15 August 2013

Historic Lore of the Reed Bird and Rail Bird

Reed Bird and Rail

The Toothsome Birds that Attract Sportmen to the Marshes

How the Birds are Hunted — How the Reed Bird Travels Under Several Aliases — The Sweet-voiced Bobolink only a Reed Bird in Disguise — Interesting Facts from an Ornithologist.

Every one who could command a gun, a skiff, and a pusher has been out in the marshes this week, bent on the destruction of rail and reed birds. The legal season for shooting rail, or ortolan, and reed birds began Tuesday. The birds, however, appeared in the marshes some days before the beginning of the season. The Eastern branch is the favorite place for gunners of this city, as it is easy of access, but there are many marshes along the Potomac below the city where the birds and the hunters congregate. Along the river the owner of a "skift" is considered at this season a person especially favored by fortune; the men who owns both a "skift" and a gun is looked upon as doubly blessed. The sportsman who hunts for rail or reed birds must have a companion to push or pole the skiff through the "marsh" or employ a man to perform this arduous and unattractive, but very necessary service. Men along the river who own skiffs let them out at two or three dollars a tide, and go with the craft themselves as pushers or gondoliers. In the cases of some of the mighty hunters of the marshes that skiff-men are glad to make a contract to push for one-half of the game. The hunter is generally willing to enter into such an arrangement, for he thereby secures readier and better service. The professional pusher, however, wisely prefers to deal on a cash basis with the inexpert hunter. Old sportsmen say that the skill of the pusher is quite as important an element of the day's sport as the skill of the gunner. The pusher must be quick of movement, and above all a good "marker." That is, be must have learned by practice to "mark" or note the birds and where they fall. A sportsman who trusts his fortunes to an inexperienced pusher will lose sometimes half of the birds he kills because the pusher does not mark them well. The marsh hunter watches the tides during the season as closely as any fisherman or river navigator. His time for hunting is at high tide, when he can penetrate the marshes in his skiff. The reed birds are shot to best advantage when feeding in the marsh, though often a gunner will take them on the wing. The true sportsman prefers to shoot the ortolan on the wing. The season, which will last about all of September, has opened very poorly. One old gunner, who has gone into the marsh the first day of September every year for twenty years, told a Star reporter that he had never before seen so few birds or had such poor luck. For several years the birds have apparently been diminishing in numbers. Besides the men who hunt merely for sport, there are many who make a business of securing the birds for the market where there is a great demand for ortolan and reed birds, both of which receive high honors at the table of the epicure.

An Ornithologist's Revelations.

A Star reporter, hunting not for birds but for information concerning the birds, dropped in upon Mr. Robert Ridgway, at the Smithsonian Institution, the curator of the section of ornithology, national museum.

"The reed bird," said the ornithologist in reply to a Star reporter's inquiry, "is the same as the rice bird of the southern marshes. It feeds there upon rice, and takes its local name from that fact. It appears in different places at different season, and receives a different name in each place. It occurs in equal abundance, wherever a suitable food supply is to be found, throughout the country east of the Rocky mountains, and is therefore not, as many suppose, confined to the Atlantic seacrest.

"The reed bird appears among the Delaware marshes about the middle of August; a week or so later they visit the Potomac flats, where they linger from about the 20th of August to the last of September or beginning of October, gradually diminishing in numbers toward the last. Long before the last have left the wild rice marshes of the Potomac, others, which have gone before, have invaded the rice plantations of South Carolina, where they are known as 'rice birds,' and in October, they move still further southward to the winter home within the tropics. In Jamaica, where they pass the winter in large numbers, they feed upon the seeds of the Guinea grass, and become so excessively fat that they are there known as "butter birds." The greater portion of South America is probably included in their winter range, since the national collection contains a specimen from Paraguay, while numerous other South American localities have been recorded — the most remarkable of which, perhaps, is the far off Galapagos Islands, which lie 600 miles from the nearest mainland of Ecuador. Although reed birds remain for several weeks in a given locality, it is by no means the same birds which are seen every day. The same individuals do not, as a rule, remain longer than a day or two, and those which leave for the south during one night are replaced next day by fresh arrivals from the north, these latter becoming fewer and fewer until no more are left to come."

Transformed to a Bobolink.

