24 October 2013

The Game Birds of Long Island

By Nicholas Pike. Delivered before the New York State Association of Sportsmen at their Twenty-third Annual convention, Coney Island, N.Y., June 20, 1881.

The occasion that has called us together, is one of momentous interest not only to us individually, but to the people at large. Our main object and primary aim is to examine into, and recommend the best measure for the preservation of the game of our island, that of late years has been so ruthlessly destroyed; and if some adequate check is not put upon this wanton and reckless destruction, the time is not far distant when many species at least will be exterminated. Our efforts to protect our game birds from extermination by securing the enactment of proper, concise and stringent laws to that end, will subserve more than one purpose; not only will it protect our game from needless destruction, and allow their decimated ranks to recuperate by natural causes, so that the true sportsman may in the near future be enabled to find in plenty what he now so often seeks in vain, but it will do far more practical good in its benefits to the agriculturist, by the protection such laws will afford against the heartless and wanton destruction of the smaller birds, so many of which, living more or less upon insect life, keep in check the ravages of these silent and voracious pests.

All tribes of animal life were created to subsist upon some other, thus to keep in check their otherwise too rapid increase; this is seen even from the highest form of animal to the lowest form of insect life. No insect so minute but some other tribe of insects are their foes, and subsist upon them, another tribe on them, and on so ad infinitum. Were it not for this wise provision of nature, the earth would be over-run with insect life. It is here that the usefulness and necessity of birds are most apparent. It is well known to all who have made the subject a study, how much the agriculturist is indebted to the feathered tribe for the good they subserve by keeping in check the ravages of insects. Why, a single pair of insectivorous birds no larger than a common sparrow, will destroy more obnoxious insects in a day than any man. Have you ever stood and watched our little nuthatch, titmouse or creeper, hopping from twig to twig, prying into every crevice, with its sharp and pointed bill picking out even the minutest egg of insect life, examining every leaf and twig and seizing its insect prey with amazing dexterity; restless, ever on the move, doing a better day's work for the farmer and fruit grower than the ablest man he hires; and yet these little benefactors to man are ruthlessly shot down by any ignorant lad who is enabled to gain the use of a rusty gun. I would not so desecrate the name as to call him a sportsman, this merciless destroyer, who kills at random everything that is clothed with feathers, killing perhaps in one day's shooting the authors of more substantial good to the country at large; more good in many places, than he himself ever confers upon his country, society or himself.

As an illustration of the inestimable value of birds in destroying insect life, a better perhaps could not be offered than that of the introduced European sparrow. Most of you will doubtless remember, before the introduction of these birds, that the maple trees in our streets were infested by a measure worm, the larvae of a delicate white moth — the Ennomos subsignaria; these worms were so exceedingly numerous and annoying that no one could pass under any trees on which they were without having them dangling in their face or attaching themselves to some part of the clothing; besides this they stripped these beautiful trees of every vestige of verdure, in many cases destroying them; yet as soon as the noisy and pugnacious house sparrow was introduced, so rapidly were they exterminated that now not a single one can be found on any of our shade trees.

It is true that many birds are very destructive to the agricultural interests, these are chiefly confined to the gramnivorous or seed eating birds, though a few omnivorous ones do their share of destruction. Foremost of those most destructive is the well-known boblink — Dolichoux oryzivorous; the rice or reed bird of the Southern States. In the North they commit considerable havoc in the cornfields, and in the South the spring wheat and barley, and later the rice fields suffer immeasurably by this depredator.

Another great enemy to our cornfields is the red-winged starling or swamp blackbird — Aglaius phoeniceus. So well known is his character that in many districts he is called the com or maize thief. But whilst a few species are enemies to the farmer, by far the larger portion are his friends.

It is chiefly to the insectivorous birds that we must look for protection from the depredations of insects, and by reason of the incalculable blessing they are to the agriculturist, and the rich and varied melody nature has endowed so many of the species with, they well deserve our fostering care. None of the species belonging to the following families or genera should ever be wantonly destroyed:

None of the Sialia or bluebirds, none of the Sylviadae or warblers, a large family of strictly insectivorous birds; none of the Parianae or titmice, or the Certhidae or creepers; none of the Vireos or greenlets, or the Sittinae or nuthatch; none of the Tyranninae or fly-catchers, or the Troglodytes, wrens; none of the Picidae or woodpeckers; none of the Caprimulgidae or night hawks, and none of the Hirundinidae or swallows.

All the species belonging to these groups are highly beneficial to man, and include the main body of our strictly insectivorous birds.

Quite a number of families of omnivorous birds are equally worthy of our protection, in recompense for the good they conserve in keeping in check insect life, without taking into consideration their melody. The chief are to be found in families: Merulidae — Thrushes; Icterinae — Hairynests and Tanagrinae —Tanagers.

