UPON THE TREE-TOPS
OLIVE THORNE MILLER
ILLUSTRATED BY J. CARTER BEARD
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY The Riverside Press, Cambridge
Copyright, 1897, BY H. M. MILLER.
All rights reserved.
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A. Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton and Company.
Do you ne'er think what wondrous beings these, Whose household words are songs in many keys, Whose habitations on the tree-tops even Are half-way houses on the road to heaven?
In the beginning of my study of bird life, when I had a bird-room for close observation, I was interested to see that our little neighbors in feathers possess as much individuality of character as ourselves, and in Chapters XII. and XIII. of this volume I offer two studies of that period, illustrative of the point.
Thanks are due to Mr. Frederic A. Ober for the use of his notes on one of the solitaires, embodied in Chapter XII., and to the Godey Company for permission to reproduce two shrike pictures.
I wish also to give credit to my daughter, Mary Mann Miller, for the minute and conscientious collection of the facts recorded in Chapters V. and VI., which for convenience are related as if they were my own observations.
OLIVE THORNE MILLER.
UPON THE TREE-TOPS.
I. TRAMPS WITH AN ENTHUSIAST 3 Hermit Thrush. Turdus aonalaschkae pallasii. American Crow. Corvus Americanus. Sandpiper. Wilson's Thrush. Turdus fuscescens. Oven-bird. Seiurus aurocapillus. Wood Thrush. Turdus mustelinus. Olive-sided Flycatcher. Contopus borealis. Golden-winged Woodpecker. Colaptes auratus. Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Habia ludoviciana. Cow Bunting. Molothrus ater. White-throated Sparrow. Zonotrichia albicollis. Black-throated Green Warbler. Dendroica virens. American Robin. Merula migratoria. Song Sparrow. Melospiza fasciata. House Wren. Troglodytes aedon. Bobolink. Dolichonyx oryzivorus. Meadow Lark. Sturnella magna. Eave Swallow. Petrochelidon lunifrons. Ph[oe]be. Sayornis ph[oe]be. Shrike. Lanius ludovicianus.
II. A MYSTERIOUS STRANGER 35 Red-headed Woodpecker. Melanerpes erythrocephalus. Shrike. Lanius ludovicianus.
III. A THORN-TREE NEST 45 Shrike. Lanius ludovicianus. Golden-winged Woodpecker. Colaptes auratus. Least Flycatcher. Empidonax minimus. Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Coccyzus Americanus.
IV. THE WITCHING WREN 72 Winter Wren. Troglodytes hiemalis. Chipping Sparrow. Spizella socialis.
V. WHIMSICAL WAYS IN BIRD-LAND 88 Yellow-breasted Chat. Icteria virens.
VI. THE "BIRD OF THE MUSICAL WING" 103 Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Trochilus colubris.
VII. MY LADY IN GREEN 121 Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Trochilus colubris.
VIII. YOUNG AMERICA IN FEATHERS 141 Maryland Yellow-throat. Geothlypis trichus. Thrasher. Harporhynchus rufus. Baltimore Oriole. Icterus galbula. Catbird. Galeoscoptes Carolinensis. Red-eyed Vireo. Vireo olivaceus. American Crow. Corvus Americanus. Wilson's Thrush. Turdus fuscescens. Towhee Bunting. Pipilo erythrophthalmus.
IX. DOWN THE MEADOW 163 Golden-winged Woodpecker. Colaptes auratus. Red-winged Blackbird. Agelaius ph[oe]nicens. Bluebird. Sialia sialis. Vesper Sparrow. Poocaetes gramineus. Eave Swallow. Petrochelidon lunifrons. Tree Swallow. Tachycineta bicolor.
X. IN A COLORADO NOOK 177 Summer Yellow-bird. Dendroica aestiva. Western Chewink. Pipilo maculatus articus. Arkansas Goldfinch. Spinus psaltria. Maryland Yellow-throat. Geothlypis trichus. House Wren. Troglodytes aedon. Red-shafted Flicker. Colaptes cafer. Western Meadow Lark. Sturnella magna neglecta.
XI. THE IDYL OF AN EMPTY LOT 192 Night Hawk. Chordeiles virginianus. English Sparrow. Passer domesticus. Thrasher. Harporhynchus rufus. Junco. Junco hyemalis. White-throat Sparrow. Zonotrichia albicollis. Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Regulus calendula. Hermit Thrush. Turdus aonalaschkae pallasii.
IN THE BIRD-ROOM.
XII. THE SOLITAIRE 205 Clarin. Myadestes obscurus. Blue Jay. Cyanocitta cristata. Brazilian Cardinal. Mountain Whistler. Siffleur montagne. Trembleur. Townsend's Fly-catching Thrush. Myadestes Townsendii.
XIII. INCOMPATIBILITY IN THE ORIOLE FAMILY 227 Orchard Oriole. Icterus spurious. Baltimore Oriole. Icterus galbula.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
The tug of war (page 38) Frontispiece.
THE HERMIT THRUSH.
Singing his way down to us 8
Babies in gray 36
THE WINTER WREN.
Cuddled up together on a log 86
THE YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT.
The nest with my lady upon it 110
THE BALTIMORE ORIOLE.
Feeding the baby 150
THE GOLDEN-WINGED WOODPECKER.
Taking breakfast 164
SOLITAIRE AND BLUE JAY.
Studying the blue jay 216
THE ORCHARD ORIOLE.
The enemy in the glass 230
UPON THE TREE-TOPS.
UPON THE TREE-TOPS.
TRAMPS WITH AN ENTHUSIAST.
To a brain wearied by the din of the city, the clatter of wheels, the jingle of street cars, the discord of bells, the cries of venders, the ear-splitting whistles of factory and shop, how refreshing is the heavenly stillness of the country! To the soul tortured by the sight of ills it cannot cure, wrongs it cannot right, and sufferings it cannot relieve, how blessed to be alone with nature, with trees living free, unfettered lives, and flowers content each in its native spot, with brooks singing of joy and good cheer, with mountains preaching divine peace and rest!
Thus musing one evening, soon after my arrival at a lone farmhouse in the heart of the Green Mountains, I seated myself at the window to make acquaintance with my neighbors. Not the human; I wished for a time to turn away from the world of people, to find rest and recreation in the world outside the walls of houses.
My room was a wing lately added to the side of the cottage farthest from the life that went on in it, from the kitchen and dairy, from the sight of barns and henhouses. It was, consequently, as solitary as it could be, and yet retain a slight hold upon humanity. It was connected with the family and farm life by two doors, which I could shut at will, and be alone with nature, and especially with the beloved birds.
From my window I looked upon a wide view over the road and the green fields, and across the river to a lovely range of the Green Mountains, with one of the highest peaks in the State as a crown. Close at hand was a bank, the beginning of a mountain spur. It was covered from the road up with clumps of fresh green ferns and a few young trees,—a maple or two, half a dozen graceful young hemlocks, and others.
The top of the bank, about as high as my window, was thick with daisy buds, which I had caught that day beginning to open their eyes, sleepily, one lash at a time; and on looking closely I saw ranks of them still asleep, each yellow eye carefully covered with its snow-white fringes. When the blossoms were fully opened, a few days later, my point of view—on a level—made even
"The daisy's frill a wondrous newness wear;"
for I saw only the edges of the flower faces turned to the sky, while the stems were visible down to the ground, and formed a Lilliputian forest in which it were easy to imagine tiny creatures spending days as secluded and as happy as I enjoyed in my forest of beech and birch and maple, which came down to the very back steps of the house.
[Sidenote: FROM THE WINDOW.]
On the evening when my story begins, early in June, I was sitting, as I said, at my window, listening to the good-night songs of the earlier birds, enjoying the view of woods and mountains, and waiting till tea should be over before taking my usual evening walk. I had fallen into a reverie, when I was aroused by the sound of wheels, and in a moment a horse appeared, trotting rapidly up the little hill. In his wake was a face. There was of course a body also, and some sort of a vehicle, but neither of them did I see; only a pair of eager, questioning eyes, and an intelligent countenance framed in snow-white curls which streamed back upon the wind,—a picture, a vision, I shall never forget.
I recognized at once my Enthusiast, a dear friend and fellow bird-lover, who I knew was coming to spend some weeks in the village. I rushed to the door to greet her.
"I'm delighted to see you!" she cried, as we clasped hands across the wheels. "I arrived an hour or two ago, and now I want to go where I can hear a hermit thrush. I've come all the way from Chicago to hear that bird."
She dismounted, declined the invitation to tea given by my hostess, who stood speechless with amazement at the erratic taste that would forego tea for the sake of a bird song, and we started at once up the road, where I had seen the bird perched in a partially dead hemlock-tree, and heard
"his ravishing carol ring From the topmost twig he made his throne."
Everything was perfectly still. Not a bird peeped. Even the tireless vireo, who peopled the woods as the English sparrow the city streets, was hushed. I began to be anxious; could it be too cool for song? or too late? We walked steadily on, up the beautiful winding road: on one side dense forest, on the other lovely changing views of the hills across the intervale, blue now with approaching night. Crows called as they hurried over; the little sandpiper's "ah weet! weet! weet!" came up from the river bank, but in the woods all was silent.
Still we went on, climbing the steep hills, loitering through the valleys, till suddenly a bird note broke the stillness, quite near us, a low, yearning "wee-o!"
[Sidenote: THE WONDERFUL SONG.]
"The veery!" I whispered.
"Is that the veery?" she exclaimed. (She had come from the home of the wood thrush, where hermit and veery were unknown.)
"Yes," I said; "listen."
Again it came, more plaintive than before; once more, in an almost agonized tone; and so it continued, ever growing higher in pitch and more mournful, till we could hardly endure to listen to it. Then arose the matchless song, the very breath of the woods, the solemn, mysterious, wonderful song of the bird, and two listeners, at least, lingered in ecstasy to hear, till it dropped to silence again.