"It migrates to the north in the summer," continued Mr. Ridgway, "and breeds in the northern tier of the United States. It appears here in May, stopping on its way north, but it is not then a reed bird — that is it does not live in the marshes. As there are no seeds for it to feed upon, then it takes to the fields and meadows and subsists chiefly, if not exclusively, upon insects. The plumage of the male is much grayer, and makes the bird quite conspicuous. On account of its colors the male bird is sometimes known in the north as the skunk black bird. It has a white and black plumage. But its most common name is the bobolink. It belongs to the same family as the oriole and red wing black bird, and resembles those birds very much.

"Yes, sir," repeated the "bird-sharp" in reply to an exclamation of surprise from the reporter, "the bobolink, the finest singing bird of the north, the bird that rivals the English sky-lark in the vivacity of its song, and far excels it in melody, is the same plain little reed bird that is now attracting the gunners to the marshes of the Potomac. The male bird wears its gay plumage until towards the end of the breeding season, when it discards it for a plainer garb, like that of the female, and ceases to be a singing bird.

"There," said the ornithologist, taking four preserved reed birds from a case, "you can see the difference in the plumage. This is the male bird, as found now in our marshes and which you see cannot be told by the plumage from the female. Here," he said, taking up another bird, which though of the same size and form, wore a variegated plumage of black and buff and yellowish white feathers, "is the bobolink, or male reed bird, as it appears in the north in June. And here is another which has been turned again into a plain reed bird, though you see about the throat, some traces of its gayer plumage still left. A characteristic of this bird" continued the man of bird-lore, spreading out the tail of one of the birds like a fan, "is that it is the only bird of its size and general character in North America that has acuminate or sharp-pointed feathers in its tail, as you see these are." The outer borders or lines of the feathers curved in towards the ends, and the two curves meeting form a sharp point of peculiar shape. "Other characteristics," continued the scientist, "are the length of the legs, which you see reach, when stretched out, nearly to the tip of the tail, and the long claws, which are of use to the bird in clinging to slender reeds."

How to Save the Bobolinks.

"One sad effect of this annual fusillade upon the birds by the gunners," he continued, "is that the bobolinks are becoming very scarce in the north. It is a great pity, too, for these beautiful songsters add much to the attractions of the country. Now, if the gunners would only spare the reed birds and make war upon the English sparrows! Sparrows have for several years past been, to a greater or lesser extent, palmed off on the unsuspecting public as reed birds in New York and other large cities, and are perhaps just as good eating. The fancy for 'reed birds on toast' is pretty much a fashion, just as in the case of the canvas-back duck, whose flesh, according to the judgment of many persons of cultivated taste, is by no means superior to that of the red-head, and some others of our fresh-water ducks.

The Ortolan or Rail.

"The so-called 'ortolan' of our marshes is not the true ortolan, which is a European bird, somewhat resembling our reed bird in appearance and habits, and therefore so totally different from the sora or rail that it is almost inconceivable how the name 'ortolan' should have ever been applied to the latter. The right name of the bird called ortolan here is the rail or sora. It winters in the Central American states. Some are found in the winter in the gulf states. It is a belief among many sportsmen that the rail birds go into the mud and hibernate like frogs. This arises from the fact that they leave for the south at night, all stealing away at once in silence under the cover of the night. The marsh may be full of them one day, and the next day not one can be seen anywhere. No, the rail or sora are not confined to the eastern states. They are found all over the United States, including the Pacific coast. There is much confusion in the popular nomenclature of birds. The "Bow White," for instance, is called quail in New England, and partridge in Virginia, while the ruffed grouse is known as the partridge in the north and pheasant in Virginia. In the western states, where the population has been drawn largely from both north and south, these terms are often used indiscriminately. When English folks first settled in this country they applied to the birds the names of the birds in the old country which they most closely resembled. So the bob white was given the name of the English quail and the ruffed grouse in Virginia the name of the pheasant. These birds are not the same as the birds from which their names were borrowed. In fact, there are identical with those in England from which, in many cases, they have taken their popular names, with the exception of some of the ducks and geese, which are in many cases common to Europe and North America, or the brant, mallard, pintail, broad bill, etc."

September 5, 1855. Washington D.C. Evening Star 67(10,095): 2.