IN NESTING TIME
OLIVE THORNE MILLER
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY The Riverside Press, Cambridge 1893
Copyright, 1888, BY H. M. MILLER.
All rights reserved.
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A. Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Company.
"Very few people have the least idea what wild creatures are like. Their notion generally is to shoot them, and then pick them up for examination; which is the same thing as if some being of superior race, seeing children at play, were to shoot a few at long range, and then turn them over and describe them and consider himself learned in their structure, habits, and appearance."—JEAN INGELOW.
The sketches of bird manners and customs in this little collection are the record of careful observation, and scrupulously true in every particular. The facts may not all be new to Science, but since they are genuine studies from life, and each bird whose acquaintance I make is as truly a discovery to me as if he were totally unknown to the world, I venture to hope that lovers of birds may find in these pages real, live, individuals in feathers, honestly "brothers of ours."
OLIVE THORNE MILLER.
I. BABY BIRDS 1
Purple Crow Blackbird. Quiscalus quiscula. Redwing Blackbird. Ageloeus phoeniceus. Yellow-Throated Warbler. Dendroica dominica. Baltimore Oriole. Icterus galbula. White-Bellied Nuthatch. Sitta carolinensis. American Robin. Merula migratoria. Phoebe. Sayornis phoebe.
II. BIRD-STUDY IN A SOUTHERN STATE 19
Great White Heron. Ardea occidentalis. Bald Eagle. Haliaeetus leucocephalus. Wilson's Tern. Sterna hirundo. Ring Plover. AEgialitis hiaticula.
III. THE MOCKING-BIRD'S NEST 33
Mocking-Bird. Mimus polyglottos.
IV. A TRICKSY SPIRIT 65
Mocking-Bird. Mimus polyglottos.
V. THE "WISE BLUEBIRD" 95
Bluebird. Sialia sialis.
VI. THE GOLDEN-WING 113
Golden-Wing Woodpecker. Colaptes auratus.
VII. A STORMY WOOING 129
Orchard Oriole. Icterus spurius.
VIII. FLUTTERBUDGET 145
Brown Thrush, or Thrasher. Harporhynchus rufus.
IX. "O WONDROUS SINGERS" 159
Wilson's Thrush. Turdus fuscescens. Gray-Cheeked Thrush. Turdus aliciae.
X. A BIRD OF AFFAIRS 173
Blue-Jay. Cyanocitta cristata.
XI. THE BLUE-JAY AGAIN 189
XII. VIRGINIA'S WOOING 205
Virginia Cardinal. Cardinalis cardinalis.
XIII. FRIENDSHIP IN FEATHERS 221
Scarlet Tanager. Piranga erythromelas. English Goldfinch. Fringilla carduelis.
XIV. THE ROSY SHIELD 237
Rose-Breasted Grosbeak. Habia ludoviciana.
XV. THE BIRD OF MYSTERY 251
Birds of Paradise. Paradisaea.
And oft an unintruding guest, I watched her secret toils from day to day; How true she warped the moss to form the nest, And modeled it within with wood and clay. And by and by, like heath-bells gilt with dew, There lay her shining eggs as bright as flowers, Ink-spotted over, shells of green and blue: And there I witnessed in the summer hours A brood of Nature's minstrels chirp and fly, Glad as the sunshine and the laughing sky.
"Ears have they, but they hear not," may be said of all the world. Tragedies and comedies go on continually before us which we neither see nor hear; cries of distress and prattle of infants, songs of love and screams of war, alike fall upon deaf ears, while we calmly discuss the last book or the news from Borriboo-lah-Gha, as completely oblivious as if all this stirring life did not exist.
To be sure these things take place in the "upper stories," as Thoreau says, but they are none the less audible, and one is tempted to believe that bird voices are on a scale to which the untrained ear is not attuned. Once learn to hear, and nature is full of life and interest. The home affairs of our little neighbors whose modest cottage swings on a branch of the elm beside the door are more attractive than those of our fellow creatures in the house across the way partly because they are so open in their lives that our attentions do not seem intrusive, but more because their ways are not so familiar. We can guess how men and women pass their time, but we cannot guess why the cat-bird always sings from the middle of one particular shrub, nor where he has hidden his dusky spouse and nest full of babies; and after we know him we are eager to discover.
Upon reaching the charming home of a friend in Massachusetts last June, almost the first thing I saw was a pair of purple crow blackbirds in trouble. First arose a medley of queer husky tones, clamorous baby cries, and excited oriole voices, with violent agitation of the leaves of a tall elm, ending with the sudden exit of a blackbird, closely followed by a pair of Baltimore orioles. The pursued flew leisurely across the lawn, plainly in no haste, and not at all with the air of the thief and nest robber he is popularly supposed to be. Clearly the elm belonged by bird custom to the orioles, for their pretty swinging hammock could be seen partly hidden by leaves, about halfway up the tree, and what business other than that of marauder had the sombre-hued enemy upon it?
Now the blackbird has no secrets in his life; the whole world is welcome to know his affairs, and in fact he proclaims them loudly himself. It was easy to see that he had anxiety enough of his own just then, without thinking of disturbing his neighbors, for he was engaged in the task of introducing his young family to the world, and every bird watcher knows that is attended with almost as many difficulties as is the same operation in what we call "society."
If the youngster escape the dangers peculiar to the nest, the devouring jaws of squirrel or owl, the hands of the egg thief, being shaken out by the wind, smothered by an intrusive cow-bunting, or orphaned by the gun of a "collector;" if, neither stolen, eaten, thrown out, nor starved, he arrives at the age that his wings begin to stir and force him out of the leafy green tent of his birth, a new set of dangers meet him at the door. He may entangle himself in a hair of the nest-lining, and hang himself at the very threshold of life—a not uncommon occurrence; or he may safely reach the nearest twig and from there fall and break his neck—not a rare accident; he may be attacked by a bird who questions his right to be on the tree; he may fly, and, not reaching his goal, come to the ground, an easy prey to any prowler.
In this blackbird family one of the little ones had taken his first ambitious flight to the oriole's tree, where he must and should be fed and comforted, in spite of the hostile reception of its gayly dressed proprietor. The father took upon himself this duty, and many times during the day the above-mentioned scene was reenacted, loud blackbird calls, husky baby notes, the musical war-cry of the oriole, and a chase.
A second infant had wisely confined his wandering to his own tree, one of a group of tall pines that towered above the roofs of the village. This one could be easily watched as he stood on one branch for an hour at a time, sometimes in the nest attitude, head sunk in shoulders and beak pointed toward the sky, again looking eagerly around on his new world, turning his head from side to side, changing position to see the other way, and showing himself wide awake although the yellowish baby-down was still on his head, and his tail was not an inch long. Now and then the mother was heard calling in the distance, and as she approached he became all excitement, fluttering his wings, and answering in the husky tones of the family. A moment later, after a quick glance around, but without alighting and reconnoitring the whole neighborhood, as the robin does, she came down beside the eager youngling, administered to the wide open mouth what looked like two or three savage pecks, but doubtless were nothing worse than mouthfuls of food, and instantly flew again, while the refreshed infant stretched his wings and legs, changed his place a little, and settled into comfortable quiet after his lunch.
The urchin in the enemy's tree was not the most unfortunate of the nestlings. One already lay dead on the ground under the nest where it had fallen, and another came down during the day, though happily without injury. This one was not very bright, or perhaps his baby wits were dazed by his sudden descent. He made no objection to staying in my hand as long as I liked to look at him, and when I placed him on a low branch, as a hint that it was safer there, he declined to accept my advice, but flew off and came to the ground again. He was a scraggy looking, rusty black little fellow, the most unattractive young bird I ever saw. Shortly after this he clambered up on a pile of brush about a foot high, without so much as a leaf to screen him, and there he stayed all day, motionless, being fed at long intervals; and there I left him at night, never expecting to see him again. But in the morning he appeared on a low shrub on the lawn, and about nine o'clock he took courage to launch himself on wing. He flew very low across the street, and dropped into the tall grass at the foot of a lilac bush. Why the parents considered that less safe than the open lawn I could not see, but they evidently did, for one of them perched upon the lilac, and filled the air with anxious "chucks," announcing to all whom it might concern—after the fashion of some birds—that here was a stray infant to be had for the picking up. Perhaps, however, the hue-and-cry kept off the quiet-loving cat; at any rate nothing happened to him, I think, for in a day or two the three young birds became so expert on wing that the whole family left us, and I hope found a place where they were more welcome than in that colony of house and orchard birds.
