By Olive Thorne Miller.
BIRD-WAYS. 16mo, $1.25.
IN NESTING TIME. 16mo, $1.25.
LITTLE BROTHERS OF THE AIR. $1.25.
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & CO. BOSTON AND NEW YORK.
LITTLE BROTHERS OF THE AIR
OLIVE THORNE MILLER
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY The Riverside Press, Cambridge 1893
Copyright, 1892, BY H.M. MILLER.
All rights reserved.
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U.S.A. Electrotyped and Printed by H.O. Houghton & Company.
Some of the chapters of this little book were written in 1888, on the shore of the Great South Bay, Long Island; others in the northern part of New York State, known to its residents as the "Black River Country," a year or two later. Part of them have been published in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Bazaar, The Independent and other papers.
The nomenclature in the Table of Contents is that adopted by the American Ornithological Society.
OLIVE THORNE MILLER.
ON THE GREAT SOUTH BAY.
I. THE KINGBIRD'S NEST 1
Kingbird. Tyrannus tyrannus.
II. A CHRONICLE OF THREE LITTLE KINGS 19
Kingbird. Tyrannus tyrannus.
III. THE BABES IN THE WOOD 34
Flicker. Colaptes auratus.
IV. HOME LIFE OF THE REDSTART 48
American Redstart. Setophaga ruticilla.
V. WHEN NESTING IS OVER 61
Thrasher. Harporhynchus rufus.
White-bellied Swallow. Tachycineta bicolor.
Wood Pewee. Contopus virens.
Bluebird. Sialia sialis.
VI. IN SEARCH OF THE BLUEJAY 76
Bluejay. Cyanocitta cristata.
VII. IN THE WOOD LOT 83
Bluejay. Cyanocitta cristata.
VIII. THE BLUEJAY BABY 89
Bluejay. Cyanocitta cristata.
IN THE BLACK RIVER COUNTRY.
IX. THAT WITCHING SONG 99
Wilson's Thrush. Turdus fuscescens.
X. THE VEERY MOTHER 107
Wilson's Thrush. Turdus fuscescens.
XI. THE TAWNY THRUSH'S BROOD 114
Wilson's Thrush. Turdus fuscescens.
XII. A MEADOW NEST 123
Wilson's Thrush. Turdus fuscescens.
XIII. A JUNE ROUND OF CALLS 130
Wood Pewee. Contopus virens.
Junco. Junco hyemalis.
Flicker. Colaptes auratus.
Redstart. Setophaga ruticilla.
Sapsucker. Sphyrapicus varius.
XIV. A BOBOLINK RHAPSODY 138
Bobolink. Dolichonyx oryzivorus.
XV. THE BOBOLINK'S NEST 146
Bobolink. Dolichonyx oryzivorus.
XVI. THE TANAGER'S NEST 155
Scarlet Tanager. Piranga erythromelas.
XVII. THE WILES OF A WARBLER 163
Black-throated Blue. Dendroica coerulescens.
XVIII. A RAINY-DAY TRAMP 173
Oven-bird. Seiurus aurocapillus.
XIX. THE VAGARIES OF A WARBLER 180
Redstart. Setophaga ruticilla.
Chestnut-sided W. Dendroica pensylvanica.
XX. A CLEVER CUCKOO 190
Black-billed C. Coccyzus erythrophthalmus.
XXI. TWO LITTLE DRUMMERS 201
Sapsucker. Sphyrapicus varius.
Red-headed Woodpecker. Melanerpes erythrocephalus.
XXII. FROM MY WINDOW 221
Phoebe. Sayornis phoebe.
Robin. Merula migratoria.
Great-crested Fly-catcher. Myiarchus crinitus.
Purple Grackle. Quiscalus quiscula.
Downy Woodpecker. Dryobates pubescens.
Chestnut-sided Warbler. Dendroica pensylvanica.
Kingbird. Tyrannus tyrannus.
XXIII. THE COMICAL CROW BABY 236
Common Crow. Corvus americanus.
XXIV. A MIDSUMMER WOOING 244
American Goldfinch. Spinus tristis.
XXV. A PLUM-TREE ROMANCE 252
American Goldfinch. Spinus tristis.
XXVI. SOLITARY THE THRUSH 259
Hermit Thrush. Turdus aonalaschkoe pallasii.
ON THE GREAT SOUTH BAY.
Precious qualities of silence haunt Round these vast margins ministrant.
'T is here, 't is here, thou canst unhand thy heart And breathe it free, and breathe it free By rangy marsh, in lone sea-liberty.
LITTLE BROTHERS OF THE AIR.
THE KINGBIRD'S NEST.
To study a nest is to make an acquaintance. However familiar the bird, unless the student has watched its ways during the only domestic period of its life,—nesting time,—he has still something to learn. In fact, he has almost everything to learn, for into those few weeks is crowded a whole lifetime of emotions and experiences which fully bring out the individuality of the bird. Family life is a test of character, no less in the nest than in the house. Moreover, to a devotee of the science that some one has aptly called Ornithography, nothing is so attractive. What hopes it holds out! Who can guess what mysteries shall be disclosed, what interesting episodes of life shall be seen about that charmed spot?
To find a newly built nest is the first June work of the bird-student, and this year on the Great South Bay a particularly inviting one presented itself, on the top branch of a tall oak-tree near my "inn of rest." It was in plain sight from the veranda. The builder evidently cared nothing for concealment, and relied, with reason, upon its inaccessible position for safety. To be sure, as days went by and oak leaves grew, a fair screen for the little dwelling was not lacking; but summer breezes were kind, and often blew them aside, and, better still, from other points of view the nest was never hidden.
To whom, then, did the nest belong? I hoped to the kingbird, who at that moment sat demurely upon the picket fence below, apparently interested only in passing insects; and while I looked the question was answered by Madame Tyrannis herself, who came with the confidence of ownership, carrying a beakful of building material, and arranging it with great pains inside the structure. This was satisfactory, for I did not know the kingbird in domestic life.
For several days it seemed uncertain whether the kingbirds would ever really occupy the nest, so spasmodic was the work upon it. Now one of the pair came with a bit of something, placed it, tried its effect this way and that, and then disappeared; while for hours every day both might be seen about the place, hunting insects and taking their ease on the fence as if no thought of nesting ever stirred their wise little heads. The last addition to the domicile was curious: a soft white feather from the poultry yard, which was fastened up on the edge, and stood there floating in the breeze; a white banner of peace flung out to the world from her castle walls.
Peace from a kingbird? Direful tales are told of this bird: "he is pugnacious," says one writer; "he fights everybody," adds another; "he is a coward," remarks a third. Science has dubbed him tyrant (Tyrannis), and his character is supposed to be settled. But may there not be two sides to the story? We shall see. One kingbird, at least, shall be studied sympathetically; we shall try to enter his life, to judge him fairly, and shall above all
"bring not The fancies found in books, Leave author's eyes, and fetch our own."
Nearly two months that small dwelling on the oak was watched, day after day, early and late, in storm and in sunshine; now I know at least one family of kingbirds, and what I know I shall honestly tell, "nothing extenuating."
The house was built, the season was passing, yet housekeeping did not begin. The birds, indeed, appeared to have abandoned the tree, and days went by in which I could not see that either visited it. But the nest was not deserted, for all that; the curiosity and impertinence of the neighbors were simply amazing. (Perhaps the kingbird has some reason to be pugnacious!) No sooner was that tenement finished than, as promptly as if they had received cards to a house-warming, visitors began to come. First to show himself was an orchard oriole, who was in the habit of passing over the yard every day and stopping an hour or more in the neighborhood, while he scrambled over the trees, varying his lunches with a rich and graceful song. Arrived this morning in the kingbird tree, he began his usual hunt over the top branch, when suddenly his eye fell upon the kingbird cradle. He paused, cast a wary glance about, then dropped to a lower perch, his singing ended, his manner guilty. Nearer and nearer he drew, looking cautiously about and moving in perfect silence. Still the owner did not come, and at last the stranger stood upon the edge. What joy! He looked that mansion over from foundation to banner fluttering in the wind; he examined closely its construction; with head turned over one side, he criticised its general effect, and apparently did not think much of it; he gratified to the full his curiosity, and after about one minute's study flew to the next tree, and resumed his singing.
The next arrival was a pewee, whose own nest was nearly built, in a wild-cherry tree not far off. The fence under the oak was his usual perch, and it was plain that he made his first call with "malice aforethought;" for, disdaining the smallest pretense of interest in it, he flew directly to the nest, hovered beneath it, and pulled out some part of the building material that pleased his fancy,—nothing less than pure thievery.
Among the occasional visitors to the yard were two American goldfinches, or thistle-birds, in bright yellow and black plumage, both males. They also went to the new homestead in the oak, inspected it, chatted over it in their sweet tones, and then passed on. It began to look as though the nest were in the market for any one to choose, and the string of company was not yet ended.
