National Geographic : 1937 Aug
THE SHORE BIRDS, CRANES, AND RAILS Willets, Plovers, Stilts, Phalaropes, Sandpipers, and Their Relatives Deserve Protection BY ARTHUR A. ALLEN Professor of Ornithology, Cornell University FIVE hundred miles due north of Win nipeg one leaves behind the last out post of the spruce forest and for a few miles travels the open tundra before approaching that great expanse known as Hudson Bay. It was a sea of ice when we arrived the first of June, with no cracks or other evidence of weakening, though spring had already arrived on the tundra and back home, in the northern United States, summer was not far away. We had journeyed thus far to study ptarmigan-those Arctic grouse whose peri odic epidemics we hoped might throw some light on similar cyclic mortality in our native ruffed grouse. The ptarmigan, all about us, were now in their spring garb, with white bodies and red heads, and dotted over the tundra as far as the eye could reach were white wings and scattered feathers, bespeaking a high death rate during the winter and early spring. STRANGE BIRD CALLS A MYSTERY But even more impressive than the ptar migan were the strange sounds that filled the air. I counted myself fairly familiar with the songs and calls of North American birds, but here was bird music I had never heard before, and all of it apparently com ing right out of the sky. When I pictured to myself the thousands and thousands of square miles of the Arctic tundra that no civilized man ever sees, and thought of the tens of thousands of vibrant throats pouring forth their melodies for ears not akin to man's, I realized how insignifi cant an atom I really was in this great Northland I had come to study. Here were dozens of new songs being poured out by birds that in my country are nearly mute, for at last I had come, not only to the home of the ptarmigan, but to the breeding ground of the Hudsonian cur lew, the golden plover, the stilt sandpiper, the lesser yellow-legs, the northern phala rope, and many more of those alluring shore birds whose very names had always thrilled me; birds whose nearly silent, ghostlike forms frequent our shores and mud flats for brief intervals on their jour neys between their mysterious Arctic breed ing grounds and their glamorous South American wintering resorts. For the shore birds are our greatest travelers.* Many a time in years gone by, on stormy nights in September, I had awakened to the mellow whistles of the greater yellow-legs and black-bellied plovers as they hurried southward ahead of the approaching win ter, and at daybreak I had hastened to the lake shore expecting to find it teeming with the graceful waders, but I usually had arrived just in time to see the last flocks heading south, leaving only a few stragglers behind them. Very gradually I had become familiar with the simple little whistles uttered as they took flight, and I had learned to recog nize the several shore birds at sight, even in their obscure winter plumages. But here at last was something different. Here on the tundra at Churchill on Hudson Bay I could stand in one place and have shore birds all about me-here, there, and every where, but mostly in the air. Some on vibrating wings were hovering over definite spots on the tundra, giving vent to their passions in loud, buzzing sounds like swarms of bees; others were chasing each other about in crazy courtship flights, and still others were flying in great circles, uttering the strangest notes I had ever heard. One that I finally identified as our de mure little stilt sandpiper was braying like a jackass as he circled about overhead. Wheep! Wheep! Wheep! Hee-haw! Hee haw! Hee-haw! The notes rolled across the tundra as if our Democratic emblem had suddenly taken wings and gone in search of Santa Claus. *This is the sixteenth article, with paintings by Major Allan Brooks, in the important GEO GRAPHIC series by outstanding authorities on the bird families of the United States and Canada. The entire series is now available in The National Geographic Society's new two-volume "Book of Birds," together with other notable articles, full color portraits of 950 birds, 633 "bird biogra phies," and more than 230 photographs and bird migration maps.