or what the hour of the day, I should turn my steps toward the forest, feeling certain that at the drinking fountains of the yellow-breasted woodpecker, the red-capped tapster, and loud-voiced toper of the birch wood, I should find the rubythroats sipping their favorite drink.

About the middle of April, and again nearly six months later, a mischievous and wary woodpecker migrates north and south across New England. The casual observer might take him to be a demure little downy, intent upon keeping the orchard free from insects, and if the sly migrant was ordinarily quick in placing a tree trunk between his black-and-white body and the observer his identity would not be detected. On April 17, 1892, 1 noticed one of these birds clinging to a smooth spot on the trunk of a shagbark which grew on a warm pasture hillside in sight of Bunker Hill and the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House. Watching him carefully for a moment, I saw that he was a yellow-breasted or sap-sucking woodpecker, perhaps one of my own Chocorua neighbors, and that he was quietly sipping the sweet sap of the shagbark which was flowing from several small holes in the bark, drilled, no doubt, that very morning by the traveler so serenely occupied. The sapsuckers reach northern New Hampshire before the snow has wholly melted in the woods. I have seen them at Chocorua, on May 1st, at work upon trees which they had evidently been tapping for fully a week. From this time until the last of September, perhaps even till the 7th or 8th of October, they spend the greater part of their time drilling small holes in the bark of their favorite trees and in sipping from the sap fountains thus opened the life blood of the doomed trees. They do not range about through the forest tapping one tree here and another there, but they select one, two, perhaps three groups of trees well lighted and warmed by the sun, and make sap orchards of them, clinging to them many hours at a time, week after week, and returning to them, or others close at hand, year after year. Within a mile of my cottage at the foot of Chocorua there are half a dozen of these drinking places of the yellow-breasted woodpeckers, and each one of them is a focus for rubythroats. The one which I have known longest I discovered in 1887. It consists of a group of gray birches, springing from a single stump and expanding into fifteen distinct trunks. When I first saw it all the trees were living, and nearly all of them were yielding sap from the girdles of small drills which the woodpeckers had made in the trunks, about nine feet from the ground. In July, 1893, all but three of the trees were dead, and of the dead trunks all except two had been broken off by the wind at a point a few inches below the drills. The surviving trees had been tapped, and were in use by both sapsuckers and humming birds. During 1890, 1891, and 1892 the humming bird in attendance at this orchard was a male of noticeably strong character. There was no mistaking him for any chance visitor at the place. He spent all his time there, and repelled intruders with great vigor, flying violently at them, squeaking, humming as noisily as a swarm of bees, and returning to his favorite perch as soon as they had been put to flight. He often attacked the sapsuckers themselves, buzzed in their faces, and seemed little abashed when they turned upon him, as they sometimes did, and drove him from their midst. He also had a habit of squeaking spitefully when he was drinking from the sap wells, especially on his return from a bout with some other humming bird. Searching for him in July, 1893, I failed to find him, but discovered that in his place a pair of birds seemed to have established themselves. Of course, it is possible that my friend of > previous years may have taken to himself a wife and have become mild-mannered in consequence, but I find it impossible to believe in this theory, so pronounced were the old male's temper and peculiar ways. The new male, for example, did not use the same twigs for perches, and he did not keep his head wagging from side to side as the old one did with a vigor and regularity which nothing but a pendulum ever equaled.

The new male, however, showed me a performance far more interesting in character than any of his petulant predecessor's, and one which establishes the Chocorua rubythroat as a musician and a dancer. One day, while this male was drinking at the sap fountains, a female arrived. The male greeted her with squeaks and intense humming. She alighted on the tree near the drills, and the male then hurled himself through the air with amazing speed, describing a curve such as would be drawn by a violently swung pendulum attached to a cord fifteen or eighteen feet long. The female was at the lowest point of the arc described by her vehement admirer, and she sat perfectly motionless while he swung past her eight times. When he moved fastest—that is, when he approached and passed her he produced in some unknown way a high, clear, sweet musical note, louder even than the humming which was incessant during his flight. In this first performance the male moved from north to south. A few minutes later he went through the dance a second time, describing a shorter curve and moving east and west. Still a third time, when the female had taken position in the midst of a few dense branches, the male faced her, and in a short arc, the plane of which was horizontal, flew back and forth before her. I had seen this performance once before, in July, 1890, at another orchard, and at that time I fancied that both birds took part in the flight, but in this case the birds were close above me as I lay among the ferns, and there was no difficulty in seeing clearly all that they did. During July, 1893, whenever I visited this orchard, which I call "No. 4," I found a male and a female rubythroat in attendance upon it.