Not so quiet in their ways are the babies of another blackbird family—the redwings; restless and uneasy, the clumsy little creatures climb all about the bushes and trees, and keep both parents busy, not only in filling their gaping mouths, but in finding them when the food is brought. They are always seeking a new place, and from the moment of leaving the nest show in a marked way the unrest, the impatience of the redwing family.
Quite as erratic is a much smaller bird, the yellow throated warbler, whose baby ways I have seen at the South. One of these bantlings no bigger than the end of a thumb will easily keep its parent frantically busy rushing about after food, and hunting up the capricious wanderer on its return.
The wood thrush, on the contrary, is patience itself. A youngster of this lovely family sits a half hour at a time motionless and silent on a branch, head drawn down upon his shoulders, apparently in the deepest meditation. When he sees food coming he is gently agitated, rises upon his weak legs, softly flutters his wings and opens his mouth, but never—never cries. Should one put a hand down to take him, as seemingly could be done easily, he will slip out from under it, drop to the ground, and disappear, in perfect silence.
The cry-baby of the bird world is the Baltimore oriole. As soon as this fluffy young person appears outside of his nursery, sometimes even before, he begins to utter a strange almost constant "chrr-r-r." He is not particularly active of movement, but he cannot keep silent. One little oriole mother whom I watched in Massachusetts had no help in raising her brood, her mate spending his time on the upper branches of the tree. He could not be blamed, however; he was, so far as I could see, perfectly willing to aid in the support of the family, but Madam actually would not allow him even to visit the homestead. When the young were out he assumed his share of the labor. The first yellow-haired bairn mounted the edge of the nest one morning, and after a little stretching and pluming, tried to fly. But alas he was held! Two or three times he renewed the attempt, his struggles always ending in failure, and I feared I should see a tragedy. Half an hour later the mother returned, and whether she pushed him down, or merely advised him to go back and try again, I cannot say. The fact is that he did disappear in the nest, where he remained for two or three hours, for it is probably safe to assume that the urchin who came up later was the same. This time, without delay upon the brink, he climbed upon a twig, hopped about a little, and before long flew several feet, alighting on a small branch of the same tree. Hardly had he established himself safely and resumed his ordinary call, when down upon him from above came a robin, who, strange to say, had a nest in one of the upper branches of the same tall maple. This robin had always recognized the right of the oriole parents to their share of the tree, but the young one was a stranger, and he fell upon him accordingly. He knocked him off his perch; the unfortunate little fellow fell a few feet, then gathered himself, fluttered and caught at the outside of a clump of leaves on the end of a twig, where after frantic struggling he managed to secure a hold. Perhaps the robin saw his mistake, for he paid no more attention to the new-comer, who did not stay long on the tree after this second disaster.
The next morning came up out of the nest quite an unnatural oriole baby—he did not cry. Silently, he stepped out upon a twig, and looked about in the new world around him. He carefully dressed his feathers, and often rose to his full height and stretched his legs, as if it were legs and not wings he needed in his new life. The third scion of the household had also a marked character of his own. Having planted himself on the threshold, and found it a convenient place to intercept all food on its way to the younger ones still unseen, he remained. Every time the mother came with a mouthful, he fluttered and coaxed, and usually got it. It was too good a situation to leave and he seemed to have settled for life; but his wings overpowered his inertia or greed, about four o'clock in the afternoon.
So long had the third young oriole occupied his position, that the fourth made his appearance almost immediately, as though he had been waiting. There does appear to be some regulation of this sort among the orioles, for in all that I have noticed, no two ever came out together (excepting once, when both went back almost instantly, and one returned alone). This late comer had not the whole long sunny day to loiter away, and he flew in an hour. The fifth and last came up early the next morning evidently in haste to join the scattered family, for he bade farewell to the native tree in a short time. No more orioles appeared upon the maple from this day, but for two weeks I saw the little party about; the father, whom I had missed after the flight of the first infant, working like a drudge, with two or three hungry urchins wherever he went, excepting when he sought food in the new-cut grass on the ground. He gave us no more songs, but his sweet, low call sounded all day on the place.
Another family of little folk came upon the maple after the orioles were gone, a nuthatch tribe. There were three or four of them exactly like the mother excepting a shorter tail, and they followed her like a flock of sheep, over and under branches, around the trunk, up or down or any way, never pausing more than an instant, not even when she plumped a morsel into a waiting mouth. She led her little procession by her querulous-sounding "quank," while they replied with a low "chir-up" in the same tone. It was a very funny sight. They could fly nicely, but never seemed to think of looking for food, and it was plain that the busy little mother had no time to teach them. It was interesting to see her deal with a moth which she found napping on a fence. She ran at once to a crack or some convenient hole in the rough rail, thrust it in and hammered it down. When it was quiet she snipped off the wings, dragged it out, and beat it on the fence till it was fit for food, the family meanwhile gathered around her, clinging closely to the fence, and gently fluttering. These nuthatches were remarkably silent, but some that I once saw living near the top of two or three tall pines were quite noisy, and I spent much time trying to see what they were forever complaining about. There always seemed to be some catastrophe impending up in that sky parlor, but it never appeared to reach a climax.
Charming to watch is the bluebird nestling; cheery and gentle like the parents, he seems to escape the period of helplessness that many birds suffer from, perhaps because he is patient enough to stay in the nest till his wings are ready to use. The mocking-bird baby has a far different time. Victim of a devouring ambition that will not let him rest till either legs or wings will bear him, he scrambles out upon his native tree, stretches, plumes a little in a jerky, hurried way, and then boldly launches out in the air—alas!—to come flop to the ground, where he is an easy prey to boys and cats, both of whom are particularly fond of young mocking-birds. These parents are wiser than the crow blackbirds, for not a sound betrays the accident in the family, unless, indeed, the little one is disturbed, when they make noise enough. They keep out of sight, no doubt closely watching the straggler until he gets away from people, for although he has proved that he cannot fly, the young mocker is by no means discouraged; he trusts to his legs, and usually at once starts off on a run "anywhere, anywhere, out (in) the world." When far enough away for them to feel safe in doing so, the parents come down and feed and comfort the wanderer, and it is a day or two before his wings are of much use to him.
The most imperious young bird I know is the robin. He is perfectly sure he has a right to attention, and he intends to have it. If he is neglected too long and gets hungry, he calls loudly and impatiently, jerking himself up with a ludicrous air of stamping his feet. Even when he does condescend to go to the lawn with mamma, it is not to seek his food—far from it! It is to follow her around, and call every moment or two for something to eat. The idea that his individual exertions have anything to do with the food supply seems never to occur to him. He expects the fat morsels to fall into his mouth as they always have, and why should they not? He will soon be taught, for even baby-birds have to be educated.
We have assumed in our easy-going way that birds "toil not" because they "do not spin," because they have not surrounded themselves with a thousand artificial wants, as we have. But the truth is that nobody can work harder than a pair of robins, for example, with four or five hungry mouths to fill, and every mouthful to be hunted up as it is wanted. No one would guess what an ever-yawning cavern a baby robin's mouth is, till he has tried to bring up a nestling himself. I once kept two small boys busy several days at high wages, digging worms for one young bird, and then I believe he starved to death.
The training of our winged neighbors is most interesting, but so cautiously carried on that we rarely see it, though we may often hear the robin, oriole, whip-poor-will, and many others receive instruction in singing. I have once or twice surprised young birds at their lessons, as for instance, a pewee family learning to hover over the daisies, a beautiful operation of their parents which I never tired of watching. I was behind a blind when they came, a little flock of five or six. They were very playful, and kept near together, flying low over the grass, alighting in a row on the edge of a pail, coming up on the clothes-line, banging awkwardly against the house, and in every way showing ignorance and youth. I studied one for a long time as he balanced himself on the clothes-line and looked off at the antics of his brothers trying to learn the hovering. One of the parents flew out over the tall flowers, poising himself gracefully, his body held perfectly erect, legs half drawn up, turning his head this way and that, hanging thus in the air several seconds in one spot, then suddenly darting off to another like a humming-bird. The little ones in a row close together on a low branch of a shrub, looked on, and in a moment two or three sallied out and tried the same movement. They could fly well enough, but when they tried to pause on wing the failure was disastrous. Some tumbled out of sight into the daisies, others recovered themselves with violent efforts and returned hastily to the perch, complaining loudly. Then the parents brought food, and this went on for some time, while all the time the air was full of gentle twitters and calls, much baby-talk, and a little parental instruction no doubt.
