18 August 2009

Sunday Outing to Turner Park - Habits of the Yellowhammer - Leaves from the Notebook of an Old Nature Student

By Sandy Griswold.

Though nothing strange, at an early hour on Sunday morning last, it fortuitously occurred to me that a little ramble through the boulevard park wouldn't be a bad idea, and happily I proceeded to follow the hunch and incalculably was my reward.

It was quite chilly, in the lower forties somewhere, and there were a few vagrant snowflakes in the air. Still there was no call for extra wraps and I was speedily on my way.

I do not know what actuated me, for surely I did not expect to encounter anything new or startlingly interesting. The birds had apparently all departed and I hardly hoped to catch sight of even a single one of my old favorites - a lingering robin, tree sparrow, nuthatch, downie or even the ever-present and irrepressible chickadee, for I had seen none of these for days.

However, I had hardly crossed the street to the little triangular patch of park in front of my residence, with its spreading blue cedars, pallid barked sycamores, walnut, elm and ash trees, all wind-stripped and coldly gray in the early ambient light, when to my delight surprise, amidst a little flurry of English sparrows from the ground where they had been breakfasting on the grass seeds, was a sturdy male yellowhammer, which undulated away before my advancing footsteps, sounding his sharp single note of alarm, "kee-uck!" he was quickly hidden within the leafless involucre of the big elm across the boulevard, and one of the most beautiful trees in all Omaha.

I did not intend, however, to permit him to dismiss me so unceremoniously before I had seen more of him and I followed him about from tree to tree, spying upon his every move through my glasses for more than a half hour and not one second of this period did I regard as wasted time.

I always love the flicker - one of the yellowhammer's commonest titles - from my earliest boyhood days, the bird has always been an obsession with me.

And why?

Because the yellowhammer is one of the loveliest, the most interesting and most valuable, of all our commoner birds and there are none who appreciate the qualities that are essential to beauty and attractiveness who are so bold as to deny.

I repeat, to me personally, the yellowhammer has always held an unequalled place as a bird of indescribable charm, and I believe, among all ornithologists of repute, is the most wondrously marked birds in the world.

"The cackle of the flicker among the oaks," was music to the soul of Thoreau, and it is music likewise to every pure-minded sportsman who takes to the fields and marshes in these chill fall days, or in the odorous spring time, either, when the wild fowl are flying.

All outers, I have found it the unbroken rule, whether they be shooters, anglers, or simple naturalists, have an especial affection for this beautiful bird, and while it used to be classified as a game bird in most states of the union, it is rare, indeed, that he is now-a-days killed for the table.

It is the yellowhammer, like the robin and the blue bird, that lifts time's veil and brings back beloved visions of the long, long ago, especially to such old woods haunters as myself, to whom, in youth, they were the primary game. It was on these birds that the most of the old day sportsmen first tried their prowess with the old smooth-bored musket or single barrel, among the hickories, bordering the village of my barefoot days.

When you hear the cheery cackle of the flicker, and you are sure to, on the first sunny days in March, when the forked rudder of the pintail is defined against the sky, and, when in the old days, you made your way out the Platte - sure to catch, those peculiar broken notes, as they emanated like strands of pearls, from distant groves of cottonwood or boxelder, you were also sure that spring has come.

Yes, the yellow-hammer is a migrant, although it is not uncommon for one or more of them to cling to us all winter, yet when they do go, they generally time their departure and arrival with a precision that seldom fails. From the time of his appearance in March, he is a familiar adjunct to our rural and frequently urbane scenery, until late in November. His absence would seem like a blot on one of nature's most royal works. As he darts away, with that undulating pitch of his, from a rotten snag or fence post, he borrows all the gold from the sunshine that glints his yellow pinions. As he flashes his wings in straightaway flight before your advancing footsteps, or sounds his sharp, single note of alarm, or peers down upon you from the portal of his lofty tower of oak or cottonwood, or clings to its gnarled wall, or poses right-side or wrong-side up on fence stake or telegraph pole, displaying his black dotted vest or mottled saddle, you recognize the fitness of each of the many names bestowed upon him by scientific scholar or quaint and quiet country folk.

It is a wonder his happy cackle wherewith he announces the end of his vernal journey from the land of honeysuckle and pomegranate, has not become symbolical of spring's climateric and gained for him one universal note.

His courtship note, a soft, sweet, refined clucking, almost impossible to imitate in words, is one of the sounds of melody that vibrates the springs caressing air, and is rated even with the carillon of the scarlet tanager or the vesper hymn of the spirit thrush. You have all heard it years ago, when down in the greening lowlands for jacks in the soothing days of early April, and can make no mistake. This cannot be called a song, but is so joyously welcomed, perhaps, because it is one of the most inevitable sounds of the entrancing spring-tide, and is seldom if ever heard after the time of glad return and love-making. The yellow-hammer's brood is well grown by the last of June, and as soon as the little ones launch themselves upon the world during the first part of the subsequent month, they instinctively become the implacable enemy of the borer, that most insidious destroyer of the apple and other fruit trees, as he is to noxious insects of all kinds, and yet his favorite diet is ants.

However, it wasn't of the yellow-hammer I meant to tell you when I began this little article, but of an entirely different kind, and a far rarer one here, and a number of which I discovered in my sauntering Sunday morning - but the pine grosbeak - but will now he compelled to forebear until another Sunday.

November 20, 1927. Sunday World-Herald 63(8): 15-W. Leaves from the Notebook of an Old Nature Student.

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