I could not think of any better mode of representing these birds than that which I have adopted, as it exhibits them in the exercise of their nefarious propensities. Look at them: The male, as if full of delight at the sight of the havoc which he has already committed on the tender, juicy, unripe corn on which he stands, has swelled his throat, and is calling in exultation to his companions to come and assist him in demolishing it. The female has fed herself, and is about to fly off with a well-loaded bill to her hungry and expectant brood, that, from the nest, look on their plundering parents, joyously anticipating the pleasures of which they shall ere long be allowed to participate. See how torn the husk is from the ear, and how nearly devoured the grains of corn already are! This is the tithe our Blackbirds take from our planters and farmers; but it was so appointed, and such is the will of the beneficent Creator.
These birds are constant residents in Louisiana. I say they are so, because numbers of them, which in some countries would be called immense, are found there at all seasons of the year. No sooner has the cotton or corn planter begun to turn his land into brown furrows, than the Crow-Blackbirds are seen sailing down from the skirts of the woods, alighting in the fields, and following his track along the ridges of newly-turned earth, with an elegant and elevated step, which shews them to be as fearless and free as the air through which they wing their way. The genial rays of the sun shine on their silky plumage, and offer to the ploughman's eye such rich and varying tints, that no painter, however gifted, could ever imitate them. The coppery bronze, which in one light shews its rich gloss, is, by the least motion of the bird, changed in a moment to brilliant and deep azure, and again, in the next light, becomes refulgent sapphire or emerald-green.
The bird stops, spreads its tail, lowers its wings, and, with swelled throat and open bill, sounds a call to those which may chance to be passing near. The stately step is resumed. Its keen eye, busily engaged on either side, is immediately attracted by a grub, hastening to hide itself from the sudden exposure made by the plough. In vain does it hurry, for the Grakle has seen and marked it for its own, and it is snatched up and swallowed in a moment.
Thus does the Grakle follow the husbandman as he turns one furrow after another, destroying a far worse enemy to the corn than itself, for every worm which it devours would else shortly cut the slender blade, and thereby destroy the plant when it would perhaps be too late to renew it by fresh seed. Every reflecting farmer knows this well, and refrains from disturbing the Grakle at this season. Were he as merciful at another time, it would prove his grateful recollection of the services thus rendered him. But man is too often forgetful of the benefit which he has received; he permits his too commonly weak and selfish feelings to prevail over his reason; and no sooner does the corn become fit for his own use, than he vows and executes vengeance on all intruders. But to return to our Blackbird.
The season of love has arrived. Each male having, by assiduity, valour, or good fortune, received the affectionate regards of a faithful mate, unites with her in seeking a safe and agreeable retreat. The lofty dead trees left standing in our newly cultivated fields, have many holes and cavities, some of which have been bored by Woodpeckers, and others caused by insects or decay. These are visited and examined in succession, until a choice being made, and a few dry weeds and feathers collected, the female deposits her eggs, which are from four to six in number, of a bluish tint, blotched and streaked with brown and black. She sits upon them while her valiant mate and guardian mounts to the summit of a broken branch, pours forth his rude notes, and cheers and watches her with the kindest and most unremitting care. I think I see him plunging through the air and overtaking the Red-headed or the Golden-winged Woodpecker, which, in search of their last year's nest, have imprudently alighted at the entrance of the already chosen and occupied hole. The conflict is but momentary; the creeping bird is forced to yield, and after whirling round in the air as it defends itself, and very nearly comes to the ground, makes the best of its way off, well knowing that there its opponent is more formidable than even in the air.
This over, the Grakle roams in quest of food. Little heaps of grubs, with a few grains of corn, afford delicious repasts to himself and his mate. They thus share the labours of incubation, and see the time pass in eager and pleasant expectation. And now the emerging brood shake off the shell that so long enclosed them; their tottering heads are already raised toward their mother, while she, with intense anxiety, dries and cherishes them. They grow up day after day. The hole becomes nearly filled with their increased bulk. The vigilance and industry of the parents also augment apace. I wish, good-natured reader, you would seek out such a sight: it would gladden your heart, for the rearing of such a family is worthy of your contemplation.
It is with regret that I must turn from this picture. I have already told you that the Grakles are at least as fond of corn as the lords of the land are. Hark to the sound of rattles, and the hallooing of the farmer's sons and servants, as they spread over the field! Now and then the report of a gun comes on the ear. The Grakles have scarcely a single moment of quiet; they are chased, stolen upon, and killed in great numbers, all the country round; but the hungry birds heed not the slaughter of their brethren. They fly in flocks from place to place, and, in spite of all that the farmer has done or threatens to do, continue their depreciations. Food must be had. Grubs and worms have already retired to their winter quarters within the earth; no beech-nuts or acorns have yet fallen from the trees; corn is now their only resource, and the quantity of it which they devour is immense.