A delightful field of work awaits the young naturalist of to-day. Our predecessors have devoted their energies to classifying and arranging. They have dissected and weighed and measured every part of the little bodies; they know to a fraction the length of wings and tails; they have pulled to pieces the nests, "clutched" the eggs, and blown and mounted and labeled and set up in cases the whole external of the little creatures. All that can be learned by violence, all the characteristics evolved by fear and distress are duly set down in the books. You shall find a catalogue of the robin's possessions in the shape of feathers and bones, pictures of his internal anatomy, illustrations of his work in nest building, and specimens in all stages, but in the whole world of these books you shall not find the robin. The soul of the robin has escaped them, it is not to be taken by force.
I do not find fault; it needed to be done, but happily—let us hope—it is done, and a more enticing field is now open, namely: to make personal acquaintance with the birds, find out how they live, their manners and customs, and their individual characters. This is one of the most charming studies in the world, but much more is required than a gun and a little or much scientific knowledge. There is infinite patience, perseverance, untiring devotion, and more,—a quick eye and ear, and a sympathetic heart. If you do not love the birds you cannot understand them.
This is the pleasant path opening now, and in some ways it is particularly suited to woman with her great patience and quiet manners. Once interested in the lives in the "upper stories," you will find them most absorbing; novels will pall upon you, fancy work seem frivolous, society duties a bore, and talk—loud enough to interfere with listening—an impertinence.
BIRD-STUDY IN A SOUTHERN STATE.
He loved the ever deepening brown Of summer twilights on the enchanted hills; Where he might listen to the starts and thrills Of birds that sang and rustled in the trees, Or watch the footsteps of the wandering breeze, And the bird's shadows as they fluttered by, Or slowly wheeled across the unclouded sky.
RICHARD WATSON GILDER.
BIRD-STUDY IN A SOUTHERN STATE.
The most interesting experience in several years of bird-study was a trip to a Southern State for the purpose of making acquaintance with the mocking-bird.
Adventures began before the lights of New York sank below the horizon; adventures more strange than agreeable, for the journey was by steamer. Hardly had we passed out of the bay when there began a gentle roll which speedily sent passengers to bed. When we passed Long Branch the motion was a steady rock from side to side, that made one feel like a baby in a cradle, and before bedtime it was a violent swing that flung one about like a toy, and tossed the furniture around like doll-house belongings.
Holding on to the side of the berth with both hands, I passed the night listening to the labored strokes of the engine and the crashing of the loosened freight in the hold, and entertained by the eccentric conduct of the loose articles in my state-room, a trunk, chair, life-preserver, plate, saucer, and teaspoon, which with one accord, and in spite of all I could do by most ingenious wedging, joined in a peculiar dance between the outer wall and the inner partition of my room. At one moment they rested quietly in their several ways, against the wall; the steamer lurched, and all started madly across the floor, the heavy things first, and the lighter bringing up the rear, each banging violently against the partition, with thump, rattle, or jingle according to its nature, then in a moment dashing back so furiously that I feared to see the thin planks yield and my trunk go out to sea by itself. Not that I cared for my trunk—my life was the subject that interested me at the time. Outside, too, the doors and blinds rattled, the tiller-chain chattered and wailed and sobbed like a woman in distress, and above all other sounds rose the dismal fog horn, for a pall of mist had settled over us.
Day differed from night only in being light, for the sole prospect from the guards was one moment the fog above, where the sky should be, the next the depths of the sea yawning as if to receive the ship into its bosom. In this manner, during two days and three nights, we rolled on to our destination, and for days after my feet touched blessed Mother Earth I reeled and staggered like a drunken man.
After the storm, the calm. There followed upon this rough voyage weeks of quiet, delightful bird-study, whose long sunny-days were passed in the fragrant depths of pine groves, under arching forest of sweet-gum trees, or on the shore of the salt marsh; but wherever, or however, always following and spying out the ways of the feathered world.
The bird of the South—the mocking-bird, was the first object of study. By day he was watched and noted, during the long twilight he was listened to, and at midnight sleep was often banished by his wonderful and enchanting voice. Gray and inconspicuous in coloring, we all know him in the cage; but how different in freedom! how wild and bewitching his song! how wise and knowing his ways! how well worth weeks of study is this one bird!
Here were dozens of other birds also. What keen delight to one fresh from the town, to look over the marsh where
"Leagues and leagues of marsh grass, waist high, broad in the blade, Green and all of a height, and unflecked with a light or a shade, Stretch leisurely off in a pleasant plain To the terminal blue of the main;"
to watch the great snowy heron sweeping over with broad white wing, tripping gracefully about on the edges of the channels, and toward night betaking itself to a line of trees in the distance, that looked as if full of snowy blossoms that moved and changed about and at last settled for the night; to see the bald eagle catch a big fish and call his mate to help him eat it; to watch the lesser tern hover with yellow bill pointed downward and sharp eye fixed on the water, and at length stiffen his wings and dive head first into it, bringing out his prey, and filling the air with cries in a complaining, squealing tone that always reminds one of a young pig; to gaze fascinated at the bewitching flight of the ring-plover, sweeping low over the water in a small flock, now almost invisible as the sombre-colored backs turn toward you, now suddenly flashing bright as silver when the breasts come into sight, moving in perfect unison as if impelled by one will. More, many more birds of the marsh attract and draw one, but inland is the mocking-bird, and after a walk along the shore, always my feet turned to the groves and the fields where the matchless bird lives his life.
To see, as well as hear a wild mocking-bird sing, is worth a journey, even over the rolling deep. I passed hours in a pleasant grove beyond the gardens and fields, watching and listening to one bird whose concert hall it was. The grove was the audience room where one might be in the shade and not too conspicuous in watching him. His chosen place was in the sunshine, for this bird is a sun-worshiper. I always found him singing when I reached the spot. Perhaps on the top spike of a young pine-tree, balanced on one, or sometimes on two adjoining top twigs—which of course stand straight up—stood the singer, madly shouting his most peculiar medley. He looked at me as I passed near his perch, but did not pause in his song. After I had taken my seat he flew—singing as he went—alighted nearer, on the upper sprig of a cedar, turned his eyes upon me, and treated me to another performance, while I looked and listened enchanted.
Nor was I the only listener. Ever and anon while absorbed in the entertainment, or waiting, breathless, for a new note, I was startled by a rustle, and a low "Good evenin' Missis," and glanced up to see a negro stealing along in a stealthy way. It might be a woman with a big bundle or basket on her head, possibly a slouching young man or "boy" with an air of interest in my eccentric proceedings, or a group of youngsters with nothing particular to do, but one and all perfectly silent in movement. No wonder they know all about the birds, and lay violent hands on eggs, nests, or nestlings as they choose, creeping around as they do without a sound. It is only surprising that a bird is left in the State, so persistently do they rob the nests. Naturally the mocking-bird, for which they can always find purchasers, is the most desirable, and white as well as black persecute that bird unceasingly.
"You can't keep them from the negroes," said a young white man. "I've often been watching a nest to get the young ones myself, but some nig was sure to take it before me."
Speaking of negroes, I never saw so many idle men and grown boys. Not a spot could be found so secluded that one or more did not soon make his appearance. Selecting the quiet yard of a summer cottage, a deserted-looking place not yet opened for the season, in which to study the ways of the birds in peace, I was often disturbed by a negro passing across the lawn, taking no heed of fences, for there's no sort of a fence in that country that they will not pass over as if it were not there. Of course this always put to flight the dramatis personae of my study. One day an interesting (or interested) person of color appeared on the scene equipped for white-washing, and proceeded to adorn tree trunks, fences, buildings, etc., etc., relieving his labors by questioning me about northern manners and customs. On another occasion when I was looking anxiously to see a certain family of nestlings make exit from the nest, a building that I supposed to be a shut-up store-room was thrown open, a wash-tub appeared before the door, and I found that a family of eight, including four children, had moved in, not thirty feet from my chosen seat, and of course to the utter destruction of any seclusion.