Then, slowly and leisurely, we went on. The dead hemlock, the throne of the hermit, was vacant. On a bank not far off we sat down to wait, talking in hushed tones of the veery, of the oven-bird whose rattling call was now just beginning, of the mysterious "see-here" bird whose plaintive call was sounding from the upper twig of another dead-topped tree, of the hermit himself, when, to our amazement, a small bird soared out of the woods, a few feet above our heads, flew around in a circle of perhaps fifteen feet in the air, and plunged again into the trees, singing all the time a rapturous, thrilling song, bewitching both in manner and in tone.
"The oven-bird!" we exclaimed in a breath. That made our walk noteworthy. We should not regret, even if the hermit refused to bless us.
Silently on up the road we passed, till the deepening shadows reminded us of the hour and the long drive before my friend, and we turned back. By this time the sun had set, and the sky was filled with gorgeous rosy clouds floating above the richest red-purple of the mountains. This surely crowned our walk.
We were sauntering homeward, lingering, waiting, we hardly knew for what, since we had given up the hermit, when a single bird note arrested me. Then, as his first rich clause fell upon the air, I turned to my companion, who was a few steps behind me. She stood motionless, both hands raised, but dumb.
"Glorious!" she whispered when she recovered her voice. "Wonderful!" she added, as he warmed into fuller song.
Quietly drawing as near as we dared, we dropped upon the bank and listened in spellbound silence to our unseen melodist. Slow, rapturous, entrancing was his song; and when it ended we came reluctantly back to earth, stole in the growing darkness down to the farm, and my friend resumed her place in the carriage and drove away, saying with her good-by, "I am already paid for my long journey."
[Sidenote: STUDY OF THE HERMIT'S SONG.]
Yet after the first surprise and wonder were over, she swung loyally back to her first love, the wood thrush, of whose sublime voice she says, "The first solemn opening note transports you instantly into a holy cathedral."
For myself, I have never been able to choose permanently between these two glorious singers, and at that time I had been under the spell of the hermit song for days. Morning after morning I had spent in the woods, listening to the marvelous voice, and trying to discover its charm.
The bird began to sing his way down to us about ten o'clock in the morning. I heard him first afar off, then coming nearer and nearer, till he reached some favorite perch in the woods behind, and very near the farmhouse, before noon, where he usually sang at intervals till eight o'clock in the evening. I studied his song carefully. It consisted of but one clause, composed of a single emphasized note followed by two triplets on a descending scale. But while retaining the relative position of these few notes he varied the effect almost infinitely, by changing both the key and the pitch constantly, with such skill that I was astonished to discover the remarkable simplicity of the song. A striking quality of it was an attempt which he frequently made to utter his clause higher on the scale than he could reach, so that the triplets became a sort of trill or tremolo, at the very extreme of his register. Sometimes he gave the triplets alone, without the introductory note; but never, in the weeks that I studied his song, did he sing other than this one clause.
It was only with an effort that I could force myself to analyze the performance. Far easier were it, and far more delightful, to sit enchanted, to be overwhelmed and intoxicated by his thrilling music. For me, the hermit voices the sublimity of the deep woods, while the veery expresses its mystery, its unfathomable remoteness. A wood warbler, on the contrary, always brings before me the rush and hurry of the world of people, and the wood pewee its under-current of eternal sadness. Into the mood induced by the melancholy pewee song breaks how completely and how happily the cheery optimism of the chickadee! Brooding thoughts are dissipated, all is not a hollow mockery, and life is still worth living.
[Sidenote: A PERFECT NOOK.]
Often, when listening to the hermit song, I wondered that at the first note of the king of singers all other birds were not mute. But evidently the birds have not enthroned this thrush. Possibly, even, they do not share human admiration for his song. The redstart goes on jerking out his monotonous ditty; chippy irreverently mounts a perch and trills out his inane apology for a song; the vireo in yonder tree spares us not one of his never-ending platitudes. But the hermit thrush goes on with sublime indifference to the voices of common folk down below. Sometimes he is answered from afar by another of his kind, who arranges his notes a little differently. The two seem to wait for each other, as if not to mar their divine harmony by vulgar haste or confusion.
* * * * *
"We must find the 'see-here' bird," said my friend the next morning, when she appeared at the door of the farmhouse, and I joined her for our second tramp. This was a bird whose long, deliberate notes, sounding like the above words, had tantalized me from the day of my arrival.
We resolved this time to go into the woods we had skirted the night before. A set of bars admitted us to a most enticing bit of forest, a paradise to city-weary eyes and nature-loving hearts. From the bars rose sharply a rough wood road, while a few steps to the right and a scramble up a rocky path changed the whole world in a moment. We were in a perfect nook, which I had discovered a few days before, with a carpet of dead leaves, a sky of waving branches, the fierce sun shut out by curtains of living green, the air cooled by a clear mountain stream, and the "priceless gift of delicious silence"—silence that had haunted my dreams for months—broken only by the voices of birds, whispers of leaves, and ripple of brook. In this spot,
"where Nature dwells alone, Of man unknowing, and to man unknown,"
(as I tried to persuade myself) I had established my out-of-door study, and here I had spent perfect days, watching the residents of the vicinity, and saturating my whole being with the delights of sight and sound and scent till it was thrilling happiness just to be alive. Would that I could impart the freshness, the fragrance, the heavenly peace of those days to this chronicle, to comfort and strengthen my readers not so blessed as to share them!
The dwellers in this delectable spot, where I persuaded my friend to rest a moment, I had not found altogether what I should have chosen; for, unfortunately, the place most desirable for the student is not always the best for birds. They are quite apt to desert the cool, breezy heights charming to wood-lovers, to build in some impenetrable tangle, where the ground is wet and full of treacherous quagmires, where mosquitoes abound, and flies do greatly flourish, where close-growing branches and leaves keep out every breath of air, and there is no solid rest for the legs of a camp-stool. Such a difference does it make, as to a desirable situation, from which side you look at it.
[Sidenote: A SPORTSMAN IN FUR.]
The principal inhabitant presented himself before we were fairly seated, a chipmunk, who came out of his snug door under the roots of a maple-tree and sat up on his doorstep—one of the roots—to make his morning toilet, dress his sleek fur, scent the sweet fresh air, and enjoy himself generally. In due time he ran down to the little brook before the door, and then started out, evidently after something to eat; and he went nosing about on the ground with a thoroughness to make a bird-lover shudder, for what ground bird's nest could escape him!
I recognize the fact that, from his point of view, chipmunks must live, and why should they not have eggs for breakfast? Doubtless, in squirrel philosophy, it is a self-evident truth that birds were created to supply the tables of their betters in fur, and the pursuit of eggs and nestlings adds the true sportsman's zest to the enjoyment of them. So long, therefore, as the law that "might makes right" prevails in higher quarters, we are forced to acknowledge, however grudgingly, his "right" to his game; but for all that I should like exceedingly to protect it from him.
I could not long keep a bird-lover studying a chipmunk. In a few minutes we started again on our way up the mountain. Each side of our primitive wood road was bordered with ferns in their first tender green, many of them still wearing their droll little hoods. Forward marched the Enthusiast; breathlessly I followed. Up one little hill, down another, over a third we hastened.
"See!" I said, hoping to arrest the tireless steps; "on that tree I saw yesterday a scarlet tanager."
"Oh, did you?" she said carelessly, pausing not an instant in her steady tramp.
Then rose the note we were listening for, far to the left of the road.
"He's over there!" she cried eagerly, leaving the path, and pushing in the direction of the sound. "But I'm afraid I shall tire you," she added. "You sit down here, and I'll just go on a little."
"No, indeed!" I answered hastily, for I knew well what "just go on a little" meant,—I had tried it before: it meant pass out of sight in two minutes, and out of hearing in one more, so absorbed in following an elusive bird note that everything else would be forgotten. "No, indeed!" I repeated. "I shall not be left in these woods; where you go I follow."
"But I won't go out of sight," she urged, her conscience contending with her eager desire to proceed, for well she knew that I did not take my woods by storm in this way.
[Sidenote: AN ECCENTRIC FOX.]
I said nothing in reply, but I had no intention of being left, for I did not know what dwellers the forest might contain, and I had a vivid remembrance of being greatly startled, only a day or two before, by unearthly cries in these very woods; of seeing a herd of young cattle rushing frantically away, turning apprehensive glances toward the sounds, and huddling in a frightened heap down by the bars, while the strange cries came nearer and nearer, till I should not have been surprised to see any sort of a horror emerge; of calling out to the farmer whom I met at the door, "Oh, there's something dreadful up in the woods!" and his crushing reply, "Yes, I heard it. It's a fox barking; we hear one now and then."
I cast no doubts on the veracity of that farmer, though I could not but remember the license men sometimes allow themselves when trying to quiet fears they consider foolish; nor did his solution seem to account satisfactorily for the evident terror of the cattle, which had lived in those woods all their lives, and had no reason to fear the "bark" of a fox. I preferred, therefore, not to encounter any such eccentric "fox" alone; hence I refused to listen to my friend's entreaties, but simply followed on, over fallen tree-trunks, under drooping branches, and through unyielding brush; now sinking ankle-deep in a pile of dead leaves, now catching my hair in a broken branch, and now nearly falling over a concealed root; wading through swamps, sliding down banks, cutting and tearing our shoes, and leaving bits of our garments everywhere. On we went recklessly, intent upon one thing only,—seeing the bird who, enthroned on his tree-top, calmly and serenely uttered his musical "see-e he-e-re!" while we struggled and scrambled and fought our way down below.
We reached a steep bank, and paused a moment, breathless, disheveled, my interest in the beguiler long ago cooled.
"There's a brook down there," I said hastily; "we can't cross it."
Could we not? But we did, at the expense of a little further rending, and the addition of wet feet to our other discomforts. But at last! at last! we came in sight of our bird, a mere black speck against the sky.
"It's a flycatcher!" exclaimed my companion eagerly. "See his attitude! I must get around the other side!" and on we went again. A fence loomed before us, a fence of brush, impossible to get through, and almost as impossible to get over. But what were any of man's devices to an eager bird-hunter! Over that fence she went—like a bird, I was going to say, but like a boy would perhaps be better. More leisurely and with difficulty I followed, for once on the other side I should be content. I knew the road could not be far off, and through the tangled way we had come I was resolved I would not pass again.
