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Buffon's Torchepot du Canada, Canada Nuthatch of other European writers, is either a young bird of the present species, in its imperfect plumage, or a different sort that rarely visits the United States. If the figure (Pl. Enl. 623) be correctly coloured, it must be the latter, as the tail and head appear of the same bluish gray or lead colour as the back. The young birds of this species, it may be observed, have also the crown of a lead colour during the first season; but the tail feathers are marked nearly as those of the old ones. Want of precision in the figures and descriptions of these authors, makes it difficult to determine; but I think it very probable, that Sitta Jamaicensis minor, Briss.; the Least Loggerhead of Brown, Sitta Jamaicensis, Linn.; and Sitta Canadensis of Linn. Gmel. and Briss., are names that have been originally applied to different individuals of the species we are now describing.
This bird is particularly fond of the seeds of pine trees. You may traverse many thousand acres of oak, hickory and chestnut woods, during winter, without meeting with a single individual; but no sooner do you enter among the pines than, if the air be still, you have only to listen for a few moments, and their note will direct you where to find them. They usually feed in pairs, climbing about in all directions, generally accompanied by the former species, as well as by the Black-capt Titmouse, Parus atricapillus, and the Crested Titmouse, Parus bicolor, and not unfrequently by the small Spotted Woodpecker, Picus pubescens; the whole company proceeding regularly from tree to tree through the woods, like a corps of pioneers; while in a calm day the rattling of their bills, and the rapid motions of their bodies, thrown like so many tumblers and rope-dancers into numberless positions, together with the peculiar chatter of each, are altogether very amusing; conveying the idea of hungry diligence, bustle and activity. Both these little birds, from the great quantity of destructive insects and larvæ they destroy, both under the bark, and among the tender buds of our fruit and forest trees, are entitled to, and truly deserving of, our esteem and protection.
[Plate XV.-Fig. 2.)
Sitta pusilla, LATH. Ind. Orn. 263.-Small Nuthatch, CATESBY,
Car. 1, 22, upper figur?.- La Petite Sittelle d téte brune, Buff. V, 474.-BRISS. III, 598.–LATH, I, 651. C.-Peale's Museum, No. 2040.
This bird is chiefly an inhabitant of Virginia, and the southern states, and seems particularly fond of pine trees. I have never yet discovered it either in Pennsylvania, or any of the regions north of this. Its manners are very similar to those of the Red-bellied Nuthatch, represented in Plate II of this work; but its notes are more shrill and chirping. In the countries it inhabits it is a constant resident; and in winter associates with parties, of eight or ten, of its own species, who hunt busily from tree to tree, keeping up a perpetual screeping. It is a frequent companion of the Woodpecker figured beside it; and you rarely find the one in the woods without observing or hearing the other not far off. It climbs equally in every direction, on the smaller branches, as well as on the body of the tree, in search of its favourite food, small insects and their larvæ. It also feeds on the seeds of the pine tree. I have never met with its nest.
This species is four inches and a quarter long, and eight broad; the whole upper part of the head and neck, from the bill to the back, and as far down as the eyes, is light brown, or pale ferruginous, shaded with darker touches, with the exception of a spot of white near the back; from the nostril through the
eyes the brown is deepest, making a very observable line
there; the chin, and sides of the neck, under the eyes, are white; the wings dusky; the coverts and three secondaries next the body a slate or lead colour; which is also the colour of the rest of the upper parts; the tail is nearly even at the end, the two middle feathers slate colour, the others black, tipped with slate, and crossed diagonally with a streak of white; legs and feet dull blue; upper mandible black, lower blue at the base; iris hazel. The female differs in having the brown on the head rather darker, and the line through the eye less conspicuous.
This diminutive bird is little noticed in history, and what little has been said of it, by Europeans, is not much to its credit. It is characterized as “a very stupid bird,” which may easily be knocked down, from the sides of the tree, with one's cane. I confess I found it a very dexterous climber; and so rapid and restless in its motions, as to be shot with difficulty. Almost all very small birds seem less suspicious of man than large ones; but that activity and restless diligence should constitute stupidity, is rather a new doctrine. Upon the whole, I am of opinion, that a person who should undertake the destruction of these birds, at even a dollar a head for all he knocked down with his cane, would run a fair chance of starving by his profession.
SPECIES. A. ALCYON.
[Plate XXIII.—Fig. 1.-Female. )
BARTRAM, p. 289.—Turton, p. 278.—Peale's Museum, No. 2145.*
This is a general inhabitant of the banks and shores of all our fresh-water rivers from Hudson's bay to Mexico; and is the only species of its tribe found within the United States. This last circumstance, and its characteristic appearance, make it as universally known here, as its elegant little brother, the common Kingsfisher of Europe, is in Britain. Like the love-lorn swains of whom poets tell us, he delights in murmuring streams and falling waters; not however merely that they may sooth his ear, but for a gratification somewhat more substantial. Amidst the roar of the cataract, or over the foam of a torrent, he sits perched upon an overhanging bough, glancing his piercing eye in every direction below for his scaly prey, which with a sudden circular plunge he sweeps from their native element, and swallows in an instant. His voice, which is not unlike the twirling of a watchman's rattle, is naturally loud, harsh, and sudden; but is softened by the sound of the brawling streams and cascades among which he generally rambles. He courses along the windings of the brook or river, at a small height above the surface, sometimes suspending himself by the rapid action of his wings, like certain species of Hawks, ready to pounce on the fry below; now and then settling on an old dead overhanging limb to reconnoitre. Mill-dams are particularly visited by this feathered fisher; and the sound of his pipe is as well known to the miller as the rattling of his own hopper. Rapid streams, with high perpendicular banks, particularly if they be of a hard clayey or sandy nature, are also favourite places of resort for this bird; not only because in such places the small fish are more exposed to view; but because those steep and dry banks are the chosen situations for his nest. Into these he digs with bill and claws, horizontally, sometimes to the extent of four or five feet, at the distance of a foot or two from the surface. The few materials he takes in are not always placed at the extremity of the hole; that he and his mate may have room to turn with convenience. The eggs are five, pure white, and the first brood usually comes out about the beginning of June, and sometimes sooner, according to that part of the country where they reside. On the shores of Kentucky river, near the town of Frankfort, I found the female sitting early in April. They are very tenacious of their haunts, breeding for several successive years in the same hole, and do not readily forsake it, even though it be visited. An intelligent young gentleman informed me, that having found where a Kingsfisher built, he took away its eggs, from time to time, leaving always one behind, until he had taken no less than eighteen from the same nest. At some of these visits, the female being within, retired to the extremity of the hole while he withdrew the egg, and next day, when he returned, he found she had laid again as usual.
* We add the following synonymes:-Alcedo alcyon, Linn. Syst. ed. 10, vol. 1, 115.-GMEL. Syst. 1, 451.-LATA. Ind. Orn. 257.-CATESBY, , 69.-Bom. Pl. Enl. 593-715.
The fabulous stories related by the ancients of the nest, manner of hatching, &c. of the Kingsfisher, are too trifling to be repeated here. Over the winds and the waves the humble Kingsfishers of our days, at least the species now before us have no control. Its nest is neither constructed of glue nor fish-bones; but of loose grass and a few feathers. It is not thrown on the surface of the water to float about, with its proprietor, at random; but snugly secured from the winds and the weather in the recesses of the earth; neither is its head or its feathers believed, even by the most illiterate of our clowns or seamen, to be a charm for love, a protection against witchcraft, or a secu