17 March 2014

Reed Bird, Rice Bird, or Ortolan

(From the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, No. 2.)
Philadelphia, Sept 7, 1829.

Mr. Editor. — These delicious visitors are now congregating in great numbers on the marshes of the Delaware and Schuylkill, and in a few days they will have arrived at that point of pinguidity, which gives them their deserved reputation among the delicacies of the table. They arrive in Pennsylvania in the month of April, and after a short sojourn in the grass field, steer their way to the north, where they breed.

On their arrival at this season they are sometimes quite fat, but on their return, which is the beginning of August, they are remarkably lean and indifferent. They remain in the stubble fields in small flocks, feeding upon the seeds of arsemart and ragweed, until the reed begins to ripen, and then it is they acquire that plumpness for which they are so remarkable. When they come on from the south, the male wears his winter plumage, which is black, with a white spot on the head, a stripe of white on the back of the neck and back; the female retains the autumnal colour. At this season, the amateur of nature's melodies, can be as much gratified with their delightful notes, as the gourmand will be with their flesh in the Autumn. Their notes are few, but the intonation is more distinct that that of any other bird; it resembles the tones produced by a musical box more than any other thing to which I can compare it. But, after all, the music produced by the knives, forks and plates at a table, honored by the presence of these little gentlemen, is incomparably superior to any other we have ever heard; nay the very sight of them, strung up in dozens on the stalls of the Jersey market, early in a September morning is delightful. To see their little yellow rumps (ready picked for inspection) protruding between their wings, like lumps of amber, is indeed a great temptation, but when we come to the eating of them, then it is that we need not much wonder at the extravagance of the poet (I forget his name,) who paid a guinea which had been given him in charity, for one of them. In short, no man can say he has tasted of the best things which a kind Providence has bestowed upon us, until he has eaten a dozen or two of these little birds nicely dressed. I am sure that if they had abounded in Greece, some of their poets would have told us that they were a standing dish at Jupiter's table. I was about to say something about cooking them, but I do not know how a cook can go very wrong, unless she would do as the Irish woman with the watermelon — boil them. However, that part of the subject I would refer to Mrs. Rubican of Mrs. Inslee, not doubting but that they would give quite a scientific account of it (as Dr. Kitchener says.) But where am I going to? I intended to give you some account of the history of the bird, but in fact have got to eating him, which I have no doubt you can do as well as myself. Well, then to my first intention. They leave Pennsylvania and New Jersey at the latter end of September and the beginning of October, if the weather becomes cold and stormy; but when it is mild, they remain for a considerable time in the latter month. They take their departure, like most other birds, towards the night of a clear day. Almost all the birds which frequent the marsh having congregated into an immense flock a little after sunset, a few at first start up in the air, and in a few moments the whole flock will follow them by degrees, in a kind of spiral column, until they have all left the place.

This bird is one of the few that afford any profit to the shooter, inasmuch as they are shot for the pot and for the pot alone. No gentleman sportsman would think of wading through mud up to his knees; and mostly, above them, sneaking and creeping for two or three hours to get a shot at a flock of them; and after they are killed, it requires an experienced eye to find them, their color so much resembles the reed in which they are found. The best shot I know of is a twenty-five cent piece, which will purchase a dozen of them from those people who make it a business to kill them for the market.

Yours respectfully, C.

N.B. These birds are remarkably fond of millet, and some of our farmers along the Delaware sow a small strip of that grain near the water, for the purpose of shooting them conveniently.

(The interesting bird above alluded to, is the rice bunting (emberiza orizovora) of Wilson, and is represented in the second volume of his splendid work, plate xii, figure one and two. It is the ortolan de ris, of Busson, rice-bird of Catesby; boblink, of the eastern and northern states, and the rice and reed-bird, of Pennsylvania and the southern states. In Jamaica, it is known by the name of Butter-bird.)

October 17, 1829. The Register of Philadelphia 4(16): 253.