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Title: Birds in the Bush
Author: Torrey, Bradford, 1843-1912
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Birds in the Bush" ***

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Sixth Edition

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

Copyright, 1885,
by Bradford Torrey
All rights reserved.

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

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

_The Prologue of the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach._



   ON BOSTON COMMON             1

   BIRD-SONGS                  31





   MINOR SONGSTERS            155


   A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL       211


   A MONTH'S MUSIC            277

                           ON BOSTON COMMON.

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


                           ON BOSTON COMMON.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] _The Reign of Law_, p. 140.


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[6] See the paper of Daines Barrington in _Philosophical Transactions_
for 1773; also, Darwin's _Descent of Man_, and Wallace's _Natural

                         CHARACTER IN FEATHERS.

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

                                                    SIR THOMAS BROWNE.

                         CHARACTER IN FEATHERS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what is true of the _Hylocichlæ_ is true of every bird that flies.
Anatomy and dress and even voice aside, who does not feel the
dissimilarity between the cat-bird and the robin, and still more the
difference, amounting to contrast, between the cat-bird and the
bluebird? Distinctions of color and form are what first strike the eye,
but on better acquaintance these are felt to be superficial and
comparatively unimportant; _the_ difference is not one of outside
appearance. It is his gentle, high-bred manner and not his azure
coat, which makes the bluebird; and the cat-bird would be a cat-bird
in no matter what garb, so long as he retained his obtrusive
self-consciousness and his prying, busy-body spirit; all of which, being
interpreted, comes, it may be, to no more than this, "Fine feathers
don't make fine birds."

Even in families containing many closely allied species, I believe that
every species has its own proper character, which sufficient intercourse
would enable us to make a due report of. Nobody ever saw a song-sparrow
manifesting the spirit of a chipper, and I trust it will not be in my
day that any of our American sparrows are found emulating the virtues of
their obstreperous immigrant cousin. Of course it is true of birds, as
of men, that some have much more individuality than others. But know any
bird or any man well enough, and he will prove to be himself, and nobody
else. To know the ten thousand birds of the world well enough to see
how, in bodily structure, habit of life, and mental characteristics,
every one is different from every other is the long and delightful task
which is set before the ornithologist.

But this is not all. The ornithology of the future must be ready to give
an answer to the further question how these divergences of anatomy and
temperament originated. How came the chickadee by his endless fund of
happy spirits? Whence did the towhee derive his equanimity, and the
brown thrush his saturnine temper? The waxwing and the vireo have the
same vocal organs; why should the first do nothing but whisper, while
the second is so loud and voluble? Why is one bird belligerent and
another peaceable; one barbarous and another civilized; one grave and
another gay? Who can tell? We can make here and there a plausible
conjecture. We know that the behavior of the blue jay varies greatly in
different parts of the country, in consequence of the different
treatment which he receives. We judge that the chickadee, from the
peculiarity of his feeding habits, is more certain than most birds are
of finding a meal whenever he is hungry; and that, we are assured from
experience, goes a long way toward making a body contented. We think it
likely that the brown thrush is at some special disadvantage in this
respect, or has some peculiar enemies warring upon him; in which case it
is no more than we might expect that he should be a pessimist. And, with
all our ignorance, we are yet sure that everything has a cause, and we
would fain hold by the brave word of Emerson, "Undoubtedly we have no
questions to ask which are unanswerable."


[7] This does not harmonize exactly with a statement which Emerson makes
somewhere, to the effect that all the stoics were stoics indeed. But
Epictetus had never lived in Concord.

                         IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS

    Our music's in the hills.


                         IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS.

It was early in June when I set out for my third visit to the White
Mountains, and the ticket-seller and the baggage-master in turn assured
me that the Crawford House, which I named as my destination, was not yet
open. They spoke, too, in the tone which men use when they mention
something which, but for uncommon stupidity, you would have known
beforehand. The kindly sarcasm missed its mark, however. I was aware
that the hotel was not yet ready for the "general public." But I said to
myself that, for once at least, I was not to be included in that
unfashionably promiscuous company. The vulgar crowd must wait, of
course. For the present the mountains, in reporters' language, were "on
private view;" and despite the ignorance of railway officials, I was one
of the elect. In plainer phrase, I had in my pocket a letter from the
manager of the famous inn before mentioned, in which he promised to do
what he could for my entertainment, even though he was not yet, as he
said, keeping a hotel.

Possibly I made too much of a small matter; but it pleased me to feel
that this visit of mine was to be of a peculiarly intimate
character,--almost, indeed, as if Mount Washington himself had bidden me
to private audience.

Compelled to wait three or four hours in North Conway, I improved the
opportunity to stroll once more down into the lovely Saco meadows, whose
"green felicity" was just now at its height. Here, perched upon a
fence-rail, in the shadow of an elm, I gazed at the snow-crowned Mount
Washington range, while the bobolinks and savanna sparrows made music on
every side. The song of the bobolinks dropped from above, and the
microphonic tune of the sparrows came up from the grass,--sky and earth
keeping holiday together. Almost I could have believed myself in Eden.
But, alas, even the birds themselves were long since shut out of that
garden of innocence, and as I started back toward the village a crow
went hurrying past me, with a kingbird in hot pursuit. The latter was
more fortunate than usual, or more plucky; actually alighting on the
crow's back and riding for some distance. I could not distinguish his
motions,--he was too far away for that,--but I wished him joy of his
victory, and grace to improve it to the full. For it is scandalous that
a bird of the crow's cloth should be a thief; and so, although I reckon
him among my friends,--in truth, _because_ I do so,--I am always able to
take it patiently when I see him chastised for his fault. Imperfect as
we all know each other to be, it is a comfort to feel that few of us are
so altogether bad as not to take more or less pleasure in seeing a
neighbor's character improved under a course of moderately painful

At Bartlett word came that the passenger car would go no further, but
that a freight train would soon start, on which, if I chose, I could
continue my journey. Accordingly, I rode up through the Notch on a
platform car,--a mode of conveyance which I can heartily and in all good
conscience recommend. There is no crowd of exclaiming tourists, the
train of necessity moves slowly, and the open platform offers no
obstruction to the view. For a time I had a seat, which after a little
two strangers ventured to occupy with me; for "it's an ill wind that
blows nobody good," and there happened to be on the car one piece of
baggage,--a coffin, inclosed in a pine box. Our sitting upon it could
not harm either it or us; nor did we wean any disrespect to the man,
whoever he might be, whose body was to be buried in it. Judging the
dead charitably, as in duty bound, I had no doubt he would have been
glad if he could have seen his "narrow house" put to such a use. So we
made ourselves comfortable with it, until, at an invisible station, it
was taken off. Then we were obliged to stand, or to retreat into a
miserable small box-car behind us. The platform would lurch a little now
and then, and I, for one, was not experienced as a "train hand;" but we
all kept our places till the Frankenstein trestle was reached. Here,
where for five hundred feet we could look down upon the jagged rocks
eighty feet below us, one of the trio suddenly had an errand into the
box-car aforesaid, leaving the platform to the other stranger and me.
All in all, the ride through the Notch had never before been so
enjoyable, I thought; and late in the evening I found myself once again
at the Crawford House, and in one of the best rooms,--as well enough I
might be, being the only guest in the house.

The next morning, before it was really light, I was lying awake looking
at Mount Webster, while through the open window came the loud, cheery
song of the white-throated sparrows. The hospitable creatures seemed to
be inviting me to come at once into their woods; but I knew only too
well that, if the invitation were accepted, they would every one of
them take to hiding like bashful children.

The white-throat is one of the birds for whom I cherish a special
liking. On my first trip to the mountains I jumped off the train for a
moment at Bartlett, and had hardly touched the ground before I heard his
familiar call. Here, then, was Mr. Peabody at home. Season after season
he had camped near me in Massachusetts, and many a time I had been
gladdened by his lively serenade; now he greeted me from his own native
woods. So far as my observations have gone, he is common throughout the
mountain region; and that in spite of the standard guide-book, which
puts him down as patronizing the Glen House almost exclusively. He knows
the routes too well to need any guide, however, and may be excused for
his ignorance of the official programme. It is wonderful how shy he
is,--the more wonderful, because, during his migrations, his manner is
so very different. Then, even in a city park you may watch him at your
leisure, while his loud, clear whistle is often to be heard rising above
a din of horse-cars and heavy wagons. But here, in his summer quarters,
you will listen to his song a hundred times before you once catch a
glimpse of the singer. At first thought it seems strange that a bird
should be most at home when he is away from home; but in the one case
he has nothing but his own safety to consult, while in the other he is
thinking of those whose lives are more to him than his own, and whose
hiding-place he is every moment on the alert to conceal.

In Massachusetts we do not expect to find sparrows in deep woods. They
belong in fields and pastures, in roadside thickets, or by fence-rows
and old stone-walls bordered with barberry bushes and alders. But these
white-throats are children of the wilderness. It is one charm of their
music that it always comes, or seems to come, from such a
distance,--from far up the mountain-side, or from the inaccessible
depths of some ravine. I shall not soon forget its wild beauty as it
rose out of the spruce forests below me, while I was enjoying an evening
promenade, all by myself, over the long, flat summit of Moosilauke. From
his habit of singing late at night this sparrow is in some places known
as the nightingale. His more common name is the Peabody bird; while a
Jefferson man, who was driving me over the Cherry Mountain road, called
him the Peverly bird, and told me the following story:--

A farmer named Peverly was walking about his fields one spring morning,
trying to make up his mind whether the time had come to put in his
wheat. The question was important, and he was still in a deep quandary,
when a bird spoke up out of the wood and said, "Sow wheat, Peverly,
Peverly, Peverly!--Sow wheat, Peverly, Peverly, Peverly!" That settled
the matter. The wheat was sown, and in the fall a most abundant harvest
was gathered; and ever since then this little feathered oracle has been
known as the Peverly bird.

We have improved on the custom of the ancients: they examined a bird's
entrails; we listen to his song. Who says the Yankee is not wiser than
the Greek?

But I was lying abed in the Crawford House when the voice of
_Zonotrichia albicollis_ sent my thoughts thus astray, from Moosilauke
to Delphi. That day and the two following were passed in roaming about
the woods near the hotel. The pretty painted trillium was in blossom, as
was also the dark purple species, and the hobble-bush showed its broad
white cymes in all directions. Here and there was the modest little
spring beauty (_Claytonia Caroliniana_), and not far from the Elephant's
Head I discovered my first and only patch of dicentra, with its delicate
dissected leaves and its oddly shaped petals of white and pale yellow.
The false mitrewort (_Tiarella cordifolia_) was in flower likewise, and
the spur which is cut off Mount Willard by the railroad was all aglow
with rhodora,--a perfect flower-garden, on the monochromatic plan now so
much in vogue. Along the edge of the rocks on the summit of Mount
Willard a great profusion of the common saxifrage was waving in the
fresh breeze:

    "Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
    Tossing their heads in sprightly dance."

On the lower parts of the mountains, the foliage was already well out,
while the upper parts were of a fine purplish tint, which at first I was
unable to account for, but which I soon discovered to be due to the fact
that the trees at that height were still only in bud.

A notable feature of the White Mountain forests is the absence of oaks
and hickories. These tough, hard woods would seem to have been created
on purpose to stand against wind and cold. But no; the hills are covered
with the fragile poplars and birches and spruces, with never an oak or
hickory among them. I suspect, indeed, that it is the very softness of
the former which gives them their advantage. For this, as I suppose, is
correlated with rapid growth; and where the summer is very short, speed
may count for more than firmness of texture, especially during the first
one or two years of the plant's life. Trees, like men, lose in one way
what they gain in another; or, in other words, they "have the defects
of their qualities." Probably Paul's confession, "When I am weak, then
am I strong," is after all only the personal statement of a general law,
as true of a poplar as of a Christian. For we all believe (do we not?)
that the world is a universe, governed throughout by one Mind, so that
whatever holds in one part is good everywhere.

But it was June, and the birds, who were singing from daylight till
dark, would have the most of my attention. It was pleasant to find here
two comparatively rare warblers, of whom I had before had only casual
glimpses,--the mourning warbler and the bay-breasted. The former was
singing his loud but commonplace ditty within a few rods of the piazza
on one side of the house, while his congener, the Maryland
yellow-throat, was to be heard on the other side, along with the
black-cap (_Dendroeca striata_), the black-and-yellow, and the
Canadian flycatcher. The mourning warbler's song, as I heard it, was
like this: _Whit whit whit_, _wit wit_. The first three notes were
deliberate and loud, on one key, and without accent. The last two were
pitched a little lower, and were shorter, with the accent on the first
of the pair; they were thinner in tone than the opening triplet, as is
meant to be indicated by the difference of spelling.[8] Others of the
family were the golden-crowned thrush, the small-billed water-thrush,
the yellow-rumped, the Blackburnian (with his characteristic _zillup_,
_zillup_, _zillup_), the black-throated green, the black-throated blue
(the last with his loud, coarse _kree_, _kree_, _kree_), the redstart,
and the elegant blue yellow-back. Altogether, they were a gorgeous

But the chief singers were the olive-backed thrushes and the winter
wrens. I should be glad to know on just what principle the olive-backs
and their near relatives, the hermits, distribute themselves throughout
the mountain region. Each species seems to have its own sections, to
which it returns year after year, and the olive-backed, being, as is
well known, the more northern species of the two, naturally prefers the
more elevated situations. I have found the latter abundant near the
Profile House, and for three seasons it has had exclusive possession of
the White Mountain Notch,--so far, at least, as I have been able to
discover.[9] The hermits, on the other hand, frequent such places as
North Conway, Gorham, Jefferson, Bethlehem, and the vicinity of the
Flume. Only once have I found the two species in the same neighborhood.
That was near the Breezy Point House, on the side of Mount Moosilauke;
but this place is so peculiarly romantic, with its noble amphitheatre of
hills, that I could not wonder neither species was willing to yield the
ground entirely to the other; and even here it was to be noticed that
the hermits were in or near the sugar-grove, while the Swainsons were in
the forest, far off in an opposite direction.[10]

It is these birds, if any, whose music reaches the ears of the ordinary
mountain tourist. Every man who is known among his acquaintances to have
a little knowledge of such things is approached now and then with the
question, "What bird was it, Mr. So-and-So, that I heard singing up in
the mountains? I didn't see him; he was always ever so far off; but his
voice was wonderful, so sweet and clear and loud!" As a rule it may
safely be taken for granted that such interrogatories refer either to
the Swainson thrush or to the hermit. The inquirer is very likely
disposed to be incredulous when he is told that there are birds in his
own woods whose voice is so like that of his admired New Hampshire
songster that, if he were to hear the two together, he would not at
first be able to tell the one from the other. He has never heard them,
he protests; which is true enough, for he never goes into the woods of
his own town, or, if by chance he does, he leaves his ears behind him in
the shop. His case is not peculiar. Men and women gaze enraptured at New
Hampshire sunsets. How glorious they are, to be sure! What a pity the
sun does not sometimes set in Massachusetts!

As a musician the olive-back is certainly inferior to the hermit, and,
according to my taste, he is surpassed also by the wood thrush and the
Wilson; but he is a magnificent singer, for all that, and when he is
heard in the absence of the others it is often hard to believe that any
one of them could do better. A good idea of the rhythm and length of his
song may be gained by pronouncing somewhat rapidly the words, "I love, I
love, I love you," or, as it sometimes runs, "I love, I love, I love you
truly." How literal this translation is I am not scholar enough to
determine, but without question it gives the sense substantially.

The winter wrens were less numerous than the thrushes, I think, but,
like them, they sang at all hours of the day, and seemed to be well
distributed throughout the woods. We can hardly help asking how it is
that two birds so very closely related as the house wren and the winter
wren should have been chosen haunts so extremely diverse,--the one
preferring door-yards in thickly settled villages, the other keeping
strictly to the wildest of all wild places. But whatever the
explanation, we need not wish the fact itself different. Comparatively
few ever hear the winter wren's song, to be sure (for you will hardly
get it from a hotel piazza), but it is not the less enjoyed on that
account. There is such a thing as a bird's making himself too common;
and probably it is true even of the great _prima donna_ that it is not
those who live in the house with her who find most pleasure in her
music. Moreover, there is much in time and circumstance. You hear a song
in the village street, and pass along unmoved; but stand in the silence
of the forest, with your feet in a bed of creeping snowberry and oxalis,
and the same song goes to your very soul.

The great distinction of the winter wren's melody is its marked rhythm
and accent, which give it a martial, fife-like character. Note tumbles
over note in the true wren manner, and the strain comes to an end so
suddenly that for the first few times you are likely to think that the
bird has been interrupted. In the middle is a long in-drawn note, much
like one of the canary's. The odd little creature does not get far away
from the ground. I have never seen him sing from a living tree or bush,
but always from a stump or a log, or from the root or branch of an
overturned tree,--from something, at least, of nearly his own color.[11]
The song is intrinsically one of the most beautiful, and in my ears it
has the further merit of being forever associated with reminiscences of
ramblings among the White Hills. How well I remember an early morning
hour at Profile Lake, when it came again and again across the water from
the woods on Mount Cannon, under the Great Stone Face!

Whichever way I walked, I was sure of the society of the snow-birds.
They hopped familiarly across the railroad track in front of the
Crawford House, and on the summit of Mount Washington were scurrying
about among the rocks, opening and shutting their pretty white-bordered
fans. Half-way up Mount Willard I sat down to rest on a stone, and after
a minute or two out dropped a snow-bird at my feet, and ran across the
road, trailing her wings. I looked under the bank for her nest, but, to
my surprise, could find nothing of it. So I made sure of knowing the
place again, and continued my tramp. Returning two hours later, I sat
down upon the same bowlder, and watched for the bird to appear as
before; but she had gathered courage from my former failure,--or so it
seemed,--and I waited in vain till I rapped upon the ground over her
head. Then she scrambled out and limped away, repeating her innocent but
hackneyed ruse. This time I was resolved not to be baffled. The nest was
there, and I would find it. So down on my knees I got, and scrutinized
the whole place most carefully. But though I had marked the precise
spot, there was no sign of a nest. I was about giving over the search
ignominiously, when I descried a slight opening between the overhanging
roof of the bank and a layer of earth which some roots held in place
close under it. Into this slit I inserted my fingers, and there,
entirely out of sight, was the nest full of eggs. No man could ever have
found it, had the bird been brave and wise enough to keep her seat.
However, I had before this noticed that the snow-bird, while often
extremely clever in choosing a building site, is seldom very skillful in
keeping a secret. I saw him one day standing on the side of the same
Mount Willard road,[12] gesticulating and scolding with all his might,
as much, as to say, "Please don't stop here! Go straight along, I beg of
you! Our nest is right under this bank!" And one glance under the bank
showed that I had not misinterpreted his demonstrations. For all that, I
do not feel like taking a lofty tone in passing judgment upon Junco. He
is not the only one whose wisdom is mixed with foolishness. There is at
least one other person of whom the same is true,--a person of whom I
have nevertheless a very good opinion, and with whom I am, or ought to
be, better acquainted than I am with any animal that wears feathers.

The prettiest snow-bird's nest I ever saw was built beside the Crawford
bridle path, on Mount Clinton, just before the path comes out of the
woods at the top. It was lined with hair-moss (a species of
_Polytrichum_) of a bright orange color, and with its four or five
white, lilac-spotted eggs made so attractive a picture that I was
constrained to pause a moment to look at it, even though I had three
miles of a steep, rough footpath to descend, with a shower threatening
to overtake me before I could reach the bottom. I wondered whether the
architects really possessed an eye for color, or had only stumbled upon
this elegant bit of decoration. On the whole, it seemed more charitable
to conclude the former; and not only more charitable, but more
scientific as well. For, if I understand the matter aright, Mr. Darwin
and his followers have settled upon the opinion that birds do display an
unmistakable fondness for bright tints; that, indeed, the males of many
species wear brilliant plumage for no other reason than that their mates
prefer them in that dress. Moreover, if a bird in New South Wales adorns
her bower with shells and other ornaments, why may not our little
Northern darling beautify her nest with such humbler materials as her
surroundings offer? On reflection, I am more and more convinced that the
birds knew what they were doing; probably the female the moment she
discovered the moss, called to her mate, "Oh, look, how lovely! Do, my
dear, let's line our nest with it!"

This artistic structure was found on the anniversary of the battle of
Bunker Hill, a day which I had been celebrating, as best I could, by
climbing the highest hill in New England. Plunging into the woods within
fifty yards of the Crawford House, I had gone up and up, and on and on,
through a magnificent forest, and then over more magnificent rocky
heights, until I stood at last on the platform of the hotel at the
summit. True, the path, which I had never traveled before, was wet and
slippery, with stretches of ice and snow here and there; but the
shifting view was so grand, the atmosphere so bracing, and the solitude
so impressive that I enjoyed every step, till it came to clambering up
the Mount Washington cone over the bowlders. At this point, to speak
frankly, I began to hope that the ninth mile would prove to be a short
one. The guide-books are agreed in warning the visitor against making
this ascent without a companion, and no doubt they are right in so
doing. A crippling accident would almost inevitably be fatal, while for
several miles the trail is so indistinct that it would be difficult, if
not impossible, to follow it in a fog. And yet, if one is willing to
take the risk (and is not so unfortunate as never to have learned how to
keep himself company), he will find a very considerable compensation in
the peculiar pleasure to be experienced in being absolutely alone above
the world. For myself, I was shut up to going in this way or not going
at all; and a Bostonian must do something patriotic on the Seventeenth
of June. But for all that, if the storm which chased me down the
mountains in the afternoon, clouding first Mount Washington and then
Mount Pleasant behind me, and shutting me in-doors all the next day, had
started an hour sooner, or if I had been detained an hour later, it is
not impossible that I might now be writing in a different strain.

My reception at the top was none of the heartiest. The hotel was tightly
closed, while a large snow-bank stood guard before the door. However, I
invited myself into the Signal Service Station, and made my wants known
to one of the officers, who very kindly spread a table with such things
as he and his companions had just been eating. It would be out of place
to say much about the luncheon: the bread and butter were good, and the
pudding was interesting. I had the cook's word for it that the latter
was made of corn-starch, but he volunteered no explanation of its color,
which was nearly that of chocolate. As a working hypothesis I adopted
the molasses or brown-sugar theory, but a brief experiment (as brief as
politeness permitted) indicated a total absence of any saccharine
principle. But then, what do we climb mountains for, if not to see
something out of the common course? On the whole, if this department of
our national government is ever on trial for extravagance in the matter
of high living, I shall be moved to offer myself as a competent witness
for the defense.

A company of chimney-swifts were flying criss-cross over the summit, and
one of the men said that he presumed they lived there. I took the
liberty to doubt his opinion, however. To me it seemed nothing but a
blunder that they should be there even for an hour. There could hardly
be many insects at that height, I thought, and I had abundant cause to
know that the woods below were full of them. I knew, also, that the
swifts knew it; for while I had been prowling about between Crawford's
and Fabyan's, they had several times shot by my head so closely that I
had instinctively fallen to calculating the probable consequences of a
collision. But, after all, the swift is no doubt a far better
entomologist than I am, though he has never heard of Packard's Guide.
Possibly there are certain species of insects, and those of a peculiarly
delicate savor, which are to be obtained only at about this altitude.

The most enjoyable part of the Crawford path is the five miles from the
top of Mount Clinton to the foot of the Mount Washington cone. Along
this ridge I was delighted to find in blossom two beautiful Alpine
plants, which I had missed in previous (July) visits,--the diapensia
(_Diapensia Lapponica_) and the Lapland rose-bay (_Rhododendron
Lapponicum_),--and to get also a single forward specimen of _Potentilla
frigida_. Here and there was a humblebee, gathering honey from the small
purple catkins of the prostrate willows, now in full bloom. (Rather
high-minded humblebees, they seemed, more than five thousand feet above
the sea!) Professional entomologists (the chimney-swift, perhaps,
included) may smile at my simplicity, but I was surprised to find this
"animated torrid zone," this "insect lover of the sun," in such a
Greenland climate. Did he not know that his own poet had, described him
as "hot midsummer's petted crone"? But possibly he was equally surprised
at my appearance. He might even have taken his turn at quoting

    "Pants up hither the spruce clerk
    From South Cove and City Wharf"?[13]

Of the two, he was unquestionably the more at home, for he was living
where in forty-eight hours I should have found my death. So much is
_Bombus_ better than a man.

In a little pool of water, which seemed to be nothing but a transient
puddle caused by the melting snow, was a tiny fish. I asked him by what
miracle he got there, but he could give no explanation. He, too, might
well enough have joined the noble company of Emersonians:--

    "I never thought to ask, I never knew;
    But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
    The self-same Power that brought me here brought you."

Almost at the very top of Mount Clinton I was saluted by the familiar
ditty of the Nashville warbler. I could hardly believe my ears; but
there was no mistake, for the bird soon appeared in plain sight. Had it
been one of the hardier-seeming species, the yellow-rumped for example,
I should not have thought it very strange; but this dainty
_Helminthophaga_, so common in the vicinity of Boston, did appear to be
out of his latitude, summering here on Alpine heights. With a good pair
of wings, and the whole continent to choose from, he surely might have
found some more congenial spot than this in which to bring up his little
family. I took his presence to be only an individual freak, but a
subsequent visitor, who made the ascent from the Glen, reported the same
species on that side also, and at about the same height.

These signs of life on bleak mountain ridges are highly interesting and
suggestive. The fish, the humblebees, the birds, and a mouse which
scampered away to its hole amid the rocks,--all these might have found
better living elsewhere. But Nature will have her world full. Stunted
life is better than none, she thinks. So she plants her forests of
spruces, and keeps them growing, where, with all their efforts, they
cannot get above the height of a man's knee. There is no beauty about
them, no grace. They sacrifice symmetry and everything else for the sake
of bare existence, reminding one of Satan's remark, "All that a man hath
will he give for his life."

Very admirable are the devices by which vegetation maintains itself
against odds. Everybody notices that many of the mountain species, like
the diapensia, the rose-bay, the Greenland sandwort (called the mountain
daisy by the Summit House people, for some inscrutable reason), and the
phyllodoce, have blossoms disproportionately large and handsome; as if
they realized that, in order to attract their indispensable allies, the
insects, to these inhospitable regions, they must offer them some
special inducements. Their case is not unlike that of a certain mountain
hotel which might be named, which happens to be poorly situated, but
which keeps itself full, nevertheless, by the peculiar excellence of its

It does not require much imagination to believe that these hardy
vegetable mountaineers love their wild, desolate dwelling-places as
truly as do the human residents of the region. An old man in Bethlehem
told me that sometimes, during the long, cold winter, he felt that
perhaps it would be well for him, now his work was done, to sell his
"place" and go down to Boston to live, near his brother. "But then," he
added, "you know it's dangerous transplanting an old tree; you're likely
as not to kill it." Whatever we have, in this world, we must pay for
with the loss of something else. The bitter must be taken with the
sweet, be we plants, animals, or men. These thoughts recurred to me a
day or two later, as I lay on the summit of Mount Agassiz, in the sun
and out of the wind, gazing down into the Franconia Valley, then in all
its June beauty. Nestled under the lee of the mountain, but farther from
the base, doubtless, than it seemed from my point of view, was a small
dwelling, scarcely better than a shanty. Two or three young children
were playing about the door, and near them was the man of the house
splitting wood. The air was still enough for me to hear every blow,
although it reached me only as the axe was again over the man's head,
ready for the next descent. It was a charming picture,--the broad, green
valley full of sunshine and peace, and the solitary cottage, from whose
doorstep might be seen in one direction the noble Mount Washington
range, and in another the hardly less noble Franconias. How easy to live
simply and well in such a grand seclusion! But soon there came a thought
of Wordsworth's sonnet, addressed to just such a mood, "Yes, there is
holy pleasure in thine eye," and I felt at once the truth of his
admonition. What if the cottage really were mine,--mine to spend a
lifetime in? How quickly the poetry would turn to prose!

