HotFreeBooks.com
Birds in the Bush
by Bradford Torrey
1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

BIRDS IN THE BUSH

by

BRADFORD TORREY

Sixth Edition



Boston Houghton, Mifflin and Company New York: 11 East Seventeenth Street The Riverside Press, Cambridge 1893

Copyright, 1885, by Bradford Torrey All rights reserved.

The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A. Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Company.



Wherefore, let me intreat you to read it with favour and attention, and to pardon us, wherein we may seem to come short of some words, which we have laboured to interpret.

The Prologue of the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach.



CONTENTS

PAGE

ON BOSTON COMMON 1

BIRD-SONGS 31

CHARACTER IN FEATHERS 53

IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS 75

PHILLIDA AND CORIDON 103

SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE 129

MINOR SONGSTERS 155

WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON 185

A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL 211

AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY 243

A MONTH'S MUSIC 277



ON BOSTON COMMON.

Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room; And hermits are contented with their cells; And students with their pensive citadels: Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom, Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom, High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells, Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells: In truth, the prison unto which we doom Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me, In sundry moods 't was pastime to be bound Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground; Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be) Who have felt the weight of too much liberty, Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

WORDSWORTH.

ON BOSTON COMMON.

Our Common and Garden are not an ideal field of operations for the student of birds. No doubt they are rather straitened and public. Other things being equal, a modest ornithologist would prefer a place where he could stand still and look up without becoming himself a gazing-stock. But "it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps;" and if we are appointed to take our daily exercise in a city park, we shall very likely find its narrow limits not destitute of some partial compensations. This, at least, may be depended upon,—our disappointments will be on the right side of the account; we shall see more than we have anticipated rather than less, and so our pleasures will, as it were, come to us double. I recall, for example, the heightened interest with which I beheld my first Boston cat-bird; standing on the back of one of the seats in the Garden, steadying himself with oscillations of his tail,—a conveniently long balance-pole,—while he peeped curiously down into a geranium bed, within the leafy seclusion of which he presently disappeared. He was nothing but a cat-bird; if I had seen him in the country I should have passed him by without a second glance; but here, at the base of the Everett statue, he looked, somehow, like a bird of another feather. Since then, it is true, I have learned that his occasional presence with us in the season of the semi-annual migration is not a matter for astonishment. At that time, however, I was happily more ignorant; and therefore, as I say, my pleasure was twofold,—the pleasure, that is, of the bird's society and of the surprise.

There are plenty of people, I am aware, who assert that there are no longer any native birds in our city grounds,—or, at the most, only a few robins. Formerly things were different, they have heard, but now the abominable English sparrows monopolize every nook and corner. These wise persons speak with an air of positiveness, and doubtless ought to know whereof they affirm. Hath not a Bostonian eyes? And doth he not cross the Common every day? But it is proverbially hard to prove a negative; and some of us, with no thought of being cynical, have ceased to put unqualified trust in other people's eyesight,—especially since we have found our own to fall a little short of absolute infallibility. My own vision, by the way, is reasonably good, if I may say so; at any rate I am not stone-blind. Yet here have I been perambulating the Public Garden for an indefinite period, without seeing the first trace of a field-mouse or a shrew. I should have been in excellent company had I begun long ago to maintain that no such animals exist within our precincts. But the other day a butcher-bird made us a flying call, and almost the first thing he did was to catch one of these same furry dainties and spit it upon a thorn, where anon I found him devouring it. I would not appear to boast; but really, when I saw what Collurio had done, it did not so much as occur to me to quarrel with him because he had discovered in half an hour what I had overlooked for ten years. On the contrary I hastened to pay him a heart-felt compliment upon his indisputable sagacity and keenness as a natural historian;—a measure of magnanimity easily enough afforded, since however the shrike might excel me at one point, there could be no question on the whole of my immeasurable superiority. And I cherish the hope that my fellow townsmen, who, as they insist, never themselves see any birds whatever in the Garden and Common (their attention being taken up with matters more important), may be disposed to exercise a similar forbearance toward me, when I modestly profess that within the last seven or eight years I have watched there some thousands of specimens, representing not far from seventy species.

Of course the principal part of all the birds to be found in such a place are transient visitors merely. In the long spring and autumn journeys it will all the time be happening that more or less of the travelers alight here for rest and refreshment. Now it is only a straggler or two; now a considerable flock of some one species; and now a miscellaneous collection of perhaps a dozen sorts.

One of the first things to strike the observer is the uniformity with which such pilgrims arrive during the night. He goes his rounds late in the afternoon, and there is, no sign of anything unusual; but the next morning the grounds are populous,—thrushes, finches, warblers, and what not. And as they come in the dark, so also do they go away again. With rare exceptions you may follow them up never so closely, and they will do nothing more than fly from tree to tree, or out of one clump of shrubbery into another. Once in a great while, under some special provocation, they threaten a longer flight; but on getting high enough to see the unbroken array of roofs, on every side they speedily grow confused, and after a few shiftings of their course dive hurriedly into the nearest tree. It was a mistake their stopping here in the first place; but once here, there is nothing for it save to put up with the discomforts of the situation till after sunset. Then, please heaven, they will be off, praying never to find themselves again in such a Babel.

That most of our smaller birds migrate by night is by this time too well established to need corroboration; but if the student wishes to assure himself of the fact at first hand, he may easily do it by one or two seasons' observations in our Common,—or, I suppose, in any like inclosure. And if he be blest with an ornithologically educated ear, he may still further confirm his faith by standing on Beacon Hill in the evening—as I myself have often done—and listening to the chips of warblers, or the tseeps of sparrows, as these little wanderers, hour after hour, pass through the darkness over the city. Why the birds follow this plan, what advantages they gain or what perils they avoid by making their flight nocturnal, is a question with which our inquisitive friend will perhaps find greater difficulty. I should be glad, for one, to hear his explanation.

As a rule, our visitors tarry with us for two or three days; at least I have noticed that to be true in many cases where their numbers, or size, or rarity made it possible to be reasonably certain when the arrival and departure took place; and in so very limited a field it is of course comparatively easy to keep track of the same individual during his stay, and, so to speak, become acquainted with him. I remember with interest several such acquaintanceships.

One of these was with a yellow-bellied woodpecker, the first I had ever seen. He made his appearance one morning in October, along with a company of chickadees and other birds, and at once took up his quarters on a maple-tree near the Ether monument. I watched his movements for some time, and at noon, happening to be in the same place again, found him still there. And there he remained four days. I went to look at him several times daily, and almost always found him either on the maple or on a tulip tree a few yards distant. Without question the sweetness of maple sap was known to Sphyropicus varius long before our human ancestors discovered it, and this particular bird, to judge from his actions, must have been a genuine connoisseur; at all events he seemed to recognize our Boston tree as of a sort not to be met with every day, although to my less critical sense it was nothing but an ordinary specimen of the common Acer dasycarpum. He was extremely industrious, as is the custom of his family, and paid no attention to the children playing about, or to the men who sat under his tree, with the back of their seat resting against the trunk. As for the children's noise, he likely enough enjoyed it; for he is a noisy fellow himself and famous as a drummer. An aged clergyman in Washington told me—in accents half pathetic, half revengeful—that at a certain time of the year he could scarcely read his Bible on Sunday mornings, because of the racket which this woodpecker made hammering on the tin roof overhead.

Another of my acquaintances was of a very different type, a female Maryland yellow-throat. This lovely creature, a most exquisite, dainty bit of bird flesh, was in the Garden all by herself on the 6th of October, when the great majority of her relatives must have been already well on their way toward the sunny South. She appeared to be perfectly contented, and allowed me to watch her closely, only scolding mildly now and then when I became too inquisitive. How I did admire her bravery and peace of mind; feeding so quietly, with that long, lonesome journey before her, and the cold weather coming on! No wonder the Great Teacher pointed his lesson of trust with the injunction, "Behold the fowls of the air."

A passenger even worse belated than this warbler was a chipping sparrow that I found hopping about the edge of the Beacon Street Mall on the 6th of December, seven or eight weeks after all chippers were supposed to be south of Mason and Dixon's line. Some accident had detained him doubtless; but he showed no signs of worry or haste, as I walked round him, scrutinizing every feather, lest he should be some tree sparrow traveling in disguise.