Soon after the goldfinches had passed by, there alighted a gay Baltimore oriole, who, not content with looking at the new castle in the air, must needs try it. He actually stepped into the nest and settled down as if sitting. Who knows but he was experimenting to see if this simple, wide-open cradle wouldn't do as well for oriole babies as for kingbirds? Certainly it was a curious performance. It made an impression on him too, for the next day he came again; and this time he picked at it, and seemed to be changing its interior arrangement, but he carried nothing away when he flew. Even after sitting began, this oriole paid two more visits to the nest which so interested him. On the first occasion, the owner was at home, and gave him instant notice that the place was no longer on view. He retired, but, being no coward, and not choosing to submit to dictation, he came again. This time, a fly-up together, a clinch in the air, with loud and offensive remarks, cured him of further desire to call.
More persistent than any yet mentioned was a robin. Heretofore, strange to say, the guests had all been males, but this caller was the mother of a young brood in the next yard. She came in her usual way, alighted on a low branch, ran out upon it, hopped to the next higher, and so proceeded till she reached the nest. The kingbird happened to be near it himself, and drove her away in an indifferent manner, as if this interloper were of small account. The robin went, of course, but returned, and, perching close to the object of interest, leaned over and looked at it as long as she chose, while the owner stood calmly by on a twig and did not interfere. I know he was not afraid of the robin, as later events proved; and it really looked as if the pair deliberately delayed sitting to give the neighborhood a chance to satisfy its curiosity; as if they thus proclaimed to whom it might concern that there was to be a kingbird household, that they might view it at their leisure before it was occupied, but after that no guests were desired. Whatever the cause, the fact is, that once completed, the nest was almost entirely abandoned by the builders for several days, during which this neighborhood inspection went on. They even deserted their usual hunting-ground, and might generally be seen at the back of the house, awaiting their prey in the most unconcerned manner.
However, time was passing, and one day Madame Tyrannis herself began to call, but fitfully. Sometimes she stayed about the nest one minute, sometimes five minutes, but was restless; picking at the walls, twitching the leaves that hung too near, rearranging the lining, trying it this way and that, as if to see how it fitted her figure, and how she should like it when she was settled. First she tried sitting with face looking toward the bay; then she jerked herself around, without rising, and looked awhile toward the house. She had as much trouble to get matters adjusted to her mind as if she had a houseful of furniture to place, with carpets to lay, curtains to hang, and the thousand and one "things" with which we bigger housekeepers cumber ourselves and make life a burden. This spasmodic visitation went on for days, and finally it was plain that sitting had begun. Still the birds of the vicinity were interested callers, and I began to think that one kingbird would not even protect his nest, far less justify his reputation by tyrannizing over the feathered world. But when his mate had seriously established herself, it was time for the head of the household to assume her defense, and he did.
As usual, the kingbird united the characters of brave defender and tender lover. To his spouse his manners were charming. When he came to relieve her of her care, to give her exercise or a chance for luncheon, he greeted her with a few low notes, and alighted on a small leafless twig that curved up about a foot above the nest, and made a perfect watch-tower. She slipped off her seat and disappeared for about six minutes. During her absence he stayed at his post, sometimes changing his perch to one or other of half a dozen leafless branchlets in that part of the tree, and there sitting, silent and watchful, ready to interview any stranger who appeared. Upon her return he again saluted her with a few words, adding to them a lifting of wings and spreading of his beautiful tail that most comically suggested the bowing and hat-lifting of bigger gentlemen. In all their life together, even when the demands of three infants kept them busy from morning till night, he never forgot this little civility to his helpmate. If she alighted beside him on the fence, he rose a few inches above his perch, and flew around in a small circle while greeting her; and sometimes, on her return to the nest, he described a larger circle, talking (as I must call it) all the time. Occasionally, when she approached, he flew out to meet and come back with her, as if to escort her. Could this bird, to his mate so thoughtful and polite, be to the rest of the world the bully he is pictured? Did he, who for ten months of the year shows less curiosity about others, and attends more perfectly to his own business than any bird I have noticed, suddenly, at this crisis in his life, become aggressive, and during these two months of love and paternity and hard work, make war upon a peaceful neighborhood?
I watched closely. There was not an hour of the day, often from four A.M. to eight P.M., that I had not the kingbird and his nest directly in sight, and hardly a movement of his life escaped me. There he stood, on the fence under his tree, on a dead bush at the edge of the bay, or on the lowest limb of a small pear-tree in the yard. Sometimes he dashed into the air for his prey; sometimes he dropped to the ground to secure it; but oftenest, especially when baby throats grew clamorous, he hovered over the rank grass on the low land of the shore, wings beating, tail wide spread, diving now and then for an instant to snatch a morsel; and every thirty minutes, as punctually as if he carried a watch in his trim white vest, he took a direct line for the home where his mate sat waiting.
A few days after the little dame took possession of the nest, the kingbird had succeeded, without much trouble, in making most of his fellow-creatures understand that he laid claim to the upper branches of the oak, and was prepared to defend them against all comers, and they simply gave the tree a wide berth in passing.
Apparently deceived by his former indifference, however, the robin above mentioned presumed to call somewhat later. This time she was received in a manner that plainly showed she was no longer welcome. She retired, but she expressed her mind freely for some time, sitting on the fence below. With true robin persistence she did not give it up, and she selected for her next call the dusk of evening, just before going to bed.
This time both kingbirds flung themselves after her, and she left, "laughing" as she went. The kingbirds did not follow beyond their own borders, and the robin soon returned to the nearest tree, where she kept up the taunting "he! he! he!" a long time, seemingly with deliberate intention to insult or enrage her pursuers, but without success; for unless she came to their tree, the kingbirds paid her not the slightest attention.
The last time the robin tried to be on friendly terms with her neighbor, I noticed her standing near him on the picket fence under his tree. There were not more than three pickets between them, and she was expostulating earnestly, with flirting tail and jerking wings, and with loud "tut! tut's," and "he! he's!" she managed to be very eloquent. Had he driven her from his nest? and was she complaining? I could only guess. The kingbird did not reply to her, but when she flew he followed, and she did not cease telling him what she thought of him as she flew, till out of sight.
Strangest of all was the fact that, during the whole of this scene, her mate stood on the fence within a dozen feet, and looked on! Did he think her capable of managing her own affairs? Did he prefer to be on good terms with his peppery neighbor? or was it because with her it would be a war of words, while if he entered the arena it must be a fight? as we sometimes see, when a man goes home fighting drunk, every man of the neighborhood keeps out of sight, while all the women go out and help his wife to get him home. The most troublesome meddler was, as might be expected, an English sparrow. From the time when the first stick was laid till the babies were grown and had left the tree, that bird never ceased to intrude and annoy. He visited the nest when empty; he managed to have frequent peeps at the young; and notwithstanding he was driven off every time, he still hung around, with prying ways so exasperating that he well deserved a thrashing, and I wonder he did not get it. He was driven away repeatedly, and he was "picked off" from below, and pounced upon from above, but he never failed to return.
Another visitor of whom the kingbird seemed suspicious was a purple crow blackbird, who every day passed over. This bird and the common crow were the only ones he drove away without waiting for them to alight; and if half that is told of them be true, he had reason to do so.
With none of these intruders had the kingbird any quarrel when away from his nest. The blackbird, to whom he showed the most violence, hunted peacefully beside him on the grass all day; the robin alighted near him on the fence, as usual; the orioles scrambled over the neighboring trees, singing, and eating, as was their custom; even the English sparrow carried on his vulgar squabbles on his own branch of the oak all day; but to none of them did the kingbird pay the slightest attention. He simply and solely defended his own household.
In the beginning the little dame took sitting very easy, fidgeting about in the nest, standing up to dress her feathers, stretching her neck to see what went on in the yard below, and stepping out upon a neighboring twig to rest herself. After a few days she settled more seriously to work, and became very quiet and patient. Her mate never brought food to her, nor did he once take her place in the nest; not even during a furious northeast gale that turned June into November, and lasted thirty-six hours, most of the time with heavy rain, when the top branch bent and tossed, and threatened every moment a catastrophe. In the house, fires were built and books and work brought out; but the bird-student, wrapped in heavy shawls, kept close watch from an open window, and noted well the bad-weather manners of Tyrannis. Madame sat very close, head to the northeast, and tail, narrowed to the width of one feather, pressed against a twig that grew up behind the nest. All through the storm, I think the head of the family remained in a sheltered part of the tree, but he did not come to the usual twigs which were so exposed. I know he was near, for I heard him, and occasionally saw him standing with body horizontal instead of upright, as usual, the better to maintain his position against the wind. At about the ordinary intervals the sitter left her nest, without so much as a leaf to cover it, and was absent perhaps half as long as common, but not once did her mate assume her post.