An hour afterwards, on my way back to the Sinclair House, I passed a
group of men at work on the highway. One of them was a little apart from
the rest, and out of a social impulse I accosted him with the remark, "I
suppose, in heaven, the streets never will need mending." Quick as
thought came the reply: "Well, I hope not. If I ever _get_ there, I
don't want to work on the _road_." Here spoke universal human nature,
which finds its strong argument for immortality in its discontent with
matters as they now are. The one thing we are all sure of is that we
were born for something better than our present employment; and even
those who school themselves most religiously in the virtue of
contentment know very well how to define that grace so as not to
exclude from it a comfortable mixture of "divine dissatisfaction." Well
for us if we are still able to stand in our place and do faithfully our
allotted task, like the mountain spruces and the Bethlehemite


[8] He is said to have another song, beautiful and wren-like; but that I
have never heard.

[9] This is making no account of the gray-cheeked thrushes, who are
found only near the _tops_ of the mountains.

[10] I have since found both species at Willoughby Lake, Vermont and the
veery with them.

[11] True when written, but now needing to be qualified by one
exception. See p. 226.

[12] Beside this road (in June, 1883) I found a nest of the
yellow-bellied flycatcher (_Empidonax flaviventris_). It was built at
the base of a decayed stump, in a little depression between two roots,
and was partially overarched with growing moss. It contained four
eggs,--white, spotted with brown. I called upon the bird half a dozen
times or more, and found her a model "keeper at home." On one occasion
she allowed my hand to come within two or three inches of her bill. In
every case she flew off without any outcry or ruse, and once at least
she fell immediately to fly-catching with admirable philosophy. So far
as I know, this is the only nest of the species ever found in New
England outside of Maine. But it is proper to add that I did not capture
the bird.

[13] But by this time the clerk's appearance was, to say the least, not
reprehensibly "spruce." For one thing, what with the moisture and the
sharp stones, he was already becoming jealous of his shoes, lest they
should not hold together till he could get back to the Crawford House.

                         PHILLIDA AND CORIDON.

    Fierce warres and faithful loves shall moralize my song.


    Much ado there was, God wot:
    He would love, and she would not.

                      NICHOLAS BRETON.

                         PHILLIDA AND CORIDON.

The happiness of birds, heretofore taken for granted, and long ago put
to service in a proverb, is in these last days made a matter of doubt.
It transpires that they are engaged without respite in a struggle for
existence,--a struggle so fierce that at least two of them perish every
year for one that survives.[14] How, then, can they be otherwise than

There is no denying the struggle, of course; nor need we question some
real effect produced by it upon the cheerfulness of the participants.
The more rationalistic of the smaller species, we may be sure, find it
hard to reconcile the existence of hawks and owls with the doctrine of
an all-wise Providence; while even the most simple-minded of them can
scarcely fail to realize that a world in which one is liable any day to
be pursued by a boy with a shot-gun is not in any strict sense

And yet, who knows the heart of a bird? A child, possibly, or a poet;
certainly not a philosopher. And happiness, too,--is that something of
which the scientific mind can render us a quite adequate description? Or
is it, rather, a wayward, mysterious thing, coming often when least
expected, and going away again when, by all tokens, it ought to remain?
How is it with ourselves? Do we wait to weigh all the good and evil of
our state, to take an accurate account of it _pro_ and _con_, before we
allow ourselves to be glad or sorry? Not many of us, I think. Mortuary
tables may demonstrate that half the children born in this country fail
to reach the age of twenty years. But what then? Our "expectation of
life" is not based upon statistics. The tables may be correct, for aught
we know; but they deal with men in general and on the average; they have
no message for you and me individually. And it seems not unlikely that
birds may be equally illogical; always expecting to live, and not die,
and often giving themselves up to impulses of gladness without stopping
to inquire whether, on grounds of absolute reason, these impulses are to
be justified. Let us hope so, at all events, till somebody proves the

But even looking at the subject a little more philosophically, we may
say--and be thankful to say it--that the joy of life is not dependent
upon comfort, nor yet upon safety. The essential matter is that the
heart be engaged. Then, though we be toiling up the Matterhorn, or swept
along in the rush of a bayonet charge, we may still find existence not
only endurable, but in the highest degree exhilarating. On the other
hand, if there is no longer anything we care for; if enthusiasm is dead,
and hope also, then, though we have all that money can buy, suicide is
perhaps the only fitting action that is left for us,--unless, perchance,
we are still able to pass the time in writing treatises to prove that
everybody else ought to be as unhappy as ourselves.

Birds have many enemies and their full share of privation, but I do not
believe that they often suffer from _ennui_. Having "neither storehouse
nor barn,"[15] they are never in want of something to do. From sunrise
till noon there is the getting of breakfast, then from noon till sunset
the getting of dinner,--both out-of-doors, and without any trouble of
cookery or dishes,--a kind of perpetual picnic. What could be simpler
or more delightful? Carried on in this way, eating is no longer the
coarse and sensual thing we make it, with our set meal-times and
elaborate preparations.

Country children know that there are two ways to go berrying. According
to the first of these you stroll into the pasture in the cool of the
day, and at your leisure pick as many as you choose of the ripest and
largest of the berries, putting every one into your mouth. This is
agreeable. According to the second, you carry a basket, which you are
expected to bring home again well filled. And this method--well, tastes
will differ, but following the good old rule for judging in such cases,
I must believe that most unsophisticated persons prefer the other. The
hand-to-mouth process certainly agrees best with our idea of life in
Eden; and, what is more to the purpose now, it is the one which the
birds, still keeping the garden instead of tilling the ground, continue
to follow.

That this unworldliness of the birds has any religious or theological
significance I do not myself suppose. Still, as anybody may see, there
are certain very plain Scripture texts on their side. Indeed, if birds
were only acute theologians, they would unquestionably proceed to turn
these texts (since they find it so easy to obey them) into the basis of
a "system of truth." Other parts of the Bible must be _interpreted_, to
be sure (so the theory would run); but _these_ statements mean just what
they say, and whoever meddles with them is carnally minded and a

Somebody will object, perhaps, that, with our talk about a "perpetual
picnic," we are making a bird's life one cloudless holiday;
contradicting what we have before admitted about a struggle for
existence, and leaving out of sight altogether the seasons of scarcity,
the storms, and the biting cold. But we intend no such foolish
recantation. These hardships are real enough, and serious enough. What
we maintain is that evils of this kind are not necessarily inconsistent
with enjoyment, and may even give to life an additional zest. It is a
matter of every-day observation that the people who have nothing to do
except to "live well" (as the common sarcasm has it) are not always the
most cheerful; while there are certain diseases, like pessimism and the
gout, which seem appointed to wait on luxury and idleness,--as though
nature were determined to have the scales kept somewhat even. And surely
this divine law of compensation has not left the innocent birds
unprovided for,--the innocent birds of whom it was said, "Your heavenly
Father feedeth them." How must the devoted pair exult, when, in spite
of owls and hawks, squirrels and weasels, small boys and full-grown
oölogists, they have finally reared a brood of offspring! The long
uncertainty and the thousand perils only intensify the joy. In truth, so
far as this world is concerned, the highest bliss is never to be had
without antecedent sorrow; and even of heaven itself we may not scruple
to say that, if there are painters there, they probably feel obliged to
put some shadows into their pictures.

But of course (and this is what we have been coming to through this long
introduction),--of course our friends of the air are happiest in the
season of mating; happiest, and therefore most attractive to us who find
our pleasure in studying them. In spring, of all times of the year, it
seems a pity that everybody should not turn ornithologist. For "all
mankind love a lover;" and the world, in consequence, has given itself
up to novel-reading, not knowing, unfortunately, how much better that
_rôle_ is taken by the birds than by the common run of story-book

People whose notions of the subject are derived from attending to the
antics of our imported sparrows have no idea how delicate and beautiful
a thing a real feathered courtship is. To tell the truth, these
foreigners have associated too long and too intimately with men, and
have fallen far away from their primal innocence. There is no need to
describe their actions. The vociferous and most unmannerly importunity
of the suitor, and the correspondingly spiteful rejection of his
overtures by the little vixen on whom his affections are for the moment
placed,--these we have all seen to our hearts' discontent.

The sparrow will not have been brought over the sea for nothing,
however, if his bad behavior serves to heighten our appreciation of our
own native songsters, with their "perfect virtues" and "manners for the
heart's delight."

The American robin, for instance, is far from being a bird of
exceptional refinement. His nest is rude, not to say slovenly, and his
general deportment is unmistakably common. But watch him when he goes
a-wooing, and you will begin to feel quite a new respect for him. How
gently he approaches his beloved! How carefully he avoids ever coming
disrespectfully near! No sparrow-like screaming, no dancing about, no
melodramatic gesticulation. If she moves from one side of the tree to
the other, or to the tree adjoining, he follows in silence. Yet every
movement is a petition, an assurance that his heart is hers and ever
must be. The action is extremely simple; there is nothing of which to
make an eloquent description; but I should pity the man who could
witness it with indifference. Not that the robin's suit is always
carried on in the same way; he is much too versatile for that. On one
occasion, at least, I saw him holding himself absolutely motionless, in
a horizontal posture, staring at his sweetheart as if he would charm her
with his gaze, and emitting all the while a subdued hissing sound. The
significance of this conduct I do not profess to have understood; it
ended with his suddenly darting at the female, who took wing and was
pursued. Not improbably the robin finds the feminine nature somewhat
fickle, and counts it expedient to vary his tactics accordingly; for it
is getting to be more and more believed that, in kind at least, the
intelligence of the lower animals is not different from ours.

I once came unexpectedly upon a wood thrush, who was in the midst of a
performance very similar to this of the robin standing on the dead
branch of a tree, with his crown feathers erect, his bill set wide open,
and his whole body looking as rigid as death. His mate, as I perceived
the next moment, was not far away, on the same limb. If he was
attempting fascination, he had gone very clumsily about it, I thought,
unless his mate's idea of beauty was totally different from mine; for I
could hardly keep from laughing at his absurd appearance. It did not
occur to me till afterwards that he had perhaps heard of Othello's
method, and was at that moment acting out a story

                    "of most disastrous chances,
    Of moving accidents by flood and field,
    Of hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach,
    Of being taken by the insolent foe
    And sold to slavery."

How much depends upon the point of view! Here was I, ready to laugh;
while poor Desdemona only thought, "'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous
pitiful." Dear sympathetic soul! Let us hope that she was never called
to play out the tragedy.

Two things are very noticeable during the pairing season,--the scarcity
of females and their indifference. Every one of them seems to have at
least two admirers dangling after her,[16] while she is almost sure to
carry herself as if a wedding were the last thing she would ever consent
to think of; and that not because of bashfulness, but from downright
aversion. The observer begins to suspect that the fair creatures have
really entered into some sort of no-marriage league, and that there are
not to be any nests this year, nor any young birds. But by and by he
discovers that somehow, he cannot surmise how,--it must have been when
his eyes were turned the other way,--the scene is entirely changed, the
maidens are all wedded, and even now the nests are being got ready.

I watched a trio of cat-birds in a clump of alder bushes by the
roadside; two males, almost as a matter of course, "paying attentions"
to one female. Both suitors were evidently in earnest; each hoped to
carry off the prize, and perhaps felt that he should be miserable
forever if he were disappointed; and yet, on their part, everything was
being done decently and in order. So far as I saw, there was no
disposition to quarrel. Only let the dear creature choose one of them,
and the other would take his broken heart away. So, always at a modest
remove, they followed her about from bush to bush, entreating her in
most loving and persuasive tones to listen to their suit. But she, all
this time, answered every approach with a snarl; she would never have
anything to do with either of them; she disliked them both, and only
wished they would leave her to herself. This lasted as long as I stayed
to watch. Still I had little doubt she fully intended to accept one of
them, and had even made up her mind already which it should be. She
knew enough, I felt sure, to calculate the value of a proper maidenly
reluctance. How could her mate be expected to rate her at her worth, if
she allowed herself to be won too easily? Besides, she could afford not
to be in haste, seeing she had a choice of two.

What a comfortably simple affair the matrimonial question is with the
feminine cat-bird! Her wooers are all of equally good family and all
equally rich. There is literally nothing for her to do but to look into
her own heart and choose. No temptation has she to sell herself for the
sake of a fashionable name or a fine house, or in order to gratify the
prejudice of father or mother. As for a marriage settlement, she knows
neither the name nor the thing. In fact, marriage in her thought is a
simple union of hearts, with no taint of anything mercantile about it.
Happy cat-bird! She perhaps imagines that human marriages are of the
same ideal sort!

I have spoken of the affectionate language of these dusky lovers; but it
was noticeable that they did not sing, although, to have fulfilled the
common idea of such an affair, they certainly should have been doing so,
and each trying his best to outsing the other. Possibly there had
already been such a tournament before my arrival; or, for aught I know,
this particular female may have given out that she had no ear for

In point of fact, however, there was nothing peculiar in their conduct.
No doubt, in the earlier stages of a bird's attachment he is likely to
express his passion musically; but later he is not content to warble
from a tree-top. There are things to be said which cannot appropriately
be spoken at long range; and unless my study of novels has been to
little purpose, all this agrees well with the practices of human
gallants. Do not these begin by singing under the lady's window, or by
sending verses to her? and are not such proceedings intended to prepare
the way, as speedily as possible, for others of a more satisfying,
though it may be of a less romantic nature?

Bearing this in mind, we may be able to account, in part at least, for
the inexperienced observer's disappointment when, fresh from the perusal
of (for example) the thirteenth chapter of Darwin's "Descent of Man," he
goes into the woods to look about for himself. He expects to find here
and there two or three songsters, each in turn doing his utmost to
surpass the brilliancy and power of the other's music; while a feminine
auditor sits in full view, preparing to render her verdict, and reward
the successful competitor with her own precious self. This would be a
pretty picture. Unfortunately, it is looked for in vain. The two or
three singers may be found, likely enough; but the female, if she be
indeed within hearing, is modestly hidden away somewhere in the bushes,
and our student is none the wiser. Let him watch as long as he please,
he will hardly see the prize awarded.

Nevertheless he need not grudge the time thus employed; not, at any
rate, if he be sensitive to music. For it will be found that birds have
at least one attribute of genius: they can do their best only on great
occasions. Our brown thrush, for instance, is a magnificent singer,
albeit he is not of the best school, being too "sensational" to suit the
most exacting taste. His song is a grand improvisation: a good deal
jumbled, to be sure, and without any recognizable form or theme; and
yet, like a Liszt rhapsody, it perfectly answers its purpose,--that is,
it gives the performer full scope to show what he can do with his
instrument. You may laugh a little, if you like, at an occasional
grotesque or overwrought passage, but unless you are well used to it you
will surely be astonished. Such power and range of voice; such startling
transitions; such endless variety! And withal such boundless enthusiasm
and almost incredible endurance! Regarded as pure music, one strain of
the hermit thrush is to my mind worth the whole of it; just as a single
movement of Beethoven's is better than a world of Liszt transcriptions.
But in its own way it is unsurpassable.

Still, though this is a meagre and quite unexaggerated account of the
ordinary song of the brown thrush, I have discovered that even he can be
outdone--by himself. One morning in early May I came upon three birds of
this species, all singing at once, in a kind of jealous frenzy. As they
sang they continually shifted from tree to tree, and one in particular
(the one nearest to where I stood) could hardly be quiet a moment. Once
he sang with full power while on the ground (or close to it, for he was
just then behind a low bush), after which he mounted to the very tip of
a tall pine, which bent beneath his weight. In the midst of the
hurly-burly one of the trio suddenly sounded the whip-poor-will's call
twice,--an absolutely perfect reproduction.[17]

The significance of all this sound and fury,--what the prize was, if
any, and who obtained it,--this another can conjecture as well as
myself. I know no more than old Kaspar:----

    "'Why, that I cannot tell,' said he,
    But 'twas a famous victory.'"

As I turned to come away, the contest all at once ceased, and the
silence of the woods, or what seemed like silence, was really
impressive. The chewinks and field sparrows were singing, but it was
like the music of a village singer after Patti; or, to make the
comparison less unjust, like the Pastoral Symphony of Handel after a
Wagner tempest.

It is curious how deeply we are sometimes affected by a very trifling
occurrence. I have remembered many times a slight scene in which three
purple finches were the actors. Of the two males, one was in full adult
plumage of bright crimson, while the other still wore his youthful suit
of brown. First, the older bird suspended himself in mid air, and sang
most beautifully; dropping, as he concluded, to a perch beside the
female. Then the younger candidate, who was already sitting near by,
took his turn, singing nearly or quite as well as his rival, but without
quitting the branch, though his wings quivered. I saw no more. Yet, as I
say, I have often since thought of the three birds, and wondered whether
the bright feathers and the flying song carried the day against the
younger suitor. I fear they did. Sometimes, too, I have queried whether
young birds (who none the less are of age to marry) can be so very meek
or so very dull as never to rebel against the fashion that only the old
fellows shall dress handsomely; and I have tried in vain to imagine the
mutterings, deep and loud, which such a law would excite in certain
other quarters. It pains me to say it, but I suspect that taxation
without representation would seem a small injustice, in comparison.

Like these linnets in the exceptional interest they excited were two
large seabirds, who suddenly appeared circling about over the woods, as
I was taking a solitary walk on a Sunday morning in April. One of them
was closely pursuing the other; not as though he were trying to overtake
her, but rather as though he were determined to keep her company. They
swept now this way, now that,--now lost to sight, and now reappearing;
and once they passed straight over my head, so that I heard the
whistling of their wings. Then they were off, and I saw them no more.
They came from far, and by night they were perhaps a hundred leagues
away. But I followed them with my blessing, and to this day I feel
toward them a little as I suppose we all do toward a certain few
strangers whom we have met here and there in our journeyings, and
chatted with for an hour or two. We had never seen them before; if we
learned their names we have long ago forgotten them; but somehow the
persons themselves keep a place in our memory, and even in our

    "I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
    And a certain use in the world, no doubt;
    Yet a hand's breadth of it shines alone
    'Mid the blank miles round about:

    "For there I picked up on the heather,
    And there I put inside my breast,
    A moulted feather, an eagle-feather!
    Well, I forget the rest."

Since we cannot ask birds for an explanation of their conduct, we have
nothing for it but to steal their secrets, as far as possible, by
patient and stealthy watching. In this way I hope, sooner or later, to
find out what the golden-winged woodpecker means by the shout with which
he makes the fields reëcho in the spring, especially in the latter half
of April. I have no doubt it has something to do with the process of
mating, but it puzzles me to guess just what the message can be which
requires to be published so loudly. Such a stentorian, long-winded cry!
You wonder where the bird finds breath for such an effort, and think he
must be a very ungentle lover, surely. But withhold your judgment for a
few days, till you see him and his mate gamboling about the branches of
some old tree, calling in soft, affectionate tones, _Wick-a-wick,
wick-a-wick_; then you will confess that, whatever failings the
golden-wing may have, he is not to be charged with insensibility. The
fact is that our "yellow-hammer" has a genius for noise. When he is
_very_ happy he drums. Sometimes, indeed, he marvels how birds who
haven't this resource are able to get through the world at all. Nor
ought we to think it strange if in his love-making he finds great use
for this his crowning accomplishment. True, we have nowhere read of a
human lover's serenading his mistress with a drum; but we must remember
what creatures of convention men are, and that there is no inherent
reason why a drum should not serve as well as a flute for such a

    "All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
    Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
    _All_ are but ministers of Love,
      And feed his sacred flame."

I saw two of these flickers clinging to the trunk of a shell-bark tree;
which, by the way, is a tree after the woodpecker's own heart. One was
perhaps fifteen feet above the other, and before each was a strip of
loose bark, a sort of natural drum-head. First, the lower one "beat his
music out," rather softly. Then, as he ceased, and held his head back
to listen, the other answered him; and so the dialogue went on.
Evidently, they were already mated, and were now renewing their mutual
vows; for birds, to their praise be it spoken, believe in courtship
after marriage. The day happened to be Sunday, and it did occur to me
that possibly this was the woodpeckers' ritual,--a kind of High Church
service, with antiphonal choirs. But I dismissed the thought; for, on
the whole, the shouting seems more likely to be diagnostic, and in spite
of his gold-lined wings, I have set the flicker down as almost certainly
an old-fashioned Methodist.

Speaking of courtship after marriage, I am reminded of a spotted
sandpiper, whose capers I amused myself with watching, one day last
June, on the shore of Saco Lake. As I caught sight of him, he was
straightening himself up, with a pretty, self-conscious air, at the same
time spreading his white-edged tail, and calling, _Tweet, tweet,
tweet_.[18] Afterwards he got upon a log, where, with head erect and
wings thrown forward and downward, he ran for a yard or two, calling as
before. This trick seemed especially to please him, and was several
times repeated. He ran rapidly, and with a comical prancing movement;
but nothing he did was half so laughable as the behavior of his mate,
who all this while dressed her feathers without once deigning to look at
her spouse's performance. Undoubtedly they had been married for several
weeks, and she was, by this time, well used to his nonsense. It must be
a devoted husband, I fancy, who continues to offer attentions when they
are received in such a spirit.

Walking a log is a somewhat common practice with birds. I once detected
our little golden-crowned thrush showing off in this way to his mate,
who stood on the ground close at hand. In his case the head was lowered
instead of raised, and the general effect was heightened by his
curiously precise gait, which even on ordinary occasions is enough to
provoke a smile.

Not improbably every species of birds has its own code of etiquette;
unwritten, of course, but carefully handed down from father to son, and
faithfully observed. Nor is it cause for wonder if, in our ignorant
eyes, some of these "society manners" look a little ridiculous. Even the
usages of fashionable human circles have not always escaped the laughter
of the profane.

I was standing on the edge of a small thicket, observing a pair of
cuckoos as they made a breakfast out of a nest of tent caterpillars (it
was a feast rather than a common meal; for the caterpillars were
plentiful, and, as I judged, just at their best, being about half
grown), when a couple of scarlet tanagers appeared upon the scene. The
female presently selected a fine strip of cedar bark, and started off
with it, sounding a call to her handsome husband, who at once followed
in her wake. I thought, What a brute, to leave his wife to build the
house! But he, plainly enough, felt that in escorting her back and forth
he was doing all that ought to be expected of any well-bred,
scarlet-coated tanager. And the lady herself, if one might infer
anything from her tone and demeanor, was of the same opinion. I mention
this trifling occurrence, not to put any slight upon _Pyranga rubra_
(who am I, that I should accuse so gentle and well dressed a bird of bad
manners?), but merely as an example of the way in which feathered
politeness varies. In fact, it seems not unlikely that the male tanager
may abstain on principle from taking any active part in constructing the
nest, lest his fiery color should betray its whereabouts. As for his
kindness and loyalty, I only wish I could feel as sure of one half the
human husbands whom I meet.

It would be very ungallant of me, however, to leave my readers to
understand that the female bird is always so unsympathetic as most of
the descriptions thus far given would appear to indicate. In my memory
are several scenes, any one of which, if I could put it on paper as I
saw it, would suffice to correct such an erroneous impression. In one of
these the parties were a pair of chipping sparrows. Never was man so
churlish that his heart would not have been touched with the vision of
their gentle but rapturous delight. As they chased each other gayly from
branch to branch and from tree to tree, they flew with that delicate,
affected movement of the wings which birds are accustomed to use at such
times, and which, perhaps, bears the same relation to their ordinary
flight that dancing does to the every-day walk of men and women. The two
seemed equally enchanted, and both sang. Little they knew of the
"struggle for existence" and the "survival of the fittest." Adam and
Eve, in Paradise, were never more happy.

A few weeks later, taking an evening walk, I was stopped by the sight of
a pair of cedar-birds on a stone wall. They had chosen a convenient flat
stone, and were hopping about upon it, pausing every moment or two to
put their little bills together. What a loving ecstasy possessed them!
Sometimes one, sometimes the other, sounded a faint lisping note, and
motioned for another kiss. But there is no setting forth the ineffable
grace and sweetness of their chaste behavior. I looked and looked, till
a passing carriage frightened them away. They were only common
cedar-birds; if I were to see them again I should not know them; but if
my pen were equal to my wish, they should be made immortal.


[14] Wallace, _Natural Selection_, p. 30.

[15] The shrike lays up grasshoppers and sparrows, and the California
woodpecker hoards great numbers of acorns, but it is still in dispute, I
believe, whether thrift is the motive with either of them. Considering
what has often been done in similar cases, we may think it surprising
that the Scripture text above quoted (together with its exegetical
parallel, Matthew vi. 26) has never been brought into court to settle
the controversy; but to the best of my knowledge it never has been.

[16] So near do birds come to Mr. Ruskin's idea that "a girl worth
anything ought to have always half a dozen or so of suitors under vow
for her."


    "That's the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over,
    Lest you should think he never could recapture
    The first fine careless rapture!"

The "authorities" long since forbade _Harporhynchus rufus_ to play the
mimic. Probably in the excitement of the moment this fellow forgot

[18] May one who knows nothing of philology venture to inquire whether
the very close agreement of this _tweet_ with our sweet (compare also
the Anglo-Saxon _swéte_, the Icelandic _soetr_, and the Sanskrit
_svad_) does not point to a common origin of the Aryan and sandpiper

                         SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE.

    A man that hath friends must show himself friendly.

                                    PROVERBS xviii. 24.

                         SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE.

As I was crossing Boston Common, some years ago, my attention was caught
by the unusual behavior of a robin, who was standing on the lawn,
absolutely motionless, and every few seconds making a faint hissing
noise. So much engaged was he that, even when a dog ran near him, he
only started slightly, and on the instant resumed his statue-like
attitude. Wondering what this could mean, and not knowing how else to
satisfy my curiosity, I bethought myself of a man whose letters about
birds I had now and then noticed in the daily press. So, looking up his
name in the City Directory, and finding that he lived at such a number,
Beacon Street, I wrote him a note of inquiry. He must have been amused
as he read it; for I remember giving him the title of "Esquire," and
speaking of his communications to the newspapers as the ground of my
application to him. "Such is fame!" he likely enough said to himself.
"Here is a man with eyes in his head, a man, moreover, who has probably
been at school in his time,--for most of his words are spelled
correctly,--and yet he knows my name only as he has seen it signed once
in a while to a few lines in a newspaper." Thoughts like these, however,
did not prevent his replying to the note (my "valued favor") with all
politeness, although he confessed himself unable to answer my question;
and by the time I had occasion to trouble him again I had learned that
he was to be addressed as Doctor, and, furthermore, was an ornithologist
of world-wide reputation, being, in fact, one of the three joint-authors
of the most important work so far issued on the birds of North America.

Certainly I was and am grateful to him (he is now dead) for his generous
treatment of my ignorance; but even warmer is my feeling toward that
city thrush, who, all unconscious of what he was doing, started me that
day on a line of study which has been ever since a continual delight.
Most gladly would I do him any kindness in my power; but I have little
doubt that, long ere this, he, too, has gone the way of all the earth.
As to what he was thinking about on that memorable May morning, I am as
much in the dark as ever. But there is no law against a bird's behaving
mysteriously, I suppose. Most of us, I am sure, often do things which
are inexplicable to ourselves, and once in a very great while, perhaps,
it would puzzle even our next-door neighbors to render a complete
account of our motives.

Whatever the robin meant, however, and no doubt there was some good
reason for his conduct, he had given my curiosity the needed jog. Now,
at last, I would do what I had often dreamed of doing,--learn something
about the birds of my own region, and be able to recognize at least the
more common ones when I saw them.