There is not much to attract birds to the Common in the winter, since we offer them neither evergreens for shelter nor weed patches for a granary. I said to one of the gardeners that I thought it a pity, on this account, that some of the plants, especially the zinnias and marigolds, were not left to go to seed. A little untidiness, in so good a cause, could hardly be taken amiss by even the most fastidious taxpayer. He replied that it would be of no use; we hadn't any birds now, and we shouldn't have any so long as the English sparrows were here to drive them away. But it would be of use, notwithstanding; and certainly it would afford a pleasure to many people to see flocks of goldfinches, red-poll linnets, tree sparrows, and possibly of the beautiful snow buntings, feeding in the Garden in midwinter.

Even as things are, however, the cold season is sure to bring us a few butcher-birds. These come on business, and are now welcomed as public benefactors, though formerly our sparrow-loving municipal authorities thought it their duty to shoot them. They travel singly, as a rule, and sometimes the same bird will be here for several weeks together. Then you will have no trouble about finding here and there in the hawthorn trees pleasing evidences of his activity and address. Collurio is brought up to be in love with his work. In his Mother Goose it is written,—

Fe, fi, fo, farrow! I smell the blood of an English sparrow;

and however long he may live, he never forgets his early training. His days, as the poet says, are "bound each to each by natural piety." Happy lot! wherein duty and conscience go ever hand in hand; for whose possessor

"Love is an unerring light, And joy its own security."

In appearance the shrike resembles the mocking-bird. Indeed, a policeman whom I found staring at one would have it that he was a mocking-bird. "Don't you see he is? And he's been singing, too." I had nothing to say against the singing, since the shrike will often twitter by the half hour in the very coldest weather. But further discussion concerning the bird's identity was soon rendered needless; for, while we were talking, along came a sparrow, and dropped carelessly into a hawthorn bush, right under the shrike's perch. The latter was all attention instantly, and, after waiting till the sparrow had moved a little out of the thick of the branches, down he pounced. He missed his aim, or the sparrow was too quick for him, and although he made a second swoop, and followed that by a hot chase, he speedily came back without his prey. This little exertion, however, seemed to have provoked his appetite; for, instead of resuming his coffee-tree perch, he went into the hawthorn, and began to feed upon the carcass of a bird which, it seemed, he had previously laid up in store. He was soon frightened off for a few moments by the approach of a third man, and the policeman improved the opportunity to visit the bush and bring away his breakfast. When the fellow returned and found his table empty, he did not manifest the slightest disappointment (the shrike never does; he is a fatalist, I think); but in order to see what he would do, the policeman tossed the body to him. It lodged on one of the outer twigs, and immediately the shrike came for it; at the same time spreading his beautifully bordered tail and screaming loudly. Whether these demonstrations were intended to express delight, or anger, or contempt, I could not judge; but he seized the body, carried it back to its old place, drove it again upon the thorn, and proceeded to devour it more voraciously than ever, scattering the feathers about in a lively way as he tore it to pieces. The third man, who had never before seen such a thing, stepped up within reach of the bush, and eyed the performance at his leisure, the shrike not deigning to mind him in the least. A few mornings later the same bird gave me another and more amusing exhibition of his nonchalance. He was singing from the top of our one small larch-tree, and I had stopped near the bridge to look and listen, when a milkman entered at the Commonwealth Avenue gate, both hands full of cans, and, without noticing the shrike, walked straight under the tree. Just then, however, he heard the notes overhead, and, looking up, saw the bird. As if not knowing what to make of the creature's assurance, he stared at him for a moment, and then, putting down his load, he seized the trunk with both hands, and gave it a good shake. But the bird only took a fresh hold; and when the man let go, and stepped back to look up, there he sat, to all appearance as unconcerned as if nothing had happened. Not to be so easily beaten, the man grasped the trunk again, and shook it harder than before; and this time Collurio seemed to think the joke had been carried far enough, for he took wing, and flew to another part of the Garden. The bravado of the butcher-bird is great, but it is not unlimited. I saw him, one day, shuffling along a branch in a very nervous, unshrikely fashion, and was at a loss to account for his unusual demeanor till I caught sight of a low-flying hawk sweeping over the tree. Every creature, no matter how brave, has some other creature to be afraid of; otherwise, how would the world get on?

The advent of spring is usually announced during the first week of March, sometimes by the robins, sometimes by the bluebirds. The latter, it should be remarked, are an exception to the rule that our spring and autumn callers arrive and depart in the night. My impression is that their migrations are ordinarily accomplished by daylight. At all events I have often seen them enter the Common, alight for a few minutes, and then start off again; while I have never known them to settle down for a visit of two or three days, in the manner of most other species. This last peculiarity may be owing to the fact that the European sparrows treat them with even more than their customary measure of incivility, till the poor wayfarers have literally no rest for the soles of their feet. They breed by choice in just such miniature meeting-houses as our city fathers have provided so plentifully for their foreign proteges; and probably the latter, being aware of this, feel it necessary to discourage at the outset any idea which these blue-coated American interlopers may have begun to entertain of settling in Boston for the summer.

The robins may be said to be abundant with us for more than half the year; but they are especially numerous for a month or two early in the season. I have counted more than thirty feeding at once in the lower half of the parade ground, and at nightfall have seen forty at roost in one tree, with half as many more in the tree adjoining. They grow extremely noisy about sunset, filling the air with songs, cackles, and screams, till even the most stolid citizen pauses a moment to look up at the authors of so much clamor.

By the middle of March the song sparrows begin to appear, and for a month after this they furnish delightful music daily. I have heard them caroling with all cheerfulness in the midst of a driving snow-storm. The dear little optimists! They never doubt that the sun is on their side. Of necessity they go elsewhere to find nests for themselves, where they may lay their young; for they build on the ground, and a lawn which is mowed every two or three days would be quite out of the question.

At the best, a public park is not a favorable spot in which to study bird music. Species that spend the summer here, like the robin, the warbling vireo, the red-eyed vireo, the chipper, the goldfinch, and the Baltimore oriole, of course sing freely; but the much larger number which merely drop in upon us by the way are busy feeding during their brief sojourn, and besides are kept in a state of greater or less excitement by the frequent approach of passers-by. Nevertheless, I once heard a bobolink sing in our Garden (the only one I ever saw there), and once a brown thrush, although neither was sufficiently at home to do himself justice. The "Peabody" song of the white-throated sparrows is to be heard occasionally during both migrations. It is the more welcome in such a place, because, to my ears at least, it is one of the wildest of all bird notes; it is among the last to be heard at night in the White Mountain woods, as well as one of the last to die away beneath you as you climb the higher peaks. On the Crawford bridle path, for instance, I remember that the song of this bird and that of the gray-cheeked thrush[1] were heard all along the ridge from Mount Clinton to Mount Washington. The finest bird concert I ever attended in Boston was given on Monument Hill by a great chorus of fox-colored sparrows, one morning in April. A high wind had been blowing during the night, and the moment I entered the Common I discovered that there had been an extraordinary arrival of birds, of various species. The parade ground was full of snow-birds, while the hill was covered with fox-sparrows,—hundreds of them, I thought, and many of them in full song. It was a royal concert, but the audience, I am sorry to say, was small. It is unfortunate, in some aspects of the case, that birds have never learned that a matinee ought to begin at two o'clock in the afternoon.

These sparrows please me by their lordly treatment of their European cousins. One in particular, who was holding his ground against three of the Britishers, moved me almost to the point of giving him three cheers.

Of late a few crow blackbirds have taken to building their nests in one corner of our domain; and they attract at least their full share of attention, as they strut about the lawns in their glossy clerical suits. One of the gardeners tells me that they sometimes kill the sparrows. I hope they do. The crow blackbird's attempts at song are ludicrous in the extreme, as every note is cracked, and is accompanied by a ridiculous caudal gesture. But he is ranked among the oscines, and seems to know it; and, after all, it is only the common fault of singers not to be able to detect their own want of tunefulness.

I was once crossing the Common, in the middle of the day, when I was suddenly arrested by the call of a cuckoo. At the same instant two men passed me, and I heard one say to the other, "Hear that cuckoo! Do you know what it means? No? Well, I know what it means: it means that it's going to rain." It did rain, although not for a number of days, I believe. But probably the cuckoo has adopted the modern method of predicting the weather some time in advance. Not very long afterwards I again heard this same note on the Common; but it was several years before I was able to put the cuckoo into my Boston list, as a bird actually seen. Indeed it is not so very easy to see him anywhere; for he makes a practice of robbing the nests of smaller birds, and is always skulking about from one tree to another, as though he were afraid of being discovered, as no doubt he is. What Wordsworth wrote of the European species (allowance being made for a proper degree of poetic license) is equally applicable to ours:—

"No bird, but an invisible thing, A voice, a mystery."