I could not select a single spot in the neighborhood, favorable to quiet study, without having it made desolate or turned into a thoroughfare. The loveliest place I found at all was a footpath passing for about fifty feet through a fringe of low cedar, sweet gum trees, and shrubs loaded with pink lily-of-the-valley shaped blossoms. Across the path ran a brooklet, a mere thread of water, so shallow that small birds stood in the middle to bathe, though it deepened into a pool below, where frogs croaked and plunged. It was cool; it was quiet, far from the everywhere present negro hut; there was no sound but the trickle of the streamlet as it fell into the pool, and the softened roar of the ocean beyond the wide salt marsh.
To this nook I went every day, always trying to surprise the birds at their usual occupations, but never quite succeeding; for steal in quietly as I might I always heard low remarks, a slight flutter of wings, and usually saw a dark form or two departing near the ground behind some shrub. Slowly and quietly, however, I took my seat on a bank close under a thick bush,—while the silence around me was as profound as if no wing had ever fluttered there,—and became as motionless as circumstances would allow, for beside the birds there were other tenants not half so shy.
After a few moments, when the ripple I caused had died away, sounds of life began again; unknown water creatures made queer noises in the pool below, low bird tones, unfamiliar scraps of song fell on the ear, ordinary ways were resumed.
In this pleasant place I made acquaintance with the painted-finch, or nonpareil, who was least frightened of the small birds, and stood patiently on a cedar twig till I became quiet, then came down in plain sight, waded up to the tops of his firm little legs in the water, and deliberately took his bath before my very face. Here also I had a call from Bob White, who cautiously lifted a striped cap and a very bright eye above the grass tops to look at me. He did not introduce himself; indeed, after a moment's steady gaze his head dropped and I saw him no more, but I heard him rustle in the grass on the way to the strawberries, of which he demands—and gets—his share.
Ruin fell upon this charming retreat in this wise. One day on my approach I saw commotion in the shrubs and two negroes at work chopping great branches out on each side of the path, letting in the sun to my bank, and turning it into a hideous wreck. I protested.
"Why is this? What are you doing?"
"Oh, we're just cuttin' some pea-poles!" they replied calmly. They had been too lazy or too indifferent to step ten feet on one side into the thicker copse, and leave the pretty path in its beauty, and the mischief was done, and after all it was not my business. I passed on.
Bird-study has other annoyances in that part of the world beside the human beings of whom I have spoken. Next, perhaps, are the sufferings which wring the heart all the while. John Burroughs has written the tragedies of the nests; he could add a chapter more tragical than all, should he visit the haunts of the mocking-bird. Nothing can be more dreadful than the systematic and persistent war made upon this bird, of which nevertheless every Southerner is proud.
Lastly, the hindrances which Dame Nature herself throws around her mysteries. There are the prickly pears, sowed broadcast over the land so thickly that one can hardly avoid stepping on them, with thorns sharp as needles, and as long. One of an inch in length that I had the curiosity to examine had forty-five thorns, equal to two papers of number six sharps, that stuck out in every direction, and would pass through an ordinary shoe with perfect ease. This interesting vegetable has no local attachments whatever, and readily clings to any part of one's garment.
Then there are the mosquitoes with which the same careful mother peoples the groves, even in April, industrious little creatures not in the least enervated by the climate. But her grand dependence, judiciously settled indeed, is on the sand flies. Wherever there is not a howling gale—there are the flies in millions, most indefatigable and maddening of pests. And finally, to take home with you, to remind you pleasantly of her hospitalities when you have reached your own room, is the tick!
Ties from the outer world began at last to draw. The birdlings in the nest were not ready to come out, and growing impatient I drew upon the knowledge—or rather the ignorance—of the residents and heard some surprising statements, which further observation, however, did not confirm. That the mocking-bird baby lives for three weeks in the nest; that part of that time the parents carry the nestlings about on their backs; that when old enough the young are pushed out of their nest, and always fall to the ground.
And the authors of these fables were grown-up, and had passed their lives among the mocking-birds. I curbed my impatience, stayed another week, and saw all the nestlings out, and the nest deserted.
Another charge also fell to the ground on careful observation. The farmers complain—as farmers are apt to complain of their best friends, the birds—that the mocking-bird eats strawberries. I set myself to watch a fine patch full of ripe and tempting berries, several times when no one was near. Many birds came about, mocking-birds, crows, kingbirds, orchard orioles, and others. The mocking-birds ran down between the rows of vines catching grasshoppers, the crows did the same service, walking with dignity. The kingbirds chased flies, the orioles searched the fruit trees for insects. One and all were working in the interest of the strawberry grower. And while I watched, an hour or more at a time, not even for dessert after filling their stomachs with insects, did one take a berry, which I am sure they might be considered to have earned.
I know one lady—would there were more like her—who owns a garden on Long Island, and when her gardener comes in and says something must be done to prevent the birds destroying fruit, calmly says: "Certainly, set out another row of plants. Let us have enough for the birds by all means, and for ourselves too."
THE MOCKING-BIRD'S NEST.
Whate'er birds did or dreamed, this bird could say. Then down he shot, bounced airily along The sward, twitched in a grasshopper, made song Midflight, perched, prinked, and to his art again. Sweet Science, this large riddle read me plain: How may the death of that dull insect be The life of yon trim Shakespeare, on the tree?
THE MOCKING-BIRD'S NEST.
"Superb and sole upon a plumed spray That o'er the general leafage boldly grew,"
as literally as though Lanier had sketched that particular bird, stood the first free mocking-bird I ever heard. His perch was the topmost twig of the tallest tree in the group. It was a cedar, perhaps fifteen feet high, around which a jasmine vine had clambered, and that morning opened a cluster of fragrant blossoms at his feet, as though an offering to the most noted singer on our side of the globe. As I drew near he turned his clear, bright eye upon me, and sang a welcome to North Carolina; and several hours later, when the moon rose high over the waters of the Sound, he completed his perfect performance with a serenade, the like of which I fear I may never hear again. I chose to consider his attentions personal, because, of all the household, I am sure I was the only one who listened, and I had passed over many miles of rolling and tossing ocean to make his acquaintance.
Nothing would have been easier, or more delightful, than to pitch one's tent in a certain pine grove not far away, and pass days and weeks in forgetting the world of cares, and reading favorite books, lulled at all hours of day and night by the softened roar of the ocean and the wonderful bird
"Singing the song of everything, Consummate sweet, and calm."
But it was not merely as singer that I wished to know him; nor to watch his dainty and graceful ways as he went about the daily duties of food-hunting, singing, and driving off marauders, which occupied his hours from dawn to late evening, and left him spirit enough for many a midnight rhapsody. It was in his domestic relations that I desired to see him,—the wooing of the bride and building the nest, the training of mocking-bird babies and starting them in the world; and no loitering and dreaming in the pine grove, however tempting, would tell me this. I must follow him to his more secluded retreats, see where he had set up his homestead.
Thoreau—or is it Emerson?—says one always finds what he looks for, and of course I found my nests. One pair of birds I noticed through the courtship, the selection of the site, the building and occupying of the nest; another couple, already sitting when discovered, I watched through the incubation and nursing of the little ones, and at last assisted in giving them a fair chance for their lives and a start in the world. It may be thought that my assistance was not particularly valuable; the birds shared this opinion; none the less, but for my presence not one of those birdlings would be free and happy to-day, as I hope and believe they are. To the study of these two households I gave nearly every hour of daylight, in all weathers, for a month, and of the life that went on in and around them I can speak from personal knowledge; beyond that, and at other times in his life, I do not profess to know the mocking-bird.