[Sidenote: UPON THE TREE-TOP.]
Well, we ran him down. He was obliging enough to stay in one spot, indifferent to our noisy presence on the earth below, while we studied him on all sides, and decided him to be the olive-sided flycatcher (Contopus borealis). We entered his name and his manners in our notebooks, and we were happy, or at least relieved.
The habit of this bird, as I learned by observation of him afterward, was to sit on the highest twig of a tree dead at the top, where he could command a view of the whole neighborhood, and sing or call by the hour, in a loud, drawling, and rather plaintive tone, somewhat resembling the wood pewee's, though more animated in delivery. I found that the two notes which syllabled themselves to my ear as "see-e he-e-re!" were prefaced by a low, staccato utterance like "quick!" and all were on the same note of the musical scale. Occasionally, but not often, he made a dash into the air, flycatcher fashion, and once I saw him attempt to drive away a golden-winged woodpecker who took the liberty of alighting on a neighboring dead tree-trunk. Down upon him like a small tornado came the flycatcher instantly, expecting, apparently, to annihilate him. But the big, clumsy woodpecker merely slid one side a little, to avoid the onslaught, and calmly went on dressing his feathers as if no small flycatcher existed. This indifference did not please the olive-sided, but he alighted on a branch below and bided his time; it came soon, when the goldenwing took flight, and he came down upon him like a kingbird on a crow. I heard the snap of the woodpecker's beak as he passed into the thick woods, but nobody was hurt, and the flycatcher returned to his perch.
When we had rested a little after our mad rush through the woods, we found that the hours were slipping away, and we must go. Passing down the road at the edge of the woods, we were about to cross a tiny brook, when our eyes fell upon a distinguished personage at his bath. He was a rose-breasted grosbeak, and we instantly stopped to see him. He did not linger, but gave himself a thorough splashing, and flew at once to a tree, where he began dressing his plumage in frantic haste, as if he knew he was a "shining mark" for man and beast. He stayed half a minute on one branch, jerked a few feathers through his beak, then flew to another place and hurriedly dressed a few more; and so he kept on, evidently excited and nervous at being temporarily disabled by wet feathers, though I do not think he knew he had human observers, for we were at some distance and perfectly motionless. He was a beauty, even for his lovely family, and the rose color of his wing-linings was the most gorgeous I ever saw.
[Sidenote: DRESSING IN A HURRY.]
Moreover, I knew this bird, later, to be as useful as he was beautiful. He it was who took upon himself the care of the potato-patch in the garden below, spending hours every day in clearing off the destructive potato-beetle, singing as he went to and from his labors, and, when the toils of the day were over, treating us to a delicious evening song from the top of a tree close by.
In that way the grosbeak's time was spent till babies appeared in the hidden nest, when everything was changed, and he set to work like any hod-carrier; appearing silently, near the house, on the lowest board of the fence, looking earnestly for some special luxury for baby beaks. No more singing on the tree-tops, no more hunting of the beetle in stripes; food more delicate was needed now, and he found it among the brakes that grew in clumps all about under my window. It was curious to see him searching, hopping upon a stalk which bent very much with his weight, peering eagerly inside; then on another, picking off something; then creeping between the stems, going into the bunch out of sight, and reappearing with his mouth full; then flying off to his home. This bird was peculiarly marked, so that I knew him. The red of his breast was continued in a narrow streak down through the white, as if the color had been put on wet, and had dripped at the point.
* * * * *
The third tramp with my Enthusiast was after a warbler. To my fellow bird-students that tells a story. Who among them has not been bewitched by one of those woodland sprites, led a wild dance through bush and brier, satisfied and happy if he could catch an occasional glimpse of the flitting enchanter!
This morning we drove a mile or two out of the village, hitched our horse,—a piece of perfection, who feared nothing, never saw anything on the road, and would stand forever if desired,—and started into the pasture. The gate passed, we had first to pick our way through a bog which had been cut by cows' hoofs into innumerable holes and pitfalls, and then so overgrown by weeds and moss that we could not always tell where it was safe to put a foot. We consoled ourselves for the inconvenience by reflecting that a bog on the side of a mountain must probably be a provision of Mother Nature's, an irrigating scheme for the benefit of the hillside vegetation. If all the water ran off at once, we argued, very little could grow there. So we who love to see our hills covered with trees should not complain, but patiently seek the stepping-stones sometimes to be found, or meekly resign ourselves to going in over boot-tops without a word.
[Sidenote: THE HERMIT'S NEST.]
Our first destination was the nest of a hermit thrush, discovered by my friend the day before; and we stumbled and slipped and picked our way a long distance over the dismal swamp, floundering on till we reached a clump of young hemlocks, on ground somewhat more solid, where we could sit down to rest. There was the nest right before us, a nicely made, compact bird home, exquisitely placed in one of the little trees, a foot from the ground.
While waiting for the owners to appear, I was struck with the beauty of the young hemlocks, so different from most evergreen trees. From the time a hemlock has two twigs above ground it is always picturesque in its method of growth. Its twigs, especially the topmost one, bend over gracefully like a plume. There is no rigid uniformity among the smaller branches, no two appear to be of the same length, but there is an artistic variety that makes of the little tree a thing of beauty. When it puts out new leaves in the early summer, and every twig is tipped with light green, it is particularly lovely, as if in bloom.
How different the mathematical precision of the spruce, which might indeed have been laid out upon geometrical lines! When a baby spruce has but three twigs, one will stand stiffly upright, as if it bore the responsibility of upholding the spruce traditions of the ages, while the other twigs will duly spread themselves at nearly right angles, leaving their brother to represent the aspirations of the family, and thus even in infancy reproduce in miniature the full-grown, formal tree.
When, after waiting some time in vain for the birds to appear, we examined the nest before us, we found that it held two thrush eggs and one of the cowbird. The impertinence of this disreputable bird in thrusting her plebeian offspring upon the divine songster, to rear at the expense of her own lovely brood, was not to be tolerated. The dirty speckled egg looked strangely out of place among the gems that belonged to the nest, and I removed it, careful not to touch nest or eggs. So pertinacious is this parasite upon bird society that my friend says that in Illinois, where the wood thrush represents the charming family, almost every wood thrush nest, in the early summer, contains a cowbird's egg; and not until they have reared one of the intruders can the birds hope to have a brood of their own. Fortunately they nest twice in the season, and the cowbird does not disturb the second family.
[Sidenote: A DISTURBER OF NESTS.]
While we sat watching the hermit's nest, we were attracted by another resident of that cozy group of hemlocks and maples. He appeared upon a low shrub within twenty feet of us, and began to sing. First came a long, deliberate note of the clearest and sweetest tone, then two similar notes, a third higher, followed by three triplets on the same note. Though dressed in sparrow garb, his colors were bright, and he was distinguished and made really beautiful by two broad lines of buff-tinted white over his crown, and a snowy white throat. He was the white-throated sparrow, one of the largest and most interesting of his family. The charm of his song is its clearness of tone and deliberateness of utterance. It is calm as the morning, finished, complete, and almost the only bird song that can be perfectly imitated by a human whistle. I never shared the enthusiasm of some of my fellow bird-lovers for the sparrows till I knew the white-throat and learned to love the dear little song sparrow. It is unfortunate that the song of the former has been translated into a word so unworthy as "peabody," and that the name "peabody bird" has become fastened on him in New England. Far more appropriate the words applied by Elizabeth Akers Allen to an unknown singer,—possibly this very bird,—embodied in her beautiful poem "The Sunset Thrush." For whatever bird it was intended, the syllables and arrangement correspond to the white-throat's utterance, and the words are, "Sweet! sweet! sweet! Sorrowful! sorrowful! sorrowful!"
A white-throat who haunted the neighborhood of my farmhouse did not confine himself to the family song; which, by the way, varies less with this species than with any other I know. At first, for some time, he entirely omitted the triplets, making his song consist of four long notes, the fourth being in place of the triplets. Then, later, he dropped the last note a half tone below the others, still omitting the triplets, which, in fact, in three or four weeks of listening and watching, I never once heard him utter. In July of that year, in passing over the Canadian Pacific Railway on my way West, I heard innumerable songs by this bird. Every time the train stopped, white-throat voices rang out on all sides, and with considerable variety. Many dropped half a tone at the end, and some uttered the triplets on that note, while others began the song on a higher note, and gave the rest a third below, instead of above, as usual.
[Sidenote: FINDING BIRDS'-NESTS.]
But to return to the singer before us on that memorable day. After singing a long time, he suddenly began to utter the first two notes alone, and then apparently to listen. We also listened, and soon heard a reply of the same two notes on a different pitch. These responsive calls were kept up for some time, and seemed to be signals between the bird and his mate; for neither she nor her nest could be found, though the pair had been startled out of that very bush on the preceding day. We searched the clumps of shrubs carefully, but without success.
I long ago came to the conclusion that the ability to find nests easily is as truly a natural gift as the ability to become a musician, or the power to see a statue in a block of marble. That gift is not mine. I have an almost invincible repugnance to poking into bushes and thrusting aside branches to discover who has hidden there. Moreover, if a bird seems anxious or alarmed, I never can bear to disturb her. Nor indeed do I care to find many nests. A long list of nests found in a season gives me no pleasure; how many birds belong to a certain district does not concern me in the least. But if I have really studied one or two nests, and made acquaintance with the tricks and manners of the small dwellers therein, I am satisfied and happy.
While we lingered in the little hemlock grove, enraptured with the white-throat, and feeling that
"Here were the place to lie alone all day On shadowed grass, beneath the blessed trees,"
a distant note reached our ever-listening ears. It was the voice of a warbler, and a most alluring song. Such indeed we found it, for on the instant the Enthusiast sprang to her feet, alert to her finger-tips, crying, "That's the bird we're after!" adding as usual, as she started across the field, "You sit still! I won't go far," while as usual, also, I snatched my things and followed.