How were this pair distinguished from each other, since there is no difference in their dress? First, by a fortunate peculiarity of marking; the male had one short tail feather, that, when he was resting, showed its white tip above the others, and made a perfectly distinct and (with a glass) plainly visible mark. Later, when I had become familiar with the very different manners of the pair, I did not need this mark to distinguish the male, though it remained en evidence all through the two months I had them under observation.
During the period of sitting, life went on with great regularity. The protector of the nest perched every night in a poplar-tree across the yard, and promptly at half past four o'clock every morning began his matins. Surprised and interested by an unfamiliar song, I rose one day at that unnatural hour to trace it home. It was in that enchanting time when men are still asleep in their nests, and even "My Lord Sun" has not arisen from his; when the air is sweet and fresh, and as free from the dust of man's coming and going as if his tumults did not exist. It was so still that the flit of a wing was almost startling. The water lapped softly against the shore; but who can
"Write in a hook the morning's prime, Or match with words that tender sky"?
The song that had called me up was a sweet though simple strain, and it was repeated every morning while his mate was separated from him by her nest duties. I can find no mention of it in books, but I had many opportunities to study it, and thus it was. It began with a low kingbird "Kr-r-r" (or rolling sound impossible to express by letters), without which I should not have identified it at first, and it ended with a very sweet call of two notes, five tones apart, the lower first, after a manner suggestive of the phoebe—something like this: "Kr-r-r-r-r-ree-be! Kr-r-r-r-r-ree-be!" In the outset, and I think I heard the very first attempt, it resembled the initial efforts of cage-birds, when spring tunes their throats. The notes seemed hard to get out; they were weak, uncertain, fluttering, as if the singer were practicing something quite new. But as the days went by they grew strong and assured, and at last were a joyous and loud morning greeting. I don't know why I should be so surprised to hear a kingbird sing; for I believe that one of the things we shall discover, when we begin to study birds alive instead of dead, is that every one has a song, at least in spring, when, in the words of an enthusiastic bird-lover, "the smallest become poets, often sublime songsters." I have already heard several sing that are set down as lacking in that mode of expression.
To return to my kingbird, struggling with his early song. After practicing perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes, he left his perch, flew across the yard, and circled around the top bough, with his usual good-morning to his partner, who at once slipped off and went for her breakfast, while he stayed to watch the nest.
This magic dawn could not last. It grew lighter; the sun was bestirring himself. I heard oars on the bay; and now that the sounds of men began, the robin mounted the fence and sang his waking song. The rogue!—he had been "laughing" and shouting for an hour. "Awake! awake!" he seemed to say; and on our dreamy beds we hear him, and think it the first sound of the new day. Then, too, came the jubilee of the English sparrow, welcoming the appearance of mankind, whose waste and improvidence supply so easily his larder. Why should he spend his time hunting insects? The kitchen will open, the dining-room follows, and crumbs are sure to result. He will wait, and meanwhile do his best to waken his purveyor.
I found this to be the almost invariable programme of kingbird life at this period: after matins, the singer flew to the nest tree, and his spouse went to her breakfast; in a few seconds he dropped to the edge of the nest, looked long and earnestly at the contents, then flew to one of his usual perching-places near by, and remained in silence till he saw the little mother coming. During the day he relieved her at the intervals mentioned, and at night, when she had settled to rest, he stayed at his post on the fence till almost too dark to be seen, and then took his way, with a good-night greeting, to his sleeping-place on the poplar.
Thus matters went through June till the 29th, when, at about four o'clock in the afternoon, there was an unusual stir about the kingbird castle. I saw that something had happened, and this must open a new chapter. But before beginning the chronicle of the kingbird babies, I should like to give my testimony about one member of the family. As a courteous and tender spouse, as a devoted father and a brave defender of his household, I know no one who outranks him. In attending to his own business and never meddling with others, he is unexcelled. In regard to his fighting, he has driven many away from his tree, as do all birds, but he never sought a quarrel; and the only cases of anything like a personal encounter were with the two birds who insisted on annoying him. He is chivalrous to young birds not his own, as will appear in the story of his family. He is, indeed, usually silent, perhaps even solemn, but he may well be so; he has an important duty to perform in the world, and one that should bring him thanks and protection instead of scorn and a bad name. It is to reduce the number of man's worst enemies, the vast army of insects. What we owe to the fly-catchers, indeed, we can never guess, although, if we go on destroying them, we may have our eyes opened most thoroughly. Even if the most serious charge against the kingbird is true, that he eats bees, it were better that every bee on the face of the earth should perish than that his efficient work among other insects should be stopped.
A CHRONICLE OF THREE LITTLE KINGS.
"Riot of roses and babel of birds, All the world in a whirl of delight,"
when the three baby kingbirds opened their eyes to the June sunlight. Three weeks I had watched, if I had not assisted at, the rocking of their cradle, followed day by day the patient brooding, and carefully noted the manners and customs of the owners thereof. At last my long vigil was rewarded. It was near the end of a lovely June day, when June days were nearly over, that there appeared a gentle excitement in the kingbird family. The faithful sitter arose, with a peculiar cry that brought her mate at once to her side, and both looked eagerly together into the nest that held their hopes. Once or twice the little dame leaned over and made some arrangements within, and then suddenly she slipped back into her place, and her spouse flew away. But something had happened, it was plain to see; for from that moment she did not sit so closely, her mate showed unusual interest in the nest, and both of them often stood upon the edge at the same time. That day was doubtless the birthday of the first little king.
To be sure, the careful mother still sat on the nest part of every day, but that she continued to do, with ever-lengthening intervals, till every infant had grown up and left the homestead forever.
All through the sitting the work of the head of the family had been confined to encouraging his partner with an early morning song and his cheerful presence during the day, and to guarding the nest while she sought her food; but now that her most fatiguing labor was over, his began. At first he took entire charge of the provision supply, while she kept her nurslings warm and quiet, which every mother, little or big, knows is of great importance. When the young father arrived with food, which he did frequently, his spouse stepped to the nearest twig and looked on with interest, while he leaned over and filled one little mouth, or at any rate administered one significant poke which must be thus interpreted. He did not stay long; indeed, he had not time, for this way of supplying the needs of a family is slow business; and although there were but three mouths to fill, three excursions and three hunts were required to fill them. In the early morning he seemed to have more leisure; at that time, the happy young couple stood one each side of the nest, and the silent listener would hear the gentle murmurs of what Victor Hugo calls "the airy dialogues of the nest." Ah, that our dull ears could understand!
For some days the homestead was never left alone, and the summer breezes
"Softly rocked the babies three, Nestled under the mother's wing,"
almost as closely as before they came out of the egg. But much of the time she sat on the edge, while her partner came and went, always lingering a moment to look in. It was pretty to see him making up his mind where to put the morsel, so small that it did not show in the beak. He turned his head one side and then the other, considered, decided, and at last thrust it in the selected mouth.
The resting-time of the newly made matron was short; for when those youngsters were four days old—so fast do birdlings grow—the labor of both parents was required to keep them fed. Every ten minutes of the day one of the pair came to the nest: the father invariably alighted, deliberated, fed, and then flew; while the mother administered her mouthful, and then either slipped into the nest, covering her bantlings completely, or rested upon the edge for several minutes. There was always a marked difference in the conduct of the pair.
Six days the kingbird babies were unseen from below; but on the seventh day of their life two downy gray caps were lifted above the edge of the dwelling, accompanied by two small yellow beaks, half open for what goods the gods might provide. After that event, whenever the tender mother sat on her nest, two—and later three—little heads showed plainly against her satiny white breast, as if they were resting there, making a lovely picture of motherhood.
Not for many days lasted the open-mouth baby stage in these rapidly developing youngsters. Very soon they were pert and wide awake, looking upon the green world about them with calm eyes, and opening mouths only when food was to be expected. Mouthfuls, too, were no longer of the minute order; they were large enough for the parents themselves, and of course plain to be seen. Sometimes, indeed, as in the case of a big dragon-fly, the father was obliged to hold on, while the young hopeful pulled off piece after piece, until it was small enough for him to manage; occasionally, too, when the morsel was particularly hard, the little king passed it back to the giver, who stood waiting, and received it again when it had been apparently crushed or otherwise prepared, so that he could swallow it.
Midsummer was at hand. The voices of young birds were heard on every side. The young thrasher and the robin chirped in the grove; sweet bluebird and pewee baby cries came from the shrubbery; the golden-wing leaned far out of his oaken walls, and called from morning to night. Hard-working parents rushed hither and thither, snatching, digging, or dragging their prey from every imaginable hiding-place. It was woful times in the insect world, so many new hungry mouths to be filled. All this life seemed to stir the young kings: they grew restless; they were late. Their three little heads, growing darker every day, bobbed this way and that; they changed places in the nest; they thrust out small wings; above all and through all, they violently preened themselves. In fact, this elaborate dressing of feathers was their constant business for so long a time that I thought it no wonder the grown-up kingbird pays little attention to his dress; he does enough pluming in the nursery to last a lifetime.