The bird whose nest-making I witnessed was the one whose performance I chose to consider a welcome, and his home was in the pine grove, a group of about twenty trees, left from the original forest possibly, at any rate nearly a hundred feet high, with all branches near the top, as though they had grown in close woods. They were quite scattering now, and lower trees and shrubs flourished in their shade, making a charming spot, and a home worthy even of this superb songster. The bird himself was remarkably friendly. Seeming to appreciate my attitude of admiring listener, he often perched on the peak of a low roof (separated only by a carriage drive from the upper "gallery" where I sat), and sang for hours at a time, with occasional lunches; or, as Lanier, his most ardent lover, has it,—
"Then down he shot, bounced airily along The sward, twitched in a grasshopper, made song Midflight, perched, prinked, and to his art again."
Whatever he did, his eyes were upon me; he came to the corner nearest me to sing, and was so intelligent in look and bearing that I believe he liked a quiet listener.
His wooing, however, the bird did not intend me to see, though two or three times I surprised him at it. The first part that I chanced upon was curious and amusing. A female, probably the "beloved object," stood demurely on one of the dead top branches of a large tree down in the garden, while her admirer performed fantastic evolutions in the air about her. No flycatcher ever made half the eccentric movements this aerial acrobat indulged in. He flew straight up very high, executing various extraordinary turns and gyrations, so rapidly they could not be followed and described, and came back singing; in a moment he departed in another direction, and repeated the grotesque performance. He was plainly exerting himself to be agreeable and entertaining, in mocking-bird style, and I noticed that every time he returned from an excursion he perched a little nearer his audience of one, until, after some time, he stood upon the same twig, a few inches from her. They were facing and apparently trying to stare each other out of countenance; and as I waited, breathless, to see what would happen next, the damsel coquettishly flitted to another branch. Then the whole scene was repeated; the most singular and graceful evolutions, the songs, and the gradual approach. Sometimes, after alighting on a top twig, he dropped down through the branches, singing, in a way to suggest the "dropping song" so graphically described by Maurice Thompson, but never really falling, and never touching the ground. Each performance ended in his reaching the twig which she occupied and her flight to another, until at last, by some apparently mutual agreement, both flew, and I saw no more.
A remarkable "dance" which I also saw, with the same bird as principal actor, seems to me another phase of the wooing, though I must say it resembled a war-dance as well; but love is so like war among the lower orders, even of men, that it is hard to distinguish between them. I shall not try to decide, only to relate, and, I beg to say, without the smallest exaggeration. The dances I saw were strictly pas-de-deux, and they always began by a flash of wings and two birds alighting on the grass, about a foot apart. Both instantly drew themselves up perfectly erect, tail elevated at an angle of forty-five degrees, and wings held straight down at the sides. Then followed a most droll dance. Number one stood like a statue, while number two pranced around, with short, mincing steps and dainty little hops which did not advance him an inch; first he passed down the right, then turned and went down the left, all in the queer, unnatural manner of short hops and steps, and holding himself rigidly erect, while number one always faced the dancer, whichever way he turned. After a few moments of this movement, number one decided to participate, and when his partner moved to the right he did the same; to the left he still accompanied him, always facing, and maintaining the exact distance from him. Then number two described a circle around number one, who turned to face him with short hops where he stood. Next followed a chasse of both birds to the right; then a separation, one dancing to the right and the other to the left, always facing, and always slowly and with dignity. This stately minuet they kept up for some time, and appeared so much like a pair of old-fashioned human dancers that when, on one occasion, number two varied the performance by a spring over the head of his partner, I was startled, as if an old gentleman had suddenly hopped over the head of the grand dame his vis-a-vis. When this strange new figure was introduced, number one proved equal to the emergency, hopping backward, and turning so dexterously that when his partner alighted they were facing, and about a foot apart, as before. The object of all this was very uncertain to a looker-on. It might be the approaches of love, and quite as probably the wary beginnings of war, and the next feature of the programme was not explanatory; they rose together in the air ten feet or more, face to face, fluttering and snatching at each other, apparently trying to clinch; succeeding in doing so, they fell to the ground, separated just before they touched it, and flew away. O wings! most maddening to a bird-student.
It was not very long after these performances, which seem to me to belong to the courtship period, when I noticed that my bird had won his bride, and they were busy house-hunting. The place they apparently preferred, and at last fixed upon, was at an unusual height for mocking-birds, near the top of one of the tall pines, and I was no less surprised than pleased to see them lay the foundation of their home in that spot. I congratulated myself that at least one brood in North Carolina would have a chance to come to maturity and be free; and so persistent is the warfare waged against this bird—unfortunately marketable at any stage from the egg—that I almost doubt if another will. The day after they began building a northwest storm set in, and for three days we had high winds and cold weather. In spite of this, the brave birds persevered, and finished their nest during those three days, although much of the time they made infrequent trips. It was really most touching to watch them at their unnatural task, and remember that nothing but the cruelty of man forced them to it (one nest had been destroyed). Their difficulty was to get up against the wind, and, having little experience in flying upward, they made the natural mistake of starting from the foot of their chosen tree. Sometimes, at first, they flew with the body almost perpendicular; and afterwards, when they held the body in proper position, they wished to go so directly up that they turned the head back over the shoulder to see where they were going. The wind, too, beat them far out of their course, and they were obliged to alight and rest, occasionally being forced to cling to the trunk of a tree to recover breath and strength to go on. They never attempted to make the whole ascent at once, but always stopped four or five times, perching on the ends of fallen branches, of which there were eight or ten below the living part of the pine. Even when no wind disturbed them, they made these pauses on the way, and it was always a hard task to reach the top. They learned, after a few days, however, to begin their ascent at a distance, and not approach the tree till at least half as high as they wished to go, which simplified the matter very much. It was beautiful to see them, upon reaching the lowest of the living branches, bound gayly up, as though over a winding stair, to the particular spot they had fixed upon.
During the building I missed the daily music of the singer. Occasionally he alighted on the roof, looked over at me, and bubbled out a few notes, as much as to say, "You must excuse me now; I am very busy;" but all the time I hoped that while sitting was going on I should have him back. I reckoned ignorantly; I did not know my bird. No sooner was he the possessor of a house and family than he suddenly became very wary. No more solos on the roof; no more confidential remarks; no more familiarities of any sort. Now he must beware of human beings, and even when on the grass he held himself very erect, wings straight down, every instant on guard. His happiness demanded expression in song, certainly, but instead of confining himself to the roof he circled the lawn, which was between two and three hundred feet wide. If he began in a group of cedars on the right, he sang awhile there, then flew to the fence next the road without a pause in the music, and in a few minutes passed to the group of pines at the left, perched on a dead branch, and finished his song there. It was most tantalizing, though I could but admit it a proof of intelligence.
Another change appeared in the bird with the advent of family cares: he was more belligerent; he drove the bluebird off the lawn, he worried the tufted titmouse when it chanced to alight on his tree, and in the most offensive way claimed ownership of pine-trees, lawn, and all the fence bordering the same. Neighboring mocking-birds disputed his claim, and many a furious chase took place among the trees. (So universal is their habit of insisting upon exclusive right to certain grounds that two mocking-birds are never found nesting very near each other, in that part of the country. This I was assured, and found it true of those I observed.) These little episodes in his life kept the pine-tree bird from dullness, while his mate was engaged in the top of the tall pine, where, by the way, he went now and then to see how she was getting on. Sometimes his spouse received him amiably, but occasionally, I regret to say, I heard a "huff" from the nest that said plainly, "Don't you touch those eggs!" And what was amusing, he acknowledged her right to dictate in the matter, and meekly took his departure. Whenever she came down for a lunch, he saw her instantly, and was ready for a frolic. He dropped to the grass near her, and they usually indulged in a lively romp, chasing each other over and through the trees, across the yard, around the garden, and back to the lawn, where she went on with her eating, and he resumed his singing.
While I was watching the pine-tree household, the other nest, in the top of a low, flat-topped cedar, perhaps twenty-five feet high, and profusely fringed with Spanish moss, became of even more interest. I could not see into the nest, for there was no building high enough to overlook it, but I could see the bird when he stood upon the edge. Sitting, in a warm climate, is not particularly close work. Although the weather was cool, yet when the sun was out the sitter left her nest from six to eight minutes at a time, and as often as once in twenty minutes. Of course in rain she had not so much liberty, and on some days left only when her mate was ready to take her place, which he frequently did.