When I did finally get a sight of the fellow it was on this wise. As I entered the Garden, one morning in September, a goldfinch was calling so persistently and with such anxious emphasis from the large sophora tree that I turned my steps that way to ascertain what could be the trouble. I took the voice for a young bird's, but found instead a male adult, who was twitching his tail nervously and scolding phee-phee, phee-phee, at a black-billed cuckoo perched near at hand, in his usual sneaking attitude. The goldfinch called and called, till my patience was nearly spent. (Small birds know better than to attack a big one so long as the latter is at rest.) Then, at last, the cuckoo started off, the finch after him, and a few minutes later I saw the same flight and chase repeated. Several other goldfinches were flying about in the neighborhood, but only this one was in the least excited. Doubtless he had special reasons of his own for dreading the presence of this cowardly foe.

One of our regular visitors twice a year is the brown creeper. He is so small and silent, and withal his color is so like that of the bark to which he clings, that I suspect he is seldom noticed even by persons who pass within a few feet of him. But he is not too small to be hectored by the sparrows, and I have before now been amused at the encounter. The sparrow catches sight of the creeper, and at once bears down upon him, when the creeper darts to the other side of the tree, and alights again a little further up. The sparrow is after him; but, as he comes dashing round the trunk, he always seems to expect to find the creeper perched upon some twig, as any other bird would be, and it is only after a little reconnoitring that he again discovers him clinging to the vertical bole. Then he makes another onset with a similar result; and these manoeoeuvres are repeated, till the creeper becomes disgusted, and takes to another tree.

The olive-backed thrushes and the hermits may be looked for every spring and autumn, and I have known forty or fifty of the former to be present at once. The hermits most often travel singly or in pairs, though a small flock is not so very uncommon. Both species preserve absolute silence while here; I have watched hundreds of them, without hearing so much as an alarm note. They are far from being pugnacious, but their sense of personal dignity is large, and once in a while, when the sparrows pester them beyond endurance, they assume the offensive with much spirit. There are none of our feathered guests whom I am gladder to see; the sight of them inevitably fills me with remembrances of happy vacation seasons among the hills of New Hampshire. If only they would sing on the Common as they do in those northern woods! The whole city would come out to hear them.

During every migration large numbers of warblers visit us. I have noted the golden-crowned thrush, the small-billed water-thrush, the black-and-white creeper, the Maryland yellow-throat, the blue yellow-back, the black-throated green, the black-throated blue, the yellow-rump, the summer yellow-bird, the black-poll, the Canada flycatcher, and the redstart. No doubt the list is far from complete, as, of course, I have not used either glass or gun; and without one or other of these aids the observer must be content to let many of these small, tree-top-haunting birds pass unidentified. The two kinglets give us a call occasionally, and in the late summer and early autumn the humming-birds spend several weeks about our flower-beds.

It would be hard for the latter to find a more agreeable stopping-place in the whole course of their southward journey. What could they ask better than beds of tuberoses, Japanese lilies, Nicotiana (against the use of which they manifest not the slightest scruple), petunias, and the like? Having in mind the Duke of Argyll's assertion that "no bird can ever fly backwards,"[2] I have more than once watched these humming-birds at their work on purpose to see whether they would respect the noble Scotchman's dictum. I am compelled to report that they appeared never to have heard of his theory. At any rate they very plainly did fly tail foremost; and that not only in dropping from a blossom,—in which case the seeming flight might have been, as the duke maintains, an optical illusion merely,—but even while backing out of the flower-tube in an upward direction. They are commendably catholic in their tastes. I saw one exploring the disk of a sunflower, in company with a splendid monarch butterfly. Possibly he knew that the sunflower was just then in fashion. Only a few minutes earlier the same bird—or another like him—had chased an English sparrow out of the Garden, across Arlington Street, and up to the very roof of a House, to the great delight of at least one patriotic Yankee. At another time I saw one of these tiny beauties making his morning toilet in a very pretty fashion, leaning forward, and brushing first one cheek and then the other against the wet rose leaf on which he was perched.

The only swallows on my list are the barn swallows and the white-breasted. The former, as they go hawking about the crowded streets, must often send the thoughts of rich city merchants back to the big barns of their grandfathers, far off in out-of-the-way country places. Of course we have the chimney swifts, also (near relatives of the humming-birds!), but they are not swallows.

Speaking of the swallows, I am reminded of a hawk that came to Boston, one morning, fully determined not to go away without a taste of the famous imported sparrows. It is nothing unusual for hawks to be seen flying over the city, but I had never before known one actually to make the Public Garden his hunting-ground. This bird perched for a while on the Arlington Street fence, within a few feet of a passing carriage; next he was on the ground, peering into a bed of rhododendrons; then for a long time he sat still in a tree, while numbers of men walked back and forth underneath; between whiles he sailed about, on the watch for his prey. On one of these last occasions a little company of swallows came along, and one of them immediately went out of his way to swoop down upon the hawk, and deal him a dab. Then, as he rejoined his companions, I heard him give a little chuckle, as though he said, "There! did you see me peck at him? You don't think I am afraid of such a fellow as that, do you?" To speak in Thoreau's manner, I rejoiced in the incident as a fresh illustration of the ascendency of spirit over matter.

One is always glad to find a familiar bird playing a new role, and especially in such a spot as the Common, where, at the best, one can hope to see so very little. It may be assumed, therefore, that I felt peculiarly grateful to a white-bellied nuthatch, when I discovered him bopping about on the ground—on Monument Hill; a piece of humility such as I had never before detected any nuthatch in the practice of. Indeed, this fellow looked so unlike himself, moving briskly through the grass with long, awkward leaps, that at first sight I failed to recognize him. He was occupied with turning over the dry leaves, one after another,—hunting for cocoons, or things of that sort, I suppose. Twice he found what he was in search of; but instead of handling the leaf on the ground, he flew with it to the trunk of an elm, wedged it into a crevice of the bark, and proceeded to hammer it sharply with his beak. Great is the power of habit! Strange—is it not?—that any bird should find it easiest to do such work while clinging to a perpendicular surface! Yes; but how does it look to a dog, I wonder, that men can walk better on their hind legs than on all fours? Everything is a miracle from somebody's point of view. The sparrows were inclined to make game of my obliging little performer; but he would have none of their insolence, and repelled every approach in dashing style. In exactly three weeks from this time, and on the same hillside, I came upon another nuthatch similarly employed; but before this one had turned up a leaf to his mind, the sparrows became literally too many for him, and he took flight,—to my no small disappointment.

It would be unfair not to name others of my city guests, even though I have nothing in particular to record concerning them. The Wilson thrush and the red-bellied nuthatch I have seen once or twice each. The chewink is more constant in his visits, as is also the golden-winged woodpecker. Our familiar little downy woodpecker, on the other hand, has thus far kept out of my catalogue. No other bird's absence has surprised me so much; and it is the more remarkable because the comparatively rare yellow-bellied species is to be met with nearly every season. Cedar-birds show themselves irregularly. One March morning, when the ground was covered with snow, a flock of perhaps a hundred collected in one of the taller maples in the Garden, till the tree looked from a distance like an autumn hickory, its leafless branches still thickly dotted with nuts. Four days afterward, what seemed to be the same company made their appearance in the Common. Of the flycatchers, I have noted the kingbird, the least flycatcher, and the phoebe. The two former stay to breed. Twice in the fall I have found a kingfisher about the Frog Pond. Once the fellow sprung his watchman's rattle. He was perhaps my most unexpected caller, and for a minute or so I was not entirely sure whether indeed I was in Boston or not. The blue jay and the crow know too much to be caught in such a place, although one may often enough see the latter passing overhead. Every now and then, in the traveling season, a stray sandpiper or two will be observed teetering round the edge of the Common and Garden ponds; and one day, when the latter was drained, I saw quite a flock of some one of the smaller species feeding over its bottom. Very picturesque they were, feeding and flying in close order. Besides these must be mentioned the yellow-throated vireo, the bay-winged bunting, the swamp sparrow, the field sparrow, the purple finch, the red-poll linnet, the savanna sparrow, the tree sparrow, the night-hawk (whose celebrated tumbling trick may often be witnessed by evening strollers in the Garden), the woodcock (I found the body of one which had evidently met its death against the electric wire), and among the best of all, the chickadees, who sometimes make the whole autumn cheerful with their presence, but about whom I say nothing here because I have said so much elsewhere.

