Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/April 1899/The Coming of the Catbird

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IN southeastern Pennsylvania there comes a day in February that brings with it an indefinable sense of joyousness. A southerly wind wanders up the Delaware with a touch of the spring in its air that quickens, for the first time, the slumbering life. It is then that those mysterious forces in the cells of living things begin their subtle work—hidden in the dark, underground storehouses of plants and the sluggish tissues of animals buried in their winter sleep. On such a day the ground hog ventures from his burrow, some restless bee is lured from the hive to wander disconsolate over bare fields, a snake crawls from its hole to bask awhile in the sunshine, and one looks instinctively for the first breaking of the earth that tells of the early crocus and the peeping forth of daffodils. The southerly wind is more apt than not to be a telltale, for with all its springtime softness it is drawing toward some storm center, near or remote, that will inevitably follow with rough weather in its sweep. The country folk rightly call such a day a "weather breeder," and even the ground hog knows its portent in the very sign of his shadow. Come as it will, the day is really a day borrowed in advance from the spring, as though to hearten one through all the dreary days that will follow and, in starting the growing forces of vegetation, to make ready for the season's coming.

With this forerunner of the year come the harbingers of the bird migration. With the rise of the temperature to sixty or over, a well-marked bird wave from the south spreads over the Delaware Valley. On this balmy, springlike day we hear for the first time since November the croaking of grackles as a loose flock wings overhead or scatters among the tree tops. A few robins may show themselves, and the mellow piping of bluebirds lends its sweet influence to the charm of such a day. There is a sense of uncertain whereabouts in the bluebird's note, a sort of hazy, in-the-air feeling that suggests sky space. It does not seem to have the tangible element by which we can locate the bird as in the voices of the robin and the song sparrow. It is on such a day as this that song sparrows are first heard— cheery ditties from the weather-beaten fences and the bare, brown tangle of brier patches. The day may close lurid with the frayed streamers of lofty cirrus clouds streaking across the sky—the vaporous overflow of a coming storm—or a week of the same bright weather may continue with the wind all the while blowing softly out of the south, but sooner or later the inevitable winter storm must close this foretaste of the spring.

A decided wave of rising temperature usually reaches the Delaware Valley from the middle to the last of March, maintaining itself longer than the February rise, and ushering in a well-marked bird wave. It is about this time that the vanguard of the robin migration scatters over the country. The grackles or crow blackbirds, which have been more or less in evidence since their first appearance in February, begin renovating the old nests or laying the foundations of new ones in the tops of tall pines. The shrill call of the flicker sounds through the woods, and before the end of the month one is sure to hear the plaintive song of the field sparrow. This is about the time that the spicebush shows its yellow blossoms through the grays and browns of the spring underwoods, and the skunk cabbage unfolds its fresh, green leafage in rank abundance along the boggy course of woodland rills. A week earlier the streaked yellow and purple of its fleshy spathes shows here and there in the oozy ground by the side of the folded leaf spikes. It is just at this time, too, that one must go to the woods for the first spring wild flowers—bloodroot, hepatica, anemones, and the yellow dog-tooth violet—if one would get the real freshness of spring into his soul. The crows, that all through the winter filed away each evening in straggling lines of flight toward the distant roost, have broken ranks, and go rambling in small groups through the woods and over the fields of green winter wheat. Like the grackles, they have thoughts of courtship and the more earnest business of family cares. The liquid notes of meadow larks sound clear and sweet in the greening fields and pastures, and small flocks of vociferous killdeers scatter in wheeling flight over the newly plowed lands. In tangle covers the rustle of dead leaves here and there tells of the whereabouts of a flock of fox sparrows halting in their northward pilgrimage. The pewee is back, inspecting her last year's house under the span of some old bridge, and the melancholy voice of the dove is borne on the air from the fence rows and cedars along the farther side of fields.

