Bird Lore

Date Published: 
September, 1919
Original Author: 
Edwin H. Reiber
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Convention

My friends, I am very glad to be with you this evening. I am just bringing you a breath of the forests and the fields and I am going to be as brief as possible, because I know you are all tired. This is to be just a little heart to heart talk and I want you to feel perfectly free to sing out at any moment during this little talk; if there is any question arises in your mind, I would like to answer it, if I can, at the time. While I was talking in western New York some months ago I made this very same statement about asking questions and during my little talk I was telling about a pair of wrens that were building on my premises, and in describing the nesting material they carried in, I told about this pair of wrens carrying a safety pin into the nest. Immediately after that, a lady right down in the center of the hall asked if I thought that birds could think and reason. I told her I didn’t know, but it seemed that this particular pair showed a lot of forethought.

In the end of Summer when the world is all aglow with the varied color of the trees in their autumn foliage, we begin to look forward to the cold, wintry days that we know to be in store for us; we look longingly to the well-filled wood bins, and we think of the long winter nights together, when we gather around the fire place and listen to the hissing of the baking apples in the ashes that’s the time, my friends, when we divide the world into two parts. We have stored up all those many conveniences and filled our bins with many kinds of luscious fruit for our convenience and our comfort. But when a few snow flakes hurry by on the chill of the west wind, that’s the time that the birds need our help very sorely and in our selfish mood, we have to a certain extent forgotten all about them.

Speaking of this particular time of the year, recalls the time that I once spent in the north woods in a little shack, in mid-winter. It was one of those kinds of nights when you can't find enough cover and we had settled on one individual at a time to pile more wood on to the fire so as to make it possible for us to just snooze. All that afternoon I had been watching the little golden crowned kinglets and the ruby crowned kinglets that came from further up north, around the Hudson Bay section and then down along into the French River section and into the Muskoka country; there were great numbers of them that where feeding on the ends of the evergreen trees. And that particular night while I lay there on this cot and heard the wind howling on the outside and it was a bitter cold night, one of those nights when if you would open the door the cold, icy wind would slash your face, I thought of this little tiny bunch of feathers with its head under its wings trying to keep warm in one of those evergreens. I am not going to say much tonight about the economic value of birds; I am going to take it for granted that you know all about that, because I went into that very thoroughly last year during my little talk to you in Rochester.

So, I am going to omit that and tell you a little about this wonderful, natural scheme, the migration of birds, how they pass from the north to the south and back again. I am going to compare it with a little excursion that we might get up by starting up in Canada and making a trip down to the Gulf of Mexico. We have a stop over ticket for every individual in our party, and we are going to pick out all the places of interest along the route, and we are going to stop off at those places. Undoubtedly, we are going to find places to eat and we are going to remember them, if we are well fed at those particular places. So, we journey on and stop off at those stopping places; and when we get to the south, we again think of coming back home, and then we remember some of the places where we have had an exceptionally good feed, and somebody in the crowd will undoubtedly suggest that we had better stop off there again and get another good feed before we go on. In speaking of the migration of birds, that is only an example. These birds that travel from the north to the south and back again are only making excursion trips with stop-over tickets. When they pass from the extreme north on their way south, they too remember the places where they can feed, where they can find an abundance of food, making it possible for them to exist and they also remember those very same places again on their return from the south, going north and they again stop off at those various places where somebody has been kind enough to lend just a helping hand. Birds are very responsive to any kindness that human beings can show them and where they receive protection, shelter, food and nesting places, you can make up your mind that they are going to take advantage of that stop-over ticket and spend a little time with you.

Very often the question has been asked me regarding birds, how is it that we have had those warblers here for two or three days and then they have all disappeared? This wonderful, natural scheme of migration takes in a very great number of birds, somewhere in the neighborhood of 440 different species. There are about 759 kinds represented in the United States and nature has again worked out a big scheme of distribution, so that instead of all those birds flocking together and taking advantage of just one route, they have numerous routes all over the country. Some come up from Florida and go up into the New England States; some go up into the Dakotas and some cross the Great Lakes and go up into the Canadian woods. Those little tiny warblers start early in the year from away down in the southern part of South America; they make the trip up through South America, cross the Gulf up into North America and into the United States, and pass on across the Great Lakes, and then they go away up into the North Woods, and one of the great controlling impulses that brings those birds up there is the insect food they feed on and the nesting and rearing of their young. Then when the young are sufficiently mature and strong enough they all gather together again and make this trip to the south.