The interest of the study proved to be the greater for my ignorance,
which, to speak within bounds, was nothing short of wonderful; perhaps I
might appropriately use a more fashionable word, and call it phenomenal.
All my life long I had had a kind of passion for being out-of-doors;
and, to tell the truth, I had been so often seen wandering by myself in
out-of-the-way wood-paths, or sitting idly about on stone walls in
lonesome pastures, that some of my Philistine townsmen had most likely
come to look upon me as no better than a vagabond. Yet I was not a
vagabond, for all that. I liked work, perhaps, as well as the generality
of people. But I was unfortunate in this respect: while I enjoyed
in-door work, I hated to be in the house; and, on the other hand, while
I enjoyed being out-of-doors, I hated all manner of out-door
employment. I was not lazy, but I possessed--well, let us call it the
true aboriginal temperament; though I fear that this distinction will be
found too subtile, even for the well-educated, unless, along with their
education, they have a certain sympathetic bias, which, after all, is
the main thing to be depended on in such nice psychological

With all my rovings in wood and field, however, I knew nothing of any
open-air study. Study was a thing of books. At school we were never
taught to look elsewhere for knowledge. Reading and spelling, geography
and grammar, arithmetic and algebra, geometry and trigonometry,--these
were studied, of course, as also were Latin and Greek. But none of our
lessons took us out of the school-room, unless it was astronomy, the
study of which I had nearly forgotten; and that we pursued in the
night-time, when birds and plants were as though they were not. I cannot
recollect that any one of my teachers ever called my attention to a
natural object. It seems incredible, but, so far as my memory serves, I
was never in the habit of observing the return of the birds in the
spring or their departure in the autumn; except, to be sure, that the
semi-annual flight of the ducks and geese was always a pleasant
excitement, more especially because there were several lakes
(invariably spoken of as ponds) in our vicinity, on the borders of
which the village "gunners" built pine-branch booths in the season.

But now, as I have said, my ignorance was converted all at once into a
kind of blessing; for no sooner had I begun to read bird books, and
consult a cabinet of mounted specimens, than every turn out-of-doors
became full of all manner of delightful surprises. Could it be that what
I now beheld with so much wonder was only the same as had been going on
year after year in these my own familiar lanes and woods? Truly the
human eye is nothing more than a window, of no use unless the man looks
out of it.

Some of the experiences of that period seem ludicrous enough in the
retrospect. Only two or three days after my eyes were first opened I was
out with a friend in search of wild-flowers (I was piloting him to a
favorite station for _Viola pubescens_), when I saw a most elegant
little creature, mainly black and white, but with brilliant orange
markings. He was darting hither and thither among the branches of some
low trees, while I stared at him in amazement, calling on my comrade,
who was as ignorant as myself, but less excited, to behold the prodigy.
Half trembling lest the bird should prove to be some straggler from the
tropics, the like of which would not be found in the cabinet before
mentioned, I went thither that very evening. Alas, my silly fears! there
stood the little beauty's exact counterpart, labeled _Setophaga
ruticilla_, the American redstart,--a bird which the manual assured me
was very common in my neighborhood.

But it was not my eyes only that were opened, my ears also were touched.
It was as if all the birds had heretofore been silent, and now, under
some sudden impulse, had broken out in universal concert. What a
glorious chorus it was; and every voice a stranger! For a week or more I
was puzzled by a song which I heard without fail whenever I went into
the woods, but the author of which I could never set eyes on,--a song so
exceptionally loud and shrill, and marked by such a vehement crescendo,
that, even to my new-found ears, it stood out from the general medley a
thing by itself. Many times I struck into the woods in the direction
whence it came, but without getting so much as a flying glimpse of the
musician. Very mysterious, surely! Finally, by accident I believe, I
caught the fellow in the very act of singing, as he stood on a dead
pine-limb; and a few minutes later he was on the ground, walking about
(not hopping) with the primmest possible gait,--a small olive-brown
bird, with an orange crown and a speckled breast. Then I knew him for
the golden-crowned thrush; but it was not for some time after this that
I heard his famous evening song, and it was longer still before I found
his curious roofed nest.

"Happy those early days," those days of childish innocence,--though I
was a man grown,--when every bird seemed newly created, and even the
redstart and the wood wagtail were like rarities from the ends of the
earth. Verily, my case was like unto Adam's, when every fowl of the air
was brought before him for a name.

One evening, on my way back to the city after an afternoon ramble, I
stopped just at dusk in a grove of hemlocks, and soon out of the
tree-top overhead came a song,--a brief strain of about six notes, in a
musical but rather rough voice, and in exquisite accord with the quiet
solemnity of the hour. Again and again the sounds fell on my ear, and as
often I endeavored to obtain a view of the singer; but he was in the
thick of the upper branches, and I looked for him in vain. How delicious
the music was! a perfect lullaby, drowsy and restful; like the
benediction of the wood on the spirit of a tired city-dweller. I blessed
the unknown songster in return; and even now I have a feeling that the
peculiar enjoyment which the song of the black-throated green warbler
never fails to afford me may perhaps be due in some measure to its
association with that twilight hour.

To this same hemlock grove I was in the habit, in those days, of going
now and then to listen to the evening hymn of the veery, or Wilson
thrush. Here, if nowhere else, might be heard music fit to be called
sacred. Nor did it seem a disadvantage, but rather the contrary, when,
as sometimes happened, I was compelled to take my seat in the edge of
the wood, and wait quietly, in the gathering darkness, for vespers to
begin. The veery's mood is not so lofty as the hermit's, nor is his
music to be compared for brilliancy and fullness with that of the wood
thrush; but, more than any other bird-song known to me, the veery's has,
if I may say so, the accent of sanctity. Nothing is here of
self-consciousness; nothing of earthly pride or passion. If we chance to
overhear it and laud the singer, that is our affair. Simple-hearted
worshiper that he is, he has never dreamed of winning praise for himself
by the excellent manner in which he praises his Creator,--an absence of
thrift, which is very becoming in thrushes, though, I suppose, it is
hardly to be looked for in human choirs.

And yet, for all the unstudied ease and simplicity of the veery's
strain, he is a great master of _technique_. In his own artless way he
does what I have never heard any other bird attempt: he gives to his
melody all the force of harmony. How this unique and curious effect,
this vocal double-stopping, as a violinist might term it, is produced,
is not certainly known; but it would seem that it must be by an
_arpeggio_, struck with such consummate quickness and precision that the
ear is unable to follow it, and is conscious of nothing but the
resultant chord. At any rate, the thing itself is indisputable, and has
often been commented on.

Moreover, this is only half the veery's technical proficiency. Once in a
while, at least, he will favor you with a delightful feat of
ventriloquism; beginning to sing in single voice, as usual, and anon,
without any noticeable increase in the loudness of the tones, diffusing
the music throughout the wood, as if there were a bird in every tree,
all singing together in the strictest time. I am not sure that all
members of the species possess this power, and I have never seen the
performance alluded to in print; but I have heard it when the illusion
was complete, and the effect most beautiful.

Music so devout and unostentatious as the veery's does not appeal to the
hurried or the preoccupied. If you would enjoy it you must bring an ear
to hear. I have sometimes pleased myself with imagining a resemblance
between it and the poetry of George Herbert,--both uncared for by the
world, but both, on that very account, prized all the more dearly by the
few in every generation whose spirits are in tune with theirs.

This bird is one of a group of small thrushes called the _Hylocichlæ_,
of which group we have five representatives in the Atlantic States: the
wood thrush; the Wilson, or tawny thrush; the hermit; the olive-backed,
or Swainson; and the gray-cheeked, or Alice's thrush. To the unpracticed
eye the five all look alike. All of them, too, have the same glorious
voice, so that the young student is pretty sure to find it a matter of
some difficulty to tell them apart. Yet there are differences of
coloration which may be trusted as constant, and to which, after a
while, the eye becomes habituated; and, at the same time, each species
has a song and call-notes peculiar to itself. One cannot help wishing,
indeed, that he might hear the five singing by turns in the same wood.
Then he could fix the distinguishing peculiarities of the different
songs in his mind so as never to confuse them again. But this is more
than can be hoped for; the listener must be content with hearing two,
or at the most three, of the species singing together, and trust his
memory to make the necessary comparison.

The song of the wood thrush is perhaps the most easily set apart from
the rest, because of its greater compass of voice and bravery of
execution. The Wilson's song, as you hear it by itself, seems so
perfectly characteristic that you fancy you can never mistake any other
for it; and yet, if you are in northern New England only a week
afterwards, you may possibly hear a Swainson (especially if he happens
to be one of the best singers of his species, and, more especially
still, if he happens to be at just the right distance away), who you
will say, at first thought, is surely a Wilson. The difficulty of
distinguishing the voices is naturally greatest in the spring, when they
have not been heard for eight or nine months. Here, as elsewhere, the
student must be willing to learn the same lesson over and over, letting
patience have her perfect work. That the five songs are really
distinguishable is well illustrated by the fact (which I have before
mentioned), that the presence of the Alice thrush in New England during
the breeding season was announced as probable by myself, simply on the
strength of a song which I had heard in the White Mountains, and which,
as I believed, must be his, notwithstanding I was entirely unacquainted
with it, and though all our books affirmed that the Alice thrush was not
a summer resident of any part of the United States.

It is worth remarking, also, in this connection, that the _Hylocichlæ_
differ more decidedly in their notes of alarm than in their songs. The
wood thrush's call is extremely sharp and brusque, and is usually fired
off in a little volley; that of the Wilson is a sort of whine, or snarl,
in distressing contrast with his song; the hermit's is a quick, _sotto
voce_, sometimes almost inaudible _chuck_; the Swainson's is a mellow
whistle; while that of the Alice is something between the Swainson's and
the Wilson's,--not so gentle and refined as the former, nor so
outrageously vulgar as the latter.

In what is here said about discriminating species it must be understood
that I am not speaking of such identification as will answer a strictly
scientific purpose. For that the bird must be shot. To the maiden

                  "whose light blue eyes
    Are tender over drowning flies,"

this decree will no doubt sound cruel. Men who pass laws of that sort
may call themselves ornithologists, if they will; for her part she calls
them butchers. We might turn on our fair accuser, it is true, with some
inquiry about the two or three bird-skins which adorn her bonnet. But
that would be only giving one more proof of our heartlessness; and,
besides, unless a man is downright angry he can scarcely feel that he
has really cleared himself when he has done nothing more than to point
the finger and say, You're another. However, I am not set for the
defence of ornithologists. They are abundantly able to take care of
themselves without the help of any outsider. I only declare that, even
to my unprofessional eye, this rule of theirs seems wise and necessary.
They know, if their critics do not, how easy it is to be deceived; how
many times things have been seen and minutely described, which, as was
afterwards established, could not by any possibility have been visible.
Moreover, regret it as we may, it is clear that in this world nobody can
escape giving and taking more or less pain. We of the sterner sex are
accustomed to think that even our blue-eyed censors are not entirely
innocent in this regard; albeit, for myself, I am bound to believe that
generally they are not to blame for the tortures they inflict upon us.

Granting the righteousness of the scientist's caution, however, we may
still find a less rigorous code sufficient for our own non-scientific,
though I hope not unscientific, purpose. For it is certain that no great
enjoyment of bird study is possible for some of us, if we are never to
be allowed to call our gentle friends by name until in every case we
have gone through the formality of a _post-mortem_ examination.
Practically, and for every-day ends, we may know a robin, or a redstart,
or even a hermit thrush, when we see him, without first turning the bird
into a specimen.

Probably there are none of our birds which afford more surprise and
pleasure to a novice than the family of warblers. A well-known
ornithologist has related how one day he wandered into the forest in an
idle mood, and accidentally catching a gleam of bright color overhead,
raised his gun and brought the bird to his feet; and how excited and
charmed he was with the wondrous beauty of his little trophy. Were there
other birds in the woods as lovely as this? He would see for himself.
And that was the beginning of what bids fair to prove a life-long

Thirty-eight warblers are credited to New England; but it would be safe
to say that not more than three of them are known to the average
New-Englander. How should he know them, indeed? They do not come about
the flower-garden like the humming-bird, nor about the lawn like the
robin; neither can they be hunted with a dog like the grouse and the
woodcock. Hence, for all their gorgeous apparel, they are mainly left to
students and collectors. Of our common species the most beautiful are,
perhaps, the blue yellow-back, the blue golden-wing, the Blackburnian,
the black-and-yellow, the Canada flycatcher, and the redstart; with the
yellow-rump, the black-throated green, the prairie warbler, the summer
yellow-bird, and the Maryland yellow-throat coming not far behind. But
all of them are beautiful, and they possess, besides, the charm of great
diversity of plumage and habits; while some of them have the further
merit, by no means inconsiderable, of being rare.

It was a bright day for me when the blue golden-winged warbler settled
in my neighborhood. On my morning walk I detected a new song, and,
following it up, found a new bird,--a result which is far from being a
thing of course. The spring migration was at its height, and at first I
expected to have the pleasure of my new friend's society for only a day
or two; so I made the most of it. But it turned out that he and his
companion had come to spend the summer, and before very long I
discovered their nest. This was still unfinished when I came upon it;
but I knew pretty well whose it was, having several times noticed the
birds about the spot, and a few days afterwards the female bravely sat
still, while I bent over her, admiring her courage and her handsome
dress. I paid my respects to the little mother almost daily, but
jealously guarded her secret, sharing it only with a kind-hearted woman,
whom I took with me on one of my visits. But, alas! one day I called,
only to find the nest empty. Whether the villain who pillaged it
traveled on two legs, or on four, I never knew. Possibly he dropped out
of the air. But I wished him no good, whoever he was. Next year the
birds appeared again, and more than one pair of them; but no nest could
I find, though I often looked for it, and, as children say in their
games, was sometimes very warm.

Is there any lover of birds in whose mind certain birds and certain
places are not indissolubly joined? Most of us, I am sure, could go over
the list and name the exact spots where we first saw this one, where we
first heard that one sing, and where we found our first nest of the
other. There is a piece of swampy woodland in Jefferson, New Hampshire,
midway between the hotels and the railway station, which, for me, will
always be associated with the song of the winter wren. I had been making
an attempt to explore the wood, with a view to its botanical treasures,
but the mosquitoes had rallied with such spirit that I was glad to beat
a retreat to the road. Just then an unseen bird broke out into a song,
and by the time he had finished I was saying to myself, A winter wren!
Now, if I could only see him in the act, and so be sure of the
correctness of my guess! I worked to that end as cautiously as possible,
but all to no purpose; and finally I started abruptly toward the spot
whence the sound had come, expecting to see the bird fly. But apparently
there was no bird there, and I stood still, in a little perplexity.
Then, all at once, the wren appeared, hopping about among the dead
branches, within a few yards of my feet, and peering at the intruder
with evident curiosity; and the next moment he was joined by a hermit
thrush, equally inquisitive. Both were silent as dead men, but plainly
had no doubt whatever that they were in their own domain, and that it
belonged to the other party to move away. I presumed that the thrush, at
least, had a nest not far off, but after a little search (the mosquitoes
were still active) I concluded not to intrude further on his domestic
privacy. I had heard the wren's famous song, and it had not been
over-praised. But then came the inevitable second thought: had I really
heard it? True, the music possessed the wren characteristics, and a
winter wren was in the brush; but what proof had I that the bird and the
song belonged together? No; I must see him in the act of singing. But
this, I found, was more easily said than done. In Jefferson, in Gorham,
in the Franconia Notch, in short, wherever I went, there was no
difficulty about hearing the music, and little about seeing the wren;
but it was provoking that eye and ear could never be brought to bear
witness to the same bird. However, this difficulty was not insuperable,
and after it was once overcome I was in the habit of witnessing the
whole performance almost as often as I wished.

Of similar interest to me is a turn in an old Massachusetts road, over
which, boy and man, I have traveled hundreds of times; one of those
delightful back-roads, half road and half lane, where the grass grows
between the horse-track and the wheel-track, while bushes usurp what
ought to be the sidewalk. Here, one morning in the time when every day
was disclosing two or three new species for my delight, I stopped to
listen to some bird of quite unsuspected identity, who was calling and
singing and scolding in the Indian brier thicket, making, in truth, a
prodigious racket. I twisted and turned, and was not a little astonished
when at last I detected the author of all this outcry. From a study of
the manual I set him down as probably the white-eyed vireo,--a
conjecture which further investigation confirmed. This vireo is the very
prince of stump-speakers,--fluent, loud, and sarcastic,--and is well
called the politician, though it is a disappointment to learn that the
title was given him, not for his eloquence, but on account of his habit
of putting pieces of newspaper into his nest. While I stood peering into
the thicket, a man whom I knew came along the road, and caught me thus
disreputably employed. Without doubt he thought me a lazy
good-for-nothing; or possibly (being more charitable) he said to
himself, "Poor fellow! he's losing his mind."

Take a gun on your shoulder, and go wandering about the woods all day
long, and you will be looked upon with respect, no matter though you
kill nothing bigger than a chipmunk; or stand by the hour at the end of
a fishing-pole, catching nothing but mosquito-bites, and your neighbors
will think no ill of you. But to be seen staring at a bird for five
minutes together, or picking roadside weeds!--well, it is fortunate
there are asylums for the crazy. Not unlikely the malady will grow upon
him; and who knows how soon he may become dangerous? Something must be
wrong about that to which we are unaccustomed. Blowing out the brains
of rabbits and squirrels is an innocent and delightful pastime, as
everybody knows; and the delectable excitement of pulling half-grown
fishes out of the pond to perish miserably on the bank, that, too, is a
recreation easily enough appreciated. But what shall be said of enjoying
birds without killing them, or of taking pleasure in plants, which, so
far as we know, cannot suffer even if we do kill them?

Of my many pleasant associations of birds with places, one of the
pleasantest is connected with the red-headed woodpecker. This showy bird
has for a good many years been very rare in Massachusetts; and
therefore, when, during the freshness of my ornithological researches, I
went to Washington for a month's visit, it was one of the things which I
had especially in mind, to make his acquaintance. But I looked for him
without success, till, at the end of a fortnight, I made a pilgrimage to
Mount Vernon. Here, after visiting the grave, and going over the house,
as every visitor does, I sauntered about the grounds, thinking of the
great man who used to do the same so many years before, but all the
while keeping my eyes open for the present feathered inhabitants of the
sacred spot. Soon a bird dashed by me, and struck against the trunk of
an adjacent tree, and glancing up quickly, I beheld my much-sought
red-headed woodpecker. How appropriately patriotic he looked, at the
home of Washington, wearing the national colors,--red, white, and blue!
After this he became abundant about the capital, so that I saw him
often, and took much pleasure in his frolicsome ways; and, some years
later, he suddenly appeared in force in the vicinity of Boston, where he
remained through the winter months. To my thought, none the less, he
will always suggest Mount Vernon. Indeed, although he is certainly
rather jovial, and even giddy, he is to me the bird of Washington much
more truly than is the solemn, stupid-seeming eagle, who commonly bears
that name.

To go away from home, even if the journey be no longer than from
Massachusetts to the District of Columbia, is sure to prove an event of
no small interest to a young naturalist; and this visit of mine to the
national capital was no exception. On the afternoon of my arrival,
walking up Seventh Street, I heard a series of loud, clear, monotonous
whistles, which I had then no leisure to investigate, but the author of
which I promised myself the satisfaction of meeting at another time. In
fact, I think it was at least a fortnight before I learned that these
whistles came from the tufted titmouse. I had been seeing him almost
daily, but till then he had never chanced to use that particular note
while under my eye.

There was a certain tract of country, woodland and pasture, over which I
roamed a good many times, and which is still clearly mapped out in my
memory. Here I found my first Carolina or mocking wren, who ran in at
one side of a woodpile and came out at the other as I drew near, and
who, a day or two afterwards, sang so loudly from an oak tree that I
ransacked it with my eye in search of some large bird, and was
confounded when finally I discovered who the musician really was. Here,
every day, were to be heard the glorious song of the cardinal grosbeak,
the insect-like effort of the blue-gray gnatcatcher, and the rigmarole
of the yellow-breasted chat. On a wooded hillside, where grew a
profusion of trailing arbutus, pink azalea, and bird-foot violets, the
rowdyish, great-crested flycatchers were screaming in the tree-tops. In
this same grove I twice saw the rare red-bellied woodpecker, who, on
both occasions, after rapping smartly with his beak, turned his head and
laid his ear against the trunk, evidently listening to see whether his
alarm had set any grub a-stirring. Near by, in an undergrowth, I fell in
with a few worm-eating warblers. They seemed of a peculiarly
unsuspicious turn of mind, and certainly wore the quaintest of
head-dresses. I must mention also a scarlet tanager, who, all afire as
he was, one day alighted in a bush of flowering dogwood, which was
completely covered with its large white blossoms. Probably he had no
idea how well his perch became him.

Perhaps I ought to be ashamed to confess it, but, though I went several
times into the galleries of our honorable Senate and House of
Representatives, and heard speeches by some celebrated men, including at
least half a dozen candidates for the presidency, yet, after all, the
congressmen in feathers interested me most. I thought, indeed, that the
chat might well enough have been elected to the lower house. His
volubility and waggish manners would have made him quite at home in that
assembly, while his orange-colored waistcoat would have given him an
agreeable conspicuity. But, to be sure, he would have needed to learn
the use of tobacco.

Well, all this was only a few years ago; but the men whose eloquence
then drew the crowd to the capitol are, many of them, heard there no
longer. Some are dead; some have retired to private life. But the birds
never die. Every spring they come trooping back for their all-summer
session. The turkey-buzzard still floats majestically over the city; the
chat still practices his lofty tumbling in the suburban pastures,
snarling and scolding at all comers; the flowing Potomac still yields "a
blameless sport" to the fish-crow and the kingfisher; the orchard oriole
continues to whistle in front of the Agricultural Department, and the
crow blackbird to parade back and forth over the Smithsonian lawns.
Presidents and senators may come and go, be praised and vilified, and
then in turn forgotten; but the birds are subject to no such mutations.
It is a foolish thought, but sometimes their happy carelessness seems
the better part.

                            MINOR SONGSTERS.

    The lesser lights, the dearer still
    That they elude a vulgar eye.


                         Listen too,
    How every pause is filled with under-notes.


                            MINOR SONGSTERS.

Among those of us who are in the habit of attending to bird-songs, there
can hardly be anybody, I think, who has not found himself specially and
permanently attracted by the music of certain birds who have little or
no general reputation. Our favoritism may perhaps be the result of early
associations: we heard the singer first in some uncommonly romantic
spot, or when we were in a mood of unusual sensibility; and, in greater
or less degree, the charm of that hour is always renewed for us with the
repetition of the song. Or if may be (who will assert the contrary?)
that there is some occult relation between the bird's mind and our own.
Or, once more, something may be due to the natural pleasure which
amiable people take (and all lovers of birds may be supposed, _a
priori_, to belong to that class) in paying peculiar honor to merit
which the world at large, less discriminating than they, has thus far
failed to recognize, and in which, therefore, as by "right of
discovery," they have a sort of proprietary interest. This, at least, is
evident: our preference is not determined altogether by the intrinsic
worth of the song; the mind is active, not passive, and gives to the
music something from itself,--"the consecration and the poet's dream."

Furthermore, it is to be said that a singer--and a bird no less than a
man--may be wanting in that fullness and scope of voice and that large
measure of technical skill which are absolutely essential to the great
artist, properly so called, and yet, within his own limitations, may be
competent to please even the most fastidious ear. It is with birds as
with other poets: the smaller gift need not be the less genuine; and
they whom the world calls greatest, and whom we ourselves most admire,
may possibly not be the ones who touch us most intimately, or to whom we
return oftenest and with most delight.

This may be well illustrated by a comparison of the chickadee with the
brown thrush. The thrush, or, as he is sometimes profanely styled, the
thrasher, is the most pretentious, perhaps I ought to say the greatest,
of New England songsters, if we rule out the mocking-bird, who is so
very rare with us as scarcely to come into the competition; and still,
in my opinion, his singing seldom produces the effect of really fine
music. With all his ability, which is nothing short of marvelous, his
taste is so deplorably uncertain, and his passion so often becomes a
downright frenzy, that the excited listener, hardly knowing what to
think, laughs and shouts. Bravo! by turns. Something must be amiss,
certainly, when the deepest feelings of the heart are poured forth in a
manner to suggest the performance of a _buffo_. The chickadee, on the
other hand, seldom gets mention as a singer. Probably he never looked
upon himself as such. You will not find him posing at the top of a tree,
challenging the world to listen and admire. But, as he hops from twig to
twig in quest of insects' eggs and other dainties, his merry spirits are
all the time bubbling over in little chirps and twitters, with now and
then a _Chickadee, dee_, or a _Hear, hear me_, every least syllable of
which is like "the very sound of happy thoughts." For my part, I rate
such trifles with the best of all good music, and feel that we cannot be
grateful enough to the brave tit, who furnishes us with them for the
twelve months of every year.

So far as the chickadee is concerned, I see nothing whatever to wish
different; but am glad to believe that, for my day and long after, he
will remain the same unassuming, careless-hearted creature that he now
is. If I may be allowed the paradox, it would be too bad for him to
change, even for the better. But the bluebird, who like the titmouse is
hardly to be accounted a musician, does seem to be somewhat blameworthy.
Once in a while, it is true, he takes a perch and sings; but for the
most part he is contented with a few simple notes, having no semblance
of a tune. Possibly he holds that his pure contralto voice (I do not
remember ever to have heard from him any note of a soprano, or even of a
mezzo-soprano quality) ought by itself to be a sufficient distinction;
but I think it likelier that his slight attempt at music is only one
manifestation of the habitual reserve which, more than anything else
perhaps, may be said to characterize him. How differently he and the
robin impress us in this particular! Both take up their abode in our
door-yards and orchards; the bluebird goes so far, indeed, as to accept
our hospitality outright, building his nest in boxes put up for his
accommodation, and making the roofs of our houses his favorite perching
stations. But, while the robin is noisily and jauntily familiar, the
bluebird maintains a dignified aloofness; coming and going about the
premises, but keeping his thoughts to himself, and never becoming one of
us save by the mere accident of local proximity. The robin, again, loves
to travel in large flocks, when household duties are over for the
season; but although the same has been reported of the bluebird, I have
never myself seen such a thing, and am satisfied that, as a rule, this
gentle spirit finds a family party of six or seven company enough. His
reticence, as we cheerfully admit, is nothing to quarrel with; it is all
well-bred, and not in the least unkindly; in fact, we like it, on the
whole, rather better than the robin's pertness and garrulity; but, none
the less, its natural consequence is that the bird has small concern for
musical display. When he sings, it is not to gain applause, but to
express his affection; and while, in one aspect of the case, there is
nothing out of the way in this,--since his affection need not be the
less deep and true because it is told in few words and with unadorned
phrase,--yet, as I said to begin with, it is hard not to feel that the
world is being defrauded, when for any reason, however amiable, the
possessor of such a matchless voice has no ambition to make the most of

It is always a double pleasure to find a plodding, humdrum-seeming man
with a poet's heart in his breast; and a little of the same delighted
surprise is felt by every one, I imagine, when he learns for the first
time that our little brown creeper is a singer. What life could possibly
be more prosaic than his? Day after day, year in and out, he creeps up
one tree-trunk after another, pausing only to peer right and left into
the crevices of the bark, in search of microscopic tidbits. A most
irksome sameness, surely! How the poor fellow must envy the swallows,
who live on the wing, and, as it were, have their home in heaven! So it
is easy for us to think; but I doubt whether the creeper himself is
troubled with such suggestions. He seems, to say the least, as well
contented as the most of us; and, what is more, I am inclined to doubt
whether any except "free moral agents," like ourselves, are ever wicked
enough to find fault with the orderings of Divine Providence. I fancy,
too, that we may have exaggerated the monotony of the creeper's lot. It
can scarcely be that even his days are without their occasional
pleasurable excitements. After a good many trees which yield little or
nothing for his pains, he must now and then light upon one which is like
Canaan after the wilderness,--"a land flowing with milk and honey."
Indeed, the longer I think of it the more confident I feel that every
aged creeper must have had sundry experiences of this sort, which he is
never weary of recounting for the edification of his nephews and nieces,
who, of course, are far too young to have anything like the wide
knowledge of the world which their venerable three-years-old uncle
possesses. _Certhia_ works all day for his daily bread; and yet even of
him it is true that "the life is more than meat." He has his inward
joys, his affectionate delights, which no outward infelicity can touch.
A bird who thinks nothing of staying by his nest and his mate at the
sacrifice of his life is not to be written down a dullard or a drudge,
merely because his dress is plain and his occupation unromantic. He has
a right to sing, for he has something within him to inspire the strain.

There are descriptions of the creeper's music which liken it to a
wren's. I am sorry that I have myself heard it only on one occasion:
then, however, so far was it from being wren-like that it might rather
have been the work of one of the less proficient warblers,--a somewhat
long opening note followed by a hurried series of shorter ones, the
whole given in a sharp, thin voice, and having nothing to recommend it
to notice, considered simply as music. All the while the bird kept on
industriously with his journey up the tree; and it is not in the least
unlikely that he may have another and better song, which he reserves for
times of more leisure.[19]

Our American wood-warblers are all to be classed among the minor
songsters; standing in this respect in strong contrast with the true Old
World warblers, of whose musical capacity enough, perhaps, is said when
it is mentioned that the nightingale is one of them. But, comparisons
apart, our birds are by no means to be despised, and not a few of their
songs have a good degree of merit. That of the well-known summer
yellow-bird may be taken as fairly representative of the entire group,
being neither one of the best nor one of the poorest. He, I have
noticed, is given to singing late in the day. Three of the New England
species have at the same time remarkably rough voices and black
throats,--I mean the black-throated blue, the black-throated green, and
the blue golden-wing,--and seeing that the first two are of the genus
_Dendroeca_, while the last is a _Helminthophaga_, I have allowed
myself to query (half in earnest) whether they may not, possibly, be
more nearly related than the systematists have yet discovered. Several
of the warbler songs are extremely odd. The blue yellow-back's, for
example, is a brief, hoarse, upward run,--a kind of scale exercise; and
if the practice of such things be really as beneficial as music teachers
affirm, it would seem that this little beauty must in time become a
vocalist of the first order. Nearly the same might be said of the
prairie warbler; but his _étude_ is a little longer and less hurried,
besides being in a higher key. I do not call to mind any bird who sings
a downward scale. Having before spoken of the tendency of warblers to
learn two or even three set tunes, I was the more interested when, last
summer, I added another to my list of the species which aspire to this
kind of liberal education. It was on the side of Mount Clinton that I
heard two Blackburnians, both in full sight and within a few rods of
each other, who were singing two entirely distinct songs. One of
these--it is the common one, I think--ended quaintly with three or four
short notes, like _zip_, _zip_, _zip;_ while the other was not unlike a
fraction of the winter wren's melody. Those who are familiar with the
latter bird will perhaps recognize the phrase referred to if I call it
the _willie, willie, winkie,_--with a triple accent on the first
syllable of the last word. Most of the songs of this family are rather
slight, but the extremest case known to me is that of the black-poll
(_Dendroeca striata_), whose _zee, zee, zee_ is almost ridiculously
faint. You may hear it continually in the higher spruce forests of the
White Mountains; but you will look a good many times before you discover
its author, and not improbably will begin by taking it for the call of
the kinglet. The music of the bay-breasted warbler is similar to the
black-poll's, but hardly so weak and formless. It seems reasonable to
believe not only that these two species are descended from a common
ancestry, but that the divergence is of a comparatively recent date:
even now the young of the year can be distinguished only with great
difficulty, although the birds in full feather are clearly enough

Warblers' songs are often made up of two distinct portions: one given
deliberately, the other hurriedly and with a concluding flourish.
Indeed, the same may be said of bird-songs generally,--those of the song
sparrow, the bay-winged bunting, and the wood thrush being familiar
examples. Yet there are many singers who attempt no climax of this sort,
but make their music to consist of two, or three, or more parts, all
alike. The Maryland yellow-throat, for instance, cries out over and
over, "What a pity, what a pity, what a pity!" So, at least, he seems to
say; though, I confess, it is more than likely I mistake the words,
since the fellow never appears to be feeling badly, but, on the
contrary, delivers his message with an air of cordial satisfaction. The
song of the pine-creeping warbler is after still another fashion,--one
simple short trill. It is musical and sweet; the more so for coming
almost always out of a pine-tree.

The vireos, or greenlets, are akin to the warblers in appearance and
habits, and like them are peculiar to the western continent. We have no
birds that are more unsparing of their music (prodigality is one of the
American virtues, we are told): they sing from morning till night,
and--some of them, at least--continue thus till the very end of the
season. It is worth mentioning, however, that the red-eye makes a short
day; becoming silent just at the time when the generality of birds grow
most noisy. Probably the same is true of the rest of the family, but on
that point I am not prepared to speak with positiveness. Of the five New
England species (I omit the brotherly-love greenlet, never having been
fortunate enough to know him) the white-eye is decidedly the most
ambitious, the warbling and the solitary are the most pleasing, while
the red-eye and the yellow-throat are very much alike, and both of them
rather too monotonous and persistent. It is hard, sometimes, not to get
out of patience with the red-eye's ceaseless and noisy iteration of his
trite theme; especially if you are doing your utmost to catch the notes
of some rarer and more refined songster. In my note-book I find an entry
describing my vain attempts to enjoy the music of a rose-breasted
grosbeak,--who at that time had never been a common bird with me,--while
"a pesky Wagnerian red-eye kept up an incessant racket."

The warbling vireo is admirably named; there is no one of our birds that
can more properly be said to warble. He keeps further from the ground
than the others, and shows a strong preference for the elms of village
streets, out of which his delicious music drops upon the ears of all
passers underneath. How many of them hear it and thank the singer is
unhappily another question.

The solitary vireo may once in a while be heard in a roadside tree,
chanting as familiarly as any red-eye; but he is much less abundant than
the latter, and, as a rule, more retiring. His ordinary song is like the
red-eye's and the yellow-throat's, except that it is pitched somewhat
higher and has a peculiar inflection or cadence, which on sufficient
acquaintance becomes quite unmistakable. This, however, is only the
smallest part of his musical gift. One morning in May, while strolling
through a piece of thick woods, I came upon a bird of this species, who,
all alone like myself, was hopping from one low branch to another, and
every now and then breaking out into a kind of soliloquizing song,--a
musical chatter, shifting suddenly to an intricate, low-voiced warble.
Later in the same day I found another in a chestnut grove. This last was
in a state of quite unwonted fervor, and sang almost continuously; now
in the usual disconnected vireo manner, and now with a chatter and
warble like what I had heard in the morning, but louder and longer. His
best efforts ended abruptly with the ordinary vireo call, and the
instantaneous change of voice gave to the whole a very strange effect.
The chatter and warble appeared to be related to each other precisely as
are those of the ruby-crowned kinglet; while the warble had a certain
tender, affectionate, some would say plaintive quality, which at once
put me in mind of the goldfinch.

I have seldom been more charmed with the song of any bird than I was on
the 7th of last October with that of this same _Vireo solitarius_. The
morning was bright and warm, but the birds had nearly all taken their
departure, and the few that remained were silent. Suddenly the stillness
was broken by a vireo note, and I said to myself with surprise, A
red-eye? Listening again, however, I detected the solitary's inflection;
and after a few moments the bird, in the most obliging manner, came
directly towards me, and began to warble in the fashion already
described. He sang and sang,--as if his song could have no ending,--and
meanwhile was flitting from tree to tree, intent upon his breakfast. As
far as I could discover, he was without company; and his music, too,
seemed to be nothing more than an unpremeditated, half-unconscious
talking to himself. Wonderfully sweet it was, and full of the happiest
content. "I listened till I had my fill," and returned the favor, as
best I could, by hoping that the little wayfarer's lightsome mood would
not fail him, all the way to Guatemala and back again.

Exactly a month before this, and not far from the same spot, I had stood
for some minutes to enjoy the "recital" of the solitary's saucy cousin,
the white-eye. Even at that time, although the woods were swarming with
birds,--many of them travelers from the North,--this white-eye was
nearly the only one still in song. He, however, was fairly brimming over
with music; changing his tune again and again, and introducing (for the
first time in Weymouth, as concert programmes say) a notably fine shake.
Like the solitary, he was all the while busily feeding (birds in
general, and vireos in particular, hold with Mrs. Browning that we may
"prove our work the better for the sweetness of our song"), and one
while was exploring a poison-dogwood bush, plainly without the slightest
fear of any ill-result. It occurred to me that possibly it is our
fault, and not that of _Rhus venenata_, when we suffer from the touch of
that graceful shrub.

The white-eyed greenlet is a vocalist of such extraordinary versatility
and power that one feels almost guilty in speaking of him under the
title which stands at the head of this paper. How he would scold,
out-carlyling Carlyle, if he knew what were going on! Nevertheless I
cannot rank him with the great singers, exceptionally clever and
original as, beyond all dispute, he is; and for that matter, I look upon
the solitary as very much his superior, in spite of--or, shall I say,
because of?--the latter's greater simplicity and reserve.

But if we hesitate thus about these two inconspicuous vireos, whom half
of those who do them the honor to read what is here said about them will
have never seen, how are we to deal with the scarlet tanager? Our
handsomest bird, and with musical aspirations as well, shall we put him
into the second class? It must be so, I fear: yet such justice is a
trial to the flesh; for what critic could ever quite leave out of
account the beauty of a _prima donna_ in passing judgment on her work?
Does not her angelic face sing to his eye, as Emerson says?

Formerly I gave the tanager credit for only one song,--the one which
suggests a robin laboring under an attack of hoarseness; but I have
discovered that he himself regards his _chip-cherr_ as of equal value.
At least, I have found him perched at the tip of a tall pine, and
repeating this inconsiderable and not very melodious trochee with all
earnestness and perseverance. Sometimes he rehearses it thus at
nightfall; but even so I cannot call it highly artistic. I am glad to
believe, however, that he does not care in the least for my opinion. Why
should he? He is too true a gallant to mind what anybody else thinks, so
long as _one_ is pleased; and she, no doubt, tells him every day that he
is the best singer in the grove. Beside his divine _chip-cherr_ the
rhapsody of the wood thrush is a mere nothing, if she is to be the
judge. Strange, indeed, that so shabbily dressed a creature as this
thrush should have the presumption to attempt to sing at all! "But
then," she charitably adds, "perhaps he is not to blame; such things
come by nature; and there are some birds, you know, who cannot tell the
difference between noise and music."

We trust that the tanager will improve as time goes on; but in any case
we are largely in his debt. How we should miss him if he were gone, or
even were become as rare as the summer red-bird and the cardinal are in
our latitude! As it is, he lights up our Northern woods with a truly
tropical splendor, the like of which no other of our birds can furnish.
Let us hold him in hearty esteem, and pray that he may never be
exterminated; no, not even to beautify the head-gear of our ladies, who,
if they only knew it, are already sufficiently bewitching.

What shall we say now about the lesser lights of that most musical
family, the finches? Of course the cardinal and rose-breasted grosbeaks
are not to be included in any such category. Nor will _I_ put there the
goldfinch, the linnet, the fox-colored sparrow, and the song sparrow.
These, if no more, shall stand among the immortals; so far, at any rate,
as my suffrage counts. But who ever dreamed of calling the chipping
sparrow a fine singer? And yet, who that knows it does not love his
earnest, long-drawn trill, dry and tuneless as it is? I can speak for
one, at all events; and he always has an ear open for it by the middle
of April. It is the voice of a friend,--a friend so true and gentle and
confiding that we do not care to ask whether his voice be smooth and his
speech eloquent.

The chipper's congener, the field sparrow, is less neighborly than he,
but a much better musician. His song is simplicity itself; yet, even at
its lowest estate, it never fails of being truly melodious, while by
one means and another its wise little author contrives to impart to it a
very considerable variety, albeit within pretty narrow limits. Last
spring the field sparrows were singing constantly from the middle of
April till about the 10th of May, when they became entirely dumb. Then,
after a week in which I heard not a note, they again grew musical. I
pondered not a little over their silence, but concluded that they were
just then very much occupied with preparations for housekeeping.

The bird who is called indiscriminately the grass finch, the bay-winged
bunting, the bay-winged sparrow, the vesper sparrow, and I know not what
else (the ornithologists have nicknamed him _Pooecetes gramineus_), is
a singer of good parts, but is especially to be commended for his
refinement. In form his music is strikingly like the song sparrow's; but
the voice is not so loud and ringing, and the two or three opening notes
are less sharply emphasized. In general the difference between the two
songs may perhaps be well expressed by saying that the one is more
declamatory, the other more _cantabile_; a difference exactly such as we
might have expected, considering the nervous, impetuous disposition of
the song sparrow and the placidity of the bay-wing.

As one of his titles indicates, the bay-wing is famous for singing in
the evening, when, of course, his efforts are doubly acceptable; and I
can readily believe that Mr. Minot is correct in his "impression" that
he has once or twice heard the song in the night. For while spending a
few days at a New Hampshire hotel, which was surrounded with fine lawns
such as the grass finch delights in, I happened to be awake in the
morning, long before sunrise,--when, in fact, it seemed like the dead of
night,--and one or two of these sparrows were piping freely. The sweet
and gentle strain had the whole mountain valley to itself. How beautiful
it was, set in such a broad "margin of silence," I must leave to be
imagined. I noticed, moreover, that the birds sang almost incessantly
the whole day through. Much of the time there were two singing
antiphonally. Manifestly, the lines had fallen to them in pleasant
places: at home for the summer in those luxuriant Sugar-Hill fields, in
continual sight of yonder magnificent mountain panorama, with Lafayette
himself looming grandly in the foreground; while they, innocent souls,
had never so much as heard of hotel-keepers and their bills. "Happy
commoners," indeed! Their "songs in the night" seemed nowise surprising.
I fancied that I could be happy myself in such a case.

Our familiar and ever-welcome snow-bird, known in some quarters as the
black chipping-bird, and often called the black snow-bird, has a long
trill, not altogether unlike the common chipper's, but in a much higher
key. It is a modest lay, yet doubtless full of meaning; for the singer
takes to the very tip of a tree, and throws his head back in the most
approved style. He does his best, at any rate, and so far ranks with the
angels; while, if my testimony can be of any service to him, I am glad
to say ('t is too bad the praise is so equivocal) that I have heard many
human singers who gave me less pleasure; and further, that he took an
indispensable though subordinate part in what was one of the most
memorable concerts at which I was ever happy enough to be a listener.
This was given some years ago in an old apple-orchard by a flock of
fox-colored sparrows, who, perhaps for that occasion only, had the
"valuable assistance" of a large choir of snow-birds. The latter were
twittering in every tree, while to this goodly accompaniment the
sparrows were singing their loud, clear, thrush-like song. The
combination was felicitous in the extreme. I would go a long way to hear
the like again.

If distinction cannot be attained by one means, who knows but that it
may be by another? It is denied us to be great? Very well, we can at
least try the effect of a little originality. Something like this seems
to be the philosophy of the indigo-bird; and he carries it out both in
dress and in song. As we have said already, it is usual for birds to
reserve the loudest and most taking parts of their music for the close,
though it may be doubted whether they have any intelligent purpose in so
doing. Indeed, the apprehension of a great general truth such as lies at
the basis of this well-nigh universal habit,--the truth, namely, that
everything depends upon the impression finally left on the hearer's
mind; that to end with some grand burst, or with some surprisingly lofty
note, is the only, or to speak cautiously, the principal, requisite to a
really great musical performance,--the intelligent grasp of such a truth
as this, I say, seems to me to lie beyond the measure of a bird's
capacity in the present stage of his development. Be this as it may,
however, it is noteworthy that the indigo-bird exactly reverses the
common plan. He begins at his loudest and sprightliest, and then runs
off into a _diminuendo_, which fades into silence almost imperceptibly.
The strain will never be renowned for its beauty; but it is unique, and,
further, is continued well into August. Moreover,--and this adds grace
to the most ordinary song,--it is often let fall while the bird is on
the wing.

This eccentric genius has taken possession of a certain hillside
pasture, which, in another way, belongs to me also. Year after year he
comes back and settles down upon it about the middle of May; and I have
often been amused to see his mate--who is not permitted to wear a single
blue feather--drop out of her nest in a barberry bush and go fluttering
off, both wings dragging helplessly through the grass. I should pity her
profoundly but that I am in no doubt her injuries will rapidly heal when
once I am out of sight. Besides, I like to imagine her beatitude, as,
five minutes afterward, she sits again upon the nest, with her heart's
treasures all safe underneath her. Many a time was a boy of my
acquaintance comforted in some ache or pain with the words, "Never mind!
't will feel better when it gets well;" and so, sure enough, it always
did. But what a wicked world this is, where nature teaches even a bird
to play the deceiver!

On the same hillside is always to be found the chewink,--a creature
whose dress and song are so unlike those of the rest of his tribe that
the irreverent amateur is tempted to believe that, for once, the men of
science have made a mistake. What has any finch to do with a call like
_cherawink_, or with such a three-colored harlequin suit? But it is
unsafe to judge according to the outward appearance, in ornithology as
in other matters; and I have heard that it is only those who are foolish
as well as ignorant who indulge in off-hand criticisms of wiser men's
conclusions. So let us call the towhee a finch, and say no more about

But whatever his lineage, it is plain that the chewink is not a bird to
be governed very strictly by the traditions of the fathers. His usual
song is characteristic and pretty, yet he is so far from being satisfied
with it that he varies it continually and in many ways, some of them
sadly puzzling to the student who is set upon telling all the birds by
their voices. I remember well enough the morning I was inveigled through
the wet grass of two pastures--and that just as I was shod for the
city--by a wonderfully foreign note, which filled me with lively
anticipations of a new bird, but which turned out to be the work of a
most innocent-looking towhee. It was perhaps this same bird, or his
brother, whom I one day heard throwing in between his customary
_cherawinks_ a profusion of _staccato_ notes of widely varying pitch,
together with little volleys of tinkling sounds such as his every-day
song concludes with. This medley was not laughable, like the chat's,
which it suggested, but it had the same abrupt, fragmentary, and
promiscuous character. All in all, it was what I never should have
expected from this paragon of self-possession.

For self-control, as I have elsewhere said, is Pipilo's strong point.
One afternoon last summer a young friend and I found ourselves, as we
suspected, near a chewink's nest, and at once set out to see which of us
should have the honor of the discovery. We searched diligently, but
without avail, while the father-bird sat quietly in a tree, calling with
all sweetness and with never a trace of anger or trepidation,
_cherawink, cherawink_. Finally we gave over the hunt, and I began to
console my companion and myself for our disappointment by shaking in the
face of the bird a small tree which very conveniently leaned toward the
one in which he was perched. By rather vigorous efforts I could make
this pass back and forth within a few inches of his bill; but he utterly
disdained to notice it, and kept on calling as before. While we were
laughing at his impudence (_his_ impudence!) the mother suddenly
appeared, with an insect in her beak, and joined her voice to her
husband's. I was just declaring how cruel as well as useless it was for
us to stay, when she ungratefully gave a ludicrous turn to what was
intended for a very sage and considerate remark, by dropping almost at
my feet, stepping upon the edge of her nest, and offering the morsel to
one of her young. We watched the little tableau admiringly (I had never
seen a prettier show of nonchalance), and thanked our stars that we had
been saved from an involuntary slaughter of the innocents while
trampling all about the spot. The nest, which we had tried so hard to
find, was in plain sight, concealed only by the perfect agreement of its
color with that of the dead pine-branches in the midst of which it was
placed. The shrewd birds had somehow learned--by experience, perhaps,
like ourselves--that those who would escape disagreeable and perilous
conspicuity must conform as closely as possible to the world around

According to my observation, the towhee is not much given to singing
after July; but he keeps up his call, which is little less musical than
his song, till his departure in late September. At that time of the year
the birds collect together in their favorite haunts; and I remember my
dog's running into the edge of a roadside pasture among some
cedar-trees, when there broke out such a chorus of _cherawinks_ that I
was instantly reminded of a swamp full of frogs in April.

After the tanager the Baltimore oriole (named for Lord Baltimore, whose
colors he wears) is probably the most gorgeous, as he is certainly one
of the best known, of New England birds. He has discovered that men,
bad as they are, are less to be dreaded than hawks and weasels, and so,
after making sure that his wife is not subject to sea-sickness, he
swings his nest boldly from a swaying shade-tree branch, in full view of
whoever may choose to look at it. Some morning in May--not far from the
10th--you will wake to hear him fifing in the elm before your window. He
has come in the night, and is already making himself at home. Once I saw
a pair who on the very first morning had begun to get together materials
for a nest. His whistle is one of the clearest and loudest, but he makes
little pretensions to music. I have been pleased and interested,
however, to see how tuneful he becomes in August, after most other birds
have ceased to sing, and after a long interval of silence on his own
part. Early and late he pipes and chatters, as if he imagined that the
spring were really coming back again forthwith. What the explanation of
this lyrical revival may be I have never been able to gather; but the
fact itself is very noticeable, so that it would not be amiss to call
the "golden robin" the bird of August.

The oriole's dusky relatives have the organs of song well developed; and
although most of the species have altogether lost the art of music,
there are none of them, even now, that do not betray more or less of the
musical impulse. The red-winged blackbird, indeed, has some really
praiseworthy notes; and to me--for personal reasons quite aside from any
question about its lyrical value--his rough _cucurree_ is one of the
very pleasantest of sounds. For that matter, however, there is no one of
our birds--be he, in technical language, "oscine" or "non-oscine"--whose
voice is not, in its own way, agreeable. Except a few uncommonly
superstitious people, who does not enjoy the whip-poor-will's
trisyllabic exhortation, and the _yak_ of the night-hawk? Bob White's
weather predictions, also, have a wild charm all their own, albeit his
persistent _No more wet_ is often sadly out of accord with the farmer's
hopes. We have no more untuneful bird, surely, than the cow bunting; yet
even the serenades of this shameless polygamist have one merit,--they
are at least amusing. With what infinite labor he brings forth his
forlorn, broken-winded whistle, while his tail twitches convulsively, as
if tail and larynx were worked by the same spring!

The judging, comparing spirit, the conscientious dread of being
ignorantly happy when a broader culture would enable us to be
intelligently miserable,--this has its place, unquestionably, in concert
halls; but if we are to make the best use of out-door minstrelsy, we
must learn to take things as we find them, throwing criticism to the
winds. Having said which, I am bound to go further still, and to
acknowledge that on looking back over the first part of this paper I
feel more than half ashamed of the strictures therein passed upon the
bluebird and the brown thrush. When I heard the former's salutation from
a Boston Common elm on the morning, of the 22d of February last, I said
to myself that no music, not even the nightingale's, could ever be
sweeter. Let him keep on, by all means, in his own artless way, paying
no heed to what I have foolishly written about his shortcomings. As for
the thrasher's smile-provoking gutturals, I recall that even in the
symphonies of the greatest of masters there are here and there quaint
bassoon phrases, which have, and doubtless were intended to have, a
somewhat whimsical effect; and remembering this, I am ready to own that
I was less wise than I thought myself when I found so much fault with
the thrush's performance. I have sins enough to answer for: may this
never be added to them, that I set up my taste against that of Beethoven
and _Harporhynchus rufus_.


[19] Since this was written I have heard the creeper sing a tune very
different from the one described above. See p. 227.

                       WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON.

    Not much to find, not much to see;
    But the air was fresh, the path was free.

                                W. ALLINGHAM.

                       WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON.

A weed has been defined as a plant the use of which is not yet
discovered. If the definition be correct there are few weeds. For the
researches of others beside human investigators must be taken into the
account. What we complacently call the world below us is full of
intelligence. Every animal has a lore of its own; not one of them but
is--what the human scholar is more and more coming to be--a specialist.
In these days the most eminent botanists are not ashamed to compare
notes with the insects, since it turns out that these bits of animate
wisdom long ago anticipated some of the latest improvements of our
modern systematists.[20] We may see the red squirrel eating, with real
epicurean zest, mushrooms, the white and tender flesh of which we have
ourselves looked at longingly, but have never dared to taste. How amused
he would be (I fear he would even be rude enough to snicker) were you to
caution him against poison! As if _Sciurus Hudsonius_ didn't know what
he were about! Why should men be so provincial as to pronounce anything
worthless merely because _they_ can do nothing with it? The clover is
not without value, although the robin and the oriole may agree to think
so. We know better; and so do the rabbits and the humblebees. The wise
respect their own quality wherever they see it, and are thankful for a
good hint from no matter what quarter. Here is a worthy neighbor of mine
whom I hear every summer complaining of the chicory plants which
disfigure the roadside in front of her windows. She wishes they were
exterminated, every one of them. And they are homely, there is no
denying it, for all the beauty of their individual sky-blue flowers. No
wonder a neat housewife finds them an eyesore. But I never pass the spot
in August (I do not pass it at all after that) without seeing that hers
is only one side of the story. My approach is sure to startle a few
goldfinches (and they too are most estimable neighbors), to whom these
scraggy herbs are quite as useful as my excellent lady's apple-trees
and pear-trees are to her. I watch them as they circle about in musical
undulations, and then drop down again to finish their repast; and I
perceive that, in spite of its unsightliness, the chicory is not a
weed,--its use has been discovered.

In truth, the lover of birds soon ceases to feel the uncomeliness of
plants of this sort; he even begins to have a peculiar and kindly
interest in them. A piece of "waste ground," as it is called, an untidy
garden, a wayside thicket of golden-rods and asters, pig-weed and
evening primrose,--these come to be almost as attractive a sight to him
as a thrifty field of wheat is to an agriculturalist. Taking his cue
from the finches, he separates plants into two grand divisions,--those
that shed their seeds in the fall, and those that hold them through the
winter. The latter, especially if they are of a height to overtop a
heavy snow-fall, are friends in need to his clients; and he is certain
to have marked a few places within the range of his every-day walks
where, thanks to somebody's shiftlessness, perhaps, they have been
allowed to flourish.

It is not many years since there were several such winter gardens of the
birds in Commonwealth Avenue,--vacant house-lots overgrown with tall
weeds. Hither cause flocks of goldfinches, red-poll linnets, and snow
buntings; and thither I went to watch them. It happened, I remember,
that the last two species, which are not to be met with in this region
every season, were unusually abundant during the first or second year of
my ornithological enthusiasm. Great was the delight with which I added
them to the small but rapidly increasing list of my feathered

The red-polls and the goldfinches often travel together, or at least are
often to be found feeding in company; and as they resemble each other a
good deal in size, general appearance, and ways, the casual observer is
very likely not to discriminate between them. Only the summer before the
time of which I speak I had spent a vacation at Mount Wachusett; and a
resident of Princeton, noticing my attention to the birds (a taste so
peculiar is not easily concealed), had one day sought an interview with
me to inquire whether the "yellow-bird" did not remain in Massachusetts
through the winter. I explained that we had two birds which commonly
went by that name and asked whether he meant the one with a black
forehead and black wings and tail. Yes, he said, that was the one. I
assured him, of course, that this bird, the goldfinch, did stay with us
all the year round, and that whoever had informed him to the contrary
must have understood him to be speaking about the golden warbler. He
expressed his gratification, but declared that he had really entertained
no doubt of the fact himself; he had often seen the birds on the
mountain when he had been cutting wood there in midwinter. At such
times, he added, they were very tame, and would come about his feet to
pick up crumbs while he was eating his dinner. Then he went on to tell
me that at that season of the year their plumage took on more or less of
a reddish tinge: he had seen in the same flock some with no trace of
red, others that were slightly touched with it, and others still of a
really bright color. At this I had nothing to say, save that his red
birds, whatever else they were, could not have been goldfinches. But
next winter, when I saw the "yellow-birds" and the red-poll linnets
feeding together in Commonwealth Avenue, I thought at once of my
Wachusett friend. Here was the very scene he had so faithfully
described,--some of the flock with no red at all, some with red crowns,
and a few with bright carmine crowns and breasts. They remained all
winter, and no doubt thought the farmers of Boston a very good and wise
set, to cultivate the evening primrose so extensively. This plant, like
the succory, is of an ungraceful aspect; yet it has sweet and beautiful
blossoms, and as an herb bearing seed is in the front rank. I doubt
whether we have any that surpass it, the birds being judges.

Many stories are told of the red-polls' fearlessness and ready
reconciliation to captivity, as well as of their constancy to each
other. I have myself stood still in the midst of a flock, until they
were feeding round my feet so closely that it looked easy enough to
catch one or two of them with a butterfly net. Strange that creatures so
gentle and seemingly so delicately organized should choose to live in
the regions about the North Pole! Why should they prefer Labrador and
Greenland, Iceland and Spitzbergen, to more southern countries? Why?
Well, possibly for no worse a reason than this, that these are the lands
of their fathers. Other birds, it may be, have grown discouraged, and
one after another ceased to come back to their native shores as the
rigors of the climate have increased; but these little patriots are
still faithful. Spitzbergen is home, and every spring they make the long
and dangerous passage to it. All praise to them!

If any be ready to call this an over-refinement, deeming it incredible
that beings so small and lowly should come so near to human sentiment
and virtue, let such not be too hasty with their dissent. Surely they
may in reason wait till they can point to at least one country where the
men are as universally faithful to their wives and children as the birds
are to theirs.

The red-poll linnets, as I have said, are irregular visitors in this
region; several years may pass, and not one be seen; but the goldfinch
we have with us always. Easily recognized as he is, there are many
well-educated New-Englanders, I fear, who do not know him, even by
sight; yet when that distinguished ornithologist, the Duke of Argyll,
comes to publish his impressions of this country, he avers that he has
been hardly more interested in the "glories of Niagara" than in this
same little yellow-bird, which he saw for the first time while looking
from his hotel window at the great cataract. "A golden finch, indeed!"
he exclaims. Such a tribute as this from the pen of a British nobleman
ought to give _Astragalinus tristis_ immediate entrance into the very
best of American society.

It is common to say that the goldfinches wander about the country during
the winter. Undoubtedly this is true in a measure; but I have seen
things which lead me to suspect that the statement is sometimes made too
sweeping. Last winter, for example, a flock took up their quarters in a
certain neglected piece of ground on the side of Beacon Street, close
upon the boundary between Boston and Brookline, and remained there
nearly or quite the whole season. Week after week I saw them in the same
place, accompanied always by half a dozen tree sparrows. They had found
a spot to their mind, with plenty of succory and evening primrose, and
were wise enough not to forsake it for any uncertainty.

The goldfinch loses his bright feathers and canary-like song as the cold
season approaches, but not even a New England winter can rob him of his
sweet call and his cheerful spirits; and for one, I think him never more
winsome than when he bangs in graceful attitudes above a snow-bank, on a
bleak January morning.

Glad as we are of the society of the goldfinches and the red-polls at
this time of the year, we cannot easily rid ourselves of a degree of
solicitude for their comfort; especially if we chance to come upon them
after sunset on some bitterly cold day, and mark with what a nervous
haste they snatch here and there a seed, making the utmost of the few
remaining minutes of twilight. They will go to bed hungry and cold, we
think, and were surely better off in a milder clime. But, if I am to
judge from my own experience, the snow buntings awaken no such
emotions. Arctic explorers by instinct, they come to us only with real
arctic weather, and almost seem to be themselves a part of the
snow-storm with which they arrive. No matter what they are doing:
running along the street before an approaching sleigh; standing on a
wayside fence; jumping up from the ground to snatch the stem of a weed,
and then setting at work hurriedly to gather the seeds they have shaken
down; or, best of all, skimming over the snow in close order, their
white breasts catching the sun as they veer this way or that,--whatever
they may be doing, they are the most picturesque of all our cold-weather
birds. In point of suspiciousness their behavior is very different at
different times, as, for that matter, is true of birds generally. Seeing
the flock alight in a low roadside lot, you steal silently to the edge
of the sidewalk to look over upon them. There they are, sure enough,
walking and running about, only a few rods distant. What lovely
creatures, and how prettily they walk! But just as you are wishing,
perhaps, that they were a little nearer, they begin to fly from right
under your feet. You search the ground eagerly, right and left, but not
a bird can you discover; and still they continue to start up, now here,
now there, till you are ready to question whether, indeed, "eyes were
made for seeing." The "snow-flakes" wear protective colors, and, like
most other animals, are of opinion that, for such as lack the receipt of
fern-seed, there is often nothing safer than to sit still. The worse the
weather, the less timorous they are, for with them, as with wiser heads,
one thought drives out another; and it is nothing uncommon, when times
are hard, to see them stay quietly upon the fence while a sleigh goes
past, or suffer a foot passenger to come again and again within a few

It gives a lively touch to the imagination to overtake these beautiful
strangers in the middle of Beacon Street; particularly if one has lately
been reading about them in some narrative of Siberian travel. Coming
from so far, associating in flocks, with costumes so becoming and yet so
unusual, they might be expected to attract universal notice, and
possibly to get into the newspapers. But there is a fashion even about
seeing; and of a thousand persons who may take a Sunday promenade over
the Mill-dam, while these tourists from the North Pole are there, it is
doubtful whether a dozen are aware of their presence. Birds feeding in
the street? Yes, yes; English sparrows, of course; we haven't any other
birds in Boston nowadays, you know.

With the pine grosbeaks the case is different. When a man sees a company
of rather large birds about the evergreens in his door-yard, most of
them of a neutral ashy-gray tint, but one or two in suits of rose-color,
he is pretty certain to feel at least a momentary curiosity about them.
Their slight advantage in size counts for something; for, without
controversy, the bigger the bird the more worthy he is of notice. And
then the bright color! The very best men are as yet but imperfectly
civilized, and there must be comparatively few, even of Bostonians, in
whom there is not some lingering susceptibility to the fascination of
red feathers. Add to these things the fact that the grosbeaks are
extremely confiding, and much more likely than the buntings to be seen
from the windows of the house, and you have, perhaps, a sufficient
explanation of the more general interest they excite. Like the snow
buntings and the red-polls, they roam over the higher latitudes of
Europe, Asia, and America, and make only irregular visits to our corner
of the world.[21]

I cannot boast of any intimate acquaintance with them. I have never
caught them in a net, or knocked them over with a club, as other
persons have done, although I have seen them when their tameness
promised success to any such loving experiment. Indeed, it was several
years before my lookout for them was rewarded. Then, one day, I saw a
flock of about ten fly across Beacon Street,--on the edge of
Brookline,--and alight in an apple-tree; at which I forthwith clambered
over the picket-fence after them, heedless alike of the deep snow and
the surprise of any steady-going citizen who might chance to witness my
high-handed proceeding. Some of the birds were feeding upon the rotten
apples; picking them off the tree, and taking them to one of the large
main branches or to the ground, and there tearing them to pieces,--for
the sake of the seeds, I suppose. The rest sat still, doing nothing. I
was most impressed with the exceeding mildness and placidity of their
demeanor; as if they had time enough, plenty to eat, and nothing to
fear. Their only notes were in quality much like the goldfinch's, and
hardly louder, but without his characteristic inflection. I left the
whole company seated idly in a maple-tree, where, to all appearance,
they proposed to observe the remainder of the day as a Sabbath.

Last winter the grosbeaks were uncommonly abundant. I found a number of
them within a few rods of the place just mentioned; this time in
evergreen trees, and so near the road that I had no call to commit
trespass. Evergreens are their usual resort,--so, at least, I gather
from books,--but I have seen them picking up provender from a
bare-looking last year's garden. Natives of the inhospitable North, they
have learned by long experience how to adapt themselves to
circumstances. If one resource fails, there is always another to be
tried. Let us hope that they even know how to show fight upon, occasion.

The purple finch--a small copy of the pine grosbeak, as the indigo bird
is of the blue grosbeak--is a summer rather than a winter bird with us;
yet he sometimes passes the cold season in Eastern Massachusetts, and
even in Northern New Hampshire. I have never heard him sing more
gloriously than once when the ground was deep under the snow; a
wonderfully sweet and protracted warble, poured out while the singer
circled about in the air with a kind of half-hovering flight.

As I was walking briskly along a West End street, one cold morning in
March, I heard a bird's note close at hand, and, looking down,
discovered a pair of these finches in a front yard. The male, in bright
plumage, was flitting about his mate, calling anxiously, while she, poor
thing, sat motionless upon the snow, too sick or too badly exhausted to
fly. I stroked her feathers gently while she perched on my finger, and
then resumed my walk; first putting her into a little more sheltered
position on the sill of a cellar window, and promising to call on my way
back, when, if she were no better, I would take her home with me, and
give her a warm room and good nursing. When I returned, however, she was
nowhere to be found. Her mate, I regret to say, both on his own account
and for the sake of the story, had taken wing and disappeared the moment
I entered the yard. Possibly he came back and encouraged her to fly off
with him; or perhaps some cat made a Sunday breakfast of her. The truth
will never be known; our vigilant city police take no cognizance of
tragedies so humble.

For several years a few song sparrows--a pair or two, at least--have
wintered in a piece of ground just beyond the junction of Beacon street
and Brookline Avenue. I have grown accustomed to listen for their
_tseep_ as I go by the spot, and occasionally I catch sight of one of
them perched upon a weed, or diving under the plank sidewalk. It would
be a pleasure to know the history of the colony: how it started; whether
the birds are the same year after year, as I suppose to be the case; and
why this particular site was selected. The lot is small, with no woods
or bushy thicket near, while it has buildings in one corner, and is
bounded on its three sides by the streets and the railway; but it is
full of a rank growth of weeds, especially a sturdy species of aster and
the evergreen golden-rod, and I suspect that the plank walk, which on
one side is raised some distance from the ground, is found serviceable
for shelter in severe weather, as it is certainly made to take the place
of shrubbery for purposes of concealment.

Fortunately, birds, even those of the same species, are not all exactly
alike in their tastes and manner of life. So, while by far the greater
part of our song sparrows leave us in the fall, there are always some
who prefer to stay. They have strong local attachments, perhaps; or they
dread the fatigue and peril of the journey; or they were once
incapacitated for flight when their companions went away, and, having
found a Northern winter not so unendurable as they had expected, have
since done from choice what at first they did of necessity. Whatever
their reasons,--and we cannot be presumed to have guessed half of
them,--at all events a goodly number of song sparrows do winter in
Massachusetts, where they open the musical season before the first of
the migrants make their appearance. I doubt, however, whether many of
them choose camping grounds so exposed and public as this in the rear
of the "Half-way House."

Our only cold-weather thrushes are the robins. They may be found any
time in favorable situations; and even in so bleak a place as Boston
Common I have seen them in every month of the year except February. This
exception, moreover, is more apparent than real,--at the most a matter
of but twenty-four hours, since I once saw four birds in a tree near the
Frog Pond on the last day of January. The house sparrows were as much
surprised as I was at the sight, and, with characteristic urbanity,
gathered from far and near to sit in the same tree with the visitors,
and stare at them.

We cannot help being grateful to the robins and the song sparrows, who
give us their society at so great a cost; but their presence can
scarcely be thought to enliven the season. At its best their bearing is
only that of patient submission to the inevitable. They remind us of the
summer gone and the summer coming, rather than brighten the winter that
is now upon us; like friends who commiserate us in some affliction, but
are not able to comfort us. How different the chickadee! In the worst
weather his greeting is never of condolence, but of good cheer. He has
no theory upon the subject, probably; he is no Shepherd of Salisbury
Plain; but he knows better than to waste the exhilarating air of this
wild and frosty day in reminiscences of summer time. It is a
pretty-sounding couplet,--

    "Thou hast no morrow in thy song,
    No winter in thy year,"--

but rather incongruous, he would think. _Chickadee, dee_, he
calls,--_chickadee, dee_; and though the words have no exact equivalent
in English, their meaning is felt by all such as are worthy to hear

Are the smallest birds really the most courageous, or does an
unconscious sympathy on our part inevitably give them odds in the
comparison? Probably the latter supposition comes nearest the truth.
When a sparrow chases a butcher-bird we cheer the sparrow, and then when
a humming-bird puts to flight a sparrow, we cheer the humming-bird; we
side with the kingbird against the crow, and with the vireo, against the
kingbird. It is a noble trait of human nature--though we are somewhat
too ready to boast of it--that we like, as we say, to see the little
fellow at the top. These remarks are made, not with any reference to the
chickadee,--I admit no possibility of exaggeration in his case,--but as
leading to a mention of the golden-crested kinglet. He is the least of
all our winter birds, and one of the most engaging. Emerson's "atom in
full breath" and "scrap of valor" would apply to him even better than to
the titmouse. He says little,--_zee, zee, zee_ is nearly the limit of
his vocabulary; but his lively demeanor and the grace and agility of his
movements are in themselves an excellent language, speaking infallibly a
contented mind. (It is a fact, on which I forbear to moralize, that
birds seldom look unhappy except when they are idle.) His diminutive
size attracts attention even from those who rarely notice such things.
About the first of December, a year ago, I was told of a man who had
shot a humming-bird only a few days before in the vicinity of Boston. Of
course I expressed a polite surprise, and assured my informant that such
a remarkable capture ought by all means to be put on record in "The
Auk," as every ornithologist in the land would be interested in it. On
this he called upon the lucky sportsman's brother, who happened to be
standing by, to corroborate the story. Yes, the latter said, the fact
was as had been stated. "But then," he continued, "the bird didn't have
a _long bill_, like a humming-bird;" and when I suggested that perhaps
its crown was yellow, bordered with black, he said, "Yes, yes; that's
the bird, exactly." So easy are startling discoveries to an observer who
has just the requisite amount of knowledge,--enough, and (especially)
not too much!

The brown creeper is quite as industrious and good-humored as the
kinglet, but he is less taking in his personal appearance and less
romantic in his mode of life. The same may be said of our two
black-and-white woodpeckers, the downy and the hairy; while their more
showy but less hardy relative, the flicker, evidently feels the weather
a burden. The creeper and these three woodpeckers are with us in limited
numbers every winter; and in the season of 1881-82 we had an altogether
unexpected visit from the red-headed woodpecker,--such a thing as had
not been known for a long time, if ever. Where the birds came from, and
what was the occasion of their journey, nobody could tell. They arrived
early in the autumn, and went away, with the exception of a few
stragglers, in the spring; and as far as I know have never been seen
since. It is a great pity they did not like us well enough to come
again; for they are wide-awake, entertaining creatures, and gorgeously
attired. I used to watch them in the oak groves of some Longwood
estates, but it was not till our second or third interview that I
discovered them to be the authors of a mystery over which I had been
exercising my wits in vain, a tree-frog's note in winter! One of their
amusements was to drum on the tin girdles of the shade trees; and
meanwhile they themselves afforded a pastime to the gray squirrels, who
were often to be seen creeping stealthily after them, as if they
imagined that _Melanerpes erythrocephalus_ might possibly be caught, if
only he were hunted long enough. I laughed at them; but, after all,
their amusing hallucination was nothing but the sportsman's instinct;
and life would soon lose its charm for most of us, sportsmen or not, if
we could no longer pursue the unattainable.

Probably my experience is not singular, but there are certain birds,
well known to be more or less abundant in this neighborhood, which for
some reason or other I have seldom, if ever, met. For example, of the
multitude of pine finches which now and then overrun Eastern
Massachusetts in winter I have never seen one, while on the other hand I
was once lucky enough to come upon a few of the very much smaller number
which pass the summer in Northern New Hampshire. This was in the White
Mountain Notch, first on Mount Willard and then near the Crawford House,
at which latter place they were feeding on the lawn and along the
railway track as familiarly as the goldfinches.

The shore larks, too, are no doubt common near Boston for a part of
every year; yet I found half a dozen five or six years ago in the marsh
beside a Back Bay street, and have seen none since. One of these stood
upon a pile of earth, singing to himself in an undertone, while the rest
were feeding in the grass. Whether the singer was playing sentinel, and
sounded an alarm, I was not sure, but all at once the flock started off,
as if on a single pair of wings.

Birds which elude the observer in this manner year after year only
render themselves all the more interesting. They are like other species
with which we deem ourselves well acquainted, but which suddenly appear
in some quite unlooked-for time or place. The long-expected and the
unexpected have both an especial charm. I have elsewhere avowed my
favoritism for the white-throated sparrow; but I was never more
delighted to see him than on one Christmas afternoon. I was walking in a
back road, not far from the city, when I descried a sparrow ahead of me,
feeding in the path, and, coming nearer, recognized my friend the
white-throat. He held his ground till the last moment (time was precious
to him that short day), and then flew into a bush to let me pass, which
I had no sooner done than he was back again; and on my return the same
thing was repeated. Far and near the ground was white, but just at this
place the snow-plough had scraped bare a few square feet of earth, and
by great good fortune this solitary and hungry straggler had hit upon
it. I wondered what he would do when the resources of this garden patch
were exhausted, but consoled myself with thinking that by this time he
must be well used to living by his wits, and would probably find a way
to do so even in his present untoward circumstances.

The snow-birds (not to be confounded with the snow buntings) should have
at least a mention in such a paper as this. They are among the most
familiar and constant of our winter guests, although very much less
numerous at that time than in spring and autumn, when the fields and
lanes are fairly alive with them.

A kind word must be said for the shrike, also, who during the three
coldest months is to be seen on the Common oftener than any other of our
native birds. _There_, at all events, he is doing a good work. May he
live to finish it!

The blue jay stands by us, of course. You will not go far without
hearing his scream, and catching at least a distant view of his splendid
coat, which he is too consistent a dandy to put off for one of a duller
shade, let the season shift as it will. He is not always good-natured;
but none the less he is generally in good spirits (he seems to enjoy
his bad temper), and, all in all, is not to be lightly esteemed in a
time when bright feathers are scarce.

As for the jay's sable relatives, they are the most conspicuous birds in
the winter landscape. You may possibly walk to Brookline and back
without hearing a chickadee, or a blue jay, or even a goldfinch; but you
will never miss sight and sound of the crows. Black against white is a
contrast hard to be concealed. Sometimes they are feeding in the street,
sometimes stalking about the marshes; but oftenest they are on the ice
in the river, near the water's edge. For they know the use of friends,
although they have never heard of Lord Bacon's "last fruit of
friendship," and would hardly understand what that provident philosopher
meant by saying that "the best way to represent to life the manifold use
of friendship is to cast and see how many things there are which a man
cannot do himself." How aptly their case illustrates the not unusual
coexistence of formal ignorance with real knowledge! Having their
Southern brother's fondness for fish without his skill in catching it,
they adopt a plan worthy of the great essayist himself,--they court the
society of the gulls; and with a temper eminently philosophical, not to
say Baconian, they cheerfully sit at their patrons' second table. From
the Common you may see them almost any day (in some seasons, at least)
flying back and forth between the river and the harbor. One morning in
early March I witnessed quite a procession, one small company after
another, the largest numbering eleven birds, though it was nothing to
compare with what seems to be a daily occurrence at some places further
south. At another time, in the middle of January, I saw what appeared to
be a flock of herring gulls sailing over the city, making progress in
their own wonderfully beautiful manner, circle after circle. But I
noticed that about a dozen of them were black! What were these? If they
could have held their peace I might have gone home puzzled; but the crow
is in one respect a very polite bird: he will seldom fly over your head
without letting fall the compliments of the morning, and a vigorous
_caw, caw_ soon proclaimed my black gulls to be simply erratic specimens
of _Corvus Americanus_. Why were they conducting thus strangely? Had
they become so attached to their friends as to have taken to imitating
them unconsciously? Or were they practicing upon the vanity of these
useful allies of theirs, these master fishermen? Who can answer? The
ways of shrewd people are hard to understand; and in all New England
there is no shrewder Yankee than the crow.


[20] See a letter by Dr. Fritz Müller, "Butterflies as Botanists:"
_Nature_, vol. xxx. p. 240. Of similar import is the case, cited by Dr.
Asa Gray (in the _American Journal of Science_, November, 1884, p. 325),
of two species of plantain found in this country, which students have
only of late discriminated, although it turns out that the cows have all
along known them apart, eating one and declining the other,--the bovine
taste being more exact, it would seem, or at any rate more prompt, than
the botanist's lens.

[21] Unlike the snow bunting and the red-poll, however, the pine
grosbeak is believed to breed sparingly in Northern New England.

                          A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL

                                  There shall be
    Beautiful things made new, for the surprise
    Of the sky-children.


    Everywhere the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed
    rest, and their native country and their own natural homes, which
    they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected, and
    yet these is a silent joy at their arrival.


                          A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL.

It began on the 29th of March; in the afternoon of which day, despite
the authority of the almanac and the banter of my acquaintances (March
was March to them, and it was nothing more), I shook off the city's dust
from my feet, and went into summer quarters. The roads were
comparatively dry; the snow was entirely gone, except a patch or two in
the shadow of thick pines under the northerly side of a hill; and all
tokens seemed to promise an early spring. So much I learned before the
hastening twilight cut short my first brief turn out-of-doors. In the
morning would be time enough to discover what birds had already reported
themselves at my station.

Unknown to me, however, our national weather bureau had announced a
snow-storm, and in the morning I drew aside the curtains to look out
upon a world all in white, with a cold, high wind blowing and snow
falling fast. "The worst Sunday of the winter," the natives said. The
"summer boarder" went to church, of course. To have done otherwise might
have been taken for a confession of weakness; as if inclemency of this
sort were more than he had bargained for. The villagers, lacking any
such spur to right conduct, for the most part stayed at home; feeling it
not unpleasant, I dare say, some of them, to have a natural inclination
providentially confirmed, even at the cost of an hour's exercise with
the shovel. The bravest parishioner of all, and the sweetest
singer,--the song sparrow by name,--was not in the meeting-house, but by
the roadside. What if the wind did blow, and the mercury stand at
fifteen or twenty degrees below the freezing point? In cold as in heat
"the mind is its own place."

Three days after this came a second storm, one of the heaviest
snow-falls of the year. The robins were reduced to picking up seeds in
the asparagus bed. The bluebirds appeared to be trying to glean
something from the bark of trees, clinging rather awkwardly to the trunk
meanwhile. (They are given to this, more or less, at all times, and it
possibly has some connection with their half-woodpeckerish habit of
nestling in holes.) Some of the snow-birds were doing likewise; I
noticed one traveling up a trunk,--which inclined a good deal, to be
sure,--exploring the crannies right and left, like any creeper. Half a
dozen or more phoebes were in the edge of a wood; and they too seemed
to have found out that, if worst came to worst, the tree-boles would
yield a pittance for their relief. They often hovered against them,
pecking hastily at the bark, and one at least was struggling for a
foothold on the perpendicular surface. Most of the time, however, they
went skimming over the snow and the brook, in the regular flycatcher
style. The chickadees were put to little or no inconvenience, since what
was a desperate makeshift to the others was to them only an every-day
affair. It would take a long storm to bury their granary.[22] After the
titmice, the fox-colored sparrows had perhaps the best of it. Looking
out places where the snow had collected least, at the foot of a tree or
on the edge of water, these adepts at scratching speedily turned up
earth enough to checker the white with very considerable patches of
brown. While walking I continually disturbed song sparrows, fox
sparrows, tree sparrows, and snow-birds feeding in the road; and when I
sat in my room I was advised of the approach of carriages by seeing
these "pensioners upon the traveler's track" scurry past the window in
advance of them.

It is pleasant to observe how naturally birds flock together in hard
times,--precisely as men do, and doubtless for similar reasons. The edge
of the wood, just mentioned, was populous with them: robins, bluebirds,
chickadees, fox sparrows, snow-birds, song sparrows, tree sparrows,
phoebes, a golden-winged woodpecker, and a rusty blackbird. The last,
noticeable for his conspicuous light-colored eye-ring, had somehow
become separated from his fellows, and remained for several days about
this spot entirely alone. I liked to watch his aquatic performances;
they might almost have been those of the American dipper himself, I
thought. He made nothing of putting his head and neck clean under water,
like a duck, and sometimes waded the brook when the current was so
strong that he was compelled every now and then to stop and brace
himself against it, lest he should be carried off his feet.

It is clear that birds, sharing the frailty of some who are better than
many sparrows, are often wanting in patience. As spring draws near they
cannot wait for its coming. What it has been the fashion to call their
unerring instinct is after all infallible only as a certain great public
functionary is,--in theory; and their mistaken haste is too frequently
nothing but a hurrying to their death. But I saw no evidence that this
particular storm was attended with any fatal consequences. The snow
completely disappeared within a day or two; and even while it lasted the
song sparrows, fox sparrows, and linnets could be heard singing with all
cheerfulness. On the coldest day, when the mercury settled to within
twelve degrees of zero, I observed that the song sparrows, as they fed
in the road, had a trick of crouching till their feathers all but
touched the ground, so protecting their legs against the biting wind.

The first indications of mating were noticed on the 5th, the parties
being two pairs of bluebirds. One of the females was rebuffing her
suitor rather petulantly, but when he flew away she lost no time in
following. Shall I be accused of slander if I suggest that possibly her
_No_ meant nothing worse than _Ask me again?_ I trust not; she was only
a bluebird, remember. Three days later I came upon two couples engaged
in house-hunting. In this business the female takes the lead, with a
silent, abstracted air, as if the matter were one of absorbing interest;
while her mate follows her about somewhat impatiently, and with a good
deal of talk, which is plainly intended to hasten the decision. "Come,
come," he says; "the season is short, and we can't waste the whole of
it in getting ready." I never could discover that his eloquence produced
much effect, however. Her ladyship will have her own way; as indeed she
ought to have, good soul, considering that she is to have the discomfort
and the hazard. In one case I was puzzled by the fact that there seemed
to be two females to one of the opposite sex. It really looked as if the
fellow proposed to set up housekeeping with whichever should first find
a house to her mind. But this _is_ slander, and I hasten to take it
back. No doubt I misinterpreted his behavior; for it is true--with
sorrow I confess it--that I am as yet but imperfectly at home in the
Sialian dialect.

For the first fortnight my note-book is full of the fox-colored
sparrows. It was worth while to have come into the country ahead of
time, as city people reckon, to get my fill of this Northern songster's
music. Morning and night, wherever I walked, and even if I remained
in-doors, I was certain to hear the loud and beautiful strain; to which
I listened with the more attention because the birds, I knew, would soon
be off for their native fields, beyond the boundaries of the United

It is astonishing how gloriously birds may sing, and yet pass
unregarded. We read of nightingales and skylarks with a self-satisfied
thrill of second-hand enthusiasm, and meanwhile our native songsters,
even the best of them, are piping unheeded at our very doors. There may
have been half a dozen of the town's people who noticed the presence of
these fox sparrows, but I think it doubtful; and yet the birds, the
largest, handsomest, and most musical of all our many sparrows, were, as
I say, abundant everywhere, and in full voice.

One afternoon I stood still while a fox sparrow and a song sparrow sang
alternately on either side of me, both exceptionally good vocalists, and
each doing his best. The songs were of about equal length, and as far as
theme was concerned were not a little alike; but the fox sparrow's tone
was both louder and more mellow than the other's, while his notes were
longer,--more sustained,--and his voice was "carried" from one pitch to
another. On the whole, I had no hesitation about giving him the palm;
but I am bound to say that his rival was a worthy competitor. In some
respects, indeed, the latter was the more interesting singer of the two.
His opening measure of three _pips_ was succeeded by a trill of quite
peculiar brilliancy and perfection; and when the other bird had ceased
he suddenly took a lower perch, and began to rehearse an altogether
different tune in a voice not more than half as loud as what he had
been using; after which, as if to cap the climax, he several times
followed the tune with a detached phrase or two in a still fainter
voice. This last was pretty certainly an improvised cadenza, such a
thing as I do not remember ever to have heard before from _Melospiza

The song of the fox sparrow has at times an almost thrush-like quality;
and the bird himself, as he flies up in front of you, might easily be
mistaken for some member of that noble family. Once, indeed, when I saw
him eating burning-bush berries in a Boston garden, I was half ready to
believe that I had before my eyes a living example of the development of
one species out of another,--a finch already well on his way to become a
thrush. Most often, however, his voice puts me in mind of the cardinal
grosbeak's; his voice, and perhaps still more his cadence, and
especially his practice of the _portamento_.