After the 1st of April the tide of migration sets in with force, and the earlier waves bring several species of summer birds—those that come to build and breed in our woods—that rarely if ever make their appearance before this time. It is an interesting fact that none of the migrants that make their first appearance in April are ever found in the Delaware Valley during the winter, though several, if not all, of the species that come on the March waves are occasionally met with in the winter months. It appears, further, that the winter quarters of certain birds which are summer residents with us and some that are transient, passing on to more northern breeding grounds, lie not so very far to the south. If the last of March has been marked by warm weather lapping over into the first days of April, then one may expect soon to hear the familiar notes of the chipping sparrow from the swelling branches of garden shrubbery and the trees about the lawn, and a brown thrasher is sure to be heard volubly proclaiming his arrival from some near-by tree top. Among the budding sprigs of thickets the elusive chewink breaks into occasional fragments of song, and from the red-blossomed maples and the jungle of pussy willows and alders that fringe the meadow brook the metallic creaking notes of the red-winged blackbirds sound not unpleasingly. This jargon of the red-wing has a true vernal ring about it, suggesting the fresh green of oozy bogs and the loosening up of sap.

From the middle to the last of April there are several big waves of migration that bring many of the summer residents as well as some transient species, forerunning the greater waves that are to follow in May. On certain warm April days the barn and the bank swallows appear, and the chimney swifts are seen scurrying to and fro above the trees and house tops. These are genuine signs of the coming summer, for swallows and swifts feed only on the minute gnats and other ephemera that develop under conditions of warm temperature. Whoever knows of a martin box that year after year is visited by its colony has an unfailing source of delight at this time in watching the lovely birds. The martins are very prompt in their arrival, rarely coming before the 1st of April nor later than the 10th. We are aware for the first time that the house wren has come back by the voluble song that greets us some morning from the branches just beyond our window—a song that only the lover of his own rooftree can fully appreciate, for the wren's chant, more than any other bird song, seems to voice the home instinct in a man. By the last week of April the woods are fast closing up their vistas in a rich profusion of unfolding leafage. The umbrellalike leaves of the May apple are scattered everywhere through the woods and fields, forming conspicuous patches of green. During this last week of the month a few straggling thrushes make their appearance—the hermit thrush with its russet tail, the veery, and the wood thrush. The first two are transients, flitting through the underwoods or rustling among fallen leaves in search of their insect food. To hear the incomparable matins and vespers of the hermit one must follow to the bird's breeding range on the wooded slopes of the Appalachians or farther into the deep recesses of the Canadian forests. The wood thrush breeds with us, and the melody of its notes adds a peculiar charm to our groves and woodlands that would leave an unfilled blank in the choir if the bird were a transient like the hermit or the veery.

From the 1st to the 10th of May a succession of bird waves comes from the south of such vast proportions as to the number of individuals and variety of species that all the previous migratory waves seem insignificant in comparison. It is the flood tide of the migration, bringing with it the host of warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers, and thrushes that suddenly make our woods almost tropical in the variety of richly colored species and strange bird notes. It would take a volume to describe the wood warblers, sylvan nymphs of such bizarre color patterns and dainty forms that one is fain to imagine himself in the heart of some wondrous forest of a far-away land. Their curious dry notes, each different in its kind and expression, yet all of the same insectlike quality; their quick, active motions, now twisting head downward around the branches, prying into every nook and cranny in their eager search for food, or fluttering about the clusters of leaves, add to the strange effect. Their names, too, are richly stimulative to the color sense—the black-throated green, the black-throated blue, the chestnut-sided, the bay-breasted, the black and yellow, the cerulean, the Blackburnian, the blue-winged yellow, the golden-winged, the blue-yellow-backed or parula warbler, and the Maryland yellow-throat are each suggestive of a wealth of coloring. Others have names that carry us to southern realms, like the myrtle and the palm warblers; and others again tell of curious habits, as the worm-eating warbler, the hooded fly-catching warbler, and the black and white creeping warbler that scrambles about the tree trunks like a true creeper. There is nothing in all the year quite like the May woods. Then, if never again, you can step from your dooryard into an enchanted forest. The light yellowish effects of new green in the feathery masses of the oak catkins and the fresh, unfolding leafage of the forest trees are a rich feast to the eyes. Against this wealth of green the dogwood spreads its snow-white masses of bloom. In sunlit spaces of greenness the scarlet flash of a tanager, the rich blue coloring of the indigo bird, newly arrived from its winter quarters in South America, and the glimpse of a rose-breasted grosbeak among the high tree tops are strangely suggestive of a tropical forest. The ear, too, is charmed with a multitude of curious notes. The weird cries of the great-crested flycatcher among the topmost branches, and the loud chant of the ovenbird with its rising cadence coming from farther depths of the wood are two of the most characteristic bird voices of the May woodlands. If one would have the famous song of the mocking bird in this sylvan carnival he has only to loiter in the nearest grove to hear the wonderful performance of the catbird. The catbird is the real harbinger of summer. He is familiar throughout the countryside, liked or disliked according to the dispositions of folks, but when he appears amid the May-day throng every one knows that summer has come. As a countryman once said to me: "You can't place any dependence on the robin—it may snow the very day he comes; but a catbird never makes a mistake—it's summer with him for sure."

