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FAMILY THE Second, STURNIDÆ, or the STARLINGS. – The beak is long and conical, running to a sharp point from a stout base. The nostrils are small and round.
In some genera, the ridge of the upper mandible encroaches upon the forehead ; in others, the beak is depressed at its extremity. The diet is of a mixed kind, consisting of grains, insects, caterpillars, &c. Many associate in flocks, and build artful nests, in clusters, like the weaver bird ; others, again, are solitary during summer, and build in rocks, towers, or in trees, but collect into troops in winter, to separate on the return of spring.
Our first example is the well known STARLING, (Sturnus vulgaris.) The Starling belongs to a group peculiar to the old world, but not containing many
distinct species. The present, besides being found throughout nearly the whole of Europe, is also brought from China, the Himalaya, the Cape of Good Hope, and the northern region of Africa ; its habitat, therefore, is very extensive.
The Starling is a most beautiful bird, and soon becomes familiar in confinement, learning with ease to repeat not only tunes and words, but even sentences. Its natural song is a low, sweet warble. During the breeding season it associates with its mate alone; the nest is constructed generally in the crevices of towers, steeples, or tall chimneys, and not unfrequently in a deserted crow's nest; the eggs are pale blue. After the breeding season is over, these birds immediately congregate together, and form vast flocks, which, often intermingled with rooks, scatter themselves over the fields and pastures in search of food. They mix fearlessly among the grazing cattle, attracted by the insects abounding in such situations, and not unfrequently pick the larvæ of the gadfly from the hides of the patient animals. After the busy labours of the day, on the approach of dusk, the scattered thousands collect into one closely arrayed phalanx, and wheel and sweep through the air, in winding mazes, as they bear away to their place of repose. This is generally a thick coppice, or extensive reed bed; and over it they wheel, and rise and sink, and perform a multitude of beautiful aërial evolutions, all acting in unison, as if guided by a signal-word of command, before they finally settle for the night.
The Starling undergoes several changes of plumage, which were, till recently, but little understood. The young, during the first autumn, are of a uniform ashy brown ; after October, the period of moult, the general plumage is black, with bronze, violet, and green reflexions, each feather (except those of the quills, secondaries, and tail) being tipped with a spot of yellowish white. This condition of plumage lasts till the third year, when the bill becomes yellow, and the throat and chest covered with loose lanceolate or lance-shaped feathers, of a rich black, with purple and golden green reflexions, varying in every light; the head and under parts are of this hue also. The back is greenish black, with small triangular spots of reddish white. This is the permanent state of plumage ; and it is gradually acquired.
The genera Cassicus, Icterus, and Xanthornus, containing Starlings, with pointed conical beaks, arising from a thick base, but differing in minor peculiarities in each genus, belong exclusively to America. In the Cassicus, the upper mandible mounts up on the forehead in a swollen projection ; in the Icterus, a narrow slip runs up on the forehead ; in the Xanthornus, the bill is shorter than in the two other genera, and without a frontal projection. The term of Oriole, given to the birds of these genera before the genus Oriolus, or that of the true Orioles, was restricted, as at present, is still retained.