Of fugitive cage-birds, I recall only five—all in the Garden. One of these, feeding tamely in the path, I suspected for an English robin but he was not in full plumage, and my conjecture may have been incorrect. Another was a diminutive finch, dressed in a suit of red, blue, and green. He sat in a bush, saying No, no! to a feline admirer who was making love to him earnestly. The others were a mocking-bird, a cardinal grosbeak, and a paroquet. The mocking-bird and the grosbeak might possibly have been wild, had the question been one of latitude simply, but their demeanor satisfied me to the contrary. The former's awkward attempt at alighting on the tip of a fence-picket seemed evidence enough that he had not been long at large. The paroquet was a splendid creature, with a brilliant orange throat darkly spotted. He flew from tree to tree, chattering gayly, and had a really pretty song. Evidently he was in the best of spirits, notwithstanding the rather obtrusive attentions of a crowd of house sparrows, who appeared to look upon such a wearer of the green as badly out of place in this new England of theirs. But for all his vivacity, I feared he would not be long in coming to grief. If he escaped other perils, the cold weather must soon overtake him, for it was now the middle of September, and his last state would be worse than his first. He had better have kept his cage; unless, indeed, he was one of the nobler spirits that prefer death to slavery.

Of all the birds thus far named, very few seemed to attract the attention of anybody except myself. But there remains one other, whom I have reserved for the last, not because he was in himself the noblest or the most interesting (though he was perhaps the biggest), but because, unlike the rest, he did succeed in winning the notice of the multitude. In fact, my one owl, to speak theatrically, made a decided hit; for a single afternoon he may be said to have been famous,—or at all events notorious, if any old-fashioned reader be disposed to insist upon this all but obsolete distinction. His triumph, such as it was, had already begun when I first discovered him, for he was then perched well up in an elm, while a mob of perhaps forty men and boys were pelting him with sticks and stones. Even in the dim light of a cloudy November afternoon he seemed quite bewildered and helpless, making no attempt to escape, although the missiles were flying past him on all sides. The most he did was to shift his perch when he was hit, which, to be sure, happened pretty often. Once he was struck so hard that he came tumbling toward the ground, and I began to think it was all over with him; but when about half-way down he recovered himself, and by dint of painful flappings succeeded in alighting just out of the reach of the crowd. At once there were loud cries: "Don't kill him! Don't kill him!" and while the scamps were debating what to do next, he regained his breath, and flew up into the tree again, as high as before. Then the stoning began anew. For my part I pitied the fellow sincerely, and wished him well out of the hands of his tormentors; but I found myself laughing with the rest to see him turn his head and stare, with his big, vacant eyes, after a stone which had just whizzed by his ear. Everybody that came along stopped for a few minutes to witness the sport, and Beacon Street filled up with carriages till it looked as if some holiday procession were halted in front of the State House. I left the crowd still at their work, and must do them the justice to say that some of them were excellent marksmen. An old negro, who stood near me, was bewailing the law against shooting; else, he said, he would go home and get his gun. He described, with appropriate gestures, how very easily he could fetch the bird down. Perhaps he afterwards plucked up courage to violate the statute. At any rate the next morning's newspapers reported that an owl had been shot, the day before, on the Common. Poor bird of wisdom! His sudden popularity proved to be the death of him. Like many of loftier name he found it true,—

"The path of glory leads but to the grave."

FOOTNOTES:

[1] My identification of Turdus Aliciae was based entirely upon the song, and so, of course, had no final scientific value. It was confirmed a few weeks later, however, by Mr. William Brewster, who took specimens. (See Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, January, 1883, p. 12.) Prior to this the species was not known to breed in New England.

[2] The Reign of Law, p. 140.



BIRD-SONGS.

Canst thou imagine where those spirits live Which make such delicate music in the woods?

SHELLEY.

BIRD-SONGS.

Why do birds sing? Has their music a meaning, or is it all a matter of blind impulse? Some bright morning in March, as you go out-of-doors, you are greeted by the notes of the first robin. Perched in a leafless tree, there he sits, facing the sun like a genuine fire-worshiper, and singing as though he would pour out his very soul. What is he thinking about? What spirit possesses him?

It is easy to ask questions until the simplest matter comes to seem, what at bottom it really is, a thing altogether mysterious; but if our robin could understand us, he would, likely enough, reply:—

"Why do you talk in this way, as if it were something requiring explanation that a bird should sing? You seem to have forgotten that everybody sings, or almost everybody. Think of the insects,—the bees and the crickets and the locusts, to say nothing of your intimate friends, the mosquitoes! Think, too, of the frogs and the hylas! If these cold-blooded, low-lived creatures, after sleeping all winter in the mud,[3] are free to make so much use of their voices, surely a bird of the air may sing his unobtrusive song without being cross-examined concerning the purpose of it. Why do the mice sing, and the monkeys, and the woodchucks? Indeed, sir,—if one may be so bold,—why do you sing, yourself?"

This matter-of-fact Darwinism need not frighten us. It will do us no harm to remember, now and then, "the hole of the pit whence we were digged;" and besides, as far as any relationship between us and the birds is concerned, it is doubtful whether we are the party to complain.

But avoiding "genealogies and contentions," and taking up the question with which we began, we may safely say that birds sing, sometimes to gratify an innate love for sweet sounds; sometimes to win a mate, or to tell their love to a mate already won; sometimes as practice, with a view to self-improvement; and sometimes for no better reason than the poet's,—"I do but sing because I must." In general, they sing for joy; and their joy, of course, has various causes.

For one thing, they are very sensitive to the weather. With them, as with us, sunlight and a genial warmth go to produce serenity. A bright summer-like day, late in October, or even in November, will set the smaller birds to singing, and the grouse to drumming. I heard a robin venturing a little song on the 25th of last December; but that, for aught I know, was a Christmas carol. No matter what the season, you will not hear a great deal of bird music during a high wind; and if you are caught in the woods by a sudden shower in May or June, and are not too much taken up with thoughts of your own condition, you will hardly fail to notice the instant silence which falls upon the woods with the rain. Birds, however, are more or less inconsistent (that is, a part of their likeness to us), and sometimes sing most freely when the sky is overcast.

But their highest joys are by no means dependent upon the moods of the weather. A comfortable state of mind is not to be contemned, but beings who are capable of deep and passionate affection recognize a difference between comfort and ecstasy. And the peculiar glory of birds is just here, in the all-consuming fervor of their love. It would be commonplace to call them models of conjugal and parental faithfulness. With a few exceptions (and these, it is a pleasure to add, not singers), the very least of them is literally faithful unto death. Here and there, in the notes of some collector, we are told of a difficulty he has had in securing a coveted specimen: the tiny creature, whose mate had been already "collected," would persist in hovering so closely about the invader's head that it was impossible to shoot him without spoiling him for the cabinet by blowing him to pieces!

Need there be any mystery about the singing of such a lover? Is it surprising if at times he is so enraptured that he can no longer sit tamely on the branch, but must dart into the air, and go circling round and round, caroling as he flies?

So far as song is the voice of emotion, it will of necessity vary with the emotion; and every one who has ears must have heard once in a while bird music of quite unusual fervor. For example, I have often seen the least flycatcher (a very unromantic-looking body, surely) when he was almost beside himself; flying in a circle, and repeating breathlessly his emphatic chebec. And once I found a wood pewee in a somewhat similar mood. He was more quiet than the least flycatcher; but he too sang on the wing, and I have never heard notes which seemed more expressive of happiness. Many of them were entirely new and strange, although the familiar pewee was introduced among the rest. As I listened, I felt it to be an occasion for thankfulness that the delighted creature had never studied anatomy, and did not know that the structure of his throat made it improper for him to sing. In this connection, also, I recall a cardinal grosbeak, whom I heard several years ago, on the bank of the Potomac River. An old soldier had taken me to visit the Great Falls, and as we were clambering over the rocks this grosbeak began to sing; and soon, without any hint from me, and without knowing who the invisible musician was, my companion remarked upon the uncommon beauty of the song. The cardinal is always a great singer, having a voice which, as European writers say, is almost equal to the nightingale's; but in this case the more stirring, martial quality of the strain had given place to an exquisite mellowness, as if it were, what I have no doubt it was, a song of love.