On the twelfth day of their life, the young birds added their voices to the grand world-chorus in a faint, low "che-up," delivered with a kingbird accent; then, also, they began to sit up calmly, and look over the edge of the nest at what went on below, quite in the manner of their fathers. Two days later, the first little king mounted the walls of his castle, fluttered his wings, and apparently meditated the grand plunge into the world outside of home. So absorbed was he in his new emotions that he did not see the arrival of something to eat, and put in a claim for his share, as usual. I thought he was about to bid farewell to his birthplace. But I did not know him. Not till the youngest of the family was ready to go did he step out of the nest,—the three were inseparable. While I waited, expecting every moment to see him fly, there was a sudden change in the air, and very shortly a furious storm of wind and rain broke over us. Instantly every young bird subsided into the nest, out of sight; and in a few minutes their mother came, and gave them the protection of her presence.
Several days were spent by the oak-tree household in shaking out the wings, taking observations of the world, dressing the feathers, and partaking of luncheon every few minutes. Such a nestful of restlessness I never saw; the constant wonder was that they managed not to fall out. Often the three sat up side by side on the edge, white breasts shining in the sun, and heads turning every way with evident interest. The dress was now almost exactly like the parents'. No speckled bib, like the bluebird or robin infant's, defaces the snowy breast; no ugly gray coat, like the redwing baby's, obscures the beauty of the little kingbird's attire. He enters society in full dress.
But each day, now, the trio grew in size, in repose of manner, and in strength of voice; and before long they sat up hours at a time, patient, silent, and ludicrously resembling the
"Three wise men of Gotham Who went to sea in a bowl."
In spite of their grown-up looks and manners, they did not lose their appetite; and from breakfast, at the unnatural hour of half past four in the morning, till a late supper, when so dark that I could see only the movement of feeding like a silhouette against the white clouds, all through the day, food came to the nest every two minutes or less. Think of the work of those two birds! Every mouthful brought during those fifteen and a half hours required a separate hunt. They usually flew out to a strip of low land, where the grass was thick and high. Over this they hovered with beautiful motion, and occasionally dropped an instant into the grass. The capture made, they started at once for the nest, resting scarcely a moment. There were thus between three and four hundred trips a day, and of course that number of insects were destroyed. Even after the salt bath, which one bird took always about eleven in the morning, and the other about four in the afternoon, they did not stop to dry their plumage; but simply passed the wing feathers through the beak, paying no attention to the breast feathers, which often hung in locks, showing the dark part next the body, and so disguising the birds that I scarcely knew them when they came to the nest.
The bath was interesting. The river, so called, was in fact an arm of the Great South Bay, and of course salt. To get a bath, the bird flew directly into the water, as if after a fish; then came to the fence to shake himself. Sometimes the dip was repeated once or twice, but more often bathing ended with a single plunge.
Two weeks had passed over their heads, and the three little kings had for several days dallied with temptation on the brink before one set foot outside the nest. Even then, on the fifteenth day, he merely reached the door-step, as it were, the branch on which it rested. However, that was a great advance. He shook himself thoroughly, as if glad to have room to do so. This venturesome infant hopped about four inches from the walls of the cottage, looked upon the universe from that remote point, then hurried back to his brothers, evidently frightened at his own boldness.
On the day of this first adventure began a mysterious performance, the meaning of which I did not understand till later, when it became very familiar. It opened with a peculiar call, and its object was to rouse the young to follow. So remarkable was the effect upon them that I have no doubt a mob of kingbirds could be brought together by its means. It began, as I said, with a call, a low, prolonged cry, sounding, as nearly as letters can express it, like "Kr-r-r-r! Kr-r-r-r!" At the same moment, both parents flew in circles around the tree, a little above the nest, now and then almost touching it, and all the time uttering the strange cry. At the first sound, the three young kings mounted the edge, wildly excited, dressing their plumage in the most frantic manner, as if their lives depended on being off in an instant. It lasted but a few moments: the parents flew away; the youngsters calmed down.
In a short time all the nestlings were accustomed to going out upon the branch, where they clustered together in a little row, and called and plumed alternately; but one after another slipped back into the dear old home, which they apparently found it very hard to leave. Often, upon coming out of the house, after the imperative demands of luncheon or dinner had dragged me for a time away from my absorbing study, not a kingbird, old or young, could be seen. The oak was deserted, the nest perfectly silent.
"They have flown!" I thought.
But no: in a few minutes small heads began show above the battlements; and in ten seconds after the three little kings were all in sight, chirping and arranging their dress with fresh vigor, after their nap.
Not one of the young family tried his wings till he was seventeen days old. The first one flew perhaps fifteen feet, to another branch of the native tree, caught at a cluster of leaves, held on a few seconds, then scrambled to a twig and stood up. The first flight accomplished! After resting some minutes, he flew back home, alighting more easily this time, and no doubt considered himself a hero. Whatever his feelings, it was evident that he could fly, and he was so pleased with his success that he tried it again and again, always keeping within ten or fifteen feet of home. Soon his nest-fellows began to follow his example; and then it was interesting to see them, now scattered about the broad old tree, and then, in a little time, all back in the nest, as if they had never left it. After each excursion came a long rest, and every time they went out they flew with more freedom. Never were young birds so loath to leave the nursery, and never were little folk so clannish. It looked as if they had resolved to make that homestead on the top branch their headquarters for life, and, above all, never to separate. That night, however, came the first break, and they slept in a droll little row, so close that they looked as if welded into one, and about six feet from home. For some time after they had settled themselves the mother sat by them, as if she intended to stay; but when it had grown quite dark, her mate sailed out over the tree calling; and she,—well, the babies were grown up enough to be out in the world,—she went with her spouse to the poplar-tree.
Progress was somewhat more rapid after this experience, and in a day or two the little kings were flying freely, by short flights, all about the grove, which came quite up to the fence. Now I saw the working of the strange migrating call above mentioned. Whenever the old birds began the cries and the circling flight, the young were thrown into a fever of excitement. One after another flew out, calling and moving in circles as long as he could keep it up. For five minutes the air was full of kingbird cries, both old and young, and then fell a sudden silence. Each young bird dropped to a perch, and the elders betook themselves to their hunting-ground as calmly as if they had not been stirring up a rout in the family. Usually, at the end of the affair, the youngsters found themselves widely apart; for they had not yet learned to fly together, and to be apart was, above all things, repugnant to the three. They began calling; and the sound was potent to reunite them. From this side and that, by easy stages, came a little kingbird, each flight bringing them nearer each other; and before two minutes had passed they were nestled side by side, as close as ever. There they sat an hour or two and uttered their cries, and there they were hunted up and fed by the parents. There, I almost believe, they would have stayed till doomsday, but for the periodical stirring up by the mysterious call. No matter how far they wandered,—and each day it was farther and farther,—seven o'clock always found them moving; and all three came back to the native tree for the night, though never to the nest again.
No characteristic of the young kingbirds was more winning than their confiding and unsuspicious reception of strangers, for so soon as they began to frequent other trees than the one the paternal vigilance had made comparatively sacred to them, they were the subjects of attention. The English sparrow was first, as usual, to inquire into their right to be out of their own tree. He came near them, alighted, and began to hop still closer. Not in the least startled by his threatening manner, the nearest youngster looked at him, and began to flutter his wings, to call, and to move toward him, as if expecting to be fed. This was too much even for a sparrow; he departed.
Another curious visitor was a red-eyed vireo, who, being received in the same innocent and childlike way, also took his leave. But this bird appeared to feel insulted, and in a few minutes stole back, and took revenge in a most peculiar way; he hovered under the twig on which the three were sitting, their dumpy tails hanging down in a row, and actually twitched the feathers of those tails! Even that did not frighten the little ones; they leaned far over and stared at their assailant, but nothing more. I looked carefully to see if the vireo had a nest on that tree, so strange a thing it seemed for a bird to do. The tree was quite tall, with few branches, an oak grown in a close grove, and I am sure there was no vireo nest on it; so that it was an absolutely gratuitous insult.
In addition to supplying the constantly growing appetites of the family, the male kingbird did not forget to keep a sharp lookout for intruders; for, until the youngsters could take care of themselves, he was bound to protect them. One day a young robin alighted nearer to the little group than he considered altogether proper, and he started, full tilt, toward him. As he drew near, the alarmed robin uttered his baby cry, when instantly the kingbird wheeled and left; nor did he notice the stranger again, although he stayed there a long time. But when an old robin came to attend to his wants, that was a different matter; the kingbird went at once for the grown-up bird, thus proving that he spared the first one because of his babyhood.
It was not till they were three weeks old that the little kings began to fly any lower than about the level of their nest. Then one came to the fence, and the others to the top of a grape-trellis. I hoped to see some indication of looking for food, and I did; but it was all looking up and calling on the parents; not an eye was turned earthward. Now the young ones began to fly more nearly together, and one could see that a few days' more practice would enable them to fly in a compact little flock. Shortly before this they had ceased to come to the native tree at night, and by day extended their wanderings so far that sometimes they were not heard for hours. Regularly, however, as night drew near, the migrating cry sounded in the grove, and upon going out I always found them together,—three
"Silver brown little birds, Sitting close in the branches."