On the ninth day of my watching (I had not seen the beginning of the sitting), the 3d of May, I found work was over and the youngsters were out. There was much excitement in the cedar-tree, but in a quiet way; in fact, the birds became so silent and so wary in approaching the nest that it required the closest watching to see them go or come, and only occasionally could I detect any food in the beak. I discovered very soon that mocking-bird babies are brought up on hygienic principles, and have their meals with great regularity. For some time both parents were exceedingly busy, going and coming almost constantly; then there came a rest of a half hour or more, during which no food was brought. Each bird had its own way of coming to the tree. Madam came over the roof of the cottage where I sat, and was exposed to view for only a few feet, over which she passed so quickly and silently that I had to be constantly on the alert to see her at all. The singer had another way, and by rising behind a hickory-tree beyond the cedar managed to keep a screen of branches between him and myself nearly every foot of the way. I could see them both almost every time, but I could not always tell whether they carried food. Now the bluebird, honest soul, always stops in plain sight to rest, with his mouth full of dainties for his young brood, and a robin will stand staring at one for two minutes with three or four wriggling worms in his beak. It is quite a different affair in the mocking-bird family, as is certainly natural, after the persecution it has endured. No special fear of me was the cause,—it is a marked peculiarity of the bird; and I think, with a little study, one could learn to know exactly the moment the eggs hatch by the sudden silence and wariness of both birds. Poor little creatures! a sympathetic friend hates to add to the anxiety they suffer, and he cannot help a feeling of reproach when the brave little head of the family alights on the fence, and looks him straight in the eye, as if to demand why he is subjected to all this annoyance. I had to console myself by thinking that I was undoubtedly a providence to him; for I am certain that nothing but my watching him so conspicuously that every negro within a mile saw me, saved his family to him, so low and easy of access was the nest.
The day those nestlings were one week old they uttered their first cry. It was not at all a "peep," but a cry, continued a few seconds; at first only when food was offered to them, but as they increased in age and strength more frequently. It was much like a high-pitched "ē-ē-ē," and on the first day there was but one voice, which grew rapidly stronger as the hours went by. The next day another and a weaker cry joined the first, now grown assured and strong. But the music of the father was hushed the moment the youngsters began; from that time until they had left the nest, he sang not a note in my hearing. Perhaps he was too busy, though he never seemed to work so hard as the robin or oriole; but I think it was cautiousness, for the trouble of those parents was painful to witness. They introduced a new sound among their musical notes, a harsh squawk; neither dog nor negro could cross the yard without being saluted with it. As for me, though I was meekness itself, taking the most obscure position I could find, and remaining as absolutely motionless as possible, they eyed me with suspicion; from the first they "huffed" at me, and at this point began to squawk the moment I entered the gate. On one occasion I discovered that by changing my seat I could actually see the nest, which I much desired; so I removed while the birds were absent. Madam was the first to return, with a beakful of food; she saw me instantly, and was too much excited to dispose of her load. She came to my side of her tree, squawked loudly, flapping her wings and jerking herself about. I remained motionless and did not look at her, pretending to be absorbed in my book; but she refused to be mollified. It evidently did not please her to have me see so plainly; she desired to retain the friendly screen of leaves which had secured her a small measure of privacy. I could not blame her; I felt myself intrusive; and at last I respected her wishes and returned to my old place, when she immediately calmed down and administered the food she had held till then. Poor mother! those were trying times. Her solicitude overpowered her discretion, and her manner proclaimed to every one within hearing that the nestlings were out. Then, too, on the eighth day the little ones added their voices, and soon called loudly enough to attract the dullest of nest-robbers. I was so fearful lest that nest should be disturbed that I scarcely dared to sleep o' nights; the birds themselves were hardly more anxious than I was.
The eleventh day of the birdlings' life was exceedingly warm, without a breath of air stirring, suffocating to humanity, but preeminently inspiring to mocking-birds, and every singer within a mile of me, I am sure, was singing madly, excepting the newly made parent. Upon reaching my usual seat I knew at once, by the louder cry, that a young bird was out of the nest, and after some searching through the tree I found him,—a yellowish-drab little fellow, with very decided wing-markings, a tail perhaps an inch in length, and soft slate-colored spots, so long as almost to be streaks, on the breast. He was scrambling about the branches, always trying to get a higher place, calling and perking his insignificant tail in true mocking-bird fashion. I think the parents disapproved this early ambition, for they did not feed him for a long time, though they passed him to go to the nest. So far from being lightened, their cares were greatly increased by the precociousness of the youngster, and from this moment their trouble and worry were grievous to see. So much self-reliance has the mocking-bird, even in the nest, that he cannot be kept there until his legs are strong enough to bear his weight, or his wings ready to fly. The full-grown spirit of the race blossoms out in the young one at eleven days, and for several more he is exposed to so many dangers that I wonder there is one left in the State.
The parents, one after the other, came down on to a bush near my seat to remonstrate with me; and I must admit that so great was my sympathy, and so uncomfortable did I feel at adding in the least to their anxiety, that I should never have seen that young family fledged, only that I knew perfectly well what they did not, that I was a protection to them. I tried to reassure the mother by addressing her in her own language (as it were), and she turned quickly, looked, listened, and returned to her tree, quieted. This sound is a low whistling through the teeth, which readily soothes cage birds. It interests and calms them, though I have no notion what it means to them, for I am speaking an unknown tongue.
The baby on the tree was not quiet, climbing about the branches every moment that he was not engaged in dressing his feathers, the first and most important business of the newly emancipated nestling. After an hour or more of watching there was a sudden stir in the family, and the youngster made his appearance on the ground. He was not under the side of the tree on which he had been resting, so, although I did not see the passage, I knew he had not fallen, as he is popularly said to do, but flown as well as he was able. I started slowly down the yard to examine the little stranger, but was absolutely startled by a cry from the mother, that sounded exactly like "Go 'way!" as I have often heard a negro girl say it. Later it was very familiar, a yearning, anxious heart-aching sound to hear.
The youth was very lively, starting off at once on his travels, never for an instant doubting his own powers. I saw his first movement, which was a hop, and, what surprised and delighted me, accompanied by a peculiar lifting of the wings, of which I shall have more to say. He quickly hopped through the thin grass till he reached a fence, passed down beside it till a break in the pickets left an open place on the bottom board, sprang without hesitation upon that, and after a moment's survey of the country beyond dropped down on the farther side. Now that was a lane much frequented by negroes, and, being alarmed for his safety, I sent a boy after him, and in a moment had him in my hand. He was a beautiful little creature, having a head covered with downy dark feathers, and soft black eyes, which regarded me with interest, but not at all with fear. All this time, of course, the parents were scolding and crying, and I held him only long enough to look carefully at him, when I replaced him on the grass. Off he started at once, directly west,—like the "march of empire,"—went through the same fence again, but further down, and, as I could tell by the conduct of the parents, in a few moments was safely through a second fence into a comparatively retired old garden beyond, where I hoped he would be unmolested. Thus departed number one, with energy and curiosity, to investigate a brand-new world, fearless in his ignorance and self-confidence, although his entrance into the world had not been the triumphant fly we might look for, but an ignominious "flop," and was irresistibly and ludicrously suggestive of the manner of exit from the home nest of sundry individuals of our own race, which we consider of much greater importance.
The young traveler set out at exactly ten o'clock. As soon as he was out of sight, though not out of hearing,—for the youngster as well as the parents kept the whole world of boys and cats well informed of his whereabouts for three days,—I returned and gave my attention to number two, who was now out upon the native tree. This one was much more quiet than his predecessor. He did not cry, but occasionally uttered a mocking-bird squawk, though spending most of his time dressing his plumage, in preparation for the grand entree. At twelve o'clock he made the plunge and came to the ground in a heap. This was plainly a bird of different disposition from number one; his first journey evidently tired him. He found the world hard and disappointing, so he simply stayed where he dropped in the middle of the path, and refused to move, though I touched him as a gentle reminder of the duty he owed to his parents and his family. He sat crouched upon the gravel and looked at me with calm black eye, showing no fear and certainly no intention of moving, even indulging in a nap while I waited.