Every kind of bird has notes of its own, so that a thoroughly practiced ear would be able to discriminate the different species with nearly as much certainty as Professor Baird would feel after an examination of the anatomy and plumage. Still this strong specific resemblance is far from being a dead uniformity. Aside from the fact, already mentioned, that the characteristic strain is sometimes given with extraordinary sweetness and emphasis, there are often to be detected variations of a more formal character. This is noticeably true of robins. It may almost be said that no two of them sing alike; while now and then their vagaries are conspicuous enough to attract general attention. One who was my neighbor last year interjected into his song a series of four or five most exact imitations of the peep of a chicken. When I first heard this performance, I was in company with two friends, both of whom noticed and laughed at it; and some days afterwards I visited the spot again, and found the bird still rehearsing the same ridiculous medley. I conjectured that he had been brought up near a hen-coop, and, moreover, had been so unfortunate as to lose his father before his notes had become thoroughly fixed; and then, being compelled to finish his musical education by himself, had taken a fancy to practice these chicken calls. This guess may not have been correct. All I can affirm is that he sang exactly as he might have been expected to do, on that supposition; but certainly the resemblance seemed too close to be accidental.

The variations of the wood thrush are fully as striking as those of the robin, and sometimes it is impossible not to feel that the artist is making a deliberate effort to do something out of the ordinary course, something better than he has ever done before. Now and then he prefaces his proper song with many disconnected, extremely staccato notes, following each other at very distant and unexpected intervals of pitch. It is this, I conclude, which is meant by some writer (who it is I cannot now remember) when he criticises the wood thrush for spending too much time in tuning his instrument. But the fault is the critic's, I think; to my ear these preliminaries sound rather like the recitative which goes before the grand aria.

Still another musician who delights to take liberties with his score is the towhee bunting, or chewink. Indeed, he carries the matter so far that sometimes it seems almost as if he suspected the proximity of some self-conceited ornithologist, and were determined, if possible, to make a fool of him. And for my part, being neither self conceited nor an ornithologist, I am willing to confess that I have once or twice been so badly deceived that now the mere sight of this Pipilo is, so to speak, a means of grace to me.

One more of these innovators (these heretics, as they are most likely called by their more conservative brethren) is the field sparrow, better known as Spizella pusilla. His usual song consists of a simple line of notes, beginning leisurely, but growing shorter and more rapid to the close. The voice is so smooth and sweet, and the acceleration so well managed, that, although the whole is commonly a strict monotone, the effect is not in the least monotonous. This song I once heard rendered in reverse order, with a result so strange that I did not suspect the identity of the author till I had crept up within sight of him. Another of these sparrows, who has passed the last two seasons in my neighborhood, habitually doubles the measure; going through it in the usual way, and then, just as you expect him to conclude, catching it up again, Da capo.

But birds like these are quite outdone by such species as the song sparrow, the white-eyed vireo, and the Western meadow-lark,—species of which we may say that each individual bird has a whole repertory of songs at his command. The song sparrow, who is the best known of the three, will repeat one melody perhaps a dozen times, then change it for a second, and in turn leave that for a third; as if he were singing hymns of twelve or fifteen stanzas each, and set each hymn to its appropriate tune. It is something well worth listening to, common though it is, and may easily suggest a number of questions about the origin and meaning of bird music.

The white-eyed vireo is a singer of astonishing spirit, and his sudden changes from one theme to another are sometimes almost startling. He is a skillful ventriloquist, also, and I remember one in particular who outwitted me completely. He was rehearsing a well-known strain, but at the end there came up from the bushes underneath a querulous call. At first I took it for granted that some other bird was in the underbrush; but the note was repeated too many times, and came in too exactly on the beat.

I have no personal acquaintance with the Western meadow-lark, but no less than twenty-six of his songs have been printed in musical notation, and these are said to be by no means all.[4]

Others of our birds have similar gifts, though no others, so far as I know, are quite so versatile as these three. Several of the warblers, for example, have attained to more than one set song, notwithstanding the deservedly small reputation of this misnamed family. I have myself heard the golden-crowned thrush, the black-throated green warbler, the black-throated blue, the yellow-rumped, and the chestnut-sided, sing two melodies each, while the blue golden-winged has at least three; and this, of course, without making anything of slight variations such as all birds are more or less accustomed to indulge in. The best of the three songs of the blue golden-wing I have never heard except on one occasion, but then it was repeated for half an hour under my very eyes. It bore no resemblance to the common dsee, dsee, dsee, of the species, and would appear to be seldom used; for not only have I never heard it since, but none of the writers seem ever to have heard it at all. However, I still keep a careful description of it, which I took down on the spot, and which I expect some future golden-wing to verify.

But the most celebrated of the warblers in this regard is the golden-crowned thrush, otherwise called the oven-bird and the wood wagtail. His ordinary effort is one of the noisiest, least melodious, and most incessant sounds to be heard in our woods. His song is another matter. For that he takes to the air (usually starting from a tree-top, although I have seen him rise from the ground), whence, after a preliminary chip, chip, he lets fall a hurried flood of notes, in the midst of which can usually be distinguished his familiar weechee, weechee, weechee. It is nothing wonderful that he should sing on the wing,—many other birds do the same, and very much better than he; but he is singular in that he strictly reserves his aerial music for late in the afternoon. I have heard it as early as three o'clock, but never before that, and it is most common about sunset. Writers speak of it as limited to the season of courtship; but I have heard it almost daily till near the end of July, and once, for my special benefit, perhaps, it was given in full—and repeated—on the first day of September. But who taught the little creature to do this,—to sing one song in the forenoon, perched upon a twig, and to keep another for afternoon, singing that invariably on the wing? and what difference is there between the two in the mind of the singer?[5]

It is an indiscretion ever to say of a bird that he has only such and such notes. You may have been his friend for years, but the next time you go into the woods he will likely enough put you to shame by singing something not so much as hinted at in your description. I thought I knew the song of the yellow-rumped warbler, having listened to it many times,—a slight and rather characterless thing, nowise remarkable. But coming down Mount Willard one day in June, I heard a warbler's song which brought me to a sudden halt. It was new and beautiful,—more beautiful, it seemed at the moment, than any warbler's song I had ever heard. What could it be? A little patient waiting (while the black-flies and mosquitoes "came upon me to eat up my flesh"), and the wonderful stranger appeared in full view,—my old acquaintance, the yellow-rumped warbler.

With all this strong tendency on the part of birds to vary their music, how is it that there is still such a degree of uniformity, so that, as we have said, every species may be recognized by its notes? Why does every red-eyed vireo sing in one way, and every white-eyed vireo in another? Who teaches the young chipper to trill, and the young linnet to warble? In short, how do birds come by their music? Is it all a matter of instinct, inherited habit, or do they learn it? The answer appears to be that birds sing as children talk, by simple imitation. Nobody imagines that the infant is born with a language printed upon his brain. The father and mother may never have known a word of any tongue except the English, but if the child is brought up to hear only Chinese, he will infallibly speak that, and nothing else. And careful experiments have shown the same to be true of birds.[6] Taken from the nest just after they leave the shell, they invariably sing, not their own so-called natural song, but the song of their foster-parents; provided, of course, that this is not anything beyond their physical capacity. The notorious house sparrow (our "English" sparrow), in his wild or semi-domesticated state, never makes a musical sound; but if he is taken in hand early enough, he may be taught to sing, so it is said, nearly as well as the canary. Bechstein relates that a Paris clergyman had two of these sparrows whom he had trained to speak, and, among other things, to recite several of the shorter commandments; and the narrative goes on to say that it was sometimes very comical, when the pair were disputing over their food, to hear one gravely admonish the other, "Thou shalt not steal!" It would be interesting to know why creatures thus gifted do not sing of their own motion. With their amiability and sweet peaceableness they ought to be caroling the whole year round.

This question of the transmission of songs from one generation to another is, of course, a part of the general subject of animal intelligence, a subject much discussed in these days on account of its bearing upon the modern doctrine concerning the relation of man to the inferior orders.