While I am speaking of the migration of birds, I just want to call your attention to one individual bird and that is the arctic tern. That bird makes a round trip every year of 22,000 miles; it flies from the Arctic Ocean to the Antarctic Ocean and back again. There are many ornithologists who call this bird the "sun-down" bird for the reason that, in the summer time, when we have our summer here, that bird is passing along the coast and going up into the Arctic regions, just as far up north as it is possible for it to find any food and open water. They go away up there on those rocks to deposit their eggs, and they raise their young in a place where there is continuous twilight and no darkness at all. Then, as the end of the summer draws near and our days begin to get short, this bird starts again down the Atlantic coast, crosses the Gulf, and follows the South American eastern coast into the Antarctic Ocean, and again spends that time in the year there, while we are having the shortest days here and our winter months, and then, as the winter passes by this bird starts again up north where it deposits its two eggs raises its young and then again makes that same trip and continues to make that trip back and forth. That same thing, relatively, holds good with the 440 species of birds that I spoke of that migrate. They migrate in different directions, and nature has distributed those birds in various places. If' it hadn't been that way, all those birds would come to one of your cemeteries right here in Cincinnati or to one in Rochester, and they would clean up all the insects in a couple of hours and then they wouldn't have any more food. So they are distributed all over and it is for that reason that we have an equal distribution of birds all over the United States and into the Canadian Woods.

Now, these little warblers that cross the Gulf and come up into the United States and cross the Great Lakes and go on up into the North Woods are birds that fly by night. They do their traveling during the night and when the sunlight appears in the morning, they come down again into those stopping off places and feed and spend the day; if they find an abundance of food they may say, "Well, we will stop here for an extra day." Then, at night they pass on again. I wouldn't be surprised if everyone here has in his possession or has a friend who has a pair of good field glasses or even binoculars and it is a treat, my friends, just take advantage of it just now in September and in the early part of October when the moon is full, you watch for two or three hours, between the hours of Ten Eleven and Twelve o'clock, and you will see those little tiny specks, those warblers passing over the face of the moon on their journey south. Is there any reason why we shouldn't welcome them when they come to us in the Spring? And when they leave us in the Fall after they have been working hard ridding our trees of the injurious insects, is there any reason why we shouldn't wish them "good luck" on their journey?

Now the idea of converting the cemeteries into bird sanctuaries of which I spoke a year ago in Rochester was this: it simply makes it possible for those birds to find nesting places, shelter, food and protection while they are making this trip back and forth. This particular species, the warblers, will not remain with you during the summer, although some of them do, for there are a great many of the warblers. Perhaps I am safe in saying there are about 118 of them who in their migratory flight from the South American coasts inland, pass up north into the great Canadian Woods in great flocks.

There's the little yellow warbler, the black and white warbler, the Canadian warbler, the myrtle warbler, the yellow throat and Peruvian warbler, and as they fly up north, when these stopping-off places are reached, the ones that like to remain there like a yellow warbler, say, will stop off and stay in Western New York or in the Northeastern part of this State; and then we have some of the warblers that will stay in Pennsylvania; it doesn't come up into New York, but it will drop out of this line of travel and stop off and take care of certain insects there. The reason for that is, that these different birds feed on entirely different insects and the ones that go away up into the North Woods to feed, feed on entirely different insects; then the ones that stop in Pennsylvania, or Georgia or even further south, feed on still other insects and for that reason the various species of birds are distributed over different portions of the country, and there they feed on these different insects, and rid our trees of the very things that we have been trying to eliminate for years back. Then, too, there are several other birds that are exceedingly interesting in their migratory flight.

Just a day or two ago, I had occasion to speak to a friend of the chimney swift. That particular bird is one that originally nested on cliffs or rocky places and as it was driven further westward from the New England section by human beings taking up the grounds that were their natural feeding and nesting places, it was compelled to find other suitable nesting places in its westward flight and in the absence of the cliffs which exist along the Hudson River and along the Atlantic Coast it took the next best place to nest in. The chimney swift has taken the old abandoned fireplace chimney to nest in; and you can consider yourself very fortunate if you have an old chimney with some of those birds nesting in it. They cling to the inside of the chimney wall and they are always on the wing, feeding. They feed on the insects of the air. The chimney swift is the only bird that nests under such peculiar conditions and builds such a peculiar nest. It is just a little basket that it plasters and pastes up against the inside of the chimney and this is all done while the bird is on its wing. It goes to a dead tree and snaps off little dead twigs and carries them into the chimney and during the nesting time, nature has provided a pasty substance, a saliva, for the female bird to stick those little sticks together to build that nest with, that little basket or little shelf in which the three to five eggs are deposited. The reason I speak of that particular bird is this; it is the only one that I know of that nobody has ever found out where its winter home is. It has been traced in its migratory flight as far as the north coast of the Gulf of Mexico and that's the limit of observation regarding the whereabouts of those birds during the winter months. But they have again been observed in the Spring time, when the air would be filled with insects and then they were coming from somewhere beyond the coast and again coming up into this particular vicinity where we are now and then further east over into New York State and as they get over toward the New England States, they gradually grow less in number, because that's where they were driven from toward the west, not alone by human beings taking up some of their nesting places, but because other birds have gradually changed their condition and driven them out.