Now, by well-defined protective laws such, as your Association desire to have enacted, you would not only restore the decimated game, but also be the means of protecting our useful birds from wanton destruction. From a long residence in your midst, and intimate acquaintance with the western section of our Island, I am fully aware how, not only our game has been thinned out, but also our small birds. The time was, when it was the boast of the Long Islander that his favored Island was frequented by a larger number of species of the feathered tribe than any locality in our wide domain; for, independent of the large number of species, either resident here or always to be found during some part of the year, its position being so favorable, it was at times visited by many species whose natural home was the Gulf States or the Atlantic sea-board; besides this, species belonging to the inhospitable regions of the far North often found their way to our more congenial shores; these circumstances always rendered the Fauna of Long Island, particularly favored as to birds. But how is it now? Large tracts hitherto melodious with the song of birds are now comparatively silent. Every half-grown boy who can either buy, beg, borrow or steal a gun, new or old, bright or rusty, musket or fowling-piece, rushes out to the fields, woods. or shore, and pops away regardless of the consequences, driving away what he fails to kill. Such marauders should be summarily dealt with, through the agency of stringent laws, and no one individual, or body of men, are and should be more interested in the faithful carrying out of those protective laws than the real sportsmen of the country.

Nor is all the wanton destruction of birds to be laid at the floor of the youth of our cities; for it is a well known fact that there are men living along our sea-coast who make it a practice during the breeding season of robbing the nests of our Grallatorial or Wading Birds, for the pittance they receive from the sale of the eggs thus gathered. By this wanton destruction the Clapper Rail or Mud Hen — Rallus crepitans, has particularly suffered; cases are known where a single egg hunter has taken 100 doz. eggs of this bird in a single day; this is an unusual number, and occurred where the birds were very numerous.

The robbing of bird's nests prevails to a great extent right in our midst, in our own beautiful Park, within whose precincts we would think the feathered tribe would be secure; the practice of robbing the birds of their eggs is alarmingly on the increase, despite the printed rules and regulations posted on every hand. Were a few examples made of these despoilers, no doubt it would exert a salutary influence in deterring others from committing like offense.

But a few years ago how different were our woods and fields to what they are now. How well do I remember when the western end of our Island during the vernal season, was musical with countless songsters, and our coast in the proper season prolific with Snipe, Fern, Ducks and other waterfowl. When the shrill cry of the beautiful Blue Jay — Cyanurus cristatus, could be heard in every wood. When our well known friend the Quail — Ortyx virginianus, was everywhere abundant, and his familiar "bob-white" could be heard on every hand. When the spotted breasted Wood Thrush — Turdus mustelinus, uttered his brief but sweetly melancholy note in every deep wood. When the ventriloquist, the Yellow-breasted Chat — Icteria viridis, was one of our common birds. When the gay decked Scarlet Tanager — Phoenisoma rubra, in his bright red plumage, flitted through the green trees, and the sprightly and pert Redstart — Setophaga ruticilla, with his orange and black plumage, darted from twig to twig in search of its favorite wood. When not even a catbrier or alder bush, even in our suburban districts, but was the refuge and hiding place of such tiny choristers as the Yellow Throat and Summer Yellow Warblers — Sylvicola flavicollis and aestiva. Few were the ploughed fields where the Black-bellied Plover — Charadrius apricarius, was not seen, or their loud whistling note not heard. Now, I would ask how many fields of this character might be gone over in vain for them? During the season now passed, I have walked miles through woods and fields, sometimes without seeing or hearing even the commonest Finch.

Of the Rasorial Birds, comprising the true land Game Birds, our Island has but a limited number; of the first family, that of Pavonidae, but two species are natives of the United States, the Meleagris gallopavo or Wild Turkey, and the Meleagris Mexicanus or Mexican Wild Turkey, neither of which are found on the Island.

Of family Tetraonidae — Partridges and Grouse, but two species are known on the Island; these are the Pinnated Grouse — Tetrao cupido, commonly known as the Heath-hen, and Ortyx virginianus — the Quail, our old friend Bob White.

The Pinnated Grouse or Heath-hen has from time immemorial been peculiarly associated with the vast barren plains of Long Island, extending a length of over 40 miles, and a width of 6 or 7; in other words, extending the section of the Island from Hempstead to Shinnecock Bay; and although laws have been in existence from an early date, with the object of protection to this bird in particular, still such laws have been an openly violated or evaded, that their complete extinction from our Fauna, must soon surely be realized, if more energetic measures are not instituted and carried out to protect them. The first law passed by the State Legislature to protect these birds, was that introduced by Mr. Cornelius J. Bogert, a Member of Assembly from the City of New York, in February, 1791.