The 11th of the month was sunny, and the next morning I came back from
my accustomed rounds under a sense of bereavement: the fox sparrows were
gone. Where yesterday there had been hundreds of them, now I could find
only two silent stragglers. They had been well scattered over the
township,--here a flock and there a flock; but in some way--I should be
glad to have anybody tell me how--the word had passed from company to
company that after sundown Friday night all hands would set out once
more on their northward journey. There was one man, at least, who missed
them, and in the comparative silence which followed their departure
appreciated anew how much they had contributed to fill the wet and
chilly April mornings with melody and good cheer.

The snow-birds tarried longer, but from this date became less and less
abundant. For the first third of the month they had been as numerous, I
calculated, as all other species put together. On one occasion I saw a
large company of them chasing an albino, the latter dashing wildly round
a pine-tree, with the whole flock in furious pursuit. They drove him
off, across an impassable morass, before I could get close enough really
to see him, but I presumed him to be of their own kind. As far as I
could make out he was entirely white. For the moment it lasted, it was
an exciting scene; and I was especially gratified to notice with what
extreme heartiness and unanimity the birds discountenanced their wayward
brother's heterodoxy. I agreed with them that one who cannot be content
to dress like other people ought not to be allowed to live with them.
The world is large,--let him go to Rhode Island!

On the evening of the 6th, just at dusk, I had started up the road for a
lazy after-dinner saunter, when I was brought to a sudden halt by what
on the instant I took for the cry of a night-hawk. But no night-hawk
could be here thus early in the season, and listening further, I
perceived that the bird, if bird it was, was on the ground, or, at any
rate, not far from it. Then it flashed upon me that this was the note of
the woodcock, which I had that very day startled upon this same
hillside. Now, then, for another sight of his famous aerial courtship
act! So, scrambling down the embankment, and clambering over the
stone-wall, I pushed up the hill through bushes and briers, till, having
come as near the bird as I dared, I crouched, and awaited further
developments. I had not long to wait, for after a few _yaks_, at
intervals of perhaps fifteen or twenty seconds, the fellow took to wing,
and went soaring in a circle above me; calling hurriedly _click, click,
click_, with a break now and then, as if for breath-taking. All this he
repeated several times; but unfortunately it was too dark for me to see
him, except as he crossed a narrow illuminated strip of sky just above
the horizon line. I judged that he mounted to a very considerable
height, and dropped invariably into the exact spot from which he had
started. For a week or two I listened every night for a repetition of
the yak; but I heard nothing more of it for a month. Then it came to my
ears again, this time from a field between the road and a swamp.
Watching my opportunity, while the bird was in the air, I hastened
across the field, and stationed myself against a small cedar. He was
still _clicking_ high overhead, but soon alighted silently within twenty
yards of where I was standing, and commenced to "bleat," prefacing each
_yak_ with a fainter syllable which I had never before been near enough
to detect. Presently he started once more on his skyward journey. Up he
went, in a large spiral, "higher still and higher" till the cedar cut
off my view for an instant, after which I could not again get my eye
upon him. Whether he saw me or not I cannot tell, but he dropped to the
ground some rods away, and did not make another ascension, although he
continued to call irregularly, and appeared to be walking about the
field. Perhaps by this time the fair one for whose benefit all this
parade was intended had come out of the swamp to meet and reward her

Hoping for a repetition of the same programme on the following night, I
invited a friend from the city to witness it with me; one who, less
fortunate than the "forest seer," had never "heard the woodcock's
evening hymn," notwithstanding his knowledge of birds is a thousand-fold
more than mine, as all students of American ornithology would
unhesitatingly avouch were I to mention his name. We waited till dark;
but though _Philohela_ was there, and sounded his _yak_ two or three
times,--just enough to excite our hopes,--yet for some reason he kept to
_terra firma_. Perhaps he was aware of our presence, and disdained to
exhibit himself in the _rôle_ of a wooer under our profane and curious
gaze; or possibly, as my more scientific (and less sentimental)
companion suggested, the light breeze may have been counted unfavorable
for such high-flying exploits.

After all, our matter-of-fact world is surprisingly full of romance. Who
would have expected to find this heavy-bodied, long-billed,
gross-looking, bull-headed bird singing at heaven's gate? _He_ a
"scorner of the ground"? Verily, love worketh wonders! And perhaps it is
really true that the outward semblance is sometimes deceptive. To be
candid, however, I must end with confessing that, after listening to the
woodcock's "hymn" a good many times, first and last, I cannot help
thinking that it takes an imaginative ear to discover anything properly
to be called a song in its monotonous _click, click_, even at its
fastest and loudest.[23]

While I was enjoying the farewell _matinée_ of the fox-colored sparrows
on the 11th, suddenly there ran into the chorus the fine silver thread
of the winter wren's tune. Here was pleasure unexpected. It is down in
all the books, I believe, that this bird does not sing while on his
travels; and certainly I had myself never known him to do anything of
the sort before. But there is always something new under the sun.

    "Who ever heard of th' Indian Peru?
    Or who in venturous vessell measurèd
    The Amazon's huge river, now found trew?
    Or fruitfullest Virginia who did ever vew?"

I was all ear, of course, standing motionless while the delicious music
came again and again out of a tangle of underbrush behind a dilapidated
stone-wall,--a spot for all the world congenial to this tiny recluse,
whose whole life, we may say, is one long game of hide-and-seek.
Altogether the song was repeated twenty times at least, and to my
thinking I had never heard it given with greater brilliancy and fervor.
The darling little minstrel! he will never know how grateful I felt. I
even forgave him when he sang thrice from a living bush, albeit in so
doing he spoiled a sentence which I had already committed to "the
permanency of print." Birds of all kinds will play such tricks upon us;
but whether the fault be chargeable to fickleness or a mischievous
spirit on their part, rather than to undue haste on the part of us their
reporters, is a matter about which I am perhaps not sufficiently
disinterested to judge. In this instance, however, it was reasonably
certain that the singer did not show himself intentionally; for unless
the whole tenor of his life belies him, the winter wren's motto is,
Little birds should be heard, and not seen.

Two days afterward I was favored again in like manner. But not by the
same bird, I think; unless my hearing was at fault (the singer was
further off than before), this one's tune was in places somewhat broken
and hesitating,--as if he were practicing a lesson not yet fully

I felt under a double obligation to these two specimens of _Anorthura
troglodytes hiemalis_: first for their music itself; and then for the
support which it gave to a pet theory of mine, that all our singing
birds will yet be found to sing more or less regularly in the course of
the vernal migration.

Within another forty-eight hours this same theory received additional
confirmation. I was standing under an apple-tree, watching a pair of
titmice who were hollowing out a stub for a nest, when my ear caught a
novel song not far away. Of course I made towards it; but the bird flew
off, across the road and into the woods. My hour was up, and I
reluctantly started homeward, but had gone only a few rods before the
song was repeated. This was more than human nature could bear, and,
turning back upon the run, I got into the woods just in time to see two
birds chasing each other round a tree, both uttering the very notes
which had so roused my curiosity. Then away they went; but as I was
again bewailing my evil luck, one of them returned, and flew into the
oak, directly over my head, and as he did so fell to calling anew, _Sue,
suky, suky_. A single glance upward revealed that this was another of
the silent migrants,--a brown creeper! Only once before had I heard from
him anything beside his customary lisping _zee_, _zee_; and even on
that occasion (in June and in New Hampshire) the song bore no
resemblance to his present effort. I have written it down as it sounded
at the moment, _Sue_, _suky_, _suky_, five notes, the first longer than
the others, and all of them brusque, loud, and musical, though with
something of a warbler quality.[24]

It surprised me to find how the migratory movement lagged for the first
half of the month. A pair of white-breasted swallows flew over my head
while I was attending to the winter wren on the 11th, and on the 14th
appeared the first pine-creeping warblers,--welcome for their own sakes,
and doubly so as the forerunners of a numerous and splendid company; but
aside from these two, I saw no evidence that a single new species
arrived at my station for the entire fortnight.

Robins sang sparingly from the beginning, and became perceptibly more
musical on the 8th, with signs of mating and jealousy; but the real
robin carnival did not open till the morning of the 14th. Then the
change was wonderful. Some of the birds were flying this way and that,
high in air, two or three together; others chased each other about
nearer the ground; some were screaming, some hissing, and more singing.
So sudden was the outbreak and so great the commotion that I was
persuaded there must have been an arrival of females in the night.

I have heard it objected against these thrushes, whose extreme
commonness renders them less highly esteemed than they would otherwise
be, that they find their voices too early in the morning. But I am not
myself prepared to second the criticism. They are not often at their
matins, I think, until the eastern sky begins to flush, and it is not
quite certain to my mind that they are wrong in assuming that daylight
makes daytime. I have questioned before now whether our own custom of
sitting up for five or six hours after sunset, and then lying abed two
or three hours after sunrise, may not have come down to us from times
when there were still people in the world who loved darkness rather than
light, because their deeds were evil; and whether, after all, in this as
in some other respects, we might not wisely take pattern of the fowls of
the air.

Individually, the phoebes were almost as noisy as the robins, but of
course their numbers were far less. They are models of perseverance.
Were their voice equal to the nightingale's they could hardly be more
assiduous and enthusiastic in its use. As a general thing they are
content to repeat the simple _Phoebe, Phoebe_ (there are moods in
the experience of all of us, I hope, when the repetition of a name is by
itself music sufficient), but it is not uncommon for this to be
heightened to _Phoebe, O Phoebe_; and now and then you will hear
some fellow calling excitedly, _Phoebe, Phoebe-be-be-be-be_,--a
comical sort of stuttering, in which the difficulty is not in getting
hold of the first syllable, but in letting go the last one. On the 15th
I witnessed a certain other performance of theirs,--one that I had seen
two or three times the season previous, and for which I had been on the
lookout from the first day of the month. I heard a series of _chips_,
which might have been the cries of a chicken, but which, it appeared,
did proceed from a phoebe, who, as I looked up, was just in the act of
quitting his perch on the ridge-pole of a barn. He rose for perhaps
thirty feet, not spirally, but in a zigzag course,--like a horse
climbing a hill with a heavy load,--all the time calling, _chip, chip,
chip_. Then he went round and round in a small circle, with a kind of
hovering action of the wings, vociferating hurriedly, _Phoebe,
Phoebe, Phoebe_; after which he shot down into the top of a tree,
and with a lively flirt of his tail took up again the same eloquent
theme. During the next few weeks I several times found birds of this
species similarly engaged. And it is worthy of remark that, of the four
flycatchers which regularly pass the summer with us, three may be said
to be, in the _habit_ of singing in the air, while the fourth (the wood
pewee) does the same thing, only with less frequency. It is curious,
also, on the other hand, that not one of our eight common New England
thrushes, as far as I have ever seen or heard, shows the least tendency
toward any such state of lyrical exaltation. Yet the thrushes are song
birds _par excellence_, while the phoebe, the least flycatcher, and
the kingbird are not supposed to be able to sing at all. The latter have
the soul of music in them, at any rate; and why should it not be true of
birds, as it is of human poets and would-be poets, that sensibility and
faculty are not always found together? Perhaps those who have nothing
but the sensibility have, after all, the better half of the blessing.

The golden-winged woodpeckers shouted comparatively little before the
middle of the month, and I heard nothing of their tender _wick-a-wick_
until the 22d. After that they were noisy enough. With all their power
of lungs, however, they not only are not singers; they do not aspire to
be. They belong to the tribe of Jubal. Hearing somebody drumming on tin,
I peeped over the wall, and saw one of these pigeon woodpeckers
hammering an old tin pan lying in the middle of the pasture. Rather
small sport, I thought, for so large a bird. But that was a matter of
opinion, merely, and evidently the performer himself had no such
scruples. He may even have considered that his ability to play on this
instrument of the tinsmith's went far to put him on an equality with
some who boast themselves the only tool-using animals. True, the pan was
battered and rusty; but it was resonant, for all that, and day after day
he pleased himself with beating _reveille_ upon it. One morning I found
him sitting in a tree, screaming lustily in response to another bird in
an adjacent field. After a while, waxing ardent, he dropped to the
ground, and, stationing himself before his drum, proceeded to answer
each cry of his rival with a vigorous rubadub, varying the programme
with an occasional halloo. How long this would have lasted there is no
telling, but he caught sight of me, skulking behind a tree-trunk, and
flew back to his lofty perch, where he was still shouting when I came
away. It was observable that, even in his greatest excitement, he paused
once in a while to dress his feathers. At first I was inclined to take
this as betraying a want of earnestness; but further reflection led me
to a different conclusion. For I imagine that the human lover, no matter
how consuming his passion, is seldom carried so far beyond himself as
not to be able to spare now and then a thought to the parting of his
hair and the tie of his cravat.

Seeing the great delight which this woodpecker took in his precious tin
pan, it seemed to me not at all improbable that he had selected his
summer residence with a view to being near it, just as I had chosen mine
for its convenience of access to the woods on the one hand, and to the
city on the other. I shall watch with interest to see whether he returns
to the same pasture another year.

A few field sparrows and chippers showed themselves punctually on the
15th; but they were only scouts, and the great body of their followers
were more than a week behind them. I saw no bay-winged buntings until
the 22d, although it is likely enough they had been here for some days
before that. By a lucky chance, my very first bird was a peculiarly
accomplished musician: he altered his tune at nearly every repetition of
it, sang it sometimes loudly and then softly, and once in a while added
cadenza-like phrases. It lost nothing by being heard on a bright, frosty
morning, when the edges of the pools were filmed with ice.

Only three species of warblers appeared during the month: the
pine-creeping warblers, already spoken of, who were trilling on the
14th; the yellow-rumped, who came on the 23d; and the yellow red-polls,
who followed the next morning. The black-throated greens were
mysteriously tardy, and the black-and-white creepers waited for May-day.

A single brown thrush was leading the chorus on the 29th. "A great
singer," my note-book says: "not so altogether faultless as some, but
with a large voice and style, adapted to a great part;" and then is
added, "I thought this morning of Titiens, as I listened to him!"--a bit
of impromptu musical criticism, which, under cover of the saving
quotation marks may stand for what it is worth.

Not long after leaving him I ran upon two hermit thrushes (one had been
seen on the 25th), flitting about the woods like ghosts. I whistled
softly to the first, and he condescended to answer with a low _chuck_,
after which I could get nothing more out of him. This demure taciturnity
is very curious and characteristic, and to me very engaging. The fellow
will neither skulk nor run, but hops upon some low branch, and looks at
you,--behaving not a little as if you were the specimen and he the
student! And in such a case, as far as I can see, the bird equally with
the man has a right to his own point of view.

The hermits were not yet in tune; and without forgetting the fox-colored
sparrows and the linnets, the song sparrows and the bay-wings, the
winter wrens and the brown thrush, I am almost ready to declare that the
best music of the month came from the smallest of all the month's birds,
the ruby-crowned kinglets. Their spring season is always short with us,
and unhappily it was this year shorter even than usual, my dates being
April 23d and May 5th. But we must be thankful for a little, when the
little is of such a quality. Once I descried two of them in the topmost
branches of a clump of tall maples. For a long time they fed in silence;
then they began to chase each other about through the trees, in graceful
evolutions (I can imagine nothing more graceful), and soon one, and
then the other, broke out into song. "'Infinite riches in a little
room,'" my note-book says, again; and truly the song is marvelous,--a
prolonged and varied warble, introduced and often broken into, with
delightful effect, by a wrennish chatter. For fluency, smoothness, and
ease, and especially for purity and sweetness of tone, I have never
heard any bird-song that seemed to me more nearly perfect. If the dainty
creature would bear confinement,--on which point I know nothing,--he
would make an ideal parlor songster; for his voice, while round and
full,--in contrast with the goldfinch's, for example,--is yet, even at
its loudest, of a wonderful softness and delicacy. Nevertheless, I trust
that nobody will ever cage him. Better far go out-of-doors, and drink in
the exquisite sounds as they drop from the thick of some tall pine,
while you catch now and then a glimpse of the tiny author, flitting
busily from branch to branch, warbling at his work; or, as you may
oftener do, look and listen to your heart's content, while he explores
some low cedar or a cluster of roadside birches, too innocent and happy
to heed your presence. So you will carry home not the song only, but
"the river and sky."

But if the kinglets were individually the best singers, I must still
confess that the goldfinches gave the best concert. It was on a sunny
afternoon,--the 27th,--and in a small grove of tall pitch-pines. How
many birds there were I could form little estimate, but when fifteen
flew away for a minute or two the chorus was not perceptibly diminished.
All were singing, twittering, and calling together; some of them
directly over my head, the rest scattered throughout the wood. No one
voice predominated in the least; all sang softly, and with an
indescribable tenderness and beauty. Any who do not know how sweet the
goldfinch's note is may get some conception of the effect of such a
concert if they will imagine fifty canaries thus engaged out-of-doors. I
declared then that I had never heard anything so enchanting, and I am
not certain even now that I was over-enthusiastic.

A pine-creeping warbler, I remember, broke in upon the choir two or
three times with his loud, precise trill. Foolish bird! His is a pretty
song by itself, but set in contrast with music so full of imagination
and poetry, it sounded painfully abrupt and prosaic.

I discovered the first signs of nest-building on the 13th, while
investigating the question of a bird's ambi-dexterity. It happened that
I had just been watching a chickadee, as he picked chip after chip from
a dead branch, and held them fast with one claw, while he broke them in
pieces with his beak; and walking away, it occurred to me to ask whether
or not he could probably use both feet equally well for such a purpose.
Accordingly, seeing another go into an apple-tree, I drew near to take
his testimony on that point. But when I came to look for him he was
nowhere in sight, and pretty soon it appeared that he was at work in the
end of an upright stub, which he had evidently but just begun to hollow
out, as the tip of his tail still protruded over the edge. A
bird-lover's curiosity can always adapt itself to circumstances, and in
this case it was no hardship to postpone the settlement of my newly
raised inquiry, while I observed the pretty labors of my little
architect. These proved to be by no means inconsiderable, lasting nearly
or quite three weeks. The birds were still bringing away chips on the
30th, when their cavity was about eleven inches deep; but it is to be
said that, as far as I could find out, they never worked in the
afternoon or on rainy days.

Their demeanor toward each other all this time was beautiful to see; no
effusive display of affection, but every appearance of a perfect mutual
understanding and contentment. And their treatment of me was no less
appropriate and delightful,--a happy combination of freedom and
dignified reserve. I took it for an extremely neat compliment to
myself, as well as incontestable evidence of unusual powers of
discrimination on their part.

On my second visit the female sounded a call as I approached the tree,
and I looked to see her mate take some notice of it; but he kept
straight on with what he was doing. Not long after she spoke again,
however; and now it was amusing to see the fellow all at once stand
still on the top of the stub, looking up and around, as much as to say,
"What is it, my dear? I see nothing." Apparently it _was_ nothing, and
he went head first into the hole again. Pretty soon, while he was
inside, I stepped up against the trunk. His mate continued silent, and
after what seemed a long time he came out, flew to an adjacent twig,
dropped his load, and returned. This he did over and over (the end of
the stub was perhaps ten feet above my head), and once he let fall a
beakful of chips plump in my face. They were light, and I did not resent
the liberty.

Two mornings later I found him at his task again, toiling in good
earnest. In and out he went, taking care to bring away the shavings at
every trip, as before, and generally sounding a note or two (keeping the
tally, perhaps) before he dropped them. For the fifteen minutes or so
that I remained, his mate was perched in another branch of the same
tree, not once shifting her position, and doing nothing whatever except
to preen her feathers a little. She paid no attention to her husband,
nor did he to her. It was a revelation to me that a chickadee could
possibly sit still so long.

Eight days after this they were both at work, spelling each other, and
then going off in company for a brief turn at feeding.

So far they had never manifested the least annoyance at my espionage;
but the next morning, as I stood against the tree, one of them seemed
slightly disturbed, and flew from twig to twig about my head, looking at
me from all directions with his shining black eyes. The reconnoissance
was satisfactory, however; everything went on as before, and several
times the chips rattled down upon my stiff Derby hat. The hole was
getting deep, it was plain; I could hear the little carpenter hammering
at the bottom, and then scrambling up the walls on his way out. One of
the pair brought a black tidbit from a pine near by, and offered it to
the other as he emerged into daylight. He took it from her bill, said
_chit_,--chickadese for _thank you_,--and hastened back into the mine.

Finally, on the 27th, after watching their operations a while from the
ground, I swung myself into the tree, and took a seat with them. To my
delight, the work proceeded without interruption. Neither bird made any
outcry, although one of them hopped round me, just out of reach, with
evident curiosity. He must have thought me a queer specimen. When I drew
my overcoat up after me and put it on, they flew away; but within a
minute or two they were both back again, working as merrily as ever, and
taking no pains not to litter me with their rubbish. Once the female (I
took it to be she from her smaller size, not from this piece of
shiftlessness) dropped her load without quitting the stub, a thing I had
not seen either of them do before. Twice one brought the other something
to eat. At last the male took another turn at investigating my
character, and it began to look as if he would end with alighting on my
hat. This time, too, I am proud to say, the verdict was favorable.

Their confidence was not misplaced, and unless all signs failed they
reared a full brood of tits. May their tribe increase! Of birds so
innocent and unobtrusive, so graceful, so merry-hearted, and so musical,
the world can never have too many.


[22] In the titmouse's cosmological system trees occupy a highly
important place, we may be sure; while the purpose of their tall,
upright method of growth no doubt receives a very simple and logical
(and correspondingly lucid) explanation.

[23] While this book is passing through the press (April 30th, 1885) I
am privileged with another sight and sound of the woodcock's vespertine
performance, and under peculiarly favorable conditions. In the account
given above, sufficient distinction is not made between the clicking
noise, heard while the bird is soaring, and the sounds which signalize
his descent. The former is probably produced by the wings, although I
have heretofore thought otherwise, while the latter are certainly vocal,
and no doubt intended as a song. But they are little if at all louder
than the _click, click_ of the wings, and as far as I have ever been
able to make out are nothing more than a series of quick, breathless
whistles, with no attempt at either melody or rhythm.

In the present instance I could see only the start and the "finish,"
when the bird several times passed directly by and over me, as I stood
in a cluster of low birches, within two or three rods of his point of
departure. His angle of flight was small; quite as if he had been going
and coming from one field to another, in the ordinary course. Once I
timed him, and found that he was on the wing for a few seconds more than
a minute.

[24] Still further to corroborate my "pet theory," I may say here in a
foot-note, what I have said elsewhere with more detail, that before the
end of the following month the hermit thrushes, the olive-backed
thrushes, and the gray-cheeked thrushes all sang for me in my Melrose

Let me explain, also, that when I call the brown creeper a silent
migrant I am not unaware that others beside myself, and more than
myself, have heard him sing while traveling. Mr. William Brewster, as
quoted by Dr. Brewer in the _History of North American Birds_, has been
exceptionally fortunate in this regard. But my expression is correct as
far as the rule is concerned; and the latest word upon the subject which
has come under my eye is this from Mr. E. P. Bicknell's "Study of the
Singing of our Birds," in _The Auk_ for April, 1884: "Some feeble notes,
suggestive of those of _Regulus satrapa_, are this bird's usual
utterance during its visit. Its song I have never heard."

                         AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY.

    Let Euclid rest, and Archimedes pause,
    And what the Swede intends, and what the French.


                         AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY.

My trip to Lake Memphremagog was by the way, and was not expected to
detain me for more than twenty-four hours; but when I went ashore at the
Owl's Head Mountain-House, and saw what a lodge in the wilderness it
was, I said to myself, Go to, this is the place; Mount Mansfield will
stand for another year at least, and I will waste no more of my precious
fortnight amid dust and cinders. Here were to be enjoyed many of the
comforts of civilization, with something of the wildness and freedom of
a camp. Out of one of the windows of my large, well-furnished room I
could throw a stone into the trackless forest, where, any time I chose,
I could make the most of a laborious half-hour in traveling half a mile.
The other two opened upon a piazza; whence the lake was to be seen
stretching away northward for ten or fifteen miles, with Mount Orford
and his supporting hills in the near background; while I had only to
walk the length of the piazza to look round the corner of the house at
Owl's Head itself, at whose base we were. The hotel had less than a
dozen guests and no piano, and there was neither carriage-road nor
railway within sight or hearing. Yes, this was the place where I would
spend the eight days which yet remained to me of idle time.

Of the eight days five were what are called unpleasant; but the
unseasonable cold, which drove the stayers in the house to huddle about
the fire, struck the mosquitoes with a torpor which made strolling in
the woods a double luxury; while the rain was chiefly of the showery
sort, such as a rubber coat and old clothes render comparatively
harmless. Not that I failed to take a hand with my associates in
grumbling about the weather. Table-talk would speedily come to an end in
such circumstances if people were forbidden to criticise the order of
nature; and it is not for me to boast any peculiar sanctity in this
respect. But when all was over, it had to be acknowledged that I, for
one, had been kept in-doors very little. In fact, if the whole truth
were told, it would probably appear that my fellow boarders, seeing my
persistency in disregarding the inclemency of the elements, soon came to
look upon me as decidedly odd, though perhaps not absolutely demented.
At any rate, I was rather glad than otherwise to think so. In those
long days there must often have been a dearth of topics for profitable
conversation, no matter how outrageous the weather, and it was a
pleasure to believe that this little idiosyncracy of mine might answer
to fill here and there a gap. For what generous person does not rejoice
to feel that even in his absence he may be doing something for the
comfort and well-being of his brothers and sisters? As Seneca said, "Man
is born for mutual assistance."

According to Osgood's "New England," the summit of Owl's Head is 2,743
feet above the level of the lake, and the path to it is a mile and a
half and thirty rods in length. It may seem niggardly not to throw off
the last petty fraction; and indeed we might well enough let it pass if
it were at the beginning of the route,--if the path, that is, were
thirty rods and a mile and a half long. But this, it will be observed,
is not the case; and it is a fact perfectly well attested, though
perhaps not yet scientifically accounted for (many things are known to
be true which for the present cannot be mathematically demonstrated),
that near the top of a mountain thirty rods are equivalent to a good
deal more than four hundred and ninety-five feet. Let the guide-book's
specification stand, therefore, in all its surveyor-like exactness.
After making the climb four times in the course of eight days, I am not
disposed to abate so much as a jot from the official figures. Rather
than do that I would pin my faith to an unprofessional-looking
sign-board in the rear of the hotel, on which the legend runs, "Summit
of Owl's Head 2-1/4 miles." For aught I know, indeed (in such a world as
this, uncertainty is a principal mark of intelligence),--for aught I
know, both measurements may be correct; which fact, if once it were
established, would easily and naturally explain how it came to pass that
I myself found the distance so much greater on some days than on others;
although, for that matter, which of the two would be actually longer, a
path which should rise 2,743 feet in a mile and a half, or one that
should cover two miles and a quarter in reaching the same elevation, is
a question to which different pedestrians would likely enough return
contradictory answers.[25]

Yet let me not be thought to magnify so small a feat as the ascent of
Owl's Head, a mountain which the ladies of the Appalachian Club may be
presumed to look upon as hardly better than a hillock. The guide-book's
"thirty rods" have betrayed me into saying more than I intended. It
would have been enough had I mentioned that the way is in many places
steep, while at the time of my visit the constant rains kept it in a
muddy, treacherous condition. I remember still the undignified and
uncomfortable celerity with which, on one occasion, I took my seat in
what was little better than the rocky bed of a brook, such a place as I
should by no means have selected for the purpose had I been granted even
a single moment for deliberation.

