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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XXI. The Shrike and the Humming-Birds

The picturesque scenery of the Elk appeared to be a favourite resort with the feathered creation. Here our voyageurs saw many kinds of birds; both those that migrate into the fur countries during summer, and those that make their home there in the cold, dark days of winter. Among the former were observed,—the beautiful blue bird of Wilson (Sialia Wilsoni) which, on account of its gentle and innocent habits, is quite as much esteemed in America as the “robin” in England. Another favourite of the farmer and the homestead, the purple martin, was seen gracefully wheeling through the air; while, among the green leaves, fluttered many brilliant birds. The “cardinal grosbeak” (Pitylus cardinalis) with his bright scarlet wings; the blue jay, noisy and chattering; the rarer “crossbill” (Loxia) with its deep crimson colour; and many others, equally bright and beautiful, enlivened the woods, either with their voice or their gaudy plumage. There was one bird, however, that had neither “fine feathers” nor an agreeable voice, but that interested our travellers more than any of the others. Its voice was unpleasant to the ear, and sounded more like the grating of a rusty hinge than anything else they could think of. The bird itself was not larger than a thrush, of a light grey colour above, white underneath, and with blackish wings. Its bill resembled that of the hawks, but its legs were more like those of the woodpecker tribe; and it seemed, in fact, to be a cross between the two. It was neither the colour of the bird, nor its form, nor yet its song, that interested our travellers, but its singular habits; and these they had a fine opportunity of observing at one of their “noon camps,” where they had halted to rest and refresh themselves during the hot midday hours. The place was on one of the little islets, which was covered with underwood, with here and there some larger trees. The underwood bushes were of various sorts; but close to the spot where they had landed was a large thicket of honeysuckle, whose flowers were in full bloom, and filled the air with their sweet perfume.

While seated near these, François’ quick eye detected the presence of some very small birds moving among the blossoms. They were at once pronounced to be humming-birds, and of that species known as the “ruby-throats” (Trochilus rolubris), so called, because a flake of a beautiful vinous colour under the throat of the males exhibits, in the sun, all the glancing glories of the ruby. The back, or upper parts, are of a gilded green colour; and the little creature is the smallest bird that migrates into the fur countries, with one exception, and that is a bird of the same genus,—the “cinnamon humming-bird” (Trochilus rufus). The latter, however, has been seen in the Northern regions, only on the western side of the Rocky Mountains; but then it has been observed even as far north as the bleak and inhospitable shores of Nootka Sound. Mexico, and the tropical countries of America, are the favourite home of the humming-birds; and it was, for a long time, supposed that the “ruby-throats” were the only ones that migrated farther north than the territory of Mexico itself. It is now known, that besides the “cinnamon humming-bird,” two or three other species annually make an excursion into higher latitudes.

The “ruby-throats” not only travel into the fur countries, but breed in numbers upon the Elk River, the very place where our travellers now observed them.

As they sat watching these little creatures, for there were several of them skipping about and poising themselves opposite the flowers, the attention of all was attracted to the movements of a far different sort of bird. It was that one we have been speaking of. It was seated upon a tree, not far from the honeysuckles; but every now and then it would spring from its perch, dash forward, and after whirring about for some moments among the humming-birds, fly back to the same tree.

At first the boys watched these manoeuvres without having their curiosity excited. It was no new thing to see birds acting in this manner. The jays, and many other birds of the fly-catching kind (Muscicapae), have this habit, and nothing was thought of it at the moment. Lucien, however, who had watched the bird more narrowly, presently declared to the rest that it was catching the humming-birds, and preying upon them—that each time it made a dash among the honeysuckles, it carried off one in its claws, the smallness of the victim having prevented them at first from noticing this fact. They all now watched it more closely than before, and were soon satisfied of the truth of Lucien’s assertion, as they saw it seize one of the ruby-throats in the very act of entering the corolla of a flower. This excited the indignation of François, who immediately took up his “double-barrel,” and proceeded towards the tree where the bird, as before, had carried this last victim. The tree was a low one, of the locust or pseud-acacia family, and covered all over with great thorny spikes, like all trees of that tribe. François paid no attention to this; but, keeping under shelter of the underwood, he crept forward until within shot. Then raising his gun, he took aim, and pulling trigger, brought the bird fluttering down through the branches. He stepped forward and picked it up—not that he cared for such unworthy game, but Lucien had called to him to do so, as the naturalist wished to make an examination of the creature. He was about turning to go back to camp, when he chanced to glance his eye up into the locust-tree. There it was riveted by a sight which caused him to cry out with astonishment. His cry brought the rest running up to the spot, and they were not less astonished than he, when they saw the cause of it. I have said that the branches of the tree were covered with long thorny spikes that pointed in every direction; but one branch in particular occupied their attention. Upon this there were about a dozen of these spines pointing upward, and upon each spike was impaled a ruby-throat! The little creatures were dead, of course, but they were neither torn nor even much ruffled in their plumage. They were all placed back upwards, and as neatly spitted upon the thorns as if they had been put there by human hands. On looking more closely, it was discovered that other creatures, as well as the humming-birds, had been served in a similar manner. Several grasshoppers, spiders, and some coleopterous insects were found, and upon another branch two small meadow-mice (Arvicolae) had been treated to the same terrible death!

To Basil, Norman, and François, the thing was quite inexplicable, but Lucien understood well enough what it meant. All these creatures, he informed them, were placed there by the bird which François had shot, and which was no other than the “shrike” (Lanius) or “butcher-bird”—a name by which it is more familiarly known, and which it receives from the very habit they had just observed. Why it follows such a practice Lucien could not tell, as naturalists are not agreed upon this point. Some have asserted that it spits the spiders and other insects for the purpose of attracting nearer the small birds upon which it preys; but this cannot be true, for it preys mostly upon birds that are not insect-eaters, as the finches: besides, it is itself as fond of eating grasshoppers as anything else, and consumes large quantities of these insects. The most probable explanation of the singular and apparently cruel habit of the butcher-bird is, that it merely places its victims upon the thorns, in order to keep them safe from ground-ants, rats, mice, raccoons, foxes, and other preying creatures—just as a good cook would hang up her meat or game in the larder to prevent the cats from carrying it off. The thorny tree thus becomes the storehouse of the shrike, where he hangs up his superfluous spoil for future use, just as the crows, magpies, and jays, make their secret deposits in chinks of walls and the hollows of trees. It is no argument against this theory, that the shrike sometimes leaves these stores without returning to them. The fox, and dog, as well as many other preying creatures, have the same habit.

Wondering at what they had seen, the voyageurs returned to their camp, and once more embarked on their journey.

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