We have nothing to do with such a theme, but it may not be out of place to suggest to preachers and moralists that here is a striking and unhackneyed illustration of the force of early training. Birds sing by imitation, it is true, but as a rule they imitate only the notes which they hear during the first few weeks after they are hatched. One of Mr. Barrington's linnets, for example, after being educated under a titlark, was put into a room with two birds of his own species, where he heard them sing freely every day for three months. He made no attempt to learn anything from them, however, but kept on practicing what the titlark had taught him, quite unconscious of anything singular or unpatriotic in such a course. This law, that impressions received during the immaturity of the powers become the unalterable habit of the after life, is perhaps the most momentous of all the laws in whose power we find ourselves. Sometimes we are tempted to call it cruel. But if it were annulled, this would be a strange world. What a hurly-hurly we should have among the birds! There would be no more telling them by their notes. Thrushes and jays, wrens and chickadees, finches and warblers, all would be singing one grand medley.

Between these two opposing tendencies, one urging to variation, the other to permanence (for Nature herself is half radical, half conservative), the language of birds has grown from rude beginnings to its present beautiful diversity; and whoever lives a century of millenniums hence will listen to music such as we in this day can only dream of. Inappreciably but ceaselessly the work goes on. Here and there is born a master-singer, a feathered genius, and every generation makes its own addition to the glorious inheritance.

It may be doubted whether there is any real connection between moral character and the possession of wings. Nevertheless there has long been a popular feeling that some such congruity does exist; and certainly it seems unreasonable to suppose that creatures who are able to soar at will into the heavens should be without other equally angelic attributes. But, be that as it may, our friends, the birds, do undeniably set us a good example in several respects. To mention only one, how becoming is their observance of morning and evening song! In spite of their industrious spirit (and few of us labor more hours daily), neither their first nor their last thoughts are given to the question, What shall we eat, and what shall we drink? Possibly their habit of saluting the rising and setting sun may be thought to favor the theory that the worship of the god of day was the original religion. I know nothing about that. But it would be a sad change if the birds, declining from their present beautiful custom, were to sleep and work, work and sleep, with no holy hour between, as is too much the case with the being who, according to his own pharisaic notion, is the only religious animal.

In the season, however, the woods are by no means silent, even at noonday. Many species (such as the vireos and warblers, who get their living amid the foliage of trees) sing as they work; while the thrushes and others, who keep business and pleasure more distinct, are often too happy to go many hours together without a hymn. I have even seen robins singing without quitting the turf; but that is rather unusual, for somehow birds have come to feel that they must get away from the ground when the lyrical mood is upon them. This may be a thing of sentiment (for is not language full of uncomplimentary allusions to earth and earthliness?), but more likely it is prudential. The gift of song is no doubt a dangerous blessing to creatures who have so many enemies, and we can readily believe that they have found it safer to be up where they can look about them while thus publishing their whereabouts.

A very interesting exception to this rule is the savanna sparrow, who sings habitually from the ground. But even he shares the common feeling, and stretches himself to his full height with an earnestness which is almost laughable, in view of the result; for his notes are hardly louder than a cricket's chirp. Probably he has fallen into this lowly habit from living in meadows and salt marshes, where bushes and trees are not readily to be come at; and it is worth noticing that, in the case of the skylark and the white-winged blackbird, the same conditions have led to a result precisely opposite. The sparrow, we may presume, was originally of a humble disposition, and when nothing better offered itself for a singing-perch easily grew accustomed to standing upon a stone or a little lump of earth; and this practice, long persisted in, naturally had the effect to lessen the loudness of his voice. The skylark, on the other hand, when he did not readily find a tree-top, said to himself, "Never mind! I have a pair of wings." And so the lark is famous, while the sparrow remains unheard-of, and is even mistaken for a grasshopper.

How true it is that the very things which dishearten one nature and break it down, only help another to find out what it was made for! If you would foretell the development, either of a bird or of a man, it is not enough to know his environment, you must know also what there is in him.

We have possibly made too much of the savanna sparrow's innocent eccentricity. He fills his place, and fills it well; and who knows but that he may yet outshine the skylark? There is a promise, I believe, for those who humble themselves. But what shall be said of species which do not even try to sing, and that, notwithstanding they have all the structural peculiarities of singing birds, and must, almost certainly, have come from ancestors who were singers? We have already mentioned the house sparrow, whose defect is the more mysterious on account of his belonging to so highly musical a family. But he was never accused of not being noisy enough, while we have one bird who, though he is classed with the oscines, passes his life in almost unbroken silence. Of course I refer to the waxwing, or cedar-bird, whose faint, sibilant whisper can scarcely be thought to contradict the foregoing description. By what strange freak he has lapsed into this ghostly habit, nobody knows. I make no account of the insinuation that he gave up music because it hindered his success in cherry-stealing. He likes cherries, it is true; and who can blame him? But he would need to work hard to steal more than does that indefatigable songster, the robin. I feel sure he has some better reason than this for his Quakerish conduct. But, however he came by his stillness, it is likely that by this time he plumes himself upon it. Silence is golden, he thinks, the supreme result of the highest aesthetic culture. Those loud creatures, the thrushes and finches! What a vulgar set they are, to be sure, the more's the pity! Certainly if he does not reason in some such way, bird nature is not so human as we have given it credit for being. Besides, the waxwing has an uncommon appreciation of the decorous; at least, we must think so if we are able to credit a story of Nuttall's. He declares that a Boston gentleman, whose name he gives, saw one of a company of these birds capture an insect, and offer it to his neighbor; he, however, delicately declined the dainty bit, and it was offered to the next, who, in turn, was equally polite; and the morsel actually passed back and forth along the line, till, finally, one of the flock was persuaded to eat it. I have never seen anything equal to this; but one day, happening to stop under a low cedar, I discovered right over my head a waxwing's nest with the mother-bird sitting upon it, while her mate was perched beside her on the branch. He was barely out of my reach, but he did not move a muscle; and although he uttered no sound, his behavior said as plainly as possible, "What do you expect to do here? Don't you see I am standing guard over this nest?" I should be ashamed not to be able to add that I respected his dignity and courage, and left him and his castle unmolested.

Observations so discursive as these can hardly be finished; they must break off abruptly, or else go on forever. Let us make an end, therefore, with expressing our hope that the cedar-bird, already so handsome and chivalrous, will yet take to himself a song; one sweet and original, worthy to go with his soft satin coat, his ornaments of sealing-wax, and his magnificent top-knot. Let him do that, and he shall always be made welcome; yes, even though he come in force and in cherry-time.

FOOTNOTES:

[3] There is no Historic-Genealogical Society among the birds, and the robin is not aware that his own remote ancestors were reptiles. If he were, he would hardly speak so disrespectfully of these batrachians.

[4] Mr. C. N. Allen, in Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, July, 1881.

[5] Since this paper was written I have three times heard the wood wagtail's true song in the morning,—but in neither case was the bird in the air. See p. 284.

[6] See the paper of Daines Barrington in Philosophical Transactions for 1773; also, Darwin's Descent of Man, and Wallace's Natural Selection.



CHARACTER IN FEATHERS.

The finger of God hath left an inscription upon all his works, not graphical or composed of letters, but of their several forms, constitutions, parts, and operations, which, aptly joined together, do make one word that doth express their natures. By these letters God calls the stars by their names; and by this alphabet Adam assigned to every creature a name peculiar to its nature.

SIR THOMAS BROWNE.

CHARACTER IN FEATHERS.

In this economically governed world the same thing serves many uses. Who will take upon himself to enumerate the offices of sunlight, or water, or indeed of any object whatever? Because we know it to be good for this or that, it by no means follows that we have discovered what it was made for. What we have found out is perhaps only something by the way; as if a man should think the sun were created for his own private convenience. In some moods it seems doubtful whether we are yet acquainted with the real value of anything. But, be that as it may, we need not scruple to admire so much as our ignorance permits us to see of the workings of this divine frugality. The piece of woodland, for instance, which skirts the village,—how various are its ministries to the inhabitants, each of whom, without forethought or question, takes the benefit proper to himself! The poet saunters there as in a true Holy Land, to have his heart cooled and stilled. Mr. A. and Mr. B., who hold the deeds of the "property," walk through it to look at the timber, with an eye to dollars and cents. The botanist has his errand there, the zoologist his, and the child his. Oftenest of all, perhaps (for barbarism dies hard, and even yet the ministers of Christ find it a capital sport to murder small fishes),—oftenest of all comes the man, poor soul, who thinks of the forest as of a place to which he may go when he wishes to amuse himself by killing something. Meanwhile, the rabbits and the squirrels, the hawks and the owls, look upon all such persons as no better than intruders (do not the woods belong to those who live in them?); while nobody remembers the meteorologist, who nevertheless smiles in his sleeve at all these one-sided notions, and says to himself that he knows the truth of the matter.