"Hills draw like heaven" (as applied to some of us, it may be feared
that this is rather an under-statement), and it could not have been more
than fifteen minutes after I landed from the Lady of the Lake--the "Old
Lady," as one of the fishermen irreverently called her--before I was on
my way to the summit.

I was delighted then, as I was afterwards, whenever I entered the woods,
with the extraordinary profusion and variety of the ferns. Among the
rest, and one of the most abundant, was the beautiful _Cystopteris
bulbifera_; its long, narrow, pale green, delicately cut, Dicksonia-like
fronds bending toward the ground at the tip, as if about to take root
for a new start, in the walking-fern's manner. Some of these could not
have been less than four feet in length (including the stipe), and I
picked one which measured about two feet and a half, and bore
twenty-five bulblets underneath. Half a mile from the start, or
thereabouts, the path skirts what I should call the fernery; a circular
space, perhaps one hundred and fifty feet in diameter, set in the midst
of the primeval forest, but itself containing no tree or shrub of any
sort,--nothing but one dense mass of ferns. In the centre was a patch of
the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), while around this, and filling
nearly the entire circle, was a magnificent thicket of the ostrich fern
(_Onoclea struthiopteris_), with _sensibilis_ growing hidden and
scattered underneath. About the edge were various other species, notably
_Aspidium Goldianum_, which I here found for the first time, and
_Aspidium aculeatum_, var. _Braunii_. All in all, it was a curious and
pretty sight,--this tiny tarn filled with ferns instead of water,--one
worth going a good distance to see, and sure to attract the notice of
the least observant traveler.[26]

Ferns are mostly of a gregarious habit. Here at Owl's Head, for
instance, might be seen in one place a rock thickly matted with the
common polypody; in another a patch of the maiden-hair; in still another
a plenty of the Christmas fern, or a smaller group of one of the beech
ferns (_Phegopteris polypodioides_ or _Phegopteris Dryopteris_). Our
grape-ferns or moonworts, on the other hand, covet more elbow-room. The
largest species (_Botrychium Virginianum_), although never growing in
anything like a bed or tuft, was nevertheless common throughout the
woods; you could gather a handful almost anywhere; but I found only one
plant of _Botrychium lanceolatum_, and only two of _Botrychium
matricariæfolium_ (and these a long distance apart), even though, on
account of their rarity and because I had never before seen the latter,
I spent considerable time, first and last, in hunting for them. What can
these diminutive hermits have ever done or suffered, that they should
choose thus to live and die, each by itself, in the vast solitude of a
mountain forest?

It was already the middle of July, so that I was too late for the better
part of the wood flowers. The oxalis (_Oxalis acetosella_), or
wood-sorrel was in bloom, however, carpeting the ground in many places.
I plucked a blossom now and then to admire the loveliness of the white
cup, with its fine purple lines and golden spots. If each had been
painted on purpose for a queen, they could not have been more daintily
touched. Yet here they were, opening by the thousand, with no human eye
to look upon them. Quite as common (Wordsworth's expression, "Ground
flowers in flocks," would have suited either) was the alpine enchanter's
night-shade (_Circæa alpina_); a most frail and delicate thing, though
it has little other beauty. Who would ever mistrust, to see it, that it
would prove to be connected in any way with the flaunting willow-herb,
or fire-weed? But such incongruities are not confined to the "vegetable
kingdom." The wood-nettle was growing everywhere; a juicy-looking but
coarse weed, resembling our common roadside nettles only in its
blossoms. The cattle had found out what I never should have
surmised,--having had a taste of its sting,--that it is good for food;
there were great patches of it, as likewise of the pale touch-me-not
(_Impatiens pallida_), which had been browsed over by them. It seemed to
me that some of the ferns, the hay-scented for example, ought to have
suited them better; but they passed these all by, as far as I could
detect. About the edges of the woods, and in favorable positions well up
the mountain-side, the flowering raspberry was flourishing; making no
display of itself, but offering to any who should choose to turn aside
and look at them a few blossoms such as, for beauty and fragrance, are
worthy to be, as they really are, cousin to the rose. On one of my
rambles I came upon some plants of a strangely slim and prim aspect;
nothing but a straight, erect, military-looking, needle-like stalk,
bearing a spike of pods at the top, and clasped at the middle by two
small stemless leaves. By some occult means (perhaps their growing with
_Tiarella_ had something to do with the matter) I felt at once that
these must be the mitrewort (_Mitella diphylla_). My prophetic soul was
not always thus explicit and infallible, however. Other novelties I saw,
about which I could make no such happy impromptu guess. And here the
manual afforded little assistance; for it has not yet been found
practicable to "analyze," and so to identify plants simply by the stem
and foliage,--although I remember to have been told, to be sure, of a
young lady who professed that at her college the instruction in botany
was so thorough that it was possible for the student to name any plant
in the world from seeing only a single leaf! But her college was not
Harvard, and Professor Gray has probably never so much as heard of such
an admirable method.

On the whole, it is good to have the curiosity piqued with here and
there a vegetable stranger,--its name and even its family relationship a
mystery. The leaf is nothing extraordinary, perhaps, yet who knows but
that the bloom may be of the rarest beauty? Or the leaf is of a gracious
shape and texture, but how shall we tell whether the flower will
correspond with it? No; we must do with them as with chance
acquaintances of our own kind. The man looks every inch a gentleman; his
face alone seems a sufficient guaranty of good-breeding and
intelligence; but none the less,--and not forgetting that charity
thinketh no evil,--we shall do well to wait till we have heard him talk
and seen how he will behave, before we put a final label upon him. Wait
for the blossom and the fruit (the blossom _is_ the fruit in its first
stage); for the old rule is still the true one,--alike in botany and in
morals,--"By their fruits ye shall know them."

What a world within a world the forest is! Under the trees were the
shrubs,--knee-high rock-maples making the ground verdant for acres
together, or dwarf thickets of yew, now bearing green acorn-like
berries; while below these was a variegated carpet, oxalis and the
flower of Linnæus, ferns and club-mosses (the glossy _Lycopodium
lucidulum_ was especially plentiful), to say nothing of the true mosses
and the lichens.

Of all these things I should have seen more, no doubt, had not my head
been so much of the time in the tree-tops. For yonder were the birds;
and how could I be expected to notice what lay at my feet, while I was
watching intently for a glimpse of the warbler that flitted from twig to
twig amid the foliage of some beech or maple, the very lowest branch of
which, likely enough, was fifty or sixty feet above the ground. It was
in this way (so I choose to believe, at any rate) that I walked four or
five times directly over the acute-leaved hepatica before I finally
discovered it, notwithstanding it was one of the plants for which I had
all the while been on the lookout.

I said that the birds were in the tree-tops; but of course there were
exceptions. Here and there was a thrush, feeding on the ground; or an
oven-bird might be seen picking his devious way through the underwoods,
in paths of his own, and with a gait of studied and "sanctimonious"
originality. In the list of the lowly must be put the winter wrens also;
one need never look skyward for _them_. For a minute or two during my
first ascent of Owl's Head I had lively hopes of finding one of their
nests. Two or three of the birds were scolding earnestly right about my
feet, as it were, and their cries redoubled, or so I imagined, when I
approached a certain large, moss-grown stump. This I looked over
carefully on all sides, putting my fingers into every possible hole and
crevice, till it became evident that nothing was to be gained by further
search. (What a long chapter we could write, any of us who are
ornithologists, about the nests we did not find!) It dawned upon me a
little later that I had been fooled; that it was not the nest which had
been in question at all. That, wherever it was, had been forsaken some
days before; and the birds were parents and young, the former
distracting my attention by their outcries, while at the same moment
they were ordering the youngsters to make off as quickly as possible,
lest yonder hungry fiend should catch and devour them. If wrens ever
laugh, this pair must have done so that evening, as they recalled to
each other my eager fumbling of that innocent old stump. This opinion as
to the meaning of their conduct was confirmed in the course of a few
days, when I came upon another similar group. These were at first quite
unaware of my presence; and a very pretty family picture they made, in
their snuggery of overthrown trees, the father breaking out into a song
once in a while, or helping his mate to feed the young, who were already
able to pick up a good part of their own living. Before long, however,
one of the pair caught sight of the intruder, and then all at once the
scene changed. The old birds chattered and scolded, bobbing up and down
in their own ridiculous manner (although, considered by itself, this
gesture is perhaps no more laughable than some which other orators are
applauded for making), and soon the place was silent and to all
appearance deserted.

Notwithstanding Owl's Head is in Canada, the birds, as I soon found,
were not such as characterize the "Canadian Fauna." Olive-backed
thrushes, black-poll warblers, crossbills, pine linnets, and Canada
jays, all of which I had myself seen in the White Mountains, were none
of them here; but instead, to my surprise, were wood thrushes, scarlet
tanagers, and wood pewees,--the two latter species in comparative
abundance. My first wood thrush was seen for a moment only, and although
he had given me a plain sight of his back, I concluded that my eyes must
once more have played me false. But within a day or two, when half-way
down the mountain path, I heard the well-known strain ringing through
the woods. It was unquestionably that, and nothing else, for I sat down
upon a convenient log and listened for ten minutes or more, while the
singer ran through all those inimitable variations which infallibly
distinguish the wood thrush's song from every other. And afterward, to
make assurance doubly sure, I again saw the bird in the best possible
position, and at short range. On looking into the subject, indeed, I
learned that his being here was nothing wonderful; since, while it is
true, as far as the sea-coast is concerned, that he seldom ventures
north of Massachusetts, it is none the less down in the books that he
does pass the summer in Lower Canada, reaching it, probably, by way of
the valley of the St. Lawrence.

A few robins were about the hotel, and I saw a single veery in the
woods, but the only members of the thrush family that were present in
large numbers were the hermits. These sang everywhere and at all hours.
On the summit, even at mid-day, I was invariably serenaded by them. In
fact they seemed more abundant there than anywhere else; but they were
often to be heard by the lake-side, and in our apple orchard, and once
at least one of them sang at some length from a birch-tree within a few
feet of the piazza, between it and the bowling alley. As far as I have
ever been able to discover, the hermit, for all his name and consequent
reputation, is less timorous and more approachable than any other New
England representative of his "sub-genus."

On this trip I settled once more a question which I had already settled
several times,--the question, namely, whether the wood thrush or the
hermit is the better singer. This time my decision was in favor of the
former. How the case would have turned had the conditions been reversed,
had there been a hundred of the wood thrushes for one of the hermits, of
course I cannot tell. So true is a certain old Latin proverb, that in
matters of this sort it is impossible for a man to agree even with
himself for any long time together.

The conspicuous birds, noticed by everybody, were a family of hawks. The
visitor might have no appreciation of music; he might go up the mountain
and down again without minding the thrushes or the wrens,--for there is
nothing about the human ear more wonderful than its ability not to hear;
but these hawks passed a good part of every day in screaming, and were
bound to be attended to by all but the stone-deaf. A native of the
region pointed out a ledge, on which, according to his account, they had
made their nest for more than thirty years. "We call them mountain
hawks," he said, in answer to an inquiry. The keepers of the hotel,
naturally enough, called them eagles; while a young Canadian, who one
day overtook me as I neared the summit, and spent an hour there in my
company, pronounced them fish-hawks. I asked him, carelessly, how he
could be sure of that, and he replied, after a little hesitation, "Why,
they are all the time over the lake; and besides, they sometimes dive
into the water and come up with a fish." The last item would have been
good evidence, no doubt. My difficulty was that I had never seen them
near the lake, and what was more conclusive, their heads were
dark-colored, if not really black. A few minutes after this conversation
I happened to have my glass upon one of them as he approached the
mountain at some distance below us, when my comrade asked, "Looking at
that bird?" "Yes," I answered; on which he continued, in a
matter-of-fact tone, "That's a crow;" plainly thinking that, as I
appeared to be slightly inquisitive about such matters, it would be a
kindness to tell me a thing or two. I made bold to intimate that the
bird had a barred tail, and must, I thought, be one of the hawks. He did
not dispute the point; and, in truth, he was a modest and well-mannered
young gentleman. I liked him in that he knew both how to converse and
how to be silent; without which latter qualification, indeed, not even
an angel would be a desirable mountain-top companion. He gave me
information about the surrounding country such as I was very glad to
get; and in the case of the hawks my advantage over him, if any, was
mainly in this,--that my lack of knowledge partook somewhat more fully
than his of the nature of Lord Bacon's "learned ignorance, that knows

Whatever the birds may have been, "mountain hawks," "fish-hawks," or
duck-hawks, their aerial evolutions, as seen from the summit, were
beautiful beyond description. One day in particular three of them were
performing together. For a time they chased each other this way and that
at lightning speed, screaming wildly, though whether in sport or anger I
could not determine. Then they floated majestically, high above us,
while now and then one would set his wings and shoot down, down, till
the precipitous side of the mountain hid him from view; only to reappear
a minute afterward, soaring again, with no apparent effort, to his
former height.

One of these noisy fellows served me an excellent turn. It was the last
day of my visit, and I had just taken my farewell look at the enchanting
prospect from the summit, when I heard the lisp of a brown creeper. This
was the first of his kind that I had seen here, and I stopped
immediately to watch him, in hopes he would sing. Creeper-like he tried
one tree after another in quick succession, till at last, while he was
exploring a dead spruce which had toppled half-way to the ground, a hawk
screamed loudly overhead. Instantly the little creature flattened
himself against the trunk, spreading his wings to their very utmost and
ducking his head until, though I had been all the while eying his
motions through a glass at the distance of only a few rods, it was
almost impossible to believe that yonder tiny brown fleck upon the bark
was really a bird and not a lichen. He remained in this posture for
perhaps a minute, only putting up his head two or three times to peer
cautiously round. Unless I misjudged him, he did not discriminate
between the screech of the hawk and the _ank, ank_ of a nuthatch, which
followed it; and this, with an indefinable something in his manner, made
me suspect him of being a young bird. Young or old, however, he had
learned one lesson well, at all events, one which I hoped would keep him
out of the talons of his enemies for long days to come.

It was pleasant to see how cheerfully he resumed work as soon as the
alarm was over. _This_ danger was escaped, at any rate; and why should
he make himself miserable with worrying about the next? He had the true
philosophy. We who pity the birds for their numberless perils are
ourselves in no better case. Consumption, fevers, accidents, enemies of
every name are continually lying in wait for our destruction. We walk
surrounded with them; seeing them not, to be sure, but knowing, all the
same, that they are there; yet feeling, too, like the birds, that in
some way or other we shall elude them a while longer, and holding at
second hand the truth which these humble creatures practice upon
instinctively,--"Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

Not far from this spot, on a previous occasion, I had very unexpectedly
come face to face with another of the creeper's blood-thirsty
persecutors. It happened that a warbler was singing in a lofty birch,
and being in doubt about the song (which was a little like the
Nashville's, but longer in each of its two parts and ending with a less
confused flourish), I was of course very desirous to see the singer. But
to catch sight of a small bird amid thick foliage, fifty feet or more
above you, is not an easy matter, as I believe I have already once
remarked. So when I grew weary of the attempt, I bethought myself to
try the efficacy of an old device, well known to all collectors, and
proceeded to imitate, as well as I could, the cries of some bird in
distress. My warbler was imperturbable. He had no nest or young to be
anxious about, and kept on singing. But pretty soon I was apprised of
something in the air, coming toward me, and looking up, beheld a large
owl who appeared to be dropping straight upon my head. He saw me in time
to avoid such a catastrophe, however, and, describing a graceful curve,
alighted on a low branch near by, and stared at me as only an owl can.
Then away he went, while at the same instant a jay dashed into the
thicket and out again, shouting derisively, "I saw you! I saw you!"
Evidently the trick was a good one, and moderately well played; in
further confirmation of which the owl hooted twice in response to some
peculiarly happy efforts on my part, and then actually came back again
for another look. This proved sufficient, and he quickly disappeared;
retiring to his leafy covert or hollow tree, to meditate, no doubt, on
the strange creature whose unseasonable noises had disturbed his
afternoon slumbers. Likely enough he could not readily fall asleep again
for wondering how I could possibly find my way through the woods in the
darkness of daylight. So difficult is it, we may suppose, for even an
owl to put himself in another's place and see with another's eyes.

This little episode over, I turned again to the birch-tree, and
fortunately the warbler's throat was of too fiery a color to remain long
concealed; though it was at once a pleasure and an annoyance to find
myself still unacquainted with at least one song out of the
Blackburnian's repertory. In times past I had carefully attended to his
music, and within only a few days, in the White Mountain Notch, I had
taken note of two of its variations; but here was still another, which
neither began with _zillup, zillup_, nor ended with _zip, zip_,--notes
which I had come to look upon as the Blackburnian's sign-vocal. Yet it
must have been my fault, not his, that I failed to recognize him; for
every bird's voice has something characteristic about it, just as every
human voice has tones and inflections which those who are sufficiently
familiar with its owner will infallibly detect. The ear feels them,
although words cannot describe them. Articulate speech is but a modern
invention, as it were, in comparison with the five senses; and since
practice makes perfect, it is natural enough that every one of the five
should easily, and as a matter of course, perceive shades of difference
so slight that language, in its present rudimentary state, cannot begin
to take account of them.

The other warblers at Owl's Head, as far as they came under my notice,
were the black-and-white creeper, the blue yellow-backed warbler, the
Nashville, the black-throated green, the black-throated blue, the
yellow-rumped, the chestnut-sided, the oven-bird (already spoken of),
the small-billed water thrush, the Maryland yellow-throat, the Canadian
flycatcher, and the redstart.

The water thrush (I saw only one individual) was by the lake-side, and
within a rod or two of the bowling alley. What a strange, composite
creature he is! thrush, warbler, and sandpiper all in one; with such a
bare-footed, bare-legged appearance, too, as if he must always be ready
to wade; and such a Saint Vitus's dance! His must be a curious history.
In particular, I should like to know the origin of his teetering habit,
which seems to put him among the beach birds. Can it be that such
frequenters of shallow water are rendered less conspicuous by this
wave-like, up-and-down motion, and have actually adopted it as a means
of defense, just as they and many more have taken on a color harmonizing
with that of their ordinary surroundings?[27]

The black-throated blue warblers were common, and like most of their
tribe were waiting upon offspring just out of the nest. I watched one as
he offered his charge a rather large insect. The awkward fledgeling let
it fall three times; and still the parent picked it up again, only
chirping mildly, as if to say, "Come, come, my beauty, don't be quite so
bungling." But even in the midst of their family cares, they still found
leisure for music; and as they and the black-throated greens were often
singing together, I had excellent opportunities to compare the songs of
the two species. The voices, while both very peculiar, are at the same
time so nearly alike that it was impossible for me on hearing the first
note of either strain to tell whose it was. With the voice the
similarity ends, however; for the organ does not make the singer, and
while the blue seldom attempts more than a harsh, monotonous _kree,
kree, kree_, the green possesses the true lyrical gift, so that few of
our birds have a more engaging song than his simple _Trees, trees,
murmuring trees_, or if you choose to understand it so, _Sleep, sleep,
pretty one, sleep_.[28]

I saw little of the blue yellow-backed warbler, but whenever I took the
mountain path I was certain to hear his whimsical upward-running song,
broken off at the end with a smart snap. He seemed to have chosen the
neighborhood of the fernery for his peculiar haunt, a piece of good
taste quite in accord with his general character. Nothing could well be
more beautiful than this bird's plumage; and his nest, which is
"globular, with an entrance on one side," is described as a wonder of
elegance; while in grace of movement not even the titmouse can surpass
him. Strange that such an exquisite should have so fantastic a song.

I have spoken of the rainy weather. There were times when the piazza was
as far out-of-doors as it was expedient to venture. But even then I was
not without excellent feathered society. Red-eyed vireos (one pair had
their nest within twenty feet of the hotel), chippers, song sparrows,
snow-birds, robins, waxwings, and phoebes were to be seen almost any
moment, while the hermit thrushes, as I have before mentioned, paid us
occasional visits. The most familiar of our door-yard friends, however,
to my surprise, were the yellow-rumped warblers. Till now I had never
found them at home except in the forests of the White Mountains; but
here they were, playing the _rôle_ which in Massachusetts we are
accustomed to see taken by the summer yellow-birds, and by no others of
the family. At first, knowing that this species was said to build in low
evergreens, I looked suspiciously at some small spruces which lined the
walk to the pier; but after a while I happened to see one of the birds
flying into a rock-maple with something in his bill, and following him
with my eye, beheld him alight on the edge of his nest. "About four feet
from the ground," the book said (the latest book, too); but this lawless
pair had chosen a position which could hardly be less than ten times
that height,--considerably higher, at all events, than the eaves of the
three-story house. It was out of reach in the small topmost branches,
but I watched its owners at my leisure, as the maple was not more than
two rods from my window. At this time the nestlings were nearly ready
to fly, and in the course of a day or two I saw one of them sitting in a
tree in the midst of a drenching rain. On my offering to lay hold of him
he dropped into the grass, and when I picked him up both parents began
to fly about me excitedly, with loud outcries. The male, especially,
went nearly frantic, entering the bowling alley where I happened to be,
and alighting on the floor; then, taking to the bole of a tree, he
fluttered helplessly upon it, spreading his wings and tail, seeming to
say as plainly as words could have done, "Look, you monster! here's
another young bird that can't fly; why don't you come and catch him?"
The acting was admirable,--all save the spreading of the tail; that was
a false note, for the youngster in my hand had no tail feathers at all.
I put the fellow upon a tree, whence he quickly flew to the ground (he
could fly down but not up), and soon both parents were again supplying
him with food. The poor thing had not eaten a morsel for possibly ten
minutes, a very long fast for a bird of his age. I hoped he would fall
into the hands of no worse enemy than myself, but the chances seemed
against him. The first few days after quitting the nest must be full of
perils for such helpless innocents.

For the credit of my own sex I was pleased to notice that it was the
father-bird who manifested the deepest concern and the readiest wit, not
to say the greatest courage; but I am obliged in candor to acknowledge
that this feature of the case surprised me not a little.

In what language shall I speak of the song of these familiar myrtle
warblers, so that my praise may correspond in some degree with the
gracious and beautiful simplicity of the strain itself? For music to be
heard constantly, right under one's window, it could scarcely be
improved; sweet, brief, and remarkably unobtrusive, without sharpness or
emphasis; a trill not altogether unlike the pine-creeping warbler's, but
less matter-of-fact and business-like. I used to listen to it before I
rose in the morning, and it was to be heard at intervals all day long.
Occasionally it was given in an absent-minded, meditative way, in a kind
of half-voice, as if the happy creature had no thought of what he was
doing. Then it was at its best, but one needed to be near the singer.

In a clearing back of the hotel, but surrounded by the forest, were
always a goodly company of birds, among the rest a family of
yellow-bellied woodpeckers; and in a second similar place were
white-throated sparrows, Maryland yellow-throats, and chestnut-sided
warblers, the last two feeding their young. Immature warblers are a
puzzling set. The birds themselves have no difficulty, I suppose; but
seeing young and old together, and noting how unlike they are, I have
before now been reminded of Launcelot Gobbo's saying, "It is a wise
father that knows his own child."

While traversing the woods between these two clearings I saw, as I
thought, a chimney swift fly out of the top of a tree which had been
broken off at a height of twenty-five or thirty feet. I stopped, and
pretty soon the thing was repeated; but even then I was not quick enough
to be certain whether the bird really came from the stump or only out of
the forest behind it. Accordingly, after sounding the trunk to make sure
it was hollow, I sat down in a clump of raspberry bushes, where I should
be sufficiently concealed, and awaited further developments. I waited
and waited, while the mosquitoes, seeing how sheltered I was from the
breeze, gathered about my head in swarms. A winter wren at my elbow
struck up to sing, going over and over with his exquisite tune; and a
scarlet tanager, also, not far off, did what he could--which was
somewhat less than the wren's--to relieve the tedium of my situation.
Finally, when my patience was well-nigh exhausted,--for the afternoon
was wearing away and I had some distance to walk,--a swift flew past me
from behind, and, with none of that poising over the entrance such as is
commonly seen when a swift goes down a chimney, went straight into the
trunk. In half a minute or less he reappeared without a sound, and was
out of sight in a second. Then I picked up my rubber coat, and with a
blessing on the wren and the tanager, and a malediction on the
mosquitoes (so unjust does self-interest make us), started homeward.

Conservatives and radicals! Even the swifts, it seems, are divided into
these two classes. "Hollow trees were good enough for our fathers; who
are we that we should assume to know more than all the generations
before us? To change is not of necessity to make progress. Let those who
will, take up with smoky chimneys; for our part we prefer the old way."

Thus far the conservatives; but now comes the party of modern ideas.
"All that is very well," say they. "Our ancestors were worthy folk
enough; they did the best they could in their time. But the world moves,
and wise birds will move with it. Why should we make a fetish out of
some dead forefather's example? _We_ are alive now. To refuse to take
advantage of increased light and improved conditions may look like
filial piety in the eyes of some: to us such conduct appears nothing
better than a distrust of the Divine Providence, a subtle form of
atheism. What are chimneys for, pray? And as for soot and smoke, we were
made to live in them. Otherwise, let some of our opponents be kind
enough to explain why we were created with black feathers."

So, in brief, the discussion runs; with the usual result, no doubt, that
each side convinces itself.

We may assume, however, that these old-school and new-school swifts do
not carry their disagreement so far as actually to refuse to hold
fellowship with one another. Conscience is but imperfectly developed in
birds, as yet, and they can hardly feel each other's sins and errors of
belief (if indeed these things be two, and not one) quite so keenly as
men are accustomed to do.

After all, it is something to be grateful for, this diversity of habit.
We could not spare the swifts from our villages, and it would be too bad
to lose them out of the Northern forests. May they live and thrive, both
parties of them.

I am glad, also, for the obscurity which attends their annual coming and
going. Whether they hibernate or migrate, the secret is their own; and
for my part, I wish them the wit to keep it. In this age, when the world
is in such danger of becoming omniscient before the time, it is good to
have here and there a mystery in reserve. Though it be only a little
one, we may well cherish it as a treasure.


[25] The guide-book allows two hours for the mile and a half on Owl's
Head, while it gives only an hour and a half for the three miles up
Mount Clinton--from the Crawford House.

[26] To bear out what has been said in the text concerning the abundance
of ferns at Owl's Head, I subjoin a list of the species observed;
premising that the first interest of my trip was not botanical, and that
I explored but a very small section of the woods:--

  _Polypodium vulgare._
  _Adiantum pedatum._
  _Pteris aquilina._
  _Asplenium Trichomanes._
  _A. thelypteroides._
  _A. Filix-foemina._
  _Phegopteris polypodioides._
  _P. Dryopteris._
  _Aspidium marginale._
  _A. spinulosum_, variety undetermined.
  _A. spinulosum_, var. _dilatatum_.
  _A. Goldianum._
  _A. acrostichoides._
  _A. aculeatum_, var. _Braunii_.
  _Cystopteris bulbifera._
  _C. fragilis._
  _Onoclea struthiopteris._
  _O. sensibilis._
  _Woodsia Ilvensis._
  _Dicksonia punctilobula._
  _Osmunda regalis._
  _O. Claytoniana._
  _O. cinnamomea._
  _Botrychium lanceolatum._
  _B. matricariæfolium._
  _B. ternatum._
  _B. Virginianum._

[27] This bird (_Siurus nævius_) is remarkable for the promptness with
which he sets out on his autumnal journey, appearing in Eastern
Massachusetts early in August. Last year (1884) one was in my door-yard
on the morning of the 7th. I heard his loud chip, and looking out of the
window, saw him first on the ground and then in an ash-tree near a crowd
of house sparrows. The latter were scolding at him with their usual
cordiality, while he, on his part, seemed under some kind of
fascination, returning again and again to walk as closely as he dared
about the blustering crew. His curiosity was laughable. Evidently he
thought, considering what an ado the sparrows were making, that
something serious must be going on, something worth any bird's while to
turn aside for a moment to look into. The innocent recluse! if he had
lived where I do he would have grown used to such "windy congresses."