The song was in the tone of one of the most bewitching as well as the most elusive of warblers, the black-throated green; a bird not so big as one's thumb, with a provoking fondness for the tops of the tallest trees, where foliage is thickest, and for keeping in constant motion, flitting from twig to twig, and from tree to tree, throwing out as he goes
"The sweetest sound that ever stirred A warbler's throat."
This one was tireless, as are all of his tribe, and led us a weary dance over big, steep-sided rocks, through more and more bogs, over a fence, and out of our open fields into deep woods.
[Sidenote: "YOU SIT STILL."]
Now, my companion in these tramps has a rooted opinion that she is easily fatigued, and must rest frequently; and I have no doubt it is true, when she has no strong interest to urge her on. So she used to burden herself with a clumsy waterproof, to throw on the ground to sit upon; and in compliance with this notion (which was most amusing to those whom she tired out in her tramps), whenever she thought of it—that is, when the bird voice was still for a moment—she would seek a sloping bank, or a place beside a tree where she could lean, and then throw herself down, determined to rest. But always in one minute or less, the warbler would be sure to begin again, when away went good resolutions and fatigue, and she sprang up like a Jack-in-the-box, saying, of course, "You sit still; I'll just go on a little," and off we went over brake and brier.
While pursuing this vocal ignis fatuus I made a charming discovery. In one of the temporary pauses in our wild career, I was startled by the flight of a bird from the ground very near us, and, searching about, I soon found a veery's nest with one egg. It was daintily placed in a clump of brakes or big ferns, resting on a fallen stick, over and around which the brakes had grown.
The bird was not so pleased with my discovery as I was. She perched on a tree over our heads, and uttered the mournful veery cry; and though I did not so much as lay a finger on that nest, I believe she deserted it at that moment, for several days afterward it was found exactly as on that day, with its one egg cold and abandoned.
If I had not, through two summers' close study, made myself very familiar with the various calls and cries of the veery, I think I should be driven wild by them; for no bird that I know can impart such distance to his notes, and few can get around so silently and unobserved as he. A great charm in his song is that it rarely bursts upon your notice; it appears to steal into your consciousness, and in a moment the air seems full of his breezy, woodsy music, his "quivering, silvery song," as Cheney calls it.
Not long were we allowed to meditate upon the charms of the veery, for again the luring song began, the other side of the belt of woods, and off we started anew. This time we secured the bird, or his name, which was all we desired. The sweet beguiler turned out to be the warbler mentioned above, the black-throated green, but with a more than usually exquisite arrangement of his notes. Indeed, my friend, who was what I call warbler-mad,—a state of infatuation I have with care and difficulty guarded myself against,—heard in the woods of the neighborhood, during that summer's visit, no less than four different songs from the same species of warbler.
[Sidenote: THE LAST TRAMP.]
While slowly and weariedly dragging myself back to where our patient horse stood waiting, I fell into meditation on this way of making the study of nature hard work instead of rest and refreshment, and the comparative merits of chasing up one's birds and waiting for them to come about one. Without doubt the choice of method is due largely to temperament, but I think it will be found that most of our nature-seers have followed the latter course.
* * * * *
June was now drawing to an end, and the day of my friend's departure had nearly arrived. One more tramp remained to us. It was a walk up a long, lonely road to a solitary thorn-tree, where I was studying a shrike's nest.
Just as we left the village a robin burst into song, and this bird, because of certain associations, was the Enthusiast's favorite singer. We paused to listen. When bird music begins to wane, when thrushes have taken their broods afar, and orioles and catbirds are heard no more, one appreciates the hearty philosophy, the cheerful and pleasing song, of the robin. It is truly delightful then to hear his noisy challenge, his gleeful "laugh," his jolly song. We may indeed rhapsodize over our rare, fine singers, but after all we could better spare one and all of them than our two most common songsters, our faithful stand-bys, upon whom we can always count to preach to us the gospel of contentment, cheerfulness, and patience,—the dear common robin and the blessed little song sparrow. No weather is so hot that they will not pour out their evangel to us; no rain so wet, no wind so strong, that these two will not let their sweet voices be heard. Blessed, I say, be the common birds, living beside our dwellings, bringing up their young under our very eyes, accepting our advances in a spirit of friendliness, coming earliest, staying latest, and keeping up their song even through the season of feeding, when many become silent. These two are indispensable to us; these two should be dearest to us; these, above all others, should our children be taught to respect and love.
The robin ceased, and we passed on. One more voice saluted us from the last house of the village: a wren, whose nest was placed in a bracket under the roof, sang his gushing little ditty, and then in a moment we were in a different bird world. From one side came the bobolink's voice,
"Preaching boldly to the sad the folly of despair, And telling whom it may concern that all the world is fair;"
from the other, the plaintive notes of the meadow lark.
[Sidenote: THE LARK'S "SPUTTER."]
Lovely indeed the lark looked among the buttercups in the pasture, stretching himself up from the ground, tall and slim, and almost as yellow as they; and very droll his sputtering cry, as he flew over the road to the deep grass of the meadow, to attend to the wants of his family, for the meadow was full of mysterious sounds under the grass, and seemed to give both bobolink and lark much concern.
The call I name the "sputter," because it sounds like nothing else on earth, is a sort of "retching" note followed by several sputtering utterances, hard to describe, but not unpleasant to hear, perhaps because it suggests the meadow under the warm sun of June, with bobolinks soaring and singing, and a populous colony beneath the long grass. Now night was coming on, and the larks were passing from the pasture, where they seemed to spend most of the day, some with song and some with sputter, over the road, to drop into the grass and be seen no more;
"While through the blue of the sky the swallows, flitting and flinging, Sent their slender twitterings down from a thousand throats."
Sometimes, on that lonely road, which I passed over several times a day, I was treated to a fairy-like sight. It was when a recent shower had left little puddles in the clay road, and the eave swallows from a house across the meadow came down to procure material for their adobe structures. Most daintily they alighted on their tiny feet around the edge, holding up their tails like wrens, lest they should soil a feather of their plumage, and raising both wings over their backs like butterflies, fluttering them all the time, as if to keep their balance and partly hold them up from the ground,—a lovely sight which I enjoyed several times.
Under the eaves of the distant house, where the nests of these birds were placed, and which I visited later, were evidences of tragedies. The whole length of the cornice on the back side of the house showed marks of many nests, and there were left at that time but four, two close together at each end of the line. I cannot say positively that the nests had fallen while in use, but in another place, a mile away, I know of a long row having fallen, with young in, every one of whom was killed. Where was the "instinct" of the birds whose hopes thus perished? And was the trouble with their material or with their situation? I noticed this: that the nests had absolutely nothing to rest on, not even a projecting board. They were plastered against a perfectly plain painted board.
[Sidenote: THE PH[OE]BE'S TALK.]
Another bird whom I caught in a new role, apparently giving a lesson in food-hunting to a youngster, was a ph[oe]be. Hearing a new and strange cry, mingled with tones of a voice familiar to me, I looked up, and discovered a young and an old ph[oe]be. The elder kept up a running series of remarks in the tone peculiar to the species, while the infant answered, at every pause, by a querulous single note in a higher key. Every moment or two the instructor would fly out and capture something, talking all the while, as if to say, "See how easy it is!" but careful not to give the food to the begging and complaining pupil. No sooner did the parent alight than the youngster was after him, following him everywhere he went. After a while the old bird flew away, when that deceiving little rogue took upon himself the business of fly-catching. He flew out, snapped his beak, and, returning to his perch, wiped it carefully. Yet when the elder returned he at once resumed his begging and crying, as if starved and unable to help himself.
A friend and bird-student, whose home is in these mountains, assures me that the ph[oe]bes in this vicinity do not confine themselves to the traditional family cry, but have a really pleasing song, which she has heard several times. That, then, is another of the supposed songless birds added to the list of singers. I know both the kingbird and the wood pewee sing, not, to be sure, in a way to be compared to the thrushes, though far excelling the utterances of the warblers. But why are they so shy of exhibiting their talent? Why do they make such a secret of it? Can it be that they are just developing their musical abilities?
When we reached the thorn-tree, on that last evening, we seated ourselves on the bank beside the road, to enjoy the music of the meadow, and to see the shrike family. At the nest all was still, probably settled for the night, but the "lord and master" of that snug homestead stood on a tall maple-tree close by, in dignified silence, watching our movements, no doubt. We waited some time, but he refused either to go or to relax his vigilance in the least, till the hour grew late, and we were obliged to turn back.
The sun had set, and the sky was filled, as on that first evening, with soft, rosy sunset clouds, and the distant mountains, with Jay Peak for a crown, were clothed in gorgeous purple again. With all this beauty before us, we slowly walked back to the village, and I felt it a fitting close to my delightful if exhausting tramps with an Enthusiast.
A MYSTERIOUS STRANGER.
My first sight of the little stranger was one morning when returning from a long stroll in search of a nest of the red-headed woodpecker. It was not through the woods I had been, as might be expected. I did not search the dead limbs or lifeless trees; on the contrary, I followed the dusty road and examined the telegraph poles, for the woodpecker of these latter days has departed from the ways of his fathers, deserted the cool and fragrant woods, and taken up his abode in degenerate places, a fitting change of residence to follow his change of habit from digging his prey out of the tree-trunks to catching it on the wing.
On this special morning I found holes enough, and birds enough, but no hole that seemed to belong to any particular bird; and as I walked along home by the railroad, I came upon my little stranger. He was seated comfortably, as it appeared, on a telegraph wire, so comfortably, indeed, that he did not care to disturb himself for any stray mortal who might chance to pass.
I stopped to look, and hurriedly note his points, fearing every moment that he would take wing; but not a feather stirred. A king on his throne could not be more absolutely indifferent to a passer-by than this little beauty. He was self-possessed as a thrush, and serene as a dove, but he was not conveniently placed for study, being above my head in strong sunlight, against a glaring sky. I could see only that his under parts were beautiful fluffy white dusted with blue-gray, and that he had black on the wings. He was somewhat smaller than a robin, and held his tail with the grace of a catbird.
