The Bent Life History Series, published by the Smithsonian, is an interesting and excellent resource on the life history of birds. Written between about 1920 and 1950 by scientists were not afraid to reveal their awe and appreciation of birds.
The descriptions are a little long, so we are posting five of our favorites this month, and will add five more next month. The complete Bent Life History for each species is provided in the Birdzilla online bird guide.
Bradford Torrey (1885) paints this picture of the goldfinch: “Our American goldfinch is one of the loveliest of birds. With his elegant plumage, his rhythmical, undulatory flight, his beautiful song, and his more beautiful soul, he ought to be one of the best beloved, if not one of the most famous; but he has never yet had half his deserts. He is like the chickadee, and yet different. He is not so extremely confiding, nor should I call him merry. But he is always cheerful, in spite of his so-called plaintive note, from which he gets one of his names, and always amiable. So far as I know, he never utters a harsh sound; even the young ones, asking for food, use only smooth, musical tones. During the pairing season his delight often becomes rapturous. To see him then, hovering and singing — or, better still, to see the devoted pair hovering together, billing and singing — is enough to do even a cynic good.” Roger T. Peterson (1935) says: “The responsibilities of life seem to rest lightly on the Goldfinch’s sunny shoulders.
This mysterious hermit of the alders, this recluse of the boggy thickets, this wood nymph of crepuscular habits is a common bird and well distributed in our Eastern States, widely known, but not intimately known. Its quiet retiring habits do not lead to human intimacy. It may live almost in our midst unnoticed. Its needs are modest, its habitat is circumscribed, and it clings with tenacity to its favorite haunts even when closely encroached upon by civilization. The banks of a stream running through my place, close to the heart of the city, were once famous woodcock covers in which the birds persisted long after the surroundings were built up; and even within recent years I have had a pair of woodcocks living in the shrubbery along the stream for a week or two at a time.
The propriety of applying the name ” spirit duck” to this sprightly little duck will be appreciated by anyone who has watched it in its natural surroundings, floating buoyantly, like a beautiful apparition, on the smooth surface of some pond or quiet stream, with its striking contrast of black and white in its body plumage and with the glistening metallic tints in its soft fluffy head, relieved by a broad splash of the purest white; it seems indeed a spirit of the waters, as it plunges, quickly beneath the surface and bursts out again in full flight, disappearing in the distance with a blur of whirring wings.
The blue jay is a strong, healthy-looking bird, noisy and boisterous. He gives us the impression of being independent, lawless, haughty, even impudent, with a disregard for his neighbors’ rights and wishes: like Hotspur, as we meet him in Henry IV, part 1.
To be sure, the jay has his quiet moments, as we shall see, but his mercurial temper, always just below the boiling point, is ever ready to flare up into rage and screaming attack, or, like many another diplomat, beat a crafty retreat. He is a strikingly beautiful bird: blue, black, and white, big and strong, his head carrying a high, pointed crest which in anger shoots upward like a flame. Walter Faxon long ago told me of a distinguished visiting English ornithologist who was eager to see a live blue jay because he considered it the finest bird in the world. He was surprised to find that this beauty, as he called it, is one of our common birds.
Cedar waxwings impress us as being unlike most of the birds we know. We see them commonly in flocks or small companies through the greater part of the year, but we never know just when they will appear, or how numerously, for the movements of these flocks do not conform to the regular northern and southern swings of migration that the majority of North American birds make to and from their breeding grounds. Moreover, unlike most birds, there is no close relationship between the time of their arrival on their nesting grounds and the commencement of breeding.
When we become well acquainted with the waxwing we look upon him as the perfect gentleman of the bird world. There is in him a refinement of deportment and dress; his voice is gentle and subdued; he is quiet and dignified in manner, sociable, never quarrelsome, and into one of his habits, that of sharing food with his companions, we may read, without too much stress of imagination, the quality of politeness, almost unselfishness, very rare, almost unheard of, in the animal kingdom. His plumage is delicate in coloring: soft, quiet browns, grays, and pale yellow: set off, like a carnation in our buttonhole, by a touch of red on the wing.