These interesting bantlings were twenty-four days old when it became necessary for me to leave them, as they had already left me. It was a warm morning, near the end of July, and about half an hour before I must go I went out to take my last look at them. Their calls were still loud and frequent, and I had no difficulty in tracing them to a dead twig near the top of a pine-tree, where they sat close together, as usual, with faces to the west; lacking only in length of tail of being as big as their parents, yet still calling for food, and still, to all appearances, without the smallest notion that they could ever help themselves.
Thus I left them.
THE BABES IN THE WOOD.
The little home in the wood was well hidden. About its door were no signs of life, no chips from its building, no birds lingering near, no external indication whatever. In silence the tenants came and went; neither calls, songs, nor indiscreet tapping gave hint of the presence of woodpeckers in the neighborhood, and food was sought out of sight and hearing of the carefully secluded spot. No one would have suspected what treasures were concealed within the rough trunk of that old oak but for an accident.
Madam herself was the culprit. In carrying out an eggshell, broken at one end and of no further use, she dropped it near the foot of the tree. To her this was doubtless a disaster, but to me it was a treasure-trove, for it told her well-kept secret. The hint was taken, the home soon found in the heart of an oak, with entrance twenty feet from the ground, and close watching from a distance revealed the owner, a golden-winged woodpecker.
The tree selected by the shy young pair for their nursery stood in a pleasant bit of woods, left wild, on the shore of the Great South Bay, "where precious qualities of silence haunt," and the delicious breath of the sea mingled with the fragrance of pines. One must be an enthusiast to spy out the secrets of a bird's life, and this pair of golden-wings made more than common demand on the patience of the student, so silent, so wary, so wisely chosen, their sanctum. Before the door hung a friendly oak branch, heavy with leaves, that swayed and swung with every breeze. Now it hid the entrance from the east, now from the west, and with every change of the vagrant wind the observer must choose a new point of view.
Then the birds! Was ever a pair so quiet? Without a sound they came, on level path, to the nest, dropped softly to the trunk, slipped quickly in, and, after staying about one minute inside, departed as noiselessly as they came. Their color, too! One would think a bird of that size, of golden-brown mottled with black, with yellow feather-shafts and a brilliant scarlet head-band, must be conspicuous. But so perfectly did the soft colors harmonize with the rough, sun-touched bark, so misleading were the shadows of the leaves moving in the breeze, and so motionless was the bird flattened against the trunk, that one might look directly at it and not see it.
For a few days the woodpeckers were so timid that I was unable to secure a good look at them. The marked difference of manner, however, convinced me that both parents were engaged in attending upon the young family; and as they grew less vigilant and I learned to distinguish them, I discovered that it was so. The only dissimilarity in dress between the lord and lady of the golden-wing family is a small black patch descending from the beak of the male, answering very well to the mustache of bigger "lords of creation." In coming to the nest, one of the pair flew swiftly, just touched for an instant the threshold, and disappeared within; this I found to be the head of the household. The other, the mother, as it proved, being more cautious, alighted at the door, paused, thrust her head in, withdrew it, as if undecided whether to venture in the presence of a stranger, and, after two or three such movements, darted in. Always in one minute the bird reappeared, flew at once out of the wood, at about the height of the nest, and did not come down till it reached, on one side, an old garden run to waste, or, on the other, far over the water, a cultivated field. At that tender age, the young flickers received their rations about twice in an hour.
Although the golden-wings were silent, the wood around them was lively from morning till night. Blackbirds and cuckoos flew over; orioles, both orchard and Baltimore, sang and foraged among the trees; song-sparrows and chippies trilled from the fence at one side: bluebird and thrasher searched the ground, and paid in music for the privilege; pewees and kingbirds made war upon insects; and from afar came the notes of redwing and meadow-lark. Others there were, casual visitors, and of course it did not escape the squawks and squabbles of the English sparrow,—
"Irritant, iterant, maddening bird."
The robins, who one sometimes wishes, with Lanier's owl, "had more to think and less to say," were not so self-assertive as they usually are; in fact, they were quite subdued. They came and went freely, but they never questioned my actions, as they are sure to do where they lead society. Now and then one perched on the fence and regarded me, with flick of wing and tail that meant a good deal, but he expressed no opinion. With kingbirds on one side, pewees on the other, and the great crested fly-catcher a daily caller, this was eminently a fly-catcher grove, and the robin plainly felt that he was not responsible for its good order. Indeed, after fly-catcher households were set up, he had his hands full to maintain his right to be there at all.
Whatever went on, the woodpeckers took no part in it. Back and forth they passed, almost stealthily, caring not who ruled the grove so that their precious secret was not discovered. Neither of them stayed to watch the nest, nor did they come and go together. The birds in the neighborhood might be inquisitive,—there was no one to resent it; blackbirds scrambled over the oak, robins perched on the screening branch, and no one about the silent entrance disputed their right.
In the first flush of dismay at finding themselves watched, the golden-wings, as I said, redoubled their cautiousness. They tried to keep the position of the nest secret by coming from the back, gliding around on the trunk, and stealing in at the door, or by alighting quietly high up in the body of the tree, and coming down backward,—that is, tail first. But by remaining absolutely without motion or sound while they were present, I gradually won their toleration, and had my reward. The birds ceased to regard me as an enemy, and, though they always looked at me, no longer tried to keep out of sight, or to hide the object of their visits. During the first day of watching I had the good fortune to see a second empty shell brought out of the nest, and dropped a little farther off than the first had been; and I feel safe in assuming that these two were the birthdays of the babes in the wood.
Thirteen days were devoted to the study of the manners and customs of the parents before the hidden subjects of their solicitude gave any signs of life visible from below. Though visits were about half an hour apart, and flicker babies have very good appetites, they did not go hungry, for on every occasion they had a hearty meal instead of the single mouthful that many young birds receive. This fact was guessed at on the thirteenth day, when the concealed little ones came out of the darkness up to the door, and the parents' movements in feeding could be seen; but the whole curious process was plain two days later, when a young golden-wing appeared at the opening and met his supplies half-way. The food-bearer clung to the bark beside the entrance, leaned over, turned his head on one side, and thrust his beak within the slightly opened beak of his offspring. In this position he gave eight or ten quick little jerks of his head, which doubtless represented so many mouthfuls; then, drawing back his head, he made a motion of the throat, as though swallowing, which was, presumably, raising instead, for he leaned over again and repeated the operation in the waiting mouth. This performance was gone through with as many as three or four times in succession before one flicker baby was satisfied. After the nestlings came up to the door, the parents went no more inside, as a rule, and housekeeping took care of itself.
On the fifteenth day of his life, as said above, the eldest scion of the golden-wing family made his appearance at the portal of his home. The sight and the sound of him came together, for he burst out at once with a cry. It was not very loud, but it meant something, and the practice of a day or two gave it all the strength that was desirable. In fact, it became clamorous to a degree that made further attempts at concealment useless, and no one was quicker to recognize it than the parents. The baby cry was the utterance familiar from the grown-up birds as "wick-a! wick-a! wick-a!" From this day, when one of the elders drew near the tree, it was met at the opening by an eager little face and a begging call; but it was several days before the recluse showed interest in anything except the food supply. Meals were now nearly an hour apart, and the moment one was over the well-fed youngster in the tree fell back out of sight, probably to sleep, after the fashion of babies the world over. But all this soon came to an end. The young flicker began to linger a few minutes after he had been fed, and to thrust his beak out in a tentative way, as if wondering what the big out-of-doors was like, any way.
Matters were going on thus prosperously, when a party of English sparrows, newly fledged, came to haunt the wood in a small flock of eighteen or twenty; to meddle, in sparrow style, with everybody's business; and to profane the sweet stillness of the place with harsh squawks. The mistress of the little home in the oak, who had conducted her domestic affairs so discreetly, one day found herself the centre of a mob; for these birds early learn the power of combination. She came to her nest followed by the impertinent sparrows, who flew as close as possible, none of them more than a foot from her. They alighted as near as they could find perches, crowded nearer, stretched up, flew over, and tried in every way, with an air of the deepest interest, to see what she could be doing in that hole. When she left,—which she did soon, for she was annoyed,—the crowd did not go with her; they were bound to explore the mystery of that opening. They flew past it; they hovered before it; they craned their necks to peer in; they perched on a bare twig that grew over it, as many as could get footing, and leaned far over to see within. The young flicker retired before his inquisitive visitors, and was seen no more till the mother came again; and then she had to go in out of sight to find him.