On several subsequent days I passed that way frequently, sometimes seeing the bird alone, again with a comrade, but always noting the same reserved and composed manners, and always so placed that I could not see his markings. It was not until a week or ten days later that I had a more satisfactory view.
[Sidenote: BABIES IN GRAY.]
I was taking my usual afternoon walk, about five o'clock, when, as I approached a little pond beside the road, up started the unknown from a brush heap on the edge. He flew across the road to a tree near the track, and I was about to follow him when my eye fell upon another on the fence beyond, and on walking slowly toward him I discovered a second, and then a third. Three of the beauties on a fence a little way apart—there was then a family! I stood and gazed.
The backs and heads of the birds, as I could then plainly see, were a little darker shade of the delicate blue-gray, with the same soft, fluffy look I had noticed on the breast. The wings were black and somewhat elaborately marked with white. The beak, that tell-tale feature which reveals the secret of a bird's life, was not long, but thick, and black as jet, and the dark eye was set in a heavy, black band across the side of the head. The combination of black and gray was very effective, and closer acquaintance did not modify my first opinion of the little stranger; he was a bonny bird with clear, open gaze, graceful in every movement, and innocent and sweet in life I was sure, and am still, in spite of—
But let me tell my story: While I was noting these things I heard the cries of a bird-baby behind me. The voice was strange to me, and of a curiously human quality. I turned hastily, and there on the telegraph pole was the baby in gray, receiving his supper from one of his parents, and crying over it, as do many feathered little folk—one more of the mysterious family.
There were thus five in sight at once, and at least three of them were infants lately out of the nest, hardly taught to feed themselves; yet the most sedate head of the household was no more dignified and grown-up in manner than was the youngest of them, for when he had cried over his repast and descended to the fence I could not tell him from Mamma herself.
I soon discovered that this was no junketing party; all were on business bent. They might look at me and they did, although I was not near enough to disturb them; but each and every one kept at least one eye on the ground, where were growing beans or some plant about three inches high, and I'm sure no small creature could stir in that part of the world that one of those sharp eyes did not light upon it. They were ten or fifteen feet apart, so that each had his own share of territory to overlook, and every few moments one flew to the ground, seized something, and returned at once to his place, ready for another. It was a wire fence, and they always selected the wires instead of the posts to perch upon. Sitting and never standing, their attitude expressed the most charming serenity.
[Sidenote: AN UNWELCOME SURPRISE.]
While I stood watching, two of the youngsters happened to pounce upon the same object,—a worm it looked like,—and there was for a moment a spirited tug of war. Each held on to his end, and resisted with cries the attempts of his brother to deprive him of it. Doubtless the prey, whatever it was, suffered in this affair, for in a moment they separated amicably, and each returned to his station on the fence. These three were babies; their actions betrayed them; for a little later, when one of the elders flew from the field to a low peach-tree, instantly there arose the baby-cry "ya-a-a-a!" and those three sedate looking personages on the wire arose as one bird, and flew to the tree, alighting almost on the mother, so eager were they to be fed. In a moment she flew to the fence, where all three followed her. When she escaped from their importunities she came much nearer to me, doubtless to see if I needed watching, and I had a closer look than I had succeeded in getting before, and satisfied myself on a point or two of marking.
Up to this time my searching into the name and identity of my little strangers in gray had been in vain. But a direful suspicion was growing within me. That heavy black line from the eye! The strongly marked wings! I turned with dread to a family I had not thought of trying—the shrikes. There were the markings, too true! But that delicate blue-gray was not "slate color." Still, people see colors differently, and in every other way the description was perfect. They must be—my beautiful, graceful, attractive strangers must be—butcher-birds!
Dreadful discovery! I must at once know all about them; whether they deserve the name and the reputation. I flew to my books.
"The character of the butcher-bird," says Wilson, "is entitled to no common degree of respect. His courage and intrepidity are beyond every other bird of his size, and in affection for his young he is surpassed by no other. He attacks the largest hawk or eagle in their defense with a resolution truly astonishing, so that all of them respect him;" and, further, "He is valued in Carolina and Georgia for the destruction of mice. He sits on the fence and watches the stacks of rice, and darts upon them, also destroying grasshoppers and crickets."
So said Wilson, but subsequent writers have said terrible things about him: that he catches small birds and impales them on thorns; that he delights in killing more than he can eat. Could these things be true? Where, then, was the larder of this family? Such a curious and wonderful place I must see. I resolved to devote myself to discovering the secrets of this innocent looking family in gray.
[Sidenote: A THORNY MONSTER.]
The nest where they had first seen the light was in a low spruce-tree beside a constantly used gate, not more than eight feet from the ground, and across the road was a tree they much frequented. Next to that, and overshadowed by it, was, as I now discovered, a thorny tree, "honey locust" it is called. Ominous proximity! I resolved to investigate. Perhaps I should find the birds' place of storage. I crossed the track and went to the tree. What a structure it was! A mere framework for thorns, and a finer array of them it would be hard to find, from the tiny affair an inch in length, suitable to hold a small grasshopper, to foot-long spikes, big enough to impale a crow. Not only was every branch and every twig bristling with them, but so charged was the whole tree with the "feeling" of thorns, that it actually sent out great clumps of them from the bare trunk, where there was not a shadow of excuse for being. They grew in a confused mass, so that at first I thought there had been a hole which some person had stopped by crowding it full of those vegetable needles, at all angles, and of all sizes up to the largest. On one side alone of the trunk, not more than five feet high, were eight of these eruptions of thorns. Could the most bloodthirsty shrike desire a more commodious larder?
I looked carefully, dreading to see evidence of their use in the traditional way. Outside there, on the telegraph wire, sat one of the birds, very much at home; it was the height of the season, and the country was swarming with young birds. Now, if ever, they should lay up for the future, and prove their right to the name, or kill to amuse themselves, if that were their object. But the closest scrutiny failed to reveal one thorn that was, or, so far as I could see, ever had been, used for any purpose whatever. There was not another spiny tree in the vicinity, and I came away relieved.
One more interview I was happy enough to have with my little gray friends. Coming leisurely along on my way home from the glen one noon, I saw two of them sitting on the wire of a fence beside the road. I had never been so near them, and stopped instantly to have a close look, and perhaps settle the question whether the black band on the side of the head ended at the beak, or crossed over the forehead and met its fellow. I found, at this short range, that the light part of the plumage was covered with fine but decided wavy bars, which gave it an exquisite look, and proved the bird to be the great northern, rather than the loggerhead shrike (I couldn't bear to have my bright beauty called a loggerhead).
Very gradually I drew nearer, till I was not more than six feet from them, and could see them clearly, while they remained perfectly self-possessed for ten or fifteen minutes that I stood there. So near was I that I could see the white eyelids, and the tiny feet, which seemed hardly strong enough to hold them on their perch, and explained their preference for wires to rest on.
[Sidenote: FEATHERS OR FUR?]
One of the little fellows had his back to me, showing the beautiful white markings on his wings as they lie closed and folded together. Near the end of them were white lines making on the black feathers a figure resembling what is known in needlework as a "crow's-foot," perhaps an inch in width, and, a little above this, two dainty waved bars met like a pair of eye-brows. The marking was elegant in the extreme.
While I looked, the bird nearest me suddenly lost what little interest he had in my doings, turned his eyes downward, and in a moment dropped upon a big grasshopper, which he carried in his beak to a wire near the ground to dispose of. Evidently, however, he was not quite ready to eat, for he deliberately lifted one foot, took the grasshopper in his claw, and instantly ejected upon the ground a dark-colored bolus, I should judge half an inch in diameter, and more than twice as long. Then he returned to his grasshopper and made short work of it.
This seemed only to sharpen his appetite, for in a moment he dragged out from the grass something which startled me. Was it feathers or fur or a bit of old rag?
I could soon tell, for he was not in the least ashamed or secretive about it. He pulled it to where a fallen wire lay very near the ground, threw it partly over the wire, plainly as a hold to pull against, and then jerked off a mouthful, which he ate. Again and again did he fling it over the wire, for it soon slipped off, and it was perfectly plain that the object was to give him purchase to pull against. Then I could see small legs on the fragment, and a tail like a mouse's. While I stood watching this feast in progress, a call came from across the road. It was not loud, and it was of a quality hard to express, not exactly harsh, nor yet musical. It was instantly answered by the two on the fence, and the one I was watching dropped his fresh meat and joined his parent. Then I examined the remains of his meat, and found that it had reddish brown fur, a tail not so long but resembling that of a mouse. It was on the borders of a recently cut field of wheat, and it was doubtless some species of ground mouse, a common field mouse, I have reason to believe.
And that was the last I saw of the pretty gray birds that year.
A THORN-TREE NEST.
June was drawing to a close; hermit thrushes and veeries had turned their energies to seeking food for hungry young mouths; rose-breasted grosbeaks and golden orioles, as well as their more humbly clad fellow-creatures, were passing their days near the ground, in the same absorbing work; tree-tops were deserted, and singing was nearly over.
It was well, then, that I should leave my beloved woods, and betake myself to a barren country road, where, in a lonely thorn-tree, a bird of another sort than these had set up late housekeeping, a shrike.
The reputation of this bird of solitary tastes is not attractive. He is quarrelsome and unfriendly with his kind, and aggressive and malicious toward others, says the Oracle. His pleasure is to torture and destroy; no sweet or tender sentiment may cling about his life; in fact, he is altogether unlovely. So declare the books, and so, with additions and exaggerations, says nearly every one who takes birds for his theme. He is branded everywhere as the "butcher-bird," and it seems to be the aim of each writer to discover in his conduct something a little more sanguinary, a shade more depraved, than any predecessor has done.