So is it with everything; and with all the rest, so is it with the birds. The interest they excite is of all grades, from that which looks upon them as items of millinery, up to that of the makers of ornithological systems, who ransack the world for specimens, and who have no doubt that the chief end of a bird is to be named and catalogued,—the more synonyms the better. Somewhere between these two extremes comes the person whose interest in birds is friendly rather than scientific; who has little taste for shooting, and an aversion from dissecting; who delights in the living creatures themselves, and counts a bird in the bush worth two in the hand. Such a person, if he is intelligent, makes good use of the best works on ornithology; he would not know how to get along without them; but he studies most the birds themselves, and after a while he begins to associate them on a plan of his own. Not that he distrusts the approximate correctness of the received classification, or ceases to find it of daily service; but though it were as accurate as the multiplication table, it is based (and rightly, no doubt) on anatomical structure alone; it rates birds as bodies, and nothing else: while to the person of whom we are speaking birds are, first of all, souls; his interest in them is, as we say, personal; and we are none of us in the habit of grouping our friends according to height, or complexion, or any other physical peculiarity.

But it is not proposed in this paper to attempt a new classification of any sort, even the most unscientific and fanciful. All I am to do is to set down at random a few studies in such a method as I have indicated; in short, a few studies in the temperaments of birds. Nor, in making this attempt, am I unmindful how elusive of analysis traits of character are, and how diverse is the impression which the same personality produces upon different observers. In matters of this kind every judgment is largely a question of emphasis and proportion; and, moreover, what we find in our friends depends in great part on what we have in ourselves. This I do not forget; and therefore I foresee that others will discover in the birds of whom I write many things that I miss, and perhaps will miss some things which I have treated as patent or even conspicuous. It remains only for each to testify what he has seen, and at the end to confess that a soul, even the soul of a bird, is after all a mystery.

Let our first example, then, be the common black-capped titmouse, or chickadee. He is, par excellence, the bird of the merry heart. There is a notion current, to be sure, that all birds are merry; but that is one of those second-hand opinions which a man who begins to observe for himself soon finds it necessary to give up. With many birds life is a hard struggle. Enemies are numerous, and the food supply is too often scanty. Of some species it is probable that very few die in their beds. But the chickadee seems to be exempt from all forebodings. His coat is thick, his heart is brave, and, whatever may happen, something will be found to eat. "Take no thought for the morrow" is his creed, which he accepts, not "for substance of doctrine," but literally. No matter how bitter the wind or how deep the snow, you will never find the chickadee, as the saying is, under the weather. It is this perennial good humor, I suppose, which makes other birds so fond of his companionship; and their example might well be heeded by persons who suffer from fits of depression. Such unfortunates could hardly do better than to court the society of the joyous tit. His whistles and chirps, his graceful feats of climbing and hanging, and withal his engaging familiarity (for, of course, such good-nature as his could not consist with suspiciousness) would most likely send them home in a more Christian mood. The time will come, we may hope, when doctors will prescribe bird-gazing instead of blue-pill.

To illustrate the chickadee's trustfulness, I may mention that a friend of mine captured one in a butterfly-net, and, carrying him into the house, let him loose in the sitting-room. The little stranger was at home immediately, and seeing the window full of plants, proceeded to go over them carefully, picking off the lice with which such window-gardens are always more or less infested. A little later he was taken into my friend's lap, and soon he climbed up to his shoulder; where, after hopping about for a few minutes on his coat-collar, he selected a comfortable roosting place, tucked his head under his wing, and went to sleep, and slept on undisturbed while carried from one room to another. Probably the chickadee's nature is not of the deepest. I have never seen him when his joy rose to ecstasy. Still his feelings are not shallow, and the faithfulness of the pair to each other and to their offspring is of the highest order. The female has sometimes to be taken off the nest, and even to be held in the hand, before the eggs can be examined.

Our American goldfinch is one of the loveliest of birds. With his elegant plumage, his rhythmical, undulatory flight, his beautiful song, and his more beautiful soul, he ought to be one of the best beloved, if not one of the most famous; but he has never yet had half his deserts. He is like the chickadee, and yet different. He is not so extremely confiding, nor should I call him merry. But he is always cheerful, in spite of his so-called plaintive note, from which he gets one of his names, and always amiable. So far as I know, he never utters a harsh sound; even the young ones, asking for food, use only smooth, musical tones. During the pairing season his delight often becomes rapturous. To see him then, hovering and singing,—or, better still, to see the devoted pair hovering together, billing and singing,—is enough to do even a cynic good. The happy lovers! They have never read it in a book, but it is written on their hearts,—

"The gentle law, that each should be The other's heaven and harmony."

The goldfinch has the advantage of the titmouse in several respects, but he lacks that sprightliness, that exceeding light-heartedness, which is the chickadee's most endearing characteristic.

For the sake of a strong contrast, we may look next at the brown thrush, known to farmers as the planting-bird and to ornithologists as Harporhynchus rufus; a staid and solemn Puritan, whose creed is the Preacher's,—"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." No frivolity and merry-making for him! After his brief annual period of intensely passionate song, he does penance for the remainder of the year,—skulking about, on the ground or near it, silent and gloomy. He seems ever on the watch against an enemy, and, unfortunately for his comfort, he has nothing of the reckless, bandit spirit, such as the jay possesses, which goes to make a moderate degree of danger almost a pastime. Not that he is without courage; when his nest is in question he will take great risks; but in general his manner is dispirited, "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." Evidently he feels

"The heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world;"

and it would not be surprising if he sometimes raised the question, "Is life worth living?" It is the worst feature of his case that his melancholy is not of the sort which softens and refines the nature. There is no suggestion of saintliness about it. In fact, I am convinced that this long-tailed thrush has a constitutional taint of vulgarity. His stealthy, underhand manner is one mark of this, and the same thing comes out again in his music. Full of passion as his singing is (and we have hardly anything to compare with it in this regard), yet the listener cannot help smiling now and then; the very finest passage is followed so suddenly by some uncouth guttural note, or by some whimsical drop from the top to the bottom of the scale.

In neighborly association with the brown thrush is the towhee bunting, or chewink. The two choose the same places for their summer homes, and, unless I am deceived, they often migrate in company. But though they are so much together, and in certain of their ways very much alike, their habits of mind are widely dissimilar. The towhee is of a peculiarly even disposition. I have seldom heard him scold, or use any note less good-natured and musical than his pleasant cherawink. I have never detected him in a quarrel such as nearly all birds are once in a while guilty of, ungracious as it may seem to mention the fact; nor have I ever seen him hopping nervously about and twitching his tail, as is the manner of most species, when, for instance, their nests are approached. Nothing seems to annoy him. At the same time, he is not full of continual merriment like the chickadee, nor occasionally in a rapture like the goldfinch. Life with him is pitched in a low key; comfortable rather than cheerful, and never jubilant. And yet, for all the towhee's careless demeanor, you soon begin to suspect him of being deep. He appears not to mind you; he keeps on scratching among the dry leaves as if he had no thought of being driven away by your presence; but in a minute or two you look that way again, and he is not there. If you pass near his nest, he makes not a tenth part of the ado which a brown thrush would make in the same circumstances, but (partly for this reason) you will find half a dozen nests of the thrush sooner than one of his. With all his simplicity and frankness, which puts him in happy contrast with the thrush, he knows as well as anybody how to keep his own counsel. I have seen him with his mate for two or three days together about the flower-beds in the Boston Public Garden, and so far as appeared they were feeding as unconcernedly as though they had been on their own native heath, amid the scrub-oaks and huckleberry bushes; but after their departure it was remembered that they had not once been heard to utter a sound. If self-possession be four fifths of good manners, our red-eyed Pipilo may certainly pass for a gentleman.