As the days went on, the babe in the wood became more used to the sunlight and the bird-sounds about him. Evidently, he was of a meditative turn, for he did not scramble out, and rudely rush upon his fate; he deliberated; he studied, with the air of a philosopher; he weighed the attractions of a cool and breezy world against the comforts and delightful obscurity of home. Perhaps, also, there entered into his calculations the annoyance of a reporter meeting him on the threshold of life, tearing the veil away from his private affairs. What would one give to know the thoughts in that little brown head, on its first look at life! Whatever the reason, he plainly concluded not to take the risk that day, for he disappeared again behind a door that no reporter, however glib or plausible, could pass. Sometimes he vanished with a suddenness that was not natural. Did his heart fail him, or, perchance, his footing give way? For whether he clung to the walls, or made stepping-stones of his brothers and sisters (as do many of his betters, or at least his biggers), who can tell? Often beside this eldest-born, after the first day, appeared a second little head, spying eagerly, if a little less bravely, on the world, and as days passed he frequently contested the position of vantage with his brother, but he was always second.
Mother Nature is kind to woodpeckers. She fits them out for life before they leave the seclusion of the nursery. There is no callow, immature period in the face of the world, no "green" age for the gibes or superior airs of elders. A woodpecker out of the nest is a woodpecker in the dress and with the bearing of his fathers,—dignified, serene, and grown up.
As the sweet June days advanced, the young bird in the oak-tree grew bolder. He no longer darted in when a saucy sparrow came near, and when the parent arrived with food the cries became so loud that all the world could know that here were young woodpeckers at dinner. Now, too, he began to spend much time in dressing his plumage, in preparation for the grand debut. Usually, when a young bird begins to dally with the temptation to fly, so rapid is growth among birds, he may be expected out in a few hours. In this deliberate family it is different; indeed, taking flight must be a greater step for a woodpecker than for a bird from an open nest.
Three days the youngster had been debating whether it were "to be or not to be," and more and more he lingered in the doorway, sitting far enough out to show his black necklace. His was no longer the wondering gaze of infancy, to which all things are equally strange; it was a discriminating look,—the head turned quickly, and passing objects drew his attention. On the third day, too, he uttered his first genuine woodpecker cry of "pe-auk!" He had not the least embarrassment before me. I think he regarded me as a part of the landscape,—the eccentric development of a tree trunk, perhaps; for while he never looked at me nor put the smallest restraint upon his infant passions, let another person come into the wood, and he was at once silent and on his guard. All this time he had become more and more fascinated with the view without his door; one could fairly see the love of the world grow upon him. He picked at the bark about him; he began to get ideas about ants, and ran out a long tongue and helped himself to many a tidbit.
When the young golden-wing had passed four days in this manner, he grew impatient. The hour-long intervals between meals were not to his mind, and he began to express himself fluently. He leaned far out, and delivered the adult cry with great vigor and new pathos; he then bowed violently many times, moved his mouth as if eating, and struggled farther and still farther out, until it seemed that he could not keep within another minute. When one of the parents came he forgot his grown-up manner, and returned to the baby cry, loud and urgent, as if he were starved.
He was fed, and again left; and now he scrambled up with his feet on the edge. He was silent; he was considering an important move, a plunge into the world. He wanted to come,—he longed to fly. Outside were sunshine, sweet air, trees, food,—inside only darkness. The smallest coaxing would bring him out; but coaxing he was not to have. He must decide for himself; the impulse must be from within.
The next morning opened with a severe northeast gale.
"It rained, and the wind was never weary."
The birds felt the depressing influence of the day. The robins perched on the fence, wings hanging, each feather like a bare stick, and not a sound escaping the throat; and when robins are discouraged, it is dismal weather indeed. The bluebirds came about, draggled almost beyond recognition. Even the swallows sailed over silently, their merry chatter hushed.
But life must go on, whatever the weather; and fearing the young woodpecker might select this day to make his entry into the big world, his faithful watcher donned rainy-day costume, and went out to assist in the operation. The storm did not beat upon his side of the tree, and the youngster still hung out of his hole in the trunk, calling and crying, apparently without the least intention of exposing his brand-new feathers to the rain.
Very early the following morning, before the human world was astir, loud golden-wing cries, and calls, and "laughs" were heard about the wood. This abandonment of restraint proclaimed that something had happened; and so, indeed, I discovered; for in hastening to my post I found an ominous silence about the oak-tree. The young wise-head, whose struggles and temptations I had watched so closely, had chosen to go in the magical morning hours, when the world belongs entirely to birds and beasts. The home in the wood looked deserted.
I sat down in silence and waited, for I knew the young flicker could not long be still. Sure enough, I soon heard his cry, but how far off! I followed it to an oak-tree on the farther edge of the grove. I searched the tree, and there I saw him, quiet now as I approached, and plainly full of joy in his freedom and his wings.
I returned to my place, hoping that all had not gone. There must be more than one, for two had been up to the door, I was sure. I waited. Some hours later, the parents came to their home in the wood, one after the other. Back one alighted beside the door, glanced in, in a casual way, but did not put the head in, and then flew to a neighboring tree, uttering what sounded marvelously like a chuckling laugh, and in a moment left the grove. Did, then, the daughters of the house meekly fly, without preliminary study of the world from the door? Were there, perchance, no daughters? Indeed, had more than one infant reached maturity? All these questions I asked myself, but not one shall I ever be able to answer.
I waited several hours. Many birds sang and called among the trees, but no sound came from the oak-tree household, and to me the wood was deserted.
HOME LIFE OF THE REDSTART.
The redstart himself told me where his treasures were "hid in a leafy hollow." Not that he intended to be so confiding; on the contrary he was somewhat disconcerted when he saw what he had done, and tried his best to undo it by appearing not to have the smallest interest in that particular tree. I happened that morning to be wandering slowly along the edge of a tree-lined ravine, looking for the nest of a greatly disturbed pair of cat-birds. As I drew near an old moss-covered apple-tree, I heard a low though energetic "phit! phit!" and a chipping sparrow emerged from the tree with much haste, quickly followed by a redstart, with the unmistakable air of proprietor. The sight of me made a diversion. The pursued dropped into the grass, while the pursuer turned his attention to the bigger game, presented so unexpectedly that he had not time to bethink himself of his usual custom of not showing his gorgeous black and gold about home. He scolded me well for an instant, till his wits returned, when he disappeared like a flash. It was too late to deceive me, however, and I marked that tree as I passed, intent at the moment upon cat-birds.
On returning, I stopped on the bank to look the tree over at my leisure, and there I soon saw, two feet from the top of the tallest upright branch and tightly clinging to it, a small cradle, gently rocking in the warm breeze. No one was at home, and I sat down to wait. This movement did not meet the approval of a certain small tenant of a neighboring tree, for I was saluted by a sharp, low, incessant cry; now it came from the right side, now from the left. I turned quickly, caught a glimpse of yellow, the flit of a wing, and then—nothing. In a moment the sound began again, and thus it tantalized me till my neck became tired, and I laid my head back among the ferns, to wait till the small fire-brand calmed down a little. To my surprise and delight, the bird seemed to regard this as a surrender, for down a broad branch that sloped toward me came a most animated bundle of feathers, wings and tail wide spread, making hostile demonstrations, and scolding as fiercely as such an atom could. It had all the airs of ownership, and its colors were olive and yellow; had, then, the roguish redstart deceived me, after all? Thus pondering, I suddenly remembered that I had never seen his spouse, and that monsieur and madame do not dress alike in the bird world any more than in the human. I marked the points; I consulted the books; there could be no doubt this was the little dame herself, and her mate had been too clever to come to her aid.
The structure on the apple bough was the redstart homestead. Watch it every day I must, yet not to disturb the fiery little owners it was necessary to move further from them. I sought and found a delightful nook, the other side of the ravine. On its steep sides the native forest still flourished, and seated at the foot of a tall maple, tented in by a heavy low growth at my back, I could look across the narrow chasm through a gap in the trees, and see the redstart nest in the pasture beyond. The restless pair did not notice me behind my veil of greenery, and my glass was of the best; so I secured a good view of the small mansion and the life that went on about it, without in the least annoying the builders thereof. I found the head of the family very interesting in his role of husband and father.
Perhaps not every one knows a redstart, and his name is misleading, for he has not a red feather on his body. He is a bird of very few inches, clothed in brilliant array of orange and black and white, which always suggests the Baltimore oriole. His mate is more soberly clad in olive-brown and golden-yellow; neither of them is still for an instant, diving and flitting about on a tree like specks of animated sunlight.
At my pleasant post of observation I spent hours of every day, stealing in soon after breakfast, quietly, so as not to arouse the suspicions of a robin who lived in the neighborhood; for unfortunate is the student whose ways are not acceptable to one of this noisy family. I found, however, when my patience gave out, that the robin will take a hint. On throwing a pebble through the branches near him, as a suggestion that his attentions were not welcome, he flew to a tree a little farther off, and resumed his offensive remarks; another pebble convinced him that the distance might be profitably increased, and thus I drove him away; at about the fourth pebble he took a final departure.