Now, if the truth is what we are seeking, is it not desirable to see for ourselves, or, as Emerson puts it, "leave others' eyes, and bring your own"? If one can give to the task patient observation, with a loving spirit, a desire to interpret faithfully and to see the best instead of the worst, may he not perchance find that the bird is not the monster he is pictured? And though the story be not so sensational, is it not better to clear up than to blacken the reputation of a fellow-creature, even a very small one in feathers?
This thing it had long been in my heart to do,—to see with my own eyes what enormities the beautiful butcher-bird is guilty of. I left hermits and veeries, I said adieu to sandpipers and grosbeaks, and went to the village to abide with the shrike family. No more delightful mornings in the blessed woods; no more long, dreamy twilights filled with the music of thrushes and the singing brook; no more charming views of the near Green Mountains, gray in the morning light, glorious rosy purple under the setting sun; no more solitary communion with helpful and healing nature. My household gods must now be set up among people, with their cares and troubles, where the immense tragedy of human life is constantly forced into notice; and in no place in the wide world is there more tragedy in every-day life than in peaceful and pious New England.
[Sidenote: THE ROLE OF REPORTER.]
Change of residence was not so simple an affair with me as it is with the birds; would that it were! I had to spend half a day packing, and another half undoing the work. I had to secure another temporary home, where certain conveniences to which we human beings are slaves should not be lacking, and with a family one could endure under the same roof. All this must needs be settled before I could call on my new neighbors. Time and patience accomplished everything, although the mercury was soaring aloft among the nineties all the time; and at last came the morning when I seated myself before the household I proposed to interview for the benefit of the readers of our day, who demand (say the newspaper authorities) facts and details of daily lives that were of old considered private matters.
On these lines, therefore, I proceeded to study my shrikes. What I discovered by watching early and late, by peeping at them before breakfast and spying upon them after supper,—what they eat and drink, how they behave to one another and their neighbors, what they have to say or to sing, in fact, their whole story so far as it was revealed to me,—I shall set down, nothing extenuating. Other observers may have seen very different things, but that only proves what I am constantly asserting: that birds are individuals; that because one shrike does a certain thing is no sign that another will do the same; it is not safe to judge the species en masse. This, therefore, is the true chronicle of what I saw of one pair of loggerhead shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus), in the northern extremity of Vermont, about the first of July, 1894.
The discovery of the nest in the thorn-tree was not my own. A friend and fellow bird-lover, driving one evening up this road, startled a bird from the nest, and, checking her horse, looked on in amazement while, one after another, six full-grown shrikes emerged from the tree and flew away. Pondering this strange circumstance she drove on, and when returning looked sharply out for the thorn-tree. This time one bird flew from the nest, which seemed to settle the question of ownership. The next day and the next this experience was repeated, and then the news was brought to me in the woods.
[Sidenote: A LONELY ROAD.]
It was a lonely road, leading to nothing except a pasture and a distant farm or two, and the presence of a member of the human race was almost as rare as it was in the forest itself. On one side stretched a pasture with high rail fence; on the other, a meadow guarded by barbed wire. A traveler over this uninviting way soon left the last house in the village behind, and then the only human dwellings in sight were some deserted farm buildings on a hill a mile or more away. Not a tree offered grateful shade, and not a bush relieved the bare monotony of this No Thoroughfare.
But it had its full share of feathered residents. Just beyond the last house, a wren, bubbling over with joy, always poured out his enchanting little song as I passed. Under the deep grass of the meadow dwelt bobolinks and meadow larks; from the pasture rose the silver threadlike song of the savanna sparrow and the martial note of the kingbird. Occasionally I had a call from a family of flickers, or golden-wings, from the woods beyond the pasture; the four young ones naive and imperative in their manners, bowing vehemently, with emphatic "peauk" that seemed to demand the reason of my presence in their world; while the more experienced elders uttered their low "ka-ka-ka," whether of warning to the young or of pride in their spirit one could only guess. A hard-working oriole papa, with a peremptory youngster in tow, now and then appeared in the pasture; and swallows, both barn and eave, came in merry, chattering flocks from their homes at the edge of the village.
About the middle of the long stretch of road was a solitary maple-tree, and about thirty feet from it, and just within the pasture fence, the thorn, and the nest of my hopes. Approaching quietly on that first morning, I unfolded my camp-chair and sat down in the shade of the maple. The thorn-tree before me was perhaps fifteen feet high. It divided near the ground into two branches, which drew apart, bent over, and became nearly horizontal at their extremities. On one of these main stems, near the end, where it was not more than an inch and a half in diameter, with neither cross-branch nor twig to make it secure, was placed the nest. It was a large structure, at least twice the size of a robin's nest, made apparently of coarse twigs and roots, with what looked like bits of turf or moss showing through the sides, and why it did not fall off in the first strong wind was a mystery. Parallel with the limb on which it rested, and only a few inches above it, was another branch, that must, one would think, be seriously in the way of the coming and going, the feeding and care-taking, inseparable from life in the nest.
[Sidenote: THE NEST IN VIEW.]
From my post of observation, the thorn-tree was silhouetted against the sky, for it stood on the edge of a slight descent. Every twig and leaf was distinctly visible, while the openings in the foliage were so numerous that not a wing could flit by without my seeing it. The nest itself was partially veiled by a bunch of leaves. What the view might be from the other side I did not investigate that morning; I preferred to leave the birds the slight screen afforded by the foliage, for since there could be no pretense of hiding myself from them, my desire was to let them fancy themselves hidden from me, and so feel free from constraint and be natural in their actions. I hoped, by approaching quietly and unobtrusively, by being careful never to frighten or disturb them in any way, to convince them that I was harmless, and to induce them to forget, or at least ignore, my silent presence. And it seemed possible that I might be gratified, for I had been seated but a few minutes when a shrike flew up from the ground and entered the nest, and, I was pleased to see, with no apparent concern about me.
For the next three hours I took my eyes off the nest only to follow the movements of the owners thereof; and I learned that sitting had begun, and that the brooding bird was fed by her mate. He came, always from a distance, directly to the nest, alighted on the edge, leaned over and gave one poke downward, while low yearning or pleading cries reached my ears. Without lingering an instant he flew to a perch a foot above, stood there half a minute, and then went to the ground. Not more than thirty seconds elapsed before he returned to his mate, the cries greeted him, the mouthful was administered, and he took his leave in exactly the same way as before. He was a personage of methodical habits. This little performance of seeking food on the ground and carrying it to his partner on the nest was repeated five or six times in close succession, and then he rose higher than his tree and took flight for a distant hill, looking, as he flew, like a fluttering bit of black-and-white patchwork. On further acquaintance, I found this to be the regular habit of the bird: to come to his nest and feed his mate thoroughly, and then to take himself away for about half an hour, though later he fell to lingering and watching me.
Left thus alone and well fed, madam was quiet for some time, perhaps ten minutes, and then she went out for exercise or for lunch; flying directly to the ground near the tree, and returning in a few minutes to her place.
[Sidenote: FEEDING HIS MATE.]
On one occasion I saw what sort of food the shrike collected. He had alighted on the wire fence, apparently to inquire into my business, when his eyes fell upon something desirable—from his point of view. Instantly he dropped to the road, picked up a black object, worm or beetle, an inch long, and took it at once to his mate. Sometimes he carried his prey to a post, and beat it a while before presenting it to her; and one evening, somewhat later than usual, he was found industriously gleaning food from the hosts of the air, flying up in the manner of a flycatcher, and to all appearance with perfect success.
The loggerhead shrike is one of our most beautiful birds, clear blue-gray above, and snowy white below. His black wings are elegantly marked with white, and his black tail, when spread like a fan, as he wheels to alight, showing broad tips and outer feathers of white, is one of his most striking marks. He is a little smaller than a robin, and his mate is of the same size, and as finely dressed as he. The resemblance he is said to bear to the mockingbird I have never been able to see. His form, his size, his coloring, and his movements are, to my sight, in every way different from those of the southern bird.
The manners of the shrike are as fine as one would expect from so distinguished-looking a personage, dignified, reposeful, and unusually silent. I have seen him, once or twice, flirt his half-opened tail and jerk his wings, but he rarely showed even so much impatience or restlessness. He sat on the fence and regarded me, or he drove away an intrusive neighbor, with the same calm and serious air with which he did everything. I have heard of pranks and fantastic performances, of strange, uncouth, and absurd cries, and of course it is impossible to say what vagaries he might have indulged in if he had thought himself unobserved, but in many hours and days of close study of this bird I saw nothing of the kind. The only utterance I heard from him, excepting his song, of which I shall speak presently, was a rattling cry with which he pursued an intruder, and a soft, coaxing "yeap" when he came to the nest and found his mate absent.
One of the most prominent traits of this bird, as we find him depicted in the books and the popular writings, is his quarrelsome and cruel disposition; and "brigand," "assassin," "murderer," and "butcher" are names commonly applied to him.
[Sidenote: FRIENDLY RELATIONS.]
I watched the shrike several hours daily for weeks, and from the first I was every moment on the alert for the slightest manifestation of these characteristics; and what did I find out? First as to his quarrelsome disposition, his unfriendliness with his own species. I have already spoken of the amicable association, in the very nesting-tree, of half a dozen of the birds, as reported by a trustworthy and experienced observer. On one occasion, somewhat later, I saw an exhibition of a similar friendliness among four adult shrikes. They were frolicking about another thorn-tree in the same pasture, in the most peaceful manner; and while I looked, one of them picked up a tidbit from the ground and flew to the nest I was watching, thus proving that the nesting-bird was one of the group. At least twice afterward, when silently approaching the nest, I found two other shrikes hopping about with the one I was studying, on the ground, almost under the tree. On my appearance the strangers flew, and the nest-owner went up to his mate with an offering. We do not think of calling the robin or bluebird particularly quarrelsome, yet fancy one of these birds allowing another of his species to come to his home-tree! Every close observer of bird-ways knows that it is apparently the first article in the avian creed to keep every other bird away from the nest.