Now appeared upon the scene several persons, both white and black, each of whom wanted a young mocking-bird for a cage; but I stood over him like a god-parent and refused to let any one touch him. I began to fear that I should have him on my hands at last, for even the parents seemed to appreciate his characteristics and to know that he could not be hurried, and both were still busy following the vagaries of number one. The mother now and then returned to look after him and was greatly disturbed by his unnatural conduct—and so was I. He appeared stupid, as if he had come out too soon, and did not even know how to hop. It was twenty minutes by the watch before he moved. His mother's calls at last aroused him; he raised himself upon his shaky little legs, cried out, and started off exactly as number one had done,—westward, hopping, and lifting his wings at every step. Then I saw by the enormous amount of white on his wings that he was a singer. He went as far as the fence, and there he paused again. In vain did the mother come and scold; in vain did I try to push him along. He simply knew his own will, and meant to have it; the world might be strange, but he was not in the least interested. He rested in that spot fifteen or twenty minutes more, while I stood guard as before, and preserved him from cages of both negroes and whites. At last he did manage to squeeze through the fence, and, much relieved, I left him to the old birds, one of whom was down in the lot beyond the garden, no doubt following up his ambitious first-born.
Whoever, meanwhile, was left in the nest had a poor chance of food, and one was already crying. It was not until six o'clock that the birds seemed to remember the nestling; then it was well fed, and left again. Nothing would be easier than to follow the wandering youngsters, see how they got on and how soon they were able to fly, but this so disturbed the parents I had not the heart to do it; and besides I feared they would starve the infants, for one was never fed while I was near. Doubtless their experience of the human race forbade their confiding in the kindly intentions of any one. It was well that only two of the young appeared in one day, for keeping track of them was so serious a matter that two parents could scarcely manage it.
Number three differed from both of his elders; he was a cry-baby. He was not bright and lively like number one, and he did not squawk like number two, but he cried constantly, and at six P. M. I left him calling and crying at the top of his voice. Very early the next morning I hastened to the scene of yesterday's excitement. Number three was out on the tree. I could hear number two still crying and squawking in the garden, and from the position and labors of the male I concluded that number one was in the next lot. It was a dismal, damp morning, every grass-blade loaded with water, and a heavy fog driving in from the sea. I hoped number three would know enough to stay at home, but his fate was upon him, and no rain was ever wet enough to overcome destiny. At about eight o'clock he stretched his little wings and flew to the ground,—a very good flight for his family, nearly thirty feet, twice as far as either of his predecessors had gone; silently, too,—no fuss about it. He began at once the baby mocker's hop with lifted wings, headed for the west fence, jumped upon the lower board, squeezed through and was off down the garden before the usual crowd of spectators had collected to strive for his head. I was delighted. The parents, who were not near when he flew, came back soon and found him at once. I left him to them and returned to my place.
But silence seemed to have fallen upon the cedar, late so full of life. In vain I listened for another cry; in vain I watched for another visit from the parents. All were busy in the garden and lot, and if any baby were in that nest it must surely starve. Occasionally a bird came back, hunted a little over the old ground in the yard, perched a moment on the fence, and saluted me with a low squawk, but their interest in the place was plainly over.
After two hours I concluded the nest was empty; and a curious performance of the head of the late family convinced me it was so. He came quite near to me, perched on a bush in the yard, fixed his eyes on me, and then, with great deliberation, first huffed, then squawked, then sang a little, then flew. I do not know what the bird meant to say, but this is what it expressed to me: "You've worried us all through this trying time, but you didn't get one of our babies! Hurrah!"
In the afternoon I had the nest brought down to me. For foundation it had a mass of small twigs from six to eight inches long, crooked and forked and straight, which were so slightly held together that they could only be handled by lifting with both hands, and placing at once in a cloth, where they were carefully tied in. Within this mass of twigs was the nest proper, thick and roughly constructed, three and a half inches in inside diameter, made of string, rags, newspaper, cotton wadding, bark, Spanish moss, and feathers, lined with fine root fibre, I think. The feathers were not inside for lining, but outside on the upper edge. It was, like the foundation, so frail that, though carefully managed, it could only be kept in shape by a string around it, even after the mass of twigs had been removed. I have a last year's nest, made of exactly the same materials, but in a much more substantial manner; so perhaps the cedar-tree birds were not so skillful builders as some of their family.
The mocking-bird's movements, excepting in flight, are the perfection of grace; not even the cat-bird can rival him in airy lightness, in easy elegance of motion. In alighting on a fence, he does not merely come down upon it; his manner is fairly poetical. He flies a little too high, drops like a feather, touches the perch lightly with his feet, balances and tosses upward his tail, often quickly running over the tips of half a dozen pickets before he rests. Passing across the yard, he turns not to avoid a taller tree or shrub, nor does he go through it; he simply bounds over, almost touching it, as if for pure sport. In the matter of bounds the mocker is without a peer. The upward spring while singing is an ecstatic action that must be seen to be appreciated; he rises into the air as though too happy to remain on earth, and opening his wings, floats down, singing all the while. It is indescribable, but enchanting to see. In courtship, too, as related, he makes effective use of this exquisite movement. In simple food-hunting on the ground,—a most prosaic occupation, truly,—on approaching a hummock of grass he bounds over it instead of going around. In alighting on a tree he does not pounce upon the twig he has selected, but upon a lower one, and passes quickly up through the branches, as lithe as a serpent. So fond is he of this exercise that one which I watched amused himself half an hour at a time in a pile of brush; starting from the ground, slipping easily through up to the top, standing there a moment, then flying back and repeating the performance. Should the goal of his journey be a fence picket, he alights on the beam which supports it, and hops gracefully to the top.
Like the robin, the mocking-bird seeks his food from the earth, sometimes digging it, but oftener picking it up. His manner on the ground is much like the robin's; he lowers the head, runs a few steps rapidly, then erects himself very straight for a moment. But he adds to this familiar performance a peculiar and beautiful movement, the object of which I have been unable to discover. At the end of a run he lifts his wings, opening them wide, displaying their whole breadth, which makes him look like a gigantic butterfly, then instantly lowers his head and runs again, generally picking up something as he stops. A correspondent in South Carolina, familiar with the ways of the bird, suggests that his object is to startle the grasshoppers, or, as he expresses it, to "flush his game." I watched very closely and could not fix upon any theory more plausible, though it seemed to be weakened by the fact that the nestlings, as mentioned above, did the same thing before they thought of looking for food. The custom is not invariable; sometimes it is done, and sometimes not.
The mocking-bird cannot be said to possess a gentle disposition, especially during the time of nesting. He does not seem malicious, but rather mischievous, and his actions resemble the naughty though not wicked pranks of an active child. At that time he does, it must be admitted, lay claim to a rather large territory, considering his size, and enforces his rights with many a hot chase and noisy dispute, as remarked above. Any mocking-bird who dares to flirt a feather over the border of the ground he chooses to consider his own has to battle with him. A quarrel is a curious operation, usually a chase, and the war-cry is so peculiar and apparently so incongruous that it is fairly laughable. It is a rough breathing, like the "huff" of an angry cat, and a serious dispute between the birds reminds one of nothing but a disagreement in the feline family. If the stranger does not take the hint, and retire at the first huff, he is chased, over and under trees and through branches, so violently that leaves rustle and twigs are thrust aside, as long as the patience or wind holds out. On one occasion the defender of his homestead kept up a lively singing all through the furious flight, which lasted six or eight minutes,—a remarkable thing.
To others than his own kind the mocker seems usually indifferent, with the single exception of the crow. So long as this bird kept over the salt marsh, or flew quite high, or even held his mouth shut, he was not noticed; but let him fly low over the lawn, and above all let him "caw," and the hot-headed owner of the place was upon him. He did not seem to have any special plan of attack, like the kingbird or the oriole; his aim appeared to be merely to worry the enemy, and in this he was untiring, flying madly and without pause around a perching crow until he took flight, and then attempting to rise above him. In this he was not always successful, not being particularly expert on the wing, though I have two or three times seen the smaller bird actually rest on the back of the foe for three or four seconds at a time.