That statute declares among other thing, that "the person who shall kill any Heath-Hen within the counties of Suffolk and Queens, between the 1st day of April and the 5th day of October, shall, for every such offense, forfeit and pay the sum of two dollars and a half, to be recovered, with costs of suit, by any person who shall prosecute for the same, before any Justice of the Pence, in either of the said counties; the one-half to be paid to the plaintiff, and the other half to the overseers of the poor; and if any Heath-Hen, so killed, shall be found in the possession of any person, be shall be deemed guilty of the offence, and suffer the penalty. But it is provided, that no defendant shall be convicted, unless the action shall be brought within three months after the violation of the law."

The Quail or Partridge — Ortyx virginianus, was at one period quite common throughout the Island; his well known and familiar call of Bob White is universally known, but the persecution they have suffered has so thinned them out, that in many districts their cheery voice is but seldom heard. Not content with striving to exterminate them by the gun, it has become a common practice to take them alive in traps, made of sticks or lathe and a common figure-four trigger; to show how they have been destroyed, and how their present range has been restricted, I can well remember the time when I have repeatedly found their nests where the site of the present Prospect Park is, and it is needless to say how many fields or woods you would of necessity have to passover now, in order to find one.

In Family Columbidae — Pigeons, we have two species found on the Island, and both well known, the Ectopistes migratoria, or Passenger Pigeon, and the Ectopistes carolinesis, the Carolina Pigeon or Turtle Dove. Of the Passenger Pigeon we may say but a few stragglers comparatively are seen on our island when we take into consideration the vast numbers that every year congregate in our Western States. So, too with the Turtle Dove, their singular mournful note seldom falls upon our ear, and except at the period of migration are seldom seen in larger numbers than three or four together.

One of the main causes of the dearth of game on the Island is the wholesale slaughter carried out by those people on the shore who make a living by acting as guides to our sportsmen, and let out batteries and decoys through whose use such large quantities of water-fowl are annually destroyed. No shore in the whole Union is naturally richer in Grallatorial and Natatorial Birds than the bays and inlets of our favored Island, and on account of its proximity to our large cities, no locality has suffered greater from the abuses we complain of than this.

In order to more fully illustrate our subject, it will not be out of place to briefly review the Water Birds that are to be found upon the shores of our island, some of which are, however, now but occasionally seen.

It is in the Order Grallatores, or Waders, that the sportsman finds a large part of his favorite Game, for in these are included the Herons, Egrets, Bitterns, Ibises, Rails, Snipe, Woodcock, Sandpipers, Tatlers, Curlews and Plovers.

In the first Family, Ardeadae — Herons, we find our well known Green Heron or Green Bittern — Ardea virescens, known by every gunner by an unutterable name.

The Ardea Herodias — Great Heron and Egretta leuce — Great White Heron, are rare on our coast. The Nyctiardea gardenii — the Night Heron, or Qua Bird-is occasionally found.

The last in this Family is the Botaurus Minor — the American Bittern, called by some the Indian Hen and by others the Dunkadoo.

The next Family is the Rallidae — Rails. In genus Rallus we have the Rallus virginianus, or Virginia Rail; the Rallus crepitans, or clapper rail, and the Crex carolinus, or Sora Rail. The flesh of the latter is peculiarly delicious and furnishes the gunner excellent sport in attempting to follow this nimble-footed bird.

The family Scolopacidae embraces the Sandpipers and Snipe. In this family is the best known and most sought after of all the Game Birds of our Island, the American Woodcock — Scolopax minor.

The most numerous, perhaps, of rail the family is the Scolopax Grisea, or Red-breasted Snipe; its flesh is held in high esteem, is a favorite with the sportsman and great numbers are annually killed. The Scolopax Wilsonii, commonly called the English Snipe, is also much sought after. The Great Marbled Godwit — Limosa fedoa — known to the many sportsmen as the straight-billed Curlew and the Red Curlew, is not as numerous as the Short-billed Curlew, its favorite associate.

Of the sandpipers the following are found on our shores: The Tringa semipalmatus — the Semipalmated Sandpiper or Willet; the Little Sandpiper — Tringa minutilla; the Red-backed Sandpiper — Tringa alpina; and the Ash-colored Sandpiper — Tringa canutus. Of the Plovers, the Ringed or Piping Plover — Charadrius melodus — and the Kildeer — Charadrius vociferus — are perhaps the best known. The other species are Golden Plover — Charadrius virginianus; Wilson's Plover — Charadrius Wilsonii; and the Sanderling — Calidris arenaria. Our review of the Long Island Grallatores closes with the Long-billed Curlew — Numensis longirostris, and the Short-billed — Numensis borealis — both well known to our gunners. Space will not permit to mention all our Gallatores, but the foregoing includes the greater portion.

