National Geographic : 1943 Jul
Birds on the Home Front BY ARTHUR A. ALLEN Professor of Ornithology, Cornell University With Illustrations from Photographsby the Author "T HEN Jerry was shot down and by / a miracle landed safely in a New SGuinea jungle," remarked his Dad, "his interest in bird life helped keep his morale high the ten days he was lost." Yes, it is strange the way the boys who are infected with bird study never mind where they are sent or how hazardous the journey if it gives them an opportunity to see new birds. Of course, it is distracting to have to stand at attention when a strange bird flits across the road, or to keep on peeling spuds when an un known song pours out of the tree right over the mess hall. And it takes concentration to hear the sergeant's bark when a troop of noisy parakeets goes winging overhead. But once the vaccination has "taken" and the avian antibodies have become well estab lished in the blood stream, it takes more than a blitzkrieg to destroy the impulse to look and listen when a feather floats by. Students who recently gathered on Monday evenings in the ornithology seminar to discuss research problems and check over the birds seen about Ithaca, New York, are now scat tered in Army and Marine camps all over the country and on many fighting fronts. Letters they write back are filled with notes of the new birds they have seen. Mentions of Birds Betray Boys' Stations Sometimes the boy's whereabouts has been deleted by the censor. Only by references to birds can we guess where he is. The letter comes from San Francisco, but we know the "goonies" mentioned do not nest east of the Hawaiian Islands. It is a pretty sure guess that Jim is on Midway or stopping on some lesser island on his way to the Solomons. Tinamous are Latin American; sand grouse are Asian and African; broadbills are mainly Indian; honeysuckers, Australasian; birds of paradise are confined to New Guinea and near-by islands; and so on. The distribu tion of birds takes on a new significance. On the other hand, my own son, who never became infected with the bacillus of bird study sufficiently to master the principles of classification and distribution, was unable to tell us anything of the natural history of his island. We could not guess within a thousand miles of where he was stationed, for coconuts and oranges and sharks and jelly fish, and even "wild chickens" are widely dis tributed throughout the Tropics. However, it is not with the birds of the battle fronts that this article is concerned but rather with the birds the boys have left be hind them. They offer us stay-at-homes an excuse for getting out into the open country, enjoying the new sport of pedestrianism, and building up a reserve of pleasant experiences to offset the bad news that is bound to over whelm us from time to time. When the war is over, we may once again enjoy the sport of touring for birds, but mean time, fortunately, the sport of bird study can go on in city park or suburban back yard with out expenditure of gasoline or tires. And when we have' exhausted the possibilities within walking distance, there are still streetcars and a few buses that can drop us off near lake shore or woodland or marsh for a few hours in a different environment. Birds Working on Home Front We need not feel unpatriotic because of our continued interest in bird study, for every hour spent in the field convinces us of the need for encouraging bird life. The birds are working on the home front just as assiduously for the protection of our forests and our crops as if we had supplied them with hoes and spray guns. We watch a Least Flycatcher in the syca more by the roadside (Plate XI). In ten minutes he darts from his perch eight times to snap up passing insects, and he keeps this up all day. There is a Yellow-throated Vireo (Plate XV) nesting in the next tree. Without so much as the loss of a single phrase of its song, it gobbles up one cankerworm after another at the rate of two a minute. With watch in hand, we time a Chickadee (Plate XII) bringing food to its hungry youngsters in the hollow of a stump. In 30 minutes it returns 35 times-not with a single insect each time, but with a whole bill full. Indeed, there is a record of a house wren that was watched continuously for the 15 hours and 45 minutes of daylight, and in that in terval it fed its young 1,217 times! Thus the story goes on.