The song of the free mocking-bird! With it ringing in my ear at this moment, after having feasted upon it and gloried in it day and night for many weeks, how can I criticise it! How can I do otherwise than fall into rhapsody, as does almost every one who knows it and delights in it, as I do! It is something for which one might pine and long, as the Switzer for the Ranz-des-Vaches, and the more one hears it the more he loves it. I think there will never come a May in my life when I shall not long to fold my tent and take up my abode in the home of the mocking-bird, and yet I cannot say what many do. For variety, glibness, and execution the song is marvelous. It is a brilliant, bewildering exhibition, and one listens in a sort of ecstasy almost equal to the bird's own, for this, it seems to me, is the secret of the power of his music; he so enjoys it himself, he throws his whole soul into it, and he is so magnetic that he charms a listener into belief that nothing can be like it. His manner also lends enchantment; he is seldom still. If he begins in a cedar-tree, he soon flies to the fence, singing as he goes, thence takes his way to a roof, and so on, changing his place every few minutes, but never losing a note. His favorite perch is the top spire of a pointed tree, low cedar or young pine, where he can bound into the air as already described, spread his wings, and float down, never omitting a quaver. It seems like pure ecstasy; and however critical one may be, he cannot help feeling deep sympathy with the joyous soul that thus expresses itself. With all the wonderful power and variety, the bewitching charm, there is not the "feeling," the heavenly melody, of the wood-thrush. As an imitator, I think he is much overrated. I cannot agree with Lanier that
"Whate'er birds did or dreamed, this bird could say;"
and that the birds are jealous of his song, as Wilson says, seems absurd. On the contrary, I do not think they recognize the counterfeit. The tufted titmouse called as loudly and constantly all day as though no mocking-bird shouted his peculiar and easily imitated call from the house-top; the cardinal grosbeak sang every day in the grove, though the mocker copied him more closely than any other bird. He repeats the notes, rattles out the call, but he cannot put the cardinal's soul into them. The song of every bird seems to me the expression of himself; it is a perfect whole of its kind, given with proper inflections and pauses, and never hurried; whereas, when the mocker delivers it, it is simply one more note added to his repertory, uttered in his rapid staccato, in his loud, clear voice, interpolated between incongruous sounds, without expression, and lacking in every way the beauty and attraction of the original.
The song consists entirely of short staccato phrases, each phrase repeated several times, perhaps twice, possibly five or six times. If he has a list of twenty or thirty,—and I think he has more,—he can make almost unlimited changes and variety, and can sing for two hours or longer, holding his listener spellbound and almost without consciousness that he has repeated anything.
So winning and so lasting is the charm with which this bird enthralls his lovers that scarcely had I left his enchanted neighborhood before everything else was forgotten, and there remain of that idyllic month only beautiful pictures and delightful memories.
"O thou heavenly bird!"
A TRICKSY SPIRIT.
Bright drops of tune, from oceans infinite Of melody, sipped off the thin-edged wave And trickling down the bank, discourses brave Of serious matter that no man may guess, Good-fellow greetings, cries of light distress; All these but now within the house are heard: O Death, wast thou too deaf to hear the bird?
A TRICKSY SPIRIT.
For bird-lovers who know the mocking-bird only as a captive in our houses he has few attractions: a mere loud-voiced echo of the inharmonious sounds man gathers about his home,—car-bells, street cries, and other unpleasing noises,—and choosing for his performances the hours one wants to sleep. Unfortunate is the neighborhood in which one is kept. Such was my feeling about the bird before I knew him in freedom, where he has a song of his own. But in my search for native birds I often saw the mocker, was surprised to notice his intelligence of look and manner, and at last took one into my bird-room, resolving that the moment he began to "mock" he should be given to some one who liked having the street in his house. My bird was very obliging in the matter; six months I watched him daily, and he was kind enough not to utter a sound, except an occasional harsh "chack." Probably he had too much liberty and too many interests about him; whatever the reason, I thanked him for it, and heartily enjoyed the study of his manners.
The bird was perhaps the most intelligent one I ever watched, the cat-bird being his only rival in that regard. Fear was unknown to him, and from the moment of his arrival he was interested in everything that took place around him; looking at each bird in succession; making close study of every member of the family; noticing the sounds of the street, including the sparrow broils on the porch-roof; in fact, extremely wide-awake and observing. To the goldfinch's song he gave attention, standing motionless except for a slight nervous jerk of one wing, looking and listening as intently as though studying the notes for future use. The freedom of the birds in the room surprised him, as he showed plainly by the eager glances with which he followed every movement and marked each act. Upon joining the party of the free, he took note of pictures in a newspaper, distinguishing objects in the cut, which he tried to pick up, as a small wheel and a bar. In colors he had a choice, and his selection was red; from a vase of roses of many hues he never failed to draw out the red one to pull it to pieces on the floor.
Liberty the mocking-bird emphatically enjoyed, and at once recognized a string attached to his door as a device to deprive him of it; after vainly trying to pick it apart, he betook himself to another cage, and refused to go back to his own. In any strange cage he stood quietly while I walked up to him, and made no attempt to leave his quarters, knowing perfectly well that I did not care to shut the door upon him; but when at home I could not lift my hands, or make the slightest movement, without causing him to dart out of the cage instantly. Having contention with his room-mates about the bits of apple put out for all to enjoy, he often carried away a piece to eat at his leisure. From habit he flew first to the top of a cage, that being his favorite perching place; but he evidently appreciated that, if he dropped the morsel, he should lose it through the wires; and after looking one side and the other, plainly satisfying himself of this fact, he went to the table with it. I never before saw a bird who did not have to learn the treacherous nature of cage roofs by experience. He appeared to work things out in his mind,—to reason, in truth. One cold morning in spring, when the furnace fire was out, a large, brilliant lamp was put by his cage to take off the chill, for he felt changes keenly. He seemed to understand it at once, and though, no doubt, it was his first experience of warmth from a light, he drew as near it as possible, and remained there perfectly quiet until the sun warmed the room and it was removed. Fear, as I said, he knew not, coming freely upon the desk, or even upon my lap, after apple or bread, or anything he fancied.
It was plain to see that this bird's first week with us was one of quiet study and observation. Not a movement of bird or man escaped his notice. He wished to understand, to take measure of his neighbors, to be master of the situation. This was manifested not only by his thoughtful manner and his wise and knowing looks, but by his subsequent conduct. During this period, also, he submitted to impositions from all the birds, even the smallest, without resentment. The wood-thrush easily drove him away from the apple; the little goldfinch chased him from his perch. He appeared to be meekness itself; but he was biding his time, he was making up his mind.
The first time the mocking-bird's door was opened he was not in the least surprised; no doubt, seeing others at liberty, he had expected it. At any rate, whatever his emotions, he instantly ran out on the perch placed in his doorway and surveyed his new world from this position. He was in no panic, not even in haste. When fully ready, he began his tour of inspection. First, to see if he really could reach the trees without, through those large, clear openings, he tried the windows, each of the three, but gently, not bouncing against them so violently as to fall to the floor, as more impetuous or less intelligent birds invariably do. Having proved each to be impassable, he was satisfied, and never tried again. Next, the ceiling interested him, and he flew all around the room, touching it gently everywhere, to assure himself of its nature. Convinced thus in a short time that his bounds were only widened, not removed, he went on to investigate closely what he had looked at from a distance; every bird-cage, inside as well as outside, if the owner happened to be away, every piece of furniture, pictures, books, and the pin-cushion,—where he was detained some time trying to carry off the large black heads of shawl-pins. The looking-glass absorbed him most completely on the first day; he flew against it, he hovered before it, slowly passing from bottom to top, alighted on top and looked over behind. I think he never solved that mystery to his own satisfaction, as he did that of the window-glass, which must have been quite as inexplicable, and it was never without a certain charm for him. He had no trouble in finding his way home: standing on a cage next to his, he saw his own door-perch, recognized it instantly (though he had been upon it only once), and, being hungry, dropped to it and ran into the cage.
The new-comer soon made thorough acquaintance with all his surroundings, and had leisure to turn his attention to a little matter yet unsettled; namely, his position in the small colony about him. The first few days, as already noted, he submitted to impositions; allowed himself to be driven away from the slices of apple on the matting, and turned from the bathing-dish on the floor. This was, however, the calm before the storm; though after all that is hardly a correct comparison, since there was never the least "storm" about his manner; he was composure itself. Having calmly and patiently considered the state of affairs, he suddenly asserted himself and took the position he felt was his right,—at the head. It soon became evident that he was prepared to defend the situation by force of arms. He conducted his conquests systematically, and subdued one after the other, beginning with the least.