The passing on of the great warbler waves to the north and the ending of the migration likewise mean the passing of the spring. It is summer any time after the 15th of May, or, to be more accurate, after the last of the migratory warblers, thrushes, and tanagers have passed beyond our woods. To a New-Englander summer will come a little later, nearer the true almanac date of June 1st. To a dweller in Virginia the last of April is the passing of spring and the advent of summer.

Some ten or more years ago several enthusiastic ornithologists living in the neighborhood of Philadelphia began keeping records of the times of arrival of the different species of birds, and at the same time noted the conditions of temperature in relation to the abundance of individuals. After several years of these observations they were able to see clearly that these bird waves were directly related to the waves of rising temperature marking the advent of warm spells of weather. One of the most significant facts deduced from these observations was the remarkable regularity in the first appearance of certain species. For example, the Baltimore oriole in eight years of observation never arrived before the 1st of May, and only twice later than the 4th—viz., once on the fifth and once on the 7th. The list on the opposite page shows the date of first arrivals extending over a period of eight years, from 1885 to 1892.[1]

Another fact of great interest which bears on the south-to-north movement of migrating birds, and which these observations very clearly brought out, was the earlier appearance of individuals of various species at points nearer the river, the first arrival of the same species at points back from the river being, in many instances, several days later. The first report of the arrival of a given species usually came from a low, marshy tract of land immediately bordering the western shore of the Delaware. The second report came from a locality several miles back of the eastern shore of the river, but situated in the low plain of the river valley and within tide-water limits. The third report came from a place some miles back from the river on the uplands, but near the head of a stream emptying into the Delaware from the west. The last two places to report arrivals were situated farther up the river and some distance back from it. All this confirms the general idea that in migrating most, if not all, of the various land birds follow river valleys and invade the upland districts, lying back from either side, by way of the smaller tributaries.

1885. 1886. 1887. 1888. 1889. 1890. 1831. 1892.
Flicker April 10 Mar. 24 Mar. 26 Mar. 30 Mar. 28 Mar. 26 Mar. 30 April 2
Chimney swift April 22 April 23 April 22 April 20 April 15 April 22 April 16 April 27
Hummingbird April 29 May 12 May 12 May 14 May 7 May 11
Kingbird May 6 May 11 May 7 May 6 May 6 May 14 May 1 May 4
Crested flycatcher May 2 May 12 May 3 May 1 May 8 May 1 April 30 May 3
Pewee April 3 Mar. 20 Mar. 21 Mar. 22 Mar. 27 Mar. 27 Mar. 31 April 3
Wood pewee May 6 May 15 April 30 May 13 May 12 May 14 May 6 May 17
Red-winged black-bird Mar. 4 Feb. 19 Feb. 19 Feb. 21 Mar. 13 Mar. 12 Feb. 25 Mar. 9
Meadow lark Feb. 10 Mar. 19 Mar. 21 Mar. 14 Mar. 12 Feb. 23 Mar. 17
Baltimore oriole May 5 May 4 May 2 May 2 May 7 May 1 May 1 May 3
Purple grackle Mar. 16 Mar. 7 Feb. 19 Feb. 21 Mar. 2 Feb. 13 Feb. 18 Mar. 6
Chipping sparrow April 8 April 9 April 8 Mar. 31 Mar. 29 April 8 April 13 April 4
Field sparrow April 11 April 7 April 9 April 2 Mar. 29 Mar. 13 Mar. 15 Mar. 26
Chewink April 22 April 23 April 27 April 18 April 11 May 1 April 18 April 24
Indigo bird May 16 May 11 May 7 May 12 May 12 May 10 May 8 May 10
Scarlet tanager May 9 May 12 May 5 May 8 May 9 May 4 April 28 May 3
Barn swallow April 22 April 19 April 21 April 12 April 22 April 19 April 19 April 24
Red-eyed vireo May 7 May 11 May 4 April 29 May 5 April 30 May 2 May 3
Black-and-white warbler April 30 May 4 April 27 April 21 April 20 April 30 April 24 May 1
Yellow warbler May 6 May 4 May 2 May 5 May 11 May 1 May 8 May 4
Myrtle warbler May 2 April 10 May 2 April 25 April 20 April 27 April 18 April 7
Black-throated green warbler May 2 May 11 May 5 April 26 May 5 May 2 April 19 April 30
Ovenbird April 30 May 3 April 29 April 30 May 3 May 3 April 29 April 30
Maryland yellow throat April 29 April 24 April 28 April 30 May 6 April 30 May 1 May 3
Chat May 2 May 12 May 5 May 5 May 11 May 5 May 10 May 3
Redstart May 2 May 4 May 3 May 1 May 4 May 3 April 29 April 30
Catbird May 2 May 4 May 3 May 5 May 5 May 5 May 4 April 30
Brown thrasher April 24 April 25 April 28 April 15 April 22 April 30 April 19 April 30
House wren May 3 April 27 April 24 April 28 April 14 April 30 April 19 May 5
Wood thrush May 2 May 1 May 1 May 1 May 3 April 30 April 23 May 2
Veery May 11 April 25 May 3 May 6 May 2 April 28 May 4
Hermit thrush April 13 April 7 April 9 April 3 April 10 April 13 April 12 April 3
Robin Mar. 7 Mar. 10 Feb. 28 Feb. 19 Mar. 7 Feb. 26 Feb. 24 Mar. 9
Bluebird Mar. 18 Feb. 17 Feb. 21 Mar. 8 Feb. 23 Feb. 17 Mar. 9

The fact of greatest importance resulting from these observations was that relating to temperature. It was found that there was always a marked increase in the number of individuals of a given species following a warm wave of temperature as marked by a decided rise of the thermometer. The following graphic representation, based on the abundance from day to day of three common and easily observed species—the brown thrasher, chipping sparrow, and flicker—affords an interesting illustration of the relative movements of the two waves. It will be understood that the numbers in the extreme left-hand column refer to the relative abundance of individuals of the three species collectively. The inside column refers to temperature. The period of observation was twenty days, as shown by the line across the top of the figure.[2]

PSM V54 D802 Graph showing relation of bird migration and temperatures.png

A, migration; B, temperature.

The advent of spring is marked by the northward progression of the isotherm of 42.8° F., which is the initial temperature required to awaken the dormant reproductive and germinating activities in animals and plants. With the gradual invasion of the United States, from the south northward, by temperatures above this, there passes over the different regions the ever-old but ever-new panorama of the spring with its opening blossoms, its unfolding green, and its waves of migrating birds. The restlessness produced by the periodic development of the reproductive function under the stimulus of increased temperature causes the highly organized bird life to spread out from its winter quarters, wherever those may be, and follow the zone of new green that steadily widens northward with its increase of food supply in the form of myriads of insects. The comparative regularity in the recurrence of this phenomenon year after year is attested by the observations just noted. Each species has a certain, definite physiological relation to temperature, and its migratory movement toward the breeding ground is determined by the movement of the isotherm of this temperature. Just as warm a spell of weather may occur in early April as in the first week of May, but it does not represent the permanent summer rise; and the majority of the warblers, the catbird, the tanager, the rose-breasted grosbeak, the two species of oriole, the vireos, and the kingbird, are rarely if ever seen in abundance in the Delaware Valley before the 1st of May. The migratory movement of such species is as regular as any other periodic phenomenon in Nature.

It is hard to realize the enormous multitude of birds that form a so-called "wave." During the whole period of migration there is a general northward movement of all the migratory species, but under the influence of warm spells of weather this more or less uniform movement rises into a vast wavelike sweep of birds. These bird waves, as already noted, follow the rise of temperature appearing at any given locality about a day or two after the first day of the warm spell. Many species of land birds migrate at night—such, for example, as the orioles, tanagers, warblers, vireos, wrens, the majority of the finches, the woodpeckers, and the thrushes, excepting the robin. During the passing of one of the May waves the darkness overhead is alive with flying birds. One may stand for hours at a time and hear the incessant chirping and twittering of hundreds of birds calling to one another through the night as though to keep from getting separated. The great mass of individuals are probably guided by these call notes.