Here, then, I saw the small housekeeping go on. I always found the little dame in possession, and generally the lord and master gleaning food in redstart fashion; flitting around a branch, darting behind a leaf, over and under a twig, tail spread to keep his balance during these jerky movements, his bright oriole colors flashing as he dashed through a patch of sunlight,—a beautiful object, but a perfectly silent one. When his happiness demanded expression he flew to a maple-tree, and poured out his soul in the quaint though not very musical ditty of his race. Sometimes he stood still on a branch, like a bird who has something to say; but more often he rushed around after insects on this tree, and threw in the notes between the firm snaps of his beak.
Promptly every half hour the little sprite took his way to that precious apple branch, and dropped, light as a snow-flake, on a certain twig on the nearest side of his homestead. A flash from the nest announced the departure of madame, and he popped into her place. Not to settle down to business, as she did,—far from it! It is a wonder to me how even a female redstart can sit still. On taking his place, he first examined the treasures it held, leaning over the edge with a solicitude charming to see; and when he did at last cover them from sight, his black velvet cap still bobbed up and down, this way and that, as though he were taking advantage of his enforced quiet to plume himself. Precisely three minutes he allowed his modest spouse for her repast. At the expiration of that time he deserted, darted away, and began to call from the next tree, when she instantly returned. Sometimes she was at hand, and alighted on a twig on the farther side of the nest, when he bounded off and out of sight. She carefully inspected the nest to see that all was right, then slipped in, settled herself with a gentle flutter of wings, and I knew she was safe for another half hour. It was the closest watching I ever tried, so quick were the motions, so silent the going and coming.
Now and then the redstart chose to stay longer at home. The usual time having expired, the little sitter appeared, but if her mate did not vacate, she availed herself of the additional liberty in flitting about the tree, adding a dessert to her dinner. On one occasion he let her return twice before he left, occupying her place for eight minutes,—an enormous length of time for a redstart. More often he grew impatient in less than three minutes, and once he forgot himself so far as to call while in the nest.
During the sitting there came two days of steady, pouring rain and high wind. I feared the hopes of that family, as well as others all about, would perish, but the brave little mother bore the depressing season well. The eggs were never left uncovered, nor did that gay rover, her spouse, forget to take her place as usual.
On the morning of my fourth day of watching, I saw there was news; sitting was over, and though they could not be seen, it was easy to picture the featherless, wide-mouthed objects, evidently so lovely to the young parents. Close work as it had been to observe the movements of the pair, it was much harder after that, they became at once so wary. I am sure they never regarded me in any way as a spy, for I was not in their highway; moreover, they would certainly have expressed their mind if they had. Yet they came and went entirely from the other side, and so exactly opposite the nest that often I could not see even the flit of a wing. Not until one stood on the threshold could I see it, and the most untiring vigilance was necessary. Even before this madame was cautious in her going and coming; she first dropped about two feet to a branch, paused a moment, then went to a second one, still lower, thus left the tree near the ground, and in returning she began at the lowest branch and retraced her steps to the nest.
That day the father of the new family seemed very joyous, and treated us to a great deal of singing, though it was not a singing-day, being very cold, with a steady rain. The pretty little mother took thoughtful care of her brood. For a half hour or more she worked very busily, her mate helping, and fed them well; then she deliberately sat down upon those youngsters, exactly as though they were still eggs. There she stayed as long as she thought best, and then she went to her work again.
The morning they were six days old I had the pleasure of seeing a movement in the nest. When the sun reached a certain height above the tree, it shone into that small mansion in such a way as to reveal its contents; thus I could see the redstart babies moving restlessly, evidently in haste already to come out into the world. This day the father took rather more than half the charge of the provision supply, and with considerable regularity. During four hours that the nest was closely watched, its tenants were fed at about five-minute intervals for half an hour; and then mamma promptly smothered their ambition, as above mentioned, for perhaps a quarter of an hour, when, if they did not take naps like "good little birdies," they at least were forced to keep still.
This young matron reminded me of some mothers of a larger growth, she was so fussy, so careful that her charges did not go too fast for their strength, while her spouse made it his business to see that she did not keep them tender by over-coddling. He allowed her to brood them for fifteen minutes; longer than that he would not tolerate, but came like a fiery meteor to see that she moved. She plainly understood his intention, for the instant he appeared she darted off, although he did not touch the nest. All day the weight of responsibility kept this rover at home; he might generally be seen on the lower branches of his tree, darting about in perfect silence; but once or twice I saw him actually loitering, a pleasant pastime of which I never suspected a redstart.
Six days appears to be the limit of time a redstart baby can submit to a cradle. (I know this does not agree with the books, so I explain that it was six days from the time constant sitting ceased. If the young were out of the shell before that, they were covered all the time, and not fed.) The day that stirring urchin was six days old he mounted the edge of the nest and tried his wings. When mamma came, he asked for food in the usual bird-baby way, gentle flutters of the wings; but this haste was certainly not pleasing to the little dame, and upon her departure I noticed that he had returned to the nursery.
However, his ambition was roused,—the ambition of a redstart to be moving,—and at seven o'clock the next morning, his seventh day, he came out with his mind made up to stay. First a shaky little yellowish head appeared above the nest; then the owner thereof clambered out upon a twig, three inches higher. One minute he rested, to glance around the new world, and quickly increased the distance to six inches, where he stood fidgeting, arranging his feathers, and evidently preparing for a tremendous flight, when his anxious parent returned. Plainly, he would have been wiser to wait another day, for all the time it was difficult for him to keep his place; every few seconds he made wild struggles, beating the air with his wings, and at last, after enjoying that elevated position in life about ten minutes, he lost his hold and fell. I held my breath, for a fall to the ground meant a dead nestling; but he clutched at a twig two or three feet lower, and succeeded in retaining this more humble station. Madame came and fed and comforted him, and it was soon evident that he had learned a lesson, for he moderated his transports; though his head was as restless as ever, his feet were more steady; he did not fall again, and he soon scrambled freely all over the tree.
Now I was interested to see how the redstart babies were brought up, and for more than four hours I kept my eyes on that youngster. It is no small task, let me say, to keep watch of an atom an inch or two long, to whom any leaf is ample screen, to note every movement lest he slip out of sight, and to make memorandum of each morsel of food he gets. There were, also, of course, the most seductive sounds about me; never so many birds came near. Cat-birds whispered softly behind my back; a vireo cried plaintively over my head; the towhee bunting boldly perched on a low bush, and saluted me with his peculiar cry; flickers uttered their quaint "wick-up" on my right, and a veery sighed softly "we-o" on my left. Unflinchingly, however, I kept my face toward that apple-tree, and my eyes on that restless young hopeful, while I noted the conduct of the parents toward him.
This is what I learned: first, that those left in the nest were to be kept back, and not allowed out of the nursery till this one was able to care for himself, or at least to help. The nest, holding probably one or two little ones, was visited, the first hour almost exactly once in twenty minutes, by madame exclusively, and the three succeeding hours at longer intervals, by her spouse. Scarcely a move was made there; plainly there were no more "come-outers" that day. The efforts of the mother were concentrated on number one, apparently, to bring him forward as fast as possible. He was, for an hour, fed every five or six minutes, the next hour only three times, and this system was kept up with perfect regularity all day.
Meanwhile, the behavior of the happy father was peculiar and somewhat puzzling, considering how solicitous he had hitherto appeared. For some time his gay coat was not to be seen, even on his favorite lower branches; and when he did come around, his mate flew at him, whether to praise or to punish could only be guessed, for he at once disappeared before her. After two or three episodes of this sort he remained about the tree, and occasionally contributed a mite to the family sustenance.
The next morning, at half past seven, I resumed my seat as usual, and very soon saw I was too late. Both parents were busily flitting about the tree, but never once went near the old home; moreover, when the sun reached the magical point where he revealed the inside of the nest, lo, it was empty!
Either there had been but one other bairn, and he had got out before I did,—things happen so rapidly in the redstart family,—or there had been a tragedy, I could not discover which. Neither could I find a young bird on that tree, though I was sure, by the conduct of the parents, that at least one remained.
Now that no one's feelings could be hurt by the operation, I had a limb cut off the apple-tree, and the little home I had watched with so great interest brought down to me. Nothing could be daintier or more secure than that snug little structure. Placed on an upright branch, just below the point where five branchlets, a foot or more long, sprang out to shelter, and closely surrounded by seven twigs, of few inches but many leaves, it was a marvel I had been able to see it at all. The redstarts might be lively and restless, but they were good workers. So firmly was that nest fastened to its branch, resting on one-twig and embraced by two others, like arms, that to remove it would destroy it. Strips of something like grapevine bark, with a few grass-blades and a material that looked like hornets' or other insects' nest, formed the outside, while long horsehairs made the soft lining. Though strong and firm, it was on the sides so thin, that, as mentioned above, the movements of the young could be seen through it.