This is true, also of the martin. The martin was really a New England bird, but was driven further westward because the white throated swallow took up its nesting sites there, and so, the martin has gradually gone further westward to find suitable nesting quarters. But leaving now the subject of the migration of birds and going back to the cemetery: if you can give protection to these birds in your cemeteries, if you can give them sufficient protection to keep the birds there, and if they do any good when there for one day, then if you can keep them there for seven days, there is no reason why they can't do seven times as much good. And, therefore, it is very important, from the standpoint of the cemetery superintendent that they be protected. Then, too, the Biological Survey of the Government is making every effort to protect these birds, and they will be glad to have your help. It is a work that is well worth while, even if we leave out of the question their economic value. But while I am on the subject of their economic value; I want to say something on that side of it, as I think of the many interesting things that have been told us about the insect pest in the recent lecture in the earlier part of the evening. I want to name a number of birds that are particularly valuable in helping to control the insect pests. I didn't think of this earlier, so I don't believe I can give you the number, but I will try to call some of the names of the birds themselves: the catbird, the oriole, the wrens, the blue-birds, the white-billed and the black-billed cuckoo, the scarlet tanager, the crested fly-catcher, the brown thrush, the myrtle warbler, the Peruvian warbler and I am not sure whether I can include the black and white warbler, all those birds feed on the trusted moth. Now, if we had enough of those birds, it would eliminate the condition that we are troubled with year after year or it would reduce it to a minimum for a number of years.

And right there, I want to call your attention again to one thing I referred to in a portion of my talk last year. I want to tell you something about the life history of some of the moths or insects that you saw on the screen this evening and one in particular, the polyphemus or brown moth. This polyphemus moth is a night flying moth and it deposits its eggs on the underside of lilac leaves preferably. When these little eggs are ready to hatch and the little caterpillars emerge, they begin to feed on those leaves and grow to maturity and after they have reached maturity and have grown to a large green worm about 2½ or 3 inches long at the end of the summer they spin a cocoon, a winter home and in that winter home the pupa remains during the winter months. Then in the spring time, this moth emerges and again that same process takes place; it deposits the eggs and the eggs hatch and the little caterpillars devour the leaves and they reach maturity and spin this cocoon and this very same process is repeated again. But this is the thing I want particularly to call to your attention. Nature has supplied a number of birds that seem to take care of everyone of those stages of insect life. Now, after this moth, the polyphemus, deposits the eggs on the underside of the leaf, we have the various warblers that feed on those eggs; and after those eggs hatch and the little caterpillars begin to feed on the leaves while they are in the small stage, we have the yellow warbler and the Peruvian warbler and the wrens, and all of them feed on those little caterpillars. But now, suppose those birds don't find those small caterpillars and they grow to maturity and begin to spin their cocoon, then we have the white crested nut-hatch that picks into that cocoon and again takes up this scheme of things. But suppose the white crested nuthatch doesn't get this cocoon during the winter months as food and in the spring of the year, the moth emerges, it is a night flying moth and nature has supplied the night hawk and the whip-poor-will, both night flying birds, to feed on this night-flying moth and keep it in check. So you see, there are birds for every single stage of the insect life, and that holds good, not only with the polyphemus, but with all insect life and even if there are insects that the birds don't take care of then there are the snakes and toads that will take care of them.

Now, I think that the cemetery superintendents here have been very fortunate in having such a variety and such a number of lectures and talks on these various forms of insect and animal life. And my friends, these lectures you have had the last night or two, especially those accompanied by the very realistic pictures that have been displayed on the screen, to have had them before the first of last July would have been a very expensive, proposition, but here at this convention you got them all absolutely free of charge!

From the publication:
“AACS - Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Convention held at Cincinnati, OH"
September 24, 25 and 26, 1919