And how did the terrible "brigand" treat his neighbors? The robin, indeed, he drove away, but meadow larks sang and "sputtered" at their pleasure, not only beside him on the fence, but on his own small tree; goldfinches flew over, singing and calling, and no notice was taken of them; sparrows hopped about among the branches of the thorn at their discretion; a chickadee one day made searching examination of nearly every twig and leaf, going close to and over the nest, where the sitting bird must have seen him, yet not a peep arose. Sometimes, when madam left her nest for refreshment, she would sweep by a bird who happened to be on the tree, thus making him fly, but she never followed or showed any special interest in him. Whatever other shrikes may be or do, at least this pair, and the three or four others who visited them, were amiable with their neighbors, small as well as great.
If bravery is a virtue,—and why is it not, in feathers as well as in broadcloth?—the shrike should stand high in our estimation, for he does not hesitate to attack and make his prey animals which few birds of his size dare touch; not only mice, but creatures as well armed as gophers and others.
I was particularly desirous to hear the song of the shrike. He is not classed with singing birds, and is not, I think, usually credited with being musical. But Thoreau speaks of his song, and others mention it. John Burroughs tells of a shrike singing in his vicinity in winter, "a crude broken warble,"—"saluting the sun as a robin might have done." Winter, indeed, seems to be his chosen time for singing, and an ornithologist in St. Albans says that in that season he sings by the hour in the streets of the town.
[Sidenote: THE SHRIKE'S SONG.]
Therefore did I sit unobtrusively on the near side of the thorn-tree, leaving the birds their screen, to encourage them to sing; and at last I had my reward. One very hot day I did not reach my place under the maple till after nine o'clock, and I found the shrike, as I frequently did, on the fence, on guard. In a few moments, when I had become quiet, he went to the nest, and sitting there on the edge, hidden from my distinct view, he condescended to sing, a low, sweet song, truly musical, though simple in construction, being merely a single clear note followed by a trill several tones higher. After delivering this attractive little aria a dozen or more times, he flew out of the tree and over my head, and sang no more.
My curiosity about his song being thus gratified, I decided to seek a better post of observation; for I hoped every day to find that sitting was over, and the young had appeared. I therefore walked farther up the road, quite past the tree, and took my seat beside the fence, where I could see the whole nest perfectly. The birds at once recognized that all hope of concealment was over, and became much more wary. The singer came less frequently, and was received in silence. Also he took me under strict surveillance, perching on a dead branch of the maple-tree, and sitting there half an hour at a time, motionless but wide awake; ready, no doubt, to defend the nest if I made hostile demonstrations toward it.
For a long time I had my lonely road to myself, almost the sole passer-by being a boy who drove the village cows back and forth, and whom I had taken pains to interest in the safety of the little family. But such a state of things could not last. One morning, as I sat in my usual place, I noticed a party of girls starting out with baskets and pails after berries. They scattered over the meadow, and while I trembled for meadow lark and bobolink babies, I hoped they would not see me; but one of them came directly to the thorn-tree. As she approached, I turned away, as if I had no particular interest in the tree, but, unfortunately, just as she was passing, the bird flew off the nest. The girl looked up, and instantly shouted to me, "Oh, here's a bird's-nest!" "Yes," I replied, knowing that my best policy was to claim it, "that's the nest I am watching." After a sharp look at the tree she went on; but I was much disturbed, for I regard a nest discovered almost the same as a nest robbed. Would she tell? Should I some day find the nest broken up or destroyed? Every morning, after that, I took my long, lonely walk with misgivings, and did not feel easy till I had seen the birds.
[Sidenote: SEARCHING THE THORNS.]
One very notorious habit of the shrike I had been especially desirous of investigating—that of impaling his prey. Judging from what has been written about him, it must be a common performance, his daily business, and I confidently expected to see his thorn-tree adorned, from roots to topmost twig, with grasshoppers and beetles, not to mention small birds and animals. Early in my visits to him, I looked the tree over carefully, and, not content with my own eyes, called in the aid of a friend. Moreover, we together made diligent search in the only other thorn-tree in the vicinity, one spoken of above. Not a sign could we discover in either tree of any such use of a thorn, though thorns were there in abundance.
Again, one day I saw the bird very busy about the barbed-wire fence, and remembering to have seen the statement that shrikes in the West, where thorn-trees are absent, impale their grasshoppers on the barbs, I thought, "Now I have surely caught you at it!" I did not disturb him, and he worked at that spot some time. But when he had gone I hastened over to see what beetle or bird he had laid up, when behold, the barbs were as empty as the thorns. In fact, I was never able to find the smallest evidence that the bird ever does impale anything, and the St. Albans ornithologist spoken of adds as his testimony that he has often examined the haunts of this bird, but has never found anything impaled. And a correspondent in Vermont writes me that he watched the shrike for twenty years, on purpose to see this performance, and in all that time saw but three instances, one being a field mouse, and the other two English sparrows.
All this, of course, does not prove that the shrike never impales his prey, but it does prove that he does not spend all his time at the work; and while I have no doubt he has the habit, I believe the accounts of it are very much exaggerated.
On the morning of the Fourth of July, a cool, and in that remote part of the world a delightfully quiet day, I felt an unaccountable disinclination to make my usual visit to the shrikes. Refusing, however, to yield to that feeling, I forced myself to take the long walk, and seat myself in my usual place. But I could not feel much surprise when, after more than an hour's close watching, the birds failed to appear, and I became convinced that they were gone. Whether shot by man or boy, robbed by beast or bird or human, it was plain I had seen the last of the thorn-tree family; for I knew positively that in that hour no one had gone to or come from the nest, and I was sure, from my knowledge of her, that the sitting bird would not remain an hour without eating, even if her mate had stayed away so long. Of course, I concluded, that girl had told her discovery, and some boy had heard, and broken up the home. I looked carefully on every side. The nest seemed undisturbed, but not a sign of life appeared about it, and sadly enough I folded my chair and went back to the village.
[Sidenote: "PAUPERIZING" A BIRD.]
Six days passed, in which I avoided going up the lonely road, the scene of my disappointment, but I turned my attention to bird affairs in the town. One case which interested me greatly was of "pauperizing" a bird. It was a least flycatcher, and her undoing was her acceptance of nesting material, which her human friend, the oft-mentioned local bird-lover, supplied. To secure a unique nest for herself, when the flycatcher babies should have abandoned it, this wily personage, who was the accepted providence of half the birds in the vicinity, and on terms of great familiarity with some of them, threw out narrow strips of cloth of various colors, to tempt the small nest-builder. At first the wise little madam refused to use the gayer pieces, but being beguiled by the device of sewing a bright one between two of duller hue, her scruples were overcome; and after that her fall into total dependence was easy and complete. She accepted the most brilliant pieces that were offered, and built her nest therewith.
But alas, from the moment of yielding to her vanity or her love for ease, troubles began in the flycatcher family. The robin nesting in an adjoining tree reproved her by tugging at the gay strings that hung out; the English sparrow across the way set herself up as a conservator of morals, and, to teach Madam Chebek modesty becoming her size, tried to pull the whole to pieces. Then when Chebek, who is no coward, had succeeded in putting an end to neighborly interference, the nest began to show a deplorable disinclination to "stay put." Whether the material could not be properly fastened, or whether the bird was so demoralized as to shirk ordinary precautions, the fact is, that every breeze shook the little structure, and four completed nests of this unnatural sort fell, one after another, in ruins to the ground. Then motherly instinct came to the rescue: she refused further aid, removed herself to a distance, built a new nest, after the accredited flycatcher fashion, and it is supposed brought out her brood safely, if rather late. So hard it is in the bird-world, as in the human, to help, and not hurt.
[Sidenote: STRANGE CRIES UP THE ROAD.]
More interesting, even, than this flycatcher episode was an adventure one evening when I walked far out on a road, one side of which was deep woods, while the other was bordered by pasture and meadows. My object in going was to hear a white-throated sparrow, who often sang in that vicinity.
I had been resting on my camp-stool very quietly for half an hour, and was just thinking it time to return home, when a strange sort of clacking cry startled me. At first I thought it was made by a frog with a bad cold; but it grew louder, and changed in quality, till it became a whining sound that might be made either by a baby or by some small animal. I looked very carefully up the road whence the sound seemed to come, but saw nothing excepting a robin, who, perched on the highest post of a fence, was looking and listening with great apparent interest, but without making a sound himself,—a very unusual proceeding on the part of this bird, who always has a great deal to say about everything.
The cries increased in volume and frequency, and I started slowly up the road, uncertain whether I should come upon a young fox or other wild beast, but determined to solve the mystery. As I drew near, I began to be conscious of a knocking sound in the woods beside the road. It was like a light tapping on hollow wood, and it regularly followed each cry. I was at once reassured. It must be a woodpecker, I thought,—they make some strange noises, and there was a large one, the pileated, said to inhabit these woods, though I had never been able to see him. I went on more confidently then, for I must see what woodpecker baby could utter such cries. As I continued to advance, though I could still see nothing, I noticed that the tapping grew louder every moment.
Suddenly there was a movement at the edge of a thick clump of ferns, and my eyes fell upon what I thought was, after all, a big toad or frog. It hopped like one of these reptiles, and as it was growing dusky, feathers and fur and bare skin looked much alike. But being anxious to know positively, I went on, and when I reached it I saw that it was a young bird, nearly as big as a robin just out of the nest. Then I dropped all impedimenta, and gave myself unreservedly to the catching of that bird. He fled under the ferns, which were like a thick mat, and I stooped and parted them, he flying ever ahead till he reached the end and came out in sight. Then I pounced upon him, and had him in my hands.
[Sidenote: A VOCIFEROUS BABY.]
Such a shriek as he gave! while he struggled and bit, and proved himself very savage indeed. More startling, however, than his protest was a cry of anguish that answered it from the woods, a heart-rending, terrible cry, the wail of a mother about to be bereaved. I looked up, and lo! in plain sight, in her agony forgetting her danger, and begging by every art in her power, a cuckoo. Her distress went to my heart; I could not resist her pleading. One instant I held that vociferous cuckoo baby, to have a good look at him, speaking soothingly to the mother the while, and then opened my hand, when he half flew, half scrambled, to the other side of the road, and set up another cry, more like that of his mother. Seeing her infant at liberty, she slipped back into the woods and resumed the calls, which sounded so remarkably like tapping, while he started up the road, answering; and thus I left them.