In July and August, 1890, while watching sapsuckers at what I called orchards "No. 1" and "No. 2," I found that some woodpeckers adopted an entirely different method of dealing with humming birds from that practiced by others. At orchard No. 1 the woodpeckers drove away a humming bird with a marked display of anger whenever one showed itself near the large red maple which was being tapped. At orchard No. 2, on the contrary, the sapsuckers allowed the rubythroats to drink at drills a few inches from their own bills, and resented only marked impertinence on the part of their tiny visitors. At No. 1 scores of visits were paid by humming birds every day, but they reached the drills in a comparatively small number of instances. When they did gain them they drank long and deeply, often perching upon the bark and drinking while their nervous wings were motionless. At No.

2 it seemed impossible to estimate the number of humming birds in attendance. I went so far as to shoot a male and a female in order to feel certain that more than one pair of the tiny birds came to the drills. Nine minutes after my second crime a third humming bird was quietly drinking at the wells. Orchards No. 1 and No. 2 were deserted in or after 1891, their trees for the most part being dead, or so nearly dead as to be unattractive to the sapsuckers. A few rods from No. 2 a new orchard was observed by me in 1892. It may be a direct continuation of No. 2, but as all the woodpeckers at No. 2 were supposed to have been shot in 1890, the chances are that it is a new settlement. In July, 1893, twenty gray birches within an area a hundred feet square had been scarred by the woodpeckers. About half of these were dead, and out of the entire number only four trees were newly drilled and sap-yielding. In many ways this orchard proved to be the most interesting I have watched. The family of sapsuckers using it was not pugnacious, and in consequence other birds visited it much more freely than is generally the case. Downy woodpeckers occasionally sipped at its fountains; black-and-white creeping warblers regularly, though warily, visited its insect hoards, and during the autumn migration of 1892 a pair of yellow-breasted flycatchers spent many days in constant attendance upon its trees, around which countless insects fluttered or hummed.

The four sap-yielding trees at this orchard appeared in July, 1893, to have been appropriated, subject to the prior claims of the woodpeckers, by three humming birds, a female and two males. No one of these birds permitted either of the others or any one of numerous filibustering humming birds to drink at its preempted wells. If trespass was attempted, the most furious assault was made upon the intruder, and the possessor was always victorious. Thus, if the female at the eastern tree attempted to approach the western tree, the male on guard there drove her away; while if he entered upon her dominions, he was swiftly repulsed. The details of these meetings were sometimes very extraordinary. In one instance a visiting female persisted for nearly ten minutes in trying to secure a foothold at the western tree. The savage little male met her with his usual impetuous charge, but she dodged him, and began a strange sinuous flight among the branches, back and forth, up and down, round and through, over and under, until the air seemed filled with pursued and pursuer, dizzily maintaining their mysterious flight within from five to a hundred feet of the disputed drinking place. Much of the time the female seemed to be facing the male and flying backward slowly with head erect; then there would come a swift buzz-z-z, and a clear space between the trees would be traversed by both birds with the speed of light, a slower flight being resumed the moment foliage was entered. If the male paused in his pursuit, the female drew near again to the coveted drills, and so forced him to renew the chase. Sometimes they moved so slowly that they seemed like bubbles or airy seed vessels wafted by the breeze, and sometimes they flew in short, ever-changing lines, so that the eye wearied of watching them. At last the female gave up the struggle and vanished above the neighboring tree tops.

Frequently the visitors did not come singly, but arrived two or three together, and made combined attacks upon the drills. Then the air would be filled with violent humming and the most petulant squeaking, as the possessors hurled themselves first at one intruder and then at another, driving them back and forth, as though playing battledore and shuttlecock with them. Twice I saw the male who defended the western tree lock bills with a visiting female and fall almost to the ground in combat; and in several instances I noticed a hotly pursued visitor escape by suddenly doubling, seizing a twig, and then hanging head downward by one foot behind a cluster of leaves. As a rule, the rubythroat, when drinking, makes a perfectly audible humming, the male making a sound somewhat louder and deeper than that produced by the female. It is, however, entirely within the range of their accomplishments to hover silently, and it is not unusual for a visitor to drink silently when successful in reaching a tree unseen. While I never have seen a male rubythroat drink from the drills while perching, I have noticed the female doing so scores of times. In fact, the female at the eastern tree perched nearly a third of the time, sometimes on a twig from which she could lean over and sip the sap, sometimes on the bark itself in a position almost identical with that taken by the woodpecker.