The last Order, called Natatores, or Swimming Birds, we must confine our remarks to the most conspicuous family that of Anatidae, embracing the Geese and Ducks. In the first sub-family, the Anserinae, is the well known Canada or Wild Goose — Anser canadensis; the Snow Goose — Anser hyperboreus, is rare on the Island. The last is the Brant — Bernida brenta.

The next subfamily are the Anatinae or River Ducks; we have species belonging to three genera, Marica — Widgeon; Dendronessa — Tree Duck, and Anas — typical River Ducks.

The Marica Americana, or American Widgeon, better known as the Baldpate, is one of our well-known Ducks whose flesh is highly esteemed.

The Dendronessa sponsa — Summer or Wood Duck, the most beautiful of all our water birds, is now rare on our coast.

The Shoveller — Anas clypeata, is held in high esteem for the table.

The Dusky Duck — Boschas obscura, more commonly known as the Black Duck, is one of our common Ducks but its flesh is much inferior to the Mallard, Canvass Back, and others.

The Blue-winged Teal — Boschas discors, are highly esteemed as an article of food; these birds are easily taken in hollow traps with the common device, a figure four.

The Green-winged Teal — Boschas carolinensis, is a common and well known species, whose flesh is excellent.

The Mallard — Boschas major, ranks next to the Canvassback and Red-head for the excellency of its flesh and food.

The Pintail Duck — Dafila acuta, or as it is sometimes called the Sprig-tail, this bird is highly esteemed by epicures. The Gadwall — Chauliodus stripera, closes our river Ducks. We now come to the Fuligulinae or Sea Ducks, comprising five genera, as follows: Somateria or Eider Ducks; Oidemia or Scoter; Fuligula or Pochards, Clangula or Golden Eyes and Haralda or Long Tails.

The Eider Duck — Somateria mollisima, is noted for the swiftness, elasticity and warmth of their down, in that respect excelling all other Ducks; their flesh however is inferior.

The King Duck — Samateria spectabilis. is now quite rare.

The Scoter Duck — Oidemia nigra; little esteemed.

The Velvet Duck — Oidemia fusca, of similar habits to the Scoter, and on account of associating with it often mistaken for it by some sportsmen.

The Black or Surf Duck — Oidemia perspicillata; the flesh of this species is coarse and strong.

The Scaup Duck or Blue-bill — Fuligula marilla, and the Pied Duck — Fuligula labradora, are both considered poor as articles of food.

The Red-headed Duck — Fuligula ferina, is second only to the Canvass back in its excellency as food.

The Ruddy Duck — Fuligula rubida, and Tufted Duck — Fuligula rufitorques, are both rare on the Island.

The Buffel-beaded Duck — Clangula rubeola, better known as the Butter-box or Butter-bill, though often fat and plump is not held in as high esteem as many other species.

The Golden eye Duck — Clangula vulgaris, is inferior for the table.

The Harlequin Duck — Clangula histrionica, commonly known as the Lord, is in plumage the most striking and remarkable of all the grotesqueness and oddity of its markings suggested its name. Its flesh is considered excellent. It is one of our rarest species.

The Haralda glacialis or Long-Tailed Duck, better known as the Old Wife and South Southerly, is common, but little esteemed for the table.

The last of the Anatidae are the Merganinae — Mergansers, all four species of which belong to the Fauna of Long Island. The time was when the Hooded Merganser — Mergus cucullatus, with his beautiful black and while crest forming when erected the segment of a circle, and its congener the Red-breasted Merganser — Mergus serrator, with its long pendant crest, were not unfrequently found along our shores, together with the Gooseander — Mergus merganser.

The Smew or White Nun — Mergus albellus, is more frequently found.

I cannot trespass on your time by individualizing the Tern, Gulls and other water birds that possess less attraction to the sportsman, as but few are in any way adapted to the table, their flesh usually being coarse and fishy.

Having briefly reviewed our Game Birds, in conclusion I would say, that it is imperative something should be done, the strong arm of the law should be invoked to protect our birds; the use of batteries, traps and decoys should be strictly prohibited; the most stringent laws should be enacted with that intent in view; these should be rigidly enforced without fear or favor, and free from all partisan or political influence to shield the offenders; pass good strong laws, execute them faithfully, and the time is not far distant when our woods will again, as of yore, resound to the melody of the feathered tribe, and when the true sportsman, under the sanction of wise and just regulations, as to the proper period wherein he may follow his favorite sport, may be enabled to be fully compensated for his endeavors.

June 23, 1881. Forest and Stream 16(21): 407-408.