The usually accepted notion that birds migrate from south to north in traveling to their breeding grounds is largely true of shore birds and waterfowl, but among many of the species of land birds conditions of topography tend to deflect a direct northward movement. The Atlantic coast plain, reaching up into southern New Jersey, and the Mississippi basin, each offers a broad south-to-north highway for birds leaving the Gulf shores of the United States on their northward journey in the spring. A great majority of species find in the wilderness of the Appalachian highland, from the Catskills to Georgia, breeding grounds quite as well adapted to their needs as the forests of Maine and Canada.-Large numbers of birds, according to their regional relations, will constantly turn from the Atlantic coast plain up the numerous rivers, which become great highways of migration, leading to the highlands. The northward movement has thus a large westerly deflection on the Atlantic slope of the middle United States. It is also quite certain that many birds winter in favorable localities on the Atlantic coast plain much farther north than is generally supposed. This is especially true of the holly thickets among the coastwise sand dunes of southern New Jersey and the cedar swamps and pine barrens in the vicinity of Cape May. Many of the finches, the marsh wrens, red-winged blackbirds, meadow larks, thrashers, and myrtle warblers are frequently seen in these localities through the winter. I spent one first day of February some years ago among the dunes below Atlantic City, 1ST. J. At Philadelphia that morning it was bleak winter weather, but two hours later we found ourselves in a warm expanse of sunlight on the seaward beaches. The balmy air was filled with bird notes, and the holly thickets and bay bushes fairly swarmed with myrtle warblers. It seems to be a fact that many birds thus make comparatively short migratory movements between the seacoast plain and the mountains, up and down the river valleys.

The phenomenon of the migrating bird has always appealed in a wonderful manner to the human mind. The guiding geographical sense that all animals, and wild animals and birds in particular, possess is peculiarly attractive to men of civilized society, because they have largely lost this same natural instinct of direction, and now look upon it in wonderment. Birds have very sure landmarks; their senses are keen for noting features of topography. They undoubtedly know the Potomac, the Susquehanna, the Delaware, the Hudson, and the Connecticut, and never confuse one with another. They know to which side the sea lies and that the rivers flow down from a wild, wooded region where there are plenty of food and the best possible places to raise their young. All these facts get fixed in their brains. The bird's brain-cell structure is built on these lines and is only waiting to get the impressions of the first migratory experience. They keep in with one another, follow their chirpings in the night, learn to tell the Hudson from the Delaware, or where this or that stretch of woodland lies, just as they learned when first out of the nest how to tell good from bad sorts of food, or how to find their way about the home woods, and that an owl or a fox was an undesirable acquaintance. In the fall migration the young birds follow the older ones in the general movement southward, and are often belated, showing that the impulse to leave their birthplaces is forced upon them, rather from necessity than choice, and is not the well-developed instinct impressed by former experience which their elders seem to possess. The old birds who have bred and reared these young ones set the example of early departure which the birds of the year through inexperience are tardy in appreciating. The habit waits upon experience.

Each year, from midwinter, when the first warmth of advancing sunlight calls to the sleeping life, on to the first fervid heat of the reproductive summer, we have the joyous pageant of the spring. This steady waxing of the new light appealed to the pagan mind of western Europe with a far deeper sense than the modern mind can appreciate. To our rude ancestors it was the goddess Eástre, bountiful in her gift of warmth and the magic of reproductive life, that each year came with the light to drive away the frost giants. And with the goddess, whom we still love to picture as a maiden tripping lightly through the budding groves in her wind-blown garments, came the birds. It was the cuckoo that brought the summer with "daisies pied and violets blue," and to-day, when its voice is heard for the first time in the year, every one knows that summer has come again to the hedgerows of England and the lands of the Rhine. So with us across the Atlantic, summer comes when the catbird first pours out its babel of sweet notes in green woodland ways and the tangled nooks of old gardens.

  1. The Birds of Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Prepared under the direction of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club. By Witmer Stone. Philadelphia, 1894.
  2. Stone. The Birds of Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.