Our first example is the Baltimore ORIOLE, ( Icterus Baltimorus, DAUD.) This elegant and interesting bird is a summer visitor to the United States. It arrives, says Audubon,
“ from the south, perhaps from a more distant region, and enters Louisiana as soon as spring commences there. It approaches the planter's house, and searches amongst the surrounding trees for a suitable place in which to settle for the season. It prefers, I believe, the trees that grow on the sides of a gentle declivity. The choice of a twig being made, the male Oriole becomes extremely conspicuous. He flies to the ground, searches for the longest and driest filaments of moss, which in that state is known by the name of Spanish beard, and whenever he finds one fit for his purpose, ascends to the favourite spot where the nest is to be, uttering all the while a continued chirrup, which seems to imply that he knows no fear, but, on the contrary, fancies himself the acknowledged king of the woods.”. sooner does he reach the branches than with bill and claws, aided by an astonishing sagacity, he fastens one end of the moss to a twig, with as much art as a sailor might do, and takes up the other end, which he secures also, but to another twig a few inches off, leaving the thread floating in the air, like a swing, the curve of which is perhaps seven or eight inches from the twigs. The female comes to his assistance with another filament of moss, or perhaps some cotton thread, or other fibrous substance, inspects the work which her mate has done, and immediately commences her operations, placing each thread in a contrary direction to those arranged by her lordly mate, and making the whole cross and recross, so as to form an irregular network.” ....“ The nest has now been woven from the bottom to the top, and so secured that no tempest can carry it off without breaking the branch to which it is suspended. Remark what follows. This nest contains no warming substance, such as wool, cotton, or cloth, but is almost entirely composed of the Spanish moss, interwoven in such a manner that the air can easily pass through it. The parents are no doubt aware of the intense heat which will exist ere long in this part of the world, and moreover take especial care to place their nest on the north-east side of the trees. On the contrary, had they gone as far as Pennsylvania or New York, they would have formed it of the warmest and softest materials, and have placed it in a position which would have left it exposed to the sun's rays; the changes in the weather during the early period of incubation being so great there, that the bird looks on these precautions as neces
cessary to ensure the life of its brood against intense cold, should it come; while it knows that the heat in these northern latitudes will not be so great as to incommode them.” In confirmation of this statement, Wilson, speaking of this bird, which he says arrives in Pennsylvania in May, observes of a nest before him, “ The materials are flax, hemp, tow, hair, and wool, woven into a complete cloth ; the whole tightly sewed through and through with long horse hairs, several of which measure two feet in length. The bottom is composed of thick tufts of cow-hair, sewed also with strong horse-hair. So solicitous is the Baltimore to procure proper materials for his nest, that, in the season of building, the women in the country are under the necessity of watching their thread that may chance to be out bleaching, and the farmer to secure his young grafts; as the Baltimore finding the former, and the strings which tie the latter, so well adapted for his purpose, frequently carries off both; or should the one be too heavy, and the other too firmly tied, he will tug at them a considerable time before he gives up the attempt. Skeins of silk, and hanks of thread, have been often found, after the leaves were fallen, hanging round the Baltimore's nest, but so woven up and entangled as to be entirely irreclaimable.” The actions of this bird are graceful and easy; its flight is straight; its song is a clear, mellow whistle, extremely agreeable. The male does not acquire his full plumage till the third year, it is then rich and glowing. The head, throat, upper part of the back and wings are glossy black; the lower part of the back and whole of the under parts a bright orange, deepening into vermilion on the breast. The two middle tail-feathers, and the base of the others, are black, the remainder being of a dull orange. Length seven inches three quarters. The female has the orange yellow much duller than her mate, and the black is clouded with olive. The food consists principally of insects and their larvæ, together with mulberries, cherries, strawberries, and other fruit.
The ORCHARD Oriole (Icterus mutatus, W.) is another of this genus, which visits the United States in spring, and fixes his pendent nest to the extremity of the twigs of spreading trees. Wilson says, They are so particularly fond of frequenting orchards, that scarcely one orchard in summer is without them. They usually suspend their nest from the twigs of the apple-tree, and often from the extremities of the outward branches. It is formed exteriorly of a particular species of long, tough, and flexible grass, knit or sewed through and through in a thousand directions, as if actually done with a needle. An old lady of my acquaintance, to whom I was one day showing this curious fabrication, asked me, in a tone between joke and earnest, whether I did not think it possible to teach these birds to darn stockings ? The nest is hemispherical, three inches deep by four in breadth ; the concavity scarcely two inches deep by two in diameter. I had the curiosity to detach one of the fibres or stalks of dried grass from the nest, and found it to measure thirteen inches in length, and in that distance it was thirty-four times hooked through and returned, winding round and round the nest! The inside is usually composed of the light downy appendages attached to the seeds of the platanus occidentalis, or button wood, which form a very soft and commodious bed. Here and there the outward work is extended to an adjoining twig, round which it is strongly twisted, to give more stability to the whole, and prevent it from being overset by the wind. When they choose the long pendent branches of the weeping willow to build in, as they frequently do, the nest, though formed of the same materials, is made much deeper, and of lighter texture. The circumference is marked out by a number of these pensile twigs that