Now gloomy November brings up its cold blasts from the north, and drives before it the Grakles from the Eastern States. They reach Louisiana and all the Southern States when autumn has not yet retired, when the weather is still mild and serene, and the yellow foliage of the wide woods gives shelter to myriads of birds. The Grakles, congregated in prodigious flocks, alight on the trees that border the vast forests, covering every twig and bough in such astonishing masses, that the most unskilful or most avaricious gunner finds no difficulty in satisfying his wish for sport or game. This is the time to listen to their choruses. They seem to congratulate each other on their escape, and vociferate at such a rate as to make one imagine their number double what it is.
Beech-nuts and acorns are now abundant in the woods, having by this time fallen from the trees, and the Grakles roam in quest of them in immense bodies, rising on wing when disturbed, uttering at the same time a tremendous noise, then making a few rounds, and alighting again. They thus gradually clear away the mast, in the same manner as the wild pigeons are wont to do. As the weather becomes colder, they frequent the farms, and even resort to the cattle pens, where, from among the litter and refuse straw, they pick the scattered grains that have fallen from the stores with which the farmer has supplied his stock. They remain about the farms until the commencement of spring. They are easily caught in traps, and shew little fear when seized, biting so severely as often to draw blood, and laying hold with their claws in a very energetic manner.
During the winter of 1821, I caught a number of them, as well as many other birds, for the purpose of sending them alive to Europe. The whole of my captives were confined together in a large cage, where they were well fed and watered, and received all necessary attention. Things went on favourably for several days, and I with pleasure saw them becoming daily more gentle. An unexpected change, however, soon took place, for as the Grakles became reconciled to confinement, they began to attack the other birds, beating and killing one after another so fast that I was obliged to remove them from the cage. Even this did not prevent further breach of the peace, for the strong attacked and killed the weak of their own race, so that only a few remained in the end. The Grakles thus mangled, killed and partially devoured several Cardinal Grosbeaks, Doves, Pigeons, and Blue Jays. I look upon this remarkable instance of ferocity in the Grakle with the more amazement, as I never observed it killing any bird when in a state of freedom.
What I have said respecting the Purple Grakle (which by some is improperly named the Boat-tailed Grakle) refers particularly to the habits of those in the south, where some of them are found at all seasons. I shall now speak of those of the Western and Middle States. Most of these birds leave the south about the middle of February, setting out in small detached flocks. They reach the State of New York in this straggling manner about the middle of May. Their migratory flight is performed in short undulating lines, resembling small segments of very large circles. It may be explained in this manner. Supposing the bird poised in the air and intent on moving forwards, it propels itself by a strenuous flap of the wings, which carries it forward in a curve, along which it ascends until it attains the level of its original point of departure, when it flaps its wings again, and performs another curve. In this form of flight they pursue their long journey, during which they keep up a continual low chattering, as if they were discussing some important question. When they reach Pennsylvania, they commence the avocations which I have already described, and are seen following the plough, while their kindred that have been left in Louisiana are probably by this time feeding their young, as the difference of climate between these latitudes leaves the northern states a month later in their seasons than the southern.
In the Northern States these birds construct their nests in a much more perfect, and therefore more natural manner. A pine tree, whenever it occurs in a convenient place, is selected by preference, its dense foliage and horizontal branches being well adapted for nidification. There the Grakle forms a nest, which from the ground might easily be mistaken for that of our Robin, the Turdus migratorius, were it less bulky. But it is much larger, and instead of being placed by itself, is associated with others, often to the number of a dozen or more, on the horizontal arms of the pine, forming tier above tier, from the lowest to the highest branches. The centre of the nest is what I would call saddled on the bough, the materials being laid so that the nest is thinner in its middle part and thicker at the two opposite sides, so as to have a firm hold. It is about six inches in diameter outside, and four inches within, the depth being the same, and is composed of grass, slender roots and mud, lined with hair and finer grasses. I had a white pine-tree in one of my fields on Mill Grove Farm, on which many of these birds bred every spring, when some mischievous lads frequently amused themselves with beating down the nests with long fishing-rods, to my great annoyance. Some of the Pennsylvania farmers, from a very laudable motive, have given out that Grakles are fond of pulling up the garlic plant, so injurious to the pastures of the Middle States; but I am sorry to say this assertion is by no means correct, and were these good people to look to the Grakles for the clearing of their fields from that evil, they might wait long enough.
The flesh of the Purple Grakle is little better than that of the Crow, being dry and ill-flavoured, notwithstanding which it is frequently used, with the addition of one or two Golden-winged Woodpeckers or Redwings, to make what is here called pot pie, even amidst a profusion of so many better things. The eggs, on the contrary, are very delicate, and I am astonished that those who are so anxious for the destruction of these birds do not gratify their wishes by eating them while yet in the egg. In some parts of Louisiana, the planters steep the seed corn for a few hours in a solution of Glauber's salt, to deter the Grakles and other birds from eating the grains when just planted.