Several times after that, I heard from the woods—for
"The cuckoo delights in the cool leafy shadows Where the nest and its treasures are rocked by the breeze"—
the same strange calling of a cuckoo mother, a weird, unearthly, knocking sound, not in the least like the ordinary "kuk! kuk!" of the bird. I should never have suspected that it was anything but the tap of an unusually cautious woodpecker, if I had not caught her at it that night.
On the sixth evening after I had thought myself bereaved of the shrikes, I went out for a walk with my friend, and we turned our steps into the lonely road. As we approached the thorn, what was my surprise to see the shrike in his old place on the fence, and, after waiting a few minutes, to see his mate go to the ground for her lunch, as if nothing had happened!
Then they had not deserted! But how and why all life about the nest had been suspended for one hour on the Fourth of July is a puzzle to this day. However it may have happened, I was delighted to find the birds safe, and at once resumed my study; going out the next morning as usual, staying some hours, and again toward night for another visit.
Now I was sure it must be time for the young to be out, for I knew positively that the bird had been sitting fourteen days, and twenty-one days had passed since she was frightened off her nest twice in one day.
I redoubled my vigilance, but I saw no change in the manners of the pair till the morning of July 12th. All night there had been a heavy downpour, and the morning broke dismally, with strong wind and a drizzling rain. I knew the lonely road would be most unattractive, but no vagaries of wind or weather could keep me away at this crisis. I found it all that I had anticipated—and more. The clay soil was cut up from fence to fence by cows' feet, and whether it presented an unbroken puddle or a succession of small ones made by the hoof-prints, it was everywhere so slippery that retaining one's footing was no slight task, and of course there was no pretense of a sidewalk. Add to this the difficulty of holding an umbrella against the fierce gusts, and it may be imagined that my pathway that morning was not "strewn with roses."
[Sidenote: STUDY UNDER DIFFICULTIES.]
In some fashion, however, I did at last reach the thorn-tree, planted my chair in the least wet spot I could find, and, tucking my garments up from the ground, sat down. At first I discarded my unmanageable umbrella, till the raindrops obscuring my opera-glass forced me to open it again. And all these preliminaries had to be settled before I could so much as look at the nest.
Something had happened, as I saw at once; the manners of the birds were very different from what they had been all these days I had been studying them. Both of them were at the nest when I looked, but in a moment one flew, and the other slipped into her old seat, though not so entirely into it as usual. Heretofore she had been able to hide herself so completely that it was impossible to tell whether she were there or not. Even the tail, which in most birds is the unconcealable banner that proclaims to the bird-student that the sitter is at home, even this unruly member she had been able to hide in some way, but this morning it remained visible.
In a minute the shrike returned and fed somebody,—I suppose his mate, since she did not move aside; and again in another minute he repeated the operation. So he went on bringing food perhaps a dozen times in close succession. Then he rested a few minutes, when she who through the long days of sitting had been so calm and quiet seemed all at once as restless as any warbler. She rose on the edge of the nest, and uttered the low, yearning cry I had heard from him, then flew to the ground, returned, perched on the edge, leaned over, and gave three pokes as if feeding. Then she flew to another part of the tree, thence to a fence post, then back again to the edge of the nest. In a moment the uneasy bird slipped into her old place, but, apparently too restless to stay, was out again in a few seconds, when she stood up in the nest and began calling,—a loud but musical two-note call, the second tone a third higher than the first, and different from anything I had heard from her before. If it were a call to her mate, he did not at once appear, and she relieved her feelings by flying to the maple and perching a few minutes, though so great was the attraction at home that she could stay away but a short time.
[Sidenote: LOVELY, INNOCENT YOUNGLINGS.]
Of course I concluded from all this that the young shrikes were out, and I longed with all my heart to stay and watch the charming process of changing from the ungainly creatures they were at that moment to the full-grown and feathered beauties they would be when they appeared on the tree; to see them getting their education, learning to follow their parents about, and finally seeking their own food, still keeping together in a family party, as I had seen them once before, elsewhere,—lovely, innocent younglings whom surely no one could find it in his heart to call "butchers" or "assassins." Then, too, I wanted to see the head of the family, who in the character of spouse had shown himself so devoted, so above reproach, in the new role of father and teacher, in which I had no doubt he would be equally admirable.
But dearly as I love birds, there are other ties still dearer, and just then there came a call that made me leave the pair with their new joy, pack my trunks, and speed, night and day, half way across the continent, beyond the Great Divide, to a certain cozy valley in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
Before I left, however, I committed the little family in the thorn-tree to the care of my friend the bird-lover; and a few weeks later there came over the mountains to me this conclusion to the story, written by Mrs. Nelly Hart Woodworth, of St. Albans:—
"I was at the shrikes' nest Thursday last. I sat down on the knoll beyond the nest, and waited quietly for fifteen minutes. No signs of life in nest or neighborhood, save the yearning cry of the lark, as it alighted on the top of the thorn-tree. After I was convinced that, in some unaccountable manner, the shrikes had been spirited away before they were half big enough, I changed my place to the other side of the tree, out of sight from the nest. When I had been there for a long time, I heard distinctly a low whispering in the nest, and lo! the butcher babies had become sentient beings, and were talking very softly and sweetly among themselves. They had evidently miscalculated about my departure. Then two or three little heads stuck out above the edge, and the soft stirring of baby wings was apparent. They cuddled and nestled and turned themselves, and one little butcher hoisted himself upon the upper side of the nest, stood upright briefly and beat his wings, then sank into the nest, which was full of life and movement. So much for that day.
"Friday one stood upon the edge of the nest, and others looked out, but no feeding bird came.
[Sidenote: SHAKEN OUT OF THE NEST.]
"Saturday I was in fortune, as I met in the vicinity the boy who drives the village cows. Two heads only were visible over the edge. But the boy, with a boy's genius for investigation, brought a fence rail, put it under the branch, and shook them up a little. They only huddled closer. At my suggestion he gave a more vigorous shake, and a baby climbed from the nest, a foot or two above, then flew as well as anybody clear lip into the top of the tree. Such a pretty baby! breast white as snow, lovely black crescent through the eyes, and the dearest little tail imaginable, half an inch long, and flirted up and down continually.
"The other bird—for there were but two—ran up the twigs for two feet, but quickly returned to the nest, and would not leave it again, though we could see its wondering eyes look out and peer at us. Both were gone the next day (twelve days old). And thus endeth the butcher episode."
Now also must end—for a time—my study of this interesting bird. But I shall not forget it, and I shall seek occasion to study it again and again, till I have proved, if I find it true, that the shrike deserves better of us than the character we have given him; that he is not nearly "so black as he is painted."
THE WITCHING WREN.
"There is madness about thee, and joy divine In that song of thine."
The song of the winter wren is something that must be heard to be appreciated; words can no more describe it than they can paint the sky at evening, or translate the babble of the mountain brook.
"Canst thou copy in verse one chime Of the wood bird's peal and cry?"
This witching carol, one of nature's most alluring bits of music, fell upon my ear for the first time one memorable morning in June. It was a true siren-strain. We forgot, my comrade and I, what we were seeking in the woods. The junco family, in their snug cave among the roots, so interesting to us but now, might all fly away; the oven-bird, in the little hollow beside the path, might finish her lace-lined domicile, and the shy tanager conclude to occupy the nest on the living arch from which we had frightened her,—all without our being there to see. For the moment we cared for but one thing,—to follow that "wandering voice," to see that singer.
[Sidenote: THE DOG BECOMES INTERESTED.]
Silently we arose, folded our camp-stools, and started. We wished to move without sound; but the woods were dry, and every dead stick snapped with a crack; every fallen leaf rustled with a startling sound; every squirrel under whose tree we chanced to pass first shrieked, and then subsided into a sobbing cry or a scolding bark, according as his fur was gray or red. A procession of elephants could hardly make more noise, or create more consternation among the residents of the forest, than we three (counting the dog), when we wished to be silent as shadows. But the wren sang on. Evidently, he was accustomed to squirrel vagaries, and snapping twigs did not disturb him. Nearer and nearer sounded the song, and more and more enraptured we became. We were settling ourselves to listen and to look for our charmer, when the third member of our party created a diversion. Wrens had no attraction for him, but he came upon the scent of something he was interested in, and instantly fell to pawing the ground and tearing up the obstructing roots with his teeth, as though he had gone suddenly mad.
The door through which had doubtless vanished some delectable mouse or mole was, when discovered, of a proper size for his small body, but in less than a minute it was big enough to admit the enormous head of the dog, who varied his eager tearing up of the soil with burying his head and shoulders in the hole he had made; smelling and listening a few seconds, then jerking it out with a great snort, and devoting himself with fresh vigor to digging. It was a curious contrast to the indifference with which he usually accompanied us, but it proved that he had his enthusiasms, if he did not share ours. We could not but be amused, notwithstanding the delicious trilling notes that drew us grew fainter and fainter, and we despaired of seeing our songster till the important affairs of that mouse should be settled. Arguments were of no avail with the four-footed sportsman, a rival attraction failed to attract, and commands were thrown away on him in his excited state. We were forced to go home without the sight we desired.
We were not the first to be fascinated by this marvelous melody. "Dull indeed must be the ear that thrills not on hearing it," says Audubon, and its effect upon him is worth telling. He was traveling through a swamp, where he had reason to suspect the presence of venomous snakes and other reptiles. While moving with great circumspection, looking out for these unwelcome neighbors, the captivating little aria burst upon his ear. Instantly snakes were forgotten, his absorbing passion took full possession, and he crashed recklessly through the briers and laurels in pursuit. It is pleasant to know, further, that he found not only the singer, but his nest, which was the first he had ever seen, and gave him a delight known only to enthusiastic bird-lovers.