This pretty cup, around which so many hopes had centred, was of a size for a fairy's homestead,—hardly two inches inside diameter, and less than two inches deep. I carried it off as a memento of a delightful June among the hills of the old Bay State.
WHEN NESTING IS OVER.
"When the birds fly past And the chimes ring fast And the long spring shadows sweet shadow cast,"
comes the most attractive time of year to the bird-lover,—the baby-days, when the labors and anxieties of the nest being over, proud and happy parents bring forward their tender younglings all unused to the ways of the world, and carry on their training before our eyes.
First to come upon the scene of the summer's studies was the brown thrush family. For some time the head of the household had made the grove a regular resting place in his daily round. He always entered in silence, alighted on the lowest limb of a tree, and hopped lightly, step by step, to the top, where he sang softly a few delightful and tantalizing strains. In a moment he dropped to the ground, uttering a liquid note or two as he went, and threw into his work of digging among the dead leaves the same suppressed vehemence he had put into his song. Not unfrequently he came into collision with a sparrow mob that claimed to own that piece of wood, and his way of dealing with them was an ever fresh satisfaction. He stood quiet, though the crouching attitude and the significant twitches of his expressive tail indicated very clearly to one who knew him that he was far from calm inside; that he was merely biding his time. His tranquil manner misled the vulgar foe; that they mistook it for cowardice was obvious. Nearer, and still nearer, they drew, surrounded him, and seemed about to fall upon him in a body, when he suddenly wheeled, and like a flash of light dashed right and left almost simultaneously, as if he had become two birds, and the impertinent enemy fairly vanished before him.
Like many another bird, however, the thrasher, although not afraid of sparrows, disliked a continual row. He had gradually ceased to come into the neighborhood, and I feared I should neither see nor (what was worse) hear him again. But one morning he presented himself with two youngsters, so brimful of joy that he quite forgot his previous caution and reserve. They perched in plain sight on the fence, and while the little ones clumsily struggled to maintain their footing, the father turned his head this side and that, jerked his tail, and uttered a low cry as touch as to say, "Can anybody beat that pair now?"
In a moment he fell to the serious work of filling their hungry mouths. Being very wide awake, the young birds readily saw where supplies came from, and then they accompanied their parent to the ground, following every step, as he dug almost without ceasing. After a tolerably solid repast of large white grubs, he slipped away from the dear coaxers, disappeared on the other side of the fence, and before they recovered from their bewilderment at finding themselves deserted, returned bearing in his beak a strawberry. The young thrush received the dainty eagerly, but finding it too big to swallow, beat it on the fence as if it were a worm. Of course it parted, and a piece fell to the ground, which the waiting parent went after, and administered as a second mouthful.
For a long time the little ones were fed on the fence, and the father was so happy that every few minutes he was forced to retire behind a neighboring tree and "make gladness musical upon the other side."
After that morning the thrasher came daily to the place, and a dessert of strawberries invariably followed the more substantial meal, but never again did he bring more than one of his family with him.
One morning the brown thrush baby, who had been rapidly growing self-reliant, came alone for the first time. It was interesting to watch him, running along the tops of the pickets; searching in the hot grass till out of breath for something to eat; looking around in a surprised way, as if wondering why the food did not come; making a dash, with childlike innocence, after a strawberry he saw in the mouth of a robin, who in amazement leaped a foot in the air; and at last flying to a tree to call and listen for his sire. That wise personage, meanwhile, had stolen silently into the grove, all dripping from his bath in the bay, and while indulging in a most elaborate dressing and pluming, had kept one eye on the infant in the grass below, apparently to see how he got on by himself. When at last the little one stood panting and discouraged, he called, a single "chirp." The relieved youngster recognized it and answered, and at once flew over to join him.
This restless young thrasher, excepting that he was perhaps somewhat lighter in color and a little less glossy of coat, looked at that moment as old as he ever would. Nothing but his ingenuous ways, and his soft baby-cry "chr-er-er" revealed his tender age. His curiosity when he found himself in an unfamiliar place or on a strange tree was amusing. He looked up and down, stretching his neck in his desire to see everything; he critically examined the tuft of leaves near him; he peered over and under a neighboring branch, and then gazed gravely around on the prospect before him. He flew with ease, and alighted with the grace of his family, on the bare trunk of a tree, the straight side of a picket, or any other unlikely place for a bird to be found. For a week he came and went and was watched and studied, but one day the strawberries were gathered in the old garden, and the beautiful brown thrush baby appeared no more.
The world was not deserted of bird voices, however.
"Swift bright wings flitted in and out And happy chirpings were all about."
For days the wood had resounded with the shrill little cries of swallow babies, who alighted on the low trees on the border while their busy parents skimmed over the bay, or the marshy shore, and every few minutes brought food to their clamorous offspring. I had a remarkably good opportunity to make the acquaintance of this youngster—the white-bellied swallow. There were dozens of them, and the half grown trees were their chosen perches. The droll little fellows, with white fluffy breasts, no feet to speak of, and
"Built so narrow Like the head of an arrow To cut the air,"
did not even notice me in my nook under the pines.
They could fly very well, and now and then one followed the parent far out, calling sharply his baby "cheep" and trying to get close to her in the air. Often she turned, met and fed him on the wing, and then sailed on, while the youngster lagged a little, unable to give his mind to feeding and flying at the same time. Sometimes the mother avoided a too persistent pleader by suddenly rising above him. When a little one was at rest, she usually paused before him on wing only long enough to poke a mouthful into his wide open beak; occasionally—but not often—she alighted beside him for a few moments.
Leading out into the water for the use of boatmen, was a narrow foot pier, provided on one side with a hand rail. This rail was a convenient rendezvous for all the babies belonging to the swallow flock, a sort of a community nursery. On this they rested from the fatigue of flying; here they were fed, and sometimes gently pushed off the perch afterward, as a mild hint to use their wings.
I wanted to find out whether parents and young knew each other from all the rest. Of course in this crowd it was not possible to tell, but I found a better chance in another favorite spot, an old post that rose out of the water, eight or ten feet from the shore, and so small that it was only comfortable for one, although two could stand on it. The post seldom lacked its occupant, a baby swallow with head up, looking eagerly into the flock above him. This isolated youngling I made my special study. Sometimes on the approach of a grown up bird, he lifted his wings and opened his mouth, petitioning for, and plainly expecting food. At other times he paid not the least attention to a swallow passing over him, but sat composed and silent, though watchful, apparently for the right one to come in sight. He was often, though not invariably, fed upon his appeal; but that proves nothing, for it would require the services of a dozen parents to respond to every request of a young bird. It not unfrequently happened, too, that one of the flock always flying about over the water came very near the little one on the post as if to offer him a morsel, but suddenly, when almost upon him, wheeled and left,—obviously mistaken. On no such occasion did that knowing youngster show any expectation of attention. Again there would sometimes join him on the post, a second young swallow, and, although crowded, they were quite contented together. Then I noticed as the elders swept over, that sometimes one baby begged, sometimes the other; never both at once. This seemed to indicate that the little one knows its parents, for no one familiar with the craving hunger and the constant opening of the baby beak to its natural purveyors, will doubt that when a young bird failed to ask, it was because the elder was not its parent.
An early lesson in many bird lives is that of following, or flying in a flock, for at first the babies of a brood scatter wildly, and seem not to have the smallest notion of keeping together. The small swallows in the trees near me were carefully trained in this. Often while one stood chirping vehemently, clearly thinking himself half starved, a grown-up bird flew close past him, calling in very sweet tones, and stopped in plain sight, ten or fifteen feet away. Of course the youngster followed at once. But just as he reached the side of the parent, that thoughtful tutor took another short flight, calling and coaxing as before. This little performance was repeated three or four times before the pupil received the tidbits he so urgently desired.
Other sweet baby-talk in the trees came from the wood-pewee. The pewee I had noted from the building of her beautiful lichen-covered cradle in the crotch of a wild-cherry tree. The branch, dead and leafless, afforded no screen for the brave little mother. Look when one might, in the hottest sunshine or the heaviest rain, there sat the bird quite up out of the nest, head erect and eyes eagerly watching for intruders. The pewee, for all his tender and melancholy utterances, has a fiery spirit. He hesitates not to clinch with a brother pewee, interpolates his sweetest call into the hot chases, and even when resting between encounters, spreads his tail, flutters his wings, and erects his crest in a most warlike manner. The little dame was not a whit less vigilant than her spouse. Let but a blackbird pass over and she was off in a twinkling, pursuing him, pouncing down upon him savagely, and all the time uttering her plaintive "pe-o-wee!" till her mate joined her, and made it so uncomfortable for the big foe that he departed, protesting to be sure in vigorous black-birdese, but taking good care to go. So persistent were the pewees in these efforts, that in a few days they convinced a pair of blackbirds (purple crow blackbirds) that this part of the grove was no longer a thoroughfare, and whereas they had been quite frequent visitors, they were now rarely seen.