One morning while I was watching the new orchard, a shower came up from behind the western spurs of Chocorua. Thunder grumbled, the sky grew dark, and the wind swished viciously through the slender birches. I wondered what the birds and insects would do when the rain came. From where I sat, I could see dozens of living things, most of which were more or less dependent upon the sapsuckers' orchard. There were four of the woodpeckers themselves, three humming birds, a hermit, thrush, two juncos, three chickadees, a least flycatcher; five or six butterflies representing three species; hornets and numbers of flies, ants, and other small insects. As the rain began, the insects, with the exception of the hornets, vanished at once. All the birds, save one of the woodpeckers and the rubythroats, flew out of sight. The remaining sapsucker was a young bird, who looked stupid, and who received the rain by ducking his head and vibrating his tail and wings as a bird does when he bathes in a pool. But the rubythroats amazed me by their conduct. They sought leafless twigs with only the weeping sky above them, and there, apparently with joy, extended their wings to the fullest extent, spread their tails until every feather showed its point, and then received the pelting, pounding rain as though it were holy water. They became so wet that I doubted whether they could fly. Buzz-z-z! the vigilant male darted at an intruding female and drove her out of sight, only to see her return again and again in the thickest of the white drops in vain attempts to overcome his watchfulness. It was evident that no ordinary shower could interfere with the whirring wings of a humming bird.

As the season of 1893 wore on, the number of humming birds at this orchard diminished. Late in July I saw as many as five birds near the trees at one moment, three of them being regular attendants and two interlopers. During the next four weeks I was absent, but on my return I found that only the female using the eastern tree remained, and that she was seldom annoyed by visitors. The trees which had been used by the other two birds had run dry, and the sapsuckers as well as their uninvited guests had abandoned them. Of the identity of the remaining humming bird there could be no question; her ways were too strongly marked to be mistaken, as, for example, her invariable habit of alighting upon one slightly sloping trunk when she drank from its drills. When September drew near I watched closely to ascertain the date of the little lady's departure, but day after day came and went without my missing her. At last, on September 1st, it seemed to me that she had gone. I had waited ten or fifteen minutes by the trees and she had not come, though the sapsuckers were busy at the drills in their accustomed places. Before finally giving her up I thought that I would count a hundred slowly and see if this form of incantation might not draw her to her trees. When I reached "ninety-nine" and no bird came, I concluded that the exact date of her migration had been found, but as I said "one hundred" there was a faint hum in the still air, and the dainty dipper appeared with her usual sprightliness. On the 6th, after several light frosts had laid their chilly touch upon the Chocorua country, I felt confident that the tiny creature must have sought a kinder climate. Again, however, she surprised me by appearing, after a long delay, as bright as ever. She hummed at her regular drinking places, but seemed to find little moisture in the wasting fountains. The trees were losing vitality and becoming dry. Then she sought the dead twigs at the tops of last year's trees and flitted back and forth among them, sunning herself. No perch pleased her long, and when she wearied of them all she darted back to the drills for a brief perfunctory sip of the slow-moving sap. Her restlessness seemed born of the season, and a symptom of that fever of migration which was making all bird life throb more and more quickly.

Although on September 25th, when I made my last visit of the year to the orchard, I found two sapsuckers still at work at the drills, no humming bird was with them. How long after the 6th the vigorous little female remained I do not know, for I was unable to watch the trees during the middle of the month.

Although at Chocorua I never have found a sapsuckers' orchard without its attendant humming birds, I am by no means sure that in other localities where both birds occur the same interesting community of interests is to be detected. During a brief visit to Cape Breton in midsummer, 1893, 1 kept close watch for sapsuckers and humming birds. Of the latter not one came under my eyes, although common testimony was that they frequented the country. Of the sapsuckers I found one flourishing colony < among the alders which bordered the southwest Margaree at the point where that swift stream emerges from Lake Ainslie. More than a dozen alder trunks had been girdled with drills and a rich orchard seemed to be in use. I had not long to wait at the spot, but in the fifteen minutes which I could spare no humming birds came to reward my silent watching.

In some parts of the country sapsuckers are roughly treated on account of their destruction of trees. It is unquestionably true that each family of birds kills one or more vigorous trees each year, but generally the trees are small and of trifling value as timber. My sapsuckers are welcome to several forest trees a year, so long as they continue to attract and feed humming birds, and indirectly to draw thousands of insects within easy reach of their own bills and the more active mandibles of flycatchers, warblers, and vireos.