The Purple Grakle travels very far north. I have found it everywhere during my peregrinations, and in one or two instances have seen it form its nest in the fissures of rocks.
According to Dr. RICHARDSON, this species reaches the plains of the Saskatchewan in the beginning of May, in flocks of from twenty to a hundred, the males and females separate; and, as in Pennsylvania, several pairs nestle on the branches of the same tree. I have found it dispersed over the country from Texas to Nova Scotia, but met with none in Newfoundland or Labrador. It was not observed by Dr. TOWNSEND on the Columbia river.
Dr. BACHMAN, who has seen it building in the hollows of trees, and in abandoned nests of Woodpeckers, has observed it carrying grass and mud for the construction of its nest. It breeds in like situations in Louisiana, without using these materials; and in the middle and northern districts forms a fine, well-finished nest, such as I have described. The eggs measure one inch and half an eighth in length, by five and a half eighths in breadth, are of a bluish-white colour, blotched, streaked, and spotted with brown and black. On the Florida Keys I found this species breeding in low mangroves, in communities, along with the White-headed Pigeon, Columba leucocephala, and thought that the glossy richness of the plumage far exceeded that of our northern birds; yet, on close examination, I could observe no other difference in them. I have also found them breeding westward of the mouths of the Mississippi, as far as the Texas.
PURPLE GRAKLE, Gracula quiscala, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. iii. p. 44.
PURPLE GRAKLE, Gracula quiscala, Bonap. Amer. Orn., vol. i. p. 42.
GRACULA QUISCALA, Bonap. Syn., p. 54.
COMMON CROW BLACKBIRD, Quiscalus versicolor, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 194;vol. v. p. 481.
QUISCALUS VERSICOLOR, Common Purple Boat-tail, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii. p. 485.
PURPLE GRAKLE or COMMON CROW BLACKBIRD, Quiscalus versicolor, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. i. p. 35; vol. v. p. 481.
Tail long, much rounded, with the feathers flat. Male with the plumage silky and splendent, the head, neck, and anterior part of the breast blackish, with vivid reflections of violet, steel-blue, and green; general colour of the body dusky, glossed with purple, green, and blue, these colours arranged in three terminal zones, on each feather; rump violet-purple; wings and tail black, glossed with green and blue. Female considerably smaller, with the body more brown, the reflections much less brilliant. Young brown.
Male, 13, 19. Female, 11, 16.
Breeds from Texas to the Fur Countries. Resident in the Southern States. Extremely abundant.
A male preserved in spirits measures to end of tail 11 1/2 inches, to end of wings 8 3/4 to end of claws 10; wing from flexure 6; tail 5; extent of wings 17 1/4.
The mouth is rather narrow, its width being 6 1/2 twelfths; the palate ascending, with two papillate ridges, the space between which and the margin of the posterior nasal aperture is also papillate. The latter is 6 twelfths long, linear, and margined with strong papillae. There are three ridges on the anterior part of the roof of the mouth, of which the middle is much stronger, at the base large, prominent, and hard, being similar to the knob observed in the Buntings, but much more elongated. The tongue is slender, 9 twelfths long, emarginate and papillate at the base, grooved above, horny toward the end, slightly lacerated, and slit at the tip. The oesophagus, [a b c d], is 4 1/4 inches long, 5 twelfths in width at the commencement; then for the length of nearly two inches dilated to 7 1/2 twelfths; on entering the thorax contracted to 4 twelfths. The stomach, [d e], is of moderate size, round, a little compressed, moderately muscular, the right muscle 3 twelfths, the left 2 1/2 twelfths thick; the epithelium dense, horny, slightly rugous, with two roundish slightly concave grinding surfaces. The oesophagus contains two grains of maize, and the stomach is distended with fragments of the same, together with portions of husks and grains of sand. The intestine, [f g h i j k], is of moderate length and rather wide, being 16 inches long, and from 4 twelfths to 2 1/2 twelfths wide; the duodenum, [f g h], curves in the usual manner, returning at the distance of two inches; the coeca, [i], which come off at the distance of 1 1/2 inches from the extremity, are 1 1/2 inches long, but only 1/2 twelfth in width; the rectum gradually enlarges into an oblong cloaca, (j), about 5 twelfths in width.
The trachea is 3 inches long, moderately flattened, 1 1/2 twelfths in breadth, its rings firm, and about 60 in number, with 2 additional dimidiate rings. The lateral muscles are slender, as are the sterno-tracheal; there are four pairs of large inferior laryngeal muscles. The bronchi are of moderate size, with about 15 half rings.