[28] After all that has been said about the "pathetic fallacy," so
called, it remains true that Nature speaks to us according to our mood.
With all her "various language" she "cannot talk and find ears too." And
so it happens that some, listening to the black-throated green warbler,
have brought back a report of "_Cheese, cheese, a little more cheese_."
Prosaic and hungry souls! This voice out of the pine-trees was not for
them. They have caught the rhythm but missed the poetry.

                            A MONTH'S MUSIC

    And now 'twas like all instruments,
    Now like a lonely flute;
    And now it is an angel's song,
    That makes the heavens be mute.


                            A MONTH'S MUSIC.

The morning of May-day was bright and spring-like, and should have been
signalized, it seemed to me, by the advent of a goodly number of birds;
but the only new-comer to be found was a single black-and-white creeper.
Glad as I was to see this lowly acquaintance back again after his seven
months' absence, and natural as he looked on the edge of Warbler Swamp,
bobbing along the branches in his own unique, end-for-end fashion, there
was no resisting a sensation of disappointment. Why could not the wood
thrush have been punctual? _He_ would have made the woods ring with an
ode worthy of the festival. Possibly the hermits--who had been with us
for several days in silence--divined my thoughts. At all events, one of
them presently broke into a song--the first _Hylocichla_ note of the
year. Never was voice more beautiful. Like the poet's dream, it "left my
after-morn content."

It is too much to be expected that the wood thrush should hold himself
bound to appear at a given point on a fixed date. How can we know the
multitude of reasons, any one of which may detain him for twenty-four
hours, or even for a week? It is enough for us to be assured, in
general, that the first ten days of the month will bring this master of
the choir. The present season he arrived on the 6th--the veery with him;
last year he was absent until the 8th; while on the two years preceding
he assisted at the observance of May-day.

All in all, I must esteem this thrush our greatest singer; although the
hermit might dispute the palm, perhaps, but that he is merely a
semi-annual visitor in most parts of Massachusetts. If perfection be
held to consist in the absence of flaw, the hermit's is unquestionably
the more nearly perfect song of the two. Whatever he attempts is done
beyond criticism; but his range and variety are far less than his
rival's, and, for my part, I can forgive the latter if now and then he
reaches after a note lying a little beyond his best voice, and withal is
too commonly wanting in that absolute simplicity and ease which lend
such an ineffable charm to the performance of the hermit and the veery.
Shakespeare is not a faultless poet, but in the existing state of public
opinion it will hardly do to set Gray above him.

In the course of the month about which I am now writing (May, 1884) I
was favored with thrush music to a quite unwonted degree. With the
exception of the varied thrush (a New-Englander by accident only) and
the mocking-bird, there was not one of our Massachusetts representatives
of the family who did not put me in his debt. The robin, the brown
thrush, the cat-bird, the wood thrush, the veery, and even the hermit
(what a magnificent sextette!)--so many I counted upon hearing, as a
matter of course; but when to these were added the Arctic thrushes--the
olive-backed and the gray-cheeked--I gladly confessed surprise. I had
never heard either species before, south of the White Mountains; nor, as
far as I then knew, had anybody else been more fortunate than myself.
Yet the birds themselves were seemingly unaware of doing anything new or
noteworthy. This was especially the case with the olive-backs; and after
listening to them for three days in succession I began to suspect that
they _were_ doing nothing new,--that they had sung every spring in the
same manner, only, in the midst of the grand May medley, my ears had
somehow failed to take account of their contribution. Their fourth (and
farewell) appearance was on the 23d, when they sang both morning and
evening. At that time they were in a bit of swamp, among some tall
birches, and as I caught the familiar and characteristic notes--a brief
ascending spiral--I was almost ready to believe myself in some primeval
New Hampshire forest; an illusion not a little aided by the frequent
lisping of black-poll warblers, who chanced just then to be remarkably

It was on the same day, and within a short distance of the same spot,
that the Alice thrushes, or gray-cheeks, were in song. Their music was
repeated a good many times, but unhappily it ceased whenever I tried to
get near the birds. Then, as always, it put me in mind of the veery's
effort, notwithstanding a certain part of the strain was quite out of
the veery's manner, and the whole was pitched in decidedly too high a
key. It seemed, also, as if what I heard could not be the complete song;
but I had been troubled with the same feeling on previous occasions, and
a friend whose opportunities have been better than mine reports a
similiar experience; so that it is perhaps not uncharitable to conclude
that the song, even at its best, is more or less broken and amorphous.

In their Northern homes these gray-cheeks are excessively wild and
unapproachable; but while traveling they are little if at all worse than
their congeners in this respect,--taking short flights when disturbed,
and often doing nothing more than to hop upon some low perch to
reconnoitre the intruder.

At the risk of being thought to reflect upon the acuteness of more
competent observers, I am free to express my hope of hearing the music
of both these noble visitors again another season. For it is noticeable
how common such things tend to become when once they are discovered. An
enthusiastic botanical collector told me that for years he searched far
and near for the adder's-tongue fern, till one day he stumbled upon it
in a place over which he had long been in the habit of passing. Marking
the peculiarities of the spot he straightway wrote to a kindred spirit,
whom he knew to have been engaged in the same hunt, suggesting that he
would probably find the coveted plants in a particular section of the
meadow back of his own house (in Concord); and sure enough, the next
day's mail brought an envelope from his friend, inclosing specimens of
_Ophioglossum vulgatum_, with the laconic but sufficient message,
_Eureka!_ There are few naturalists, I suspect, who could not narrate
adventures of a like sort.

One such befell me during this same month, in connection with the wood
wagtail, or golden-crowned thrush. Not many birds are more abundant than
he in my neighborhood, and I fancied myself pretty well acquainted with
his habits and manners. Above all, I had paid attention to his
celebrated love-song, listening to it almost daily for several summers.
Thus far it had invariably been given out in the afternoon, and on the
wing. To my mind, indeed, this was by far its most interesting feature
(for in itself the song is by no means of surpassing beauty), and I had
even been careful to record the earliest hour at which I had heard
it--three o'clock P. M. But on the 6th of May aforesaid I detected a
bird practicing this very tune in the morning, and from a perch! I set
the fact down without hesitation as a wonder,--a purely exceptional
occurrence, the repetition of which was not to be looked for. Anything
might happen once. Only four days afterwards, however, at half-past six
in the morning, I had stooped to gather some peculiarly bright-colored
anemones (I can see the patch of rosy blossoms at this moment, although
I am writing by a blazing fire while the snow is falling without), when
my ear caught the same song again; and keeping my position, I soon
descried the fellow stepping through the grass within ten yards of me,
caroling as he walked. The hurried warble, with the common _Weechee_,
_weechee_, _weechee_ interjected in the midst, was reiterated perhaps a
dozen times,--the full evening strain, but in a rather subdued tone. He
was under no excitement, and appeared to be entirely by himself; in
fact, when he had made about half the circuit round me he flew into a
low bush and proceeded to dress his feathers listlessly. Probably what I
had overheard was nothing more than a rehearsal. Within a week or two he
would need to do his very best in winning the fair one of his choice,
and for that supreme moment he had already put himself in training. The
wise-hearted and obliging little beau! I must have been the veriest
churl not to wish him his pick of all the feminine wagtails in the wood.
As for the pink anemones, they had done me a double kindness, in
requital for which I could only carry them to the city, where, in their
modesty, they would have blushed to a downright crimson had they been
conscious of one-half the admiration which their loveliness called

Before the end of the month (it was on the morning of the 18th) I once
more heard the wagtail's song from the ground. This time the affair was
anything but a rehearsal. There were two birds,--a lover and his
lass,--and the wooing waxed fast and furious. For that matter, it looked
not so much like love-making as like an aggravated case of assault and
battery. But, as I say, the male was warbling, and not improbably (so
strange are the ways of the world), if he had been a whit less
pugnacious in his addresses, his lady-love, who was plainly well able
to take care of herself, would have thought him deficient in
earnestness. At any rate, the wood wagtail is not the only bird whose
courtship has the appearance of a scrimmage; and I believe there are
still tribes of men among whom similar practices prevail, although the
greater part of our race have learned, by this time, to take somewhat
less literally the old proverb, "None but the brave deserve the fair."
Love, it is true, is still recognized as one of the passions (in theory
at least) even among the most highly civilized peoples; but the tendency
is more and more to count it a _tender_ passion.

While I am on the subject of marriage I may as well mention the
white-eyed vireo. It had come to be the 16th of the month, and as yet I
had neither seen nor heard anything of this obstreperous genius; so I
made a special pilgrimage to a certain favorite haunt of his--Woodcock
Swamp--to ascertain if he had arrived. After fifteen minutes or more of
waiting I was beginning to believe him still absent, when he burst out
suddenly with his loud and unmistakable _Chip-a-weé-o_. "Who are _you_,
now?" the saucy fellow seemed to say, "Who are _you_, now?" Pretty soon
a pair of the birds appeared near me, the male protesting his affection
at a frantic rate, and the female repelling his advances with a snappish
determination which might have driven a timid suitor desperate. He
posed before her, puffing out his feathers, spreading his tail, and
crying hysterically, _Yip, yip, yaah_,--the last note a downright whine
or snarl, worthy of the cat-bird. Poor soul! he was well-nigh beside
himself, and could not take _no_ for an answer, even when the word was
emphasized with an ugly dab of his beloved's beak. The pair shortly
disappeared in the swamp, and I was not privileged to witness the upshot
of the battle; but I consoled myself with believing that Phyllis knew
how far she could prudently carry her resistance, and would have the
discretion to yield before her adorer's heart was irremediably broken.

In this instance there was no misconceiving the meaning of the action;
but whoever watches birds in the pairing season is often at his wit's
end to know what to make of their demonstrations. One morning a linnet
chased another past me down the road, flying at the very top of his
speed, and singing as he flew; not, to be sure, the full and copious
warble such as is heard when the bird hovers, but still a lively tune. I
looked on in astonishment. It seemed incredible that any creature could
sing while putting forth such tremendous muscular exertions; and yet, as
if to show that this was a mere nothing to him, the finch had no sooner
struck a perch than he broke forth again in his loudest and most
spirited manner, and continued without a pause for two or three times
the length of his longest ordinary efforts. "What lungs he must have!" I
said to myself; and at once fell to wondering what could have stirred
him up to such a pitch of excitement, and whether the bird he had been
pursuing was male or female. _He_ would have said, perhaps, if he had
said anything, that that was none of my business.

What I have been remarking with regard to the proneness of newly
discovered things to become all at once common was well illustrated for
me about this time by these same linnets, or purple finches. One rainy
morning, while making my accustomed rounds, enveloped in rubber, I
stopped to notice a blue-headed vireo, who, as I soon perceived, was
sitting lazily in the top of a locust-tree, looking rather disconsolate,
and ejaculating with not more than half his customary voice and
emphasis, _Mary Ware!--Mary Ware!_ His indolence struck me as very
surprising for a vireo; still I had no question about his identity (he
sat between me and the sun) till I changed my position, when behold! the
vireo was a linnet. A strange performance, indeed! What could have set
this fluent vocalist to practicing exercises of such an inferior,
disconnected, piecemeal sort? Within the next week or two, however, the
same game was played upon me several times, and in different places. No
doubt the trick is an old one, familiar to many observers, but to me it
had all the charm of novelty.

There are no birds so conservative but that they will now and then
indulge in some unexpected stroke of originality. Few are more artless
and regular in their musical efforts than the pine warblers; yet I have
seen one of these sitting at the tip of a tree, and repeating a trill
which toward the close invariably declined by an interval of perhaps
three tones. Even the chipping sparrow, whose lay is yet more monotonous
and formal than the pine warbler's, is not absolutely confined to his
score. I once heard him when his trill was divided into two portions,
the concluding half being much higher than the other--unless my ear was
at fault, exactly an octave higher. This singular refrain was given out
six or eight times without the slightest alteration. Such freaks as
these, however, are different from the linnet's _Mary Ware_, inasmuch as
they are certainly the idiosyncrasies of single birds, not a part of the
artistic proficiency of the species as a whole.

During this month I was lucky enough to close a little question which I
had been holding open for a number of years concerning our very common
and familiar black-throated green warbler. This species, as is well
known, has two perfectly well-defined tunes of about equal length,
entirely distinct from each other. My uncertainty had been as to whether
the two are ever used by the same individual. I had listened a good many
times, first and last, in hopes to settle the point, but hitherto
without success. Now, however, a bird, while under my eye, delivered
both songs, and then went on to give further proof of his versatility by
repeating one of them _minus_ the final note. This abbreviation, by the
way, is not very infrequent with _Dendroeca virens_; and he has still
another variation, which I hear once in a while every season, consisting
of a grace note introduced in the middle of the measure, in such a
connection as to form what in musical language is denominated a turn. At
my first hearing of this I looked upon it as the private property of the
bird to whom I was listening,--an improvement which he had accidentally
hit upon. But it is clearly more than that; for besides hearing it in
different seasons, I have noticed it in places a good distance apart.
Perhaps, after the lapse of ten thousand years, more or less, the whole
tribe of black-throated greens will have adopted it; and then, when some
ornithologist chances to fall in with an old-fashioned specimen who
still clings to the plain song as we now commonly hear it, he will fancy
_that_ to be the very latest modern improvement, and proceed forthwith
to enlighten the scientific world with a description of the novelty.

Hardly any incident of the month interested me more than a discovery (I
must call it such, although I am almost ashamed to allude to it at all)
which I made about the black-capped titmouse. For several mornings in
succession I was greeted on waking by the trisyllabic minor whistle of a
chickadee, who piped again and again not far from my window. There could
be little doubt about its being the bird that I knew to be excavating a
building site in one of our apple-trees; but I was usually not
out-of-doors until about five o'clock, by which time the music always
came to an end. So one day I rose half an hour earlier than common on
purpose to have a look at my little matutinal serenader. My conjecture
proved correct. There sat the tit, within a few feet of his apple-branch
door, throwing back his head in the truest lyrical fashion, and calling
_Hear, hear me_, with only a breathing space between the repetitions of
the phrase. He was as plainly _singing_, and as completely absorbed in
his work, as any thrasher or hermit thrush could have been. Heretofore
I had not realized that these whistled notes were so strictly a song,
and as such set apart from all the rest of the chickadee's repertory of
sweet sounds; and I was delighted to find my tiny pet recognizing thus
unmistakably the difference between prose and poetry.

But we linger unduly with these lesser lights of song. After the music
of the Alice and the Swainson thrushes, the chief distinction of May,
1884, as far as my Melrose woods were concerned, was the entirely
unexpected advent of a colony of rose-breasted grosbeaks. For five
seasons I had called these hunting-grounds my own, and during that time
had seen perhaps about the same number of specimens of this royal
species, always in the course of the vernal migration. The present year
the first comer was observed on the 15th--solitary and, except for an
occasional monosyllable, silent. Only one more straggler, I assumed. But
on the following morning I saw four others, all of them males in full
plumage, and two of them in song. To one of these I attended for some
time. According to my notes "he sang beautifully, although not with any
excitement, nor as if he were doing his best. The tone was purer and
smoother than the robin's, more mellow and sympathetic, and the strain
was especially characterized by a dropping to a fine contralto note at
the end." The next day I saw nothing of my new friends till toward
night. Then, after tea, I strolled into the chestnut grove, and walking
along the path, noticed a robin singing freely, remarking the fact
because this noisy bird had been rather quiet of late. Just as I passed
under him, however, it flashed upon me that the voice and song were not
exactly the robin's. They must be the rose-breast's then; and stepping
back to look up, I beheld him in gorgeous attire, perched in the top of
an oak. He sang and sang, while I stood quietly listening. Pretty soon
he repeated the strain once or twice in a softer voice, and I glanced up
instinctively to see if a female were with him; but instead, there were
two males sitting within a yard of each other. They flew off after a
little, and I resumed my saunter. A party of chimney swifts were
shooting hither and thither over the trees, a single wood thrush was
chanting not far away, and in another direction a tanager was rehearsing
his _chip-cherr_ with characteristic assiduity. Presently I began to be
puzzled by a note which came now from this side, now from that, and
sounded like the squeak of a pair of rusty shears. My first conjecture
about the origin of this _hic_ it would hardly serve my reputation to
make public; but I was not long in finding out that it was the
grosbeaks' own, and that, instead of three, there were at least twice
that number of these brilliant strangers in the grove. Altogether, the
half hour was one of very enjoyable excitement; and when, later in the
evening, I sat down to my note-book, I started off abruptly in a
hortatory vein,--"Always take another walk!"

In the morning, naturally enough, I again turned my steps toward the
chestnut grove. The rose-breasts were still there, and one of them
earned my thanks by singing on the wing, flying slowly--half-hovering,
as it were--and singing the ordinary song, but more continuously than
usual. That afternoon one of them was in tune at the same time with a
robin, affording me the desired opportunity for a direct comparison. "It
is really wonderful," my record says, "how nearly alike the two songs
are; but the robin's tone is plainly inferior,--less mellow and full. In
general, too, his strain is pitched higher; and, what perhaps is the
most striking point of difference, it frequently ends with an attempt at
a note which is a little out of reach, so that the voice breaks." (This
last defect, by the bye, the robin shares with his cousin the wood
thrush, as already remarked.) A few days afterwards, to confirm my own
impression about the likeness of the two songs, I called the attention
of a friend with whom I was walking, to a grosbeak's notes, and asked
him what bird's they were. He, having a good ear for matters of this
kind, looked somewhat dazed at such an inquiry, but answered promptly,
"Why, a robin's, of course." As one day after another passed, however,
and I listened to both species in full voice on every hand, I came to
feel that I had overestimated the resemblance. With increasing
familiarity I discerned more and more clearly the respects in which the
songs differed, and each came to have to my ear an individuality
strictly its own. They were alike, doubtless,--as the red-eyed vireo's
and the blue-head's are,--and yet they were not alike. Of one thing I
grew, better and better assured: the grosbeak is out of all comparison
the finer musician of the two. To judge from my last-year's friends,
however, his concert season is very short--the more's the pity.

I begin to perceive (indeed it has been dawning upon me for some time)
that our essay is not to fulfill the promise of its caption. Instead of
the glorious fullness and variety of the month's music (for May, in this
latitude, is the musical month of months) the reader has been put off
with a few of the more exceptional features of the carnival. He will
overlook it, I trust; and as for the great body of the chorus, who have
not been honored with so much as a mention, they, I am assured, are far
too amiable to take offense at any such unintentional slight. Let me
conclude, then, with transcribing from my note-book an evening entry or
two. Music is never so sweet as at the twilight hour; and the extracts
may serve at least as a convenient and quasi-artistic ending for a paper
which, so to speak, has run away with its writer. The first is under
date of the 19th:--

    "Walked, after dinner, in the Old Road, as I have done often of
    late, and sat for a while at the entrance to Pyrola Grove. A wood
    thrush was singing not far off, and in the midst a Swainson thrush
    vouchsafed a few measures. I wished the latter would continue, but
    was thankful for the little. A tanager called excitedly,
    _Chip-cherr_, moving from tree to tree meanwhile, once to a birch in
    full sight, and then into the pine over my head. As it grew dark the
    crowd of warblers were still to be seen feeding busily, making the
    most of the lingering daylight. A small-billed water thrush was
    teetering along a willow-branch, while his congeners, the
    oven-birds, were practicing their aerial hymn. One of these went
    past me as I stood by the roadside, rising very gradually into the
    air and repeating all the way, _Chip, chip, chip, chip_, till at
    last he broke into the warble, which was a full half longer than
    usual. He was evidently doing his prettiest. No vireos sang after
    sunset. A Maryland yellow-throat piped once or twice (he is
    habitually an evening musician), and the black-throated greens were
    in tune, but the rest of the warblers were otherwise engaged.
    Finally, just as a distant whippoorwill began to call, a towhee sang
    once from the woods; and a moment later the stillness was broken by
    the sudden outburst of a thrasher. 'Now then,' he seemed to say, 'if
    the rest of you are quite done, I will see what _I_ can do.' He kept
    on for two or three minutes in his best manner, and at the same time
    a pair of cat-birds were whispering love together in the thicket.
    Then an ill-timed carriage came rattling along the road, and when it
    had passed, every bird's voice was hushed. The hyla's tremulous cry
    was the only musical sound to be heard. As I started away, one of
    these tree-frogs hopped out of my path, and I picked him up at the
    second or third attempt. What did he think, I wonder, when I turned
    him on his back to look at the disks at his finger-tips? Probably he
    supposed that his hour was come; but I had no evil designs upon
    him,--he was not to be drowned in alcohol at present. Walking
    homeward I heard the robin's scream now and again; but the
    thrasher's was the last _song_, as it deserved to be."

Two days later I find the following:--

    "Into the woods by the Old Road. As I approached them, a little
    after sundown, a chipper was trilling, and song sparrows and golden
    warblers were singing,--as were the black-throated greens also, and
    the Maryland yellow-throats. A wood thrush called brusquely, but
    offered no further salute to the god of day at his departure.
    Oven-birds were taking to wing on the right and left. Then, as it
    grew dark, it grew silent,--except for the hylas,--till suddenly a
    field sparrow gave out his sweet strain once. After that all was
    quiet for another interval, till a thrasher from the hillside began
    to sing. He ceased, and once more there was stillness. All at once
    the tanager broke forth in a strangely excited way, blurting out his
    phrase two or three times and subsiding as abruptly as he had
    commenced. Some crisis in his love-making, I imagined. Now the last
    oven-bird launched into the air and let fall a little shower of
    melody, and a whippoorwill took up his chant afar off. This should
    have been the end; but a robin across the meadow thought otherwise,
    and set at work as if determined to make a night of it. Mr.
    Early-and-late, the robin's name ought to be. As I left the wood the
    whippoorwill followed; coming nearer and nearer, till finally he
    overpassed me and sang with all his might (while I tried in vain to
    see him) from a tree or the wall, near the big buttonwood. He too is
    an early riser, only he rises before nightfall instead of before


  Blackbird, crow, 17;
    red-winged, 183;
    rusty, 216.

  Bluebird, 14, 72, 160, 184, 214, 217.

  Blue-gray gnatcatcher, 152.

  Bobolink, 16, 78.

  Bunting, bay-winged, 27, 174, 234;
    snow, 190, 195;
    towhee, 25, 39, 62, 178.

  Butcher-bird, 5, 11, 66, 208.

  Cat-bird, 3, 72, 114.

  Cedar-bird, 26, 50, 126, 269.

  Chat, yellow-breasted, 69, 152, 153.

  Chewink, 25, 39, 62, 178.

  Chickadee, 27, 58, 158, 202, 215, 237, 291.

  Chimney swift, 23, 96, 272.

  Cowbird, 183.

  Creeper, brown, 20, 161, 205, 227, 262;
    black-and-white, 21, 266, 279.

  Crow, common, 26, 78, 209;
    fish, 154, 209.

  Cuckoo, black-billed, 18.

  Finch, grass, 27, 174, 234;
    purple, 27, 119, 173, 199, 217, 287;
    pine, 206.

  Flicker, 25, 121, 232.

  Flycatcher, great-crested, 152;
    least, 26, 36, 231;
    phoebe, 26, 215, 230, 269;
    wood pewee, 36, 231, 257;
    yellow-bellied, 91.

  Goldfinch, 16, 19, 60, 173, 188, 190, 193, 236.

  Grosbeak, cardinal, 27, 37, 152, 173;
    pine, 197;
    rose-breasted, 173, 292.

  Humming-bird, ruby-throated, 21.

  Indigo-bird, 177.

  Jay, blue, 26, 65, 208, 264;
    Canada, 257.

  Kingbird, 26, 78, 231.

  Kingfisher, 26, 154.

  Kinglet, golden-crested, 21, 203;
    ruby-crowned, 21, 235.

  Lark, western meadow, 40, 41;
    shore, 206.

  Linnet, 27, 119, 173, 199, 217, 287;
    red-poll, 27, 190, 192.

  Maryland yellow-throat, 9, 21, 85, 166, 266, 296.

  Mocking-bird, 27.

  Night-hawk, 27, 183.

  Nuthatch, red-bellied, 25;
    white-bellied, 24.

  Oriole, Baltimore, 16, 181;
    orchard, 154.

  Oven-bird, 21, 42, 86, 124, 136, 256, 283, 296.

  Pewee, wood 36, 231, 257.

  Phoebe, 26, 215, 230, 269.

  Red-poll linnet, 27, 190, 192.

  Redstart, 21, 86, 135.

  Robin, 15, 16, 35, 38, 111, 131, 160, 202, 229, 294, 298.

  Sandpiper, spotted, 123.

  Scarlet tanager, 125, 153, 171, 257, 296, 298.

  Shrike, 5, 11, 66, 208.

  Small-billed water thrush, 21, 86, 266.

  Snow-bird, 90, 176, 208, 214, 221, 269.

  Snow bunting, 190, 195.

  Sparrow, chipping, 10, 16, 126, 173, 233, 289;
    field, 27, 40, 173, 233;
    fox-colored, 17, 173, 176, 215, 217, 218;
    house (or "English"), 14, 17, 20, 22, 45, 110;
    savanna, 27, 49, 78;
    song, 15, 40, 173, 174, 200, 214, 217, 219;
    swamp, 27;
    tree, 27, 215;
    white-throated, 16, 80, 207, 271.

  Swallow, barn, 23;
    white-bellied, 23, 228.

  Swift, chimney, 23, 96, 272.

  Tanager, scarlet, 125, 153, 171, 257, 296, 298.

  Thrush, brown, 16, 61, 117, 158, 184, 234, 297;
    gray-cheeked (or Alice's), 17, 140, 141, 281;
    golden-crowned, 21, 42, 86, 124, 136, 256, 283, 296;
    hermit, 20, 71, 86, 140, 234, 258, 279;
    olive-backed (or Swainson's), 20, 86, 88, 140, 281;
    small-billed water, 21, 86, 266;
    Wilson's (or veery), 25, 71, 138;
    wood, 38, 112, 140, 258, 279.

  Titmouse, black-capped, 27, 58, 158, 202, 215, 237, 291;
    tufted, 151.

  Towhee bunting, 25, 39, 62, 178.

  Veery, 25, 71, 138.

  Vireo, (or greenlet), blue-headed, 167, 168;
    red-eyed, 16, 167, 268;
    solitary, 167, 168;
    yellow-throated, 27, 167;
    warbling, 16, 167, 168;
    white-eyed, 40, 41, 69, 148, 167, 170, 286.

  Warbler, bay-breasted, 85, 166;
    Blackburnian, 86, 165, 265;
    black-and-yellow, 85;
    black-poll, 21, 85, 165;
    black-throated blue, 21, 41, 86, 164, 267;
    black-throated green, 21, 41, 86, 137, 164, 267, 290;
    blue golden-winged, 42, 145, 164;
    blue yellow-backed, 21, 86, 164, 268;
    Canada, 21, 85, 266;
    chestnut-sided, 42, 266, 271;
    golden, 21, 164;
    golden-crowned wagtail, 21, 42, 86, 124, 136;
    mourning, 85;
    Nashville, 98, 266;
    pine-creeping, 166, 228, 237, 289;
    prairie, 165;
    summer yellow-bird, 21, 164;
    worm-eating, 152;
    yellow red-poll, 234;
    yellow-rumped, 21, 42, 43, 86, 269.

  Waxwing, 26, 50, 126, 269.

  Whippoorwill, 183, 298.

  Woodcock, 27, 222.

  Woodpecker, downy, 25;
    golden-winged, 25, 121, 232;
    red-bellied, 152;
    red-headed, 150, 205;
    yellow-bellied, 8, 26, 271.

  Wren, great Carolina, 152;
    winter, 88, 146, 225, 256, 272.

       *       *       *       *       *

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Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.