We have now named four birds, the chickadee, the goldfinch, the brown thrush, and the towhee,—birds so diverse in plumage that no eye could fail to discriminate them at a glance. But the four differ no more truly in bodily shape and dress than they do in that inscrutable something which we call temperament, disposition. If the soul of each were separated from the body and made to stand out in sight, those of us who have really known the birds in the flesh would have no difficulty in saying, This is the titmouse, and this the towhee. It would be with them as we hope it will be with our friends in the next world, whom we shall recognize there because we knew them here; that is, we knew them, and not merely the bodies they lived in. This kind of familiarity with birds has no necessary connection with ornithology. Personal intimacy and a knowledge of anatomy are still two different things. As we have all heard, ours is an age of science; but, thank fortune, matters have not yet gone so far that a man must take a course in anthropology before he can love his neighbor.

It is a truth only too patent that taste and conscience are sometimes at odds. One man wears his faults so gracefully that we can hardly help falling in love with them, while another, alas, makes even virtue itself repulsive. I am moved to this commonplace reflection by thinking of the blue jay, a bird of doubtful character, but one for whom, nevertheless, it is impossible not to feel a sort of affection and even of respect. He is quite as suspicious as the brown thrush, and his instinct for an invisible perch is perhaps as unerring as the cuckoo's; and yet, even when he takes to hiding, his manner is not without a dash of boldness. He has a most irascible temper, also, but, unlike the thrasher, he does not allow his ill-humor to degenerate into chronic sulkiness. Instead, he flies into a furious passion, and is done with it. Some say that on such occasions he swears, and I have myself seen him when it was plain that nothing except a natural impossibility kept him from tearing his hair. His larynx would make him a singer, and his mental capacity is far above the average; but he has perverted his gifts, till his music is nothing but noise and his talent nothing but smartness. A like process of depravation the world has before now witnessed in political life, when a man of brilliant natural endowments has yielded to low ambitions and stooped to unworthy means, till what was meant to be a statesman turns put to be a demagogue. But perhaps we wrong our handsome friend, fallen angel though he be, to speak thus of him. Most likely he would resent the comparison, and I do not press it. We must admit that juvenile sportsmen have persecuted him unduly; and when a creature cannot show himself without being shot at, he may be pardoned for a little misanthropy. Christians as we are, how many of us could stand such a test? In these circumstances, it is a point in the jay's favor that he still has, what is rare with birds, a sense of humor, albeit it is humor of a rather grim sort,—the sort which expends itself in practical jokes and uncivil epithets. He has discovered the school-boy's secret: that for the expression of unadulterated derision there is nothing like the short sound of a, prolonged into a drawl. Yah, yah, he cries; and sometimes, as you enter the woods, you may hear him shouting so as to be heard for half a mile, "Here comes a fool with a gun; look out for him!"

It is natural to think of the shrike in connection with the jay, but the two have points of unlikeness no less than of resemblance. The shrike is a taciturn bird. If he were a politician, he would rely chiefly on what is known as the "still hunt," although he too can scream loudly enough on occasion. His most salient trait is his impudence, but even that is of a negative type. "Who are you," he says, "that I should be at the trouble to insult you?" He has made a study of the value of silence as an indication of contempt, and is almost human in his ability to stare straight by a person whose presence it suits him to ignore. His imperturbability is wonderful. Watch him as closely as you please, you will never discover what he is thinking about. Undertake, for instance, now that the fellow is singing from the top of a small tree only a few rods from where you are standing,—undertake to settle the long dispute whether his notes are designed to decoy small birds within his reach. Those whistles and twitters,—hear them! So miscellaneous! so different from anything which would be expected from a bird of his size and general disposition! so very like the notes of sparrows! They must be imitative. You begin to feel quite sure of it. But just at this point the sounds cease, and you look up to discover that Collurio has fallen to preening his feathers in the most listless manner imaginable. "Look at me," he says; "do I act like one on the watch for his prey? Indeed, sir, I wish the innocent sparrows no harm; and besides, if you must know it, I ate an excellent game-breakfast two hours ago, while laggards like you were still abed." In the winter, which is the only season when I have been able to observe him, the shrike is to the last degree unsocial, and I have known him to stay for a month in one spot all by himself, spending a good part of every day perched upon a telegraph wire. He ought not to be very happy, with such a disposition, one would think; but he seems to be well contented, and sometimes his spirits are fairly exuberant. Perhaps, as the phrase is, he enjoys himself; in which case he certainly has the advantage of most of us,—unless, indeed, we are easily pleased. At any rate, he is philosopher enough to appreciate the value of having few wants; and I am not sure but that he anticipated the vaunted discovery of Teufelsdrockh, that the fraction of life may be increased by lessening the denominator. But even the stoical shrike is not without his epicurean weakness. When he has killed a sparrow, he eats the brains first; after that, if he is still hungry, he devours the coarser and less savory parts. In this, however, he only shares the well-nigh universal inconsistency. There are never many thorough-going stoics in the world. Epictetus declared with an oath that he should be glad to see one.[7] To take everything as equally good, to know no difference between bitter and sweet, penury and plenty, slander and praise,—this is a great attainment, a Nirvana to which few can hope to arrive. Some wise man has said (and the remark has more meaning than may at once appear) that dying is usually one of the last things which men do in this world.

Against the foil of the butcher-bird's stolidity we may set the inquisitive, garrulous temperament of the white-eyed vireo and the yellow-breasted chat. The vireo is hardly larger than the goldfinch, but let him be in one of his conversational moods, and he will fill a smilax thicket with noise enough for two or three cat-birds. Meanwhile he keeps his eye upon you, and seems to be inviting your attention to his loquacious abilities. The chat is perhaps even more voluble. Staccato whistles and snarls follow each other at most extraordinary intervals of pitch, and the attempt at showing off is sometimes unmistakable. Occasionally he takes to the air, and flies from one tree to another; teetering his body and jerking his tail, in an indescribable fashion, and chattering all the while. His "inner consciousness" at such a moment would be worth perusing. Possibly he has some feeling for the grotesque. But I suspect not; probably what we laugh at as the antics of a clown is all sober earnest to him.

At best, it is very little we can know about what is passing in a bird's mind. We label him with two or three sesquipedalia verba, give his territorial range, describe his notes and his habits of nidification, and fancy we have rendered an account of the bird. But how should we like to be inventoried in such a style? "His name was John Smith; he lived in Boston, in a three-story brick house; he had a baritone voice, but was not a good singer." All true enough; but do you call that a man's biography?

The four birds last spoken of are all wanting in refinement. The jay and the shrike are wild and rough, not to say barbarous, while the white-eyed vireo and the chat have the character which commonly goes by the name of oddity. All four are interesting for their strong individuality and their picturesqueness, but it is a pleasure to turn from them to creatures like our four common New England Hylocichlae, or small thrushes. These are the real patricians. With their modest but rich dress, and their dignified, quiet demeanor, they stand for the true aristocratic spirit. Like all genuine aristocrats, they carry an air of distinction, of which no one who approaches them can long remain unconscious. When you go into their haunts they do not appear so much frightened as offended. "Why do you intrude?" they seem to say; "these are our woods;" and they bow you out with all ceremony. Their songs are in keeping with this character; leisurely, unambitious, and brief, but in beauty of voice and in high musical quality excelling all other music of the woods. However, I would not exaggerate, and I have not found even these thrushes perfect. The hermit, who is my favorite of the four, has a habit of slowly raising and depressing his tail when his mind is disturbed—a trick of which it is likely he is unconscious, but which, to say the least, is not a mark of good breeding; and the Wilson, while every note of his song breathes of spirituality, has nevertheless a most vulgar alarm call, a petulant, nasal, one-syllabled yeork. I do not know anything so grave against the wood thrush or the Swainson; although when I have fooled the former with decoy whistles, I have found him more inquisitive than seemed altogether becoming to a bird of his quality. But character without flaw is hardly to be insisted on by sons of Adam, and, after all deductions are made, the claim of the Hylocichlae to noble blood can never be seriously disputed. I have spoken of the four together, but each is clearly distinguished from all the others; and this I believe to be as true of mental traits as it is of details of plumage and song. No doubt, in general, they are much alike; we may say that they have the same qualities; but a close acquaintance will reveal that the qualities have been mixed in different proportions, so that the total result in each case is a personality strictly unique.

1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse