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Title: In Bird Land
Author: Keyser, Leander S. (Leander Sylvester)
Language: English
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                              IN BIRD LAND


                                   BY
                           LEANDER S. KEYSER


              Hast thou named all the birds without a gun?
             Loved the wood-rose, and left it on its stalk?
                                      Ralph Waldo Emerson: _Forbearance_

                       Teach me half the gladness
                       That thy brain must know,
                        Such harmonious madness
                        From my lips would flow
          The world should listen then, as I am listening now!
                                        Percy B. Shelley: _To a Skylark_


                                CHICAGO
                       A. C. McCLURG AND COMPANY
                                  1894

                               Copyright
                        By A. C. McClurg and Co.
                               A.D. 1894



                                 NOTE.


The articles comprising this volume having been previously published in
various periodicals of the country, I would desire to tender my grateful
acknowledgments to the several publishers and editors for their uniform
courtesy in permitting me to reprint the papers. My observations on
birds have been made, except when otherwise indicated, in various haunts
in and about Springfield, Ohio,—a region well adapted for ornithological
research or pastime.
                                                                L. S. K.

  August, 1894.



                               CONTENTS.


Chapter                                                             Page

I. Wayside Rambles                                                     9

II. Bird Curios                                                       24

III. Winter Frolics                                                   40

IV. February Outings                                                  58

V. Arrival of the Birds                                               64

VI. Winged Voyagers                                                   76

VII. Plumage of Young Birds                                           87

VIII. Nest-Hunting                                                    92

IX. Midsummer Melodies                                               110

X. Where Birds Roost                                                 116

XI. The Wood-Pewee                                                   127

XII. A Pair of Night-Hawks                                           135

XIII. A Birds’ Gala-Day                                              141

XIV. Rife with Birds                                                 152

XV. Various Phases of Bird Life:
I. Bird Courtship                                                    160
II. Bird Nurseries                                                   169
III. Bird High Schools                                               185
IV. Bird Work                                                        193
V. Bird Play                                                         201
VI. Bird Deaths                                                      207

XVI. The Secret of Appreciation                                      216

XVII. Browsings in Other Fields                                      226

XVIII. A Bird Anthology from Lowell                                  242

My Bird List                                                         263

Index                                                                267



  _This way would I also sing,
    My dear little hillside neighbor!
  A tender carol of peace to bring
    To the sunburnt fields of labor
  Is better than making a loud ado;
    Trill on, amid clover and yarrow!
  There’s a heart-beat echoing for you,
    And blessing you, blithe little sparrow!_
                                                            Lucy Larcom.



                             IN BIRD LAND.



                                   I.
                            WAYSIDE RAMBLES.


Looking out of my study window one fair spring morning, I noticed a
friend—a professional man—walking along the street, evidently taking his
“constitutional.” Having reached the end of the brick pavement, he
paused, glanced around a moment undecidedly, and then, instead of
walking out into the beckoning fields and woods, turned down another
street which led into a thickly populated part of the city. Surely, I
mused, we are not all cast in the same mould. While he carefully avoided
going beyond the suburbs and the beaten paths, as if afraid he might
soil his polished shoes, I should have plunged boldly into the country,
“across lots,” to find some sequestered nook or grass-grown by-way, “far
from human neighborhood,” to hold undisturbed converse with Nature. My
friend’s conduct, however, did not put me in a critical mood, but rather
stirred some grateful reflections on the wise adaptation of all things
in the world of being. How fortunate that men are so variously
constituted! If some did not naturally choose the bustle and stir and
excitement of the city, where would be our philanthropists, our Howards
and Peabodys and Dodges? On the other hand, if others did not
voluntarily seek quiet and solitude in Nature’s unfrequented haunts, the
world would never have been blessed with a Wordsworth, an Emerson, or a
Lowell; and in that case, for some of us at least, life would have been
bare and arid.

It is true, we cannot accept Pope’s dictum, “Whatever is, is right.” We
know that many things that are, are wrong; but doubtless more things in
this paradoxical old world are right than moralists sometimes suppose.
To the genuine lover of Nature, and especially to the lover of her
unbeaten pathways, the ringing lines of Emerson come home with thrilling
power:—

  “If I could put my woods in song
    And tell what’s there enjoyed,
  All men would to my gardens throng,
    And leave the cities void.”

Yet I doubt if any spot in Nature’s domain could be made so attractive
as to overcome most persons’ natural love of human association. Mayhap
even if this could be done, it would not be desirable. Should all men
hie to the woods and leave the cities void, it would spoil both the
woods and the cities. The charm of the woods is their quiet, their
solitude; the enchantment of the city, its thronging life and activity.
While I may be lonesome in a crowd, my neighbor is almost sure to feel
lonesome in the marsh or the deep ravine. If all men loved Nature with a
passion that could not be controlled, much work would be left undone
that is indispensable to human life and happiness. I am glad, therefore,
that there are many birds of many kinds; glad, too, that there are many
men of many minds. The apostle does well to remind his brethren in the
church that there are “diversities of gifts” and “diversities of
operations,” even if all do spring from “the same Spirit.”

Albeit, as for me, give me

  “A secret nook in a pleasant land,
  Whose groves the frolic fairies planned.”

Emerson voices my own feeling when he sings:—

              “A woodland walk,
  A quest of river-grapes, a mocking thrush,
  A wild rose, or rock-loving columbine,
  Salve my worst wounds;”

for,

  “What friend to friend cannot convey,
  Shall the dumb bird instructed say.”

And it is true that a wayside ramble will often do, by way of
self-revelation and conviction, what no human voice of chastisement can
accomplish. Mr. Howells says, in one of his most trenchant analytical
novels: “If you’re not in first-rate spiritual condition, you’re apt to
get floored if you undertake to commune with Nature.” There are times
when the very immaculateness of the sky, or the purity of a woodland
flower, rebukes one, gives one a keen sense of one’s sins, and makes one
long for absolution; or when the pensive moaning of the wind through the
gray, branchless trees on a winter’s day forces on the mind a prevision
of a judgment about to be visited upon one’s misdoings. Yet this is
seldom my own experience while idling in out-of-the-way places. Usually
I feel soothed and comforted, or, at most, a sort of glad melancholy
steals over me, which is as enchanting as a magician’s spell; while I
often win exhilaration from the whispering breezes, as if they carried a
tonic on their pulsing wings.

On the spring morning on which my friend so studiously avoided Nature’s
by-paths, my stint of labor for the day was soon despatched, and then,
flinging my lunch-bag over my shoulders, I hurried across the fields,
anxious to put a comfortable distance between myself and bothering human
tenements. By noon I had reached a green hollow at the border of a
woodland, where Nature, to a large extent at least, has had her own
sweet way. Here, on the grassy bank of a rivulet, I sat down to eat my
luncheon. The spring near by filled my cup with ale that sparkles, but
never burns; that quenches thirst, but never creates it. Not a human
habitation was in sight; nothing but the tinkling brook, the sloping
hills, the quiet woods, and the overarching sky. The haunt was not
without music. The far-away cadences of the bush-sparrows on the
hillside filled the place like melodious sunshine. A short distance down
the hollow a song-sparrow thrummed his harp, while a cooing dove lent
her dreamy threnody to the wayside trio. Although engaged in the prosaic
act of eating my luncheon, I breathed in an atmosphere of poetry and
romance, and half expected a company of water-witches and dryads to leap
upon the greensward before me and dance to the music of bird and brook.
A pagan I am not,—at least, such is my hope; but moods subjunctive
sometimes seize me when I do not blame the Greeks—aye, rather, when I
praise them—for peopling the woods with Pan and his retinue; for I feel
the influence of a strange, mystical, and more than impersonal presence.

Yes, one’s dreams sometimes take on a speculative cast, even on a day
that seems to be “the bridal of the earth and sky.” In this unfrequented
spot the birds sing their sweetest carols, be there a human ear to hear
or not. Do they sing merely for their own delectation, these little
creatures of a day? Is there not far too much sweetness wasted on the
desert air? Would there not be more purpose in Nature could these dulcet
strains be treasured in some way, so that they might be poured into
man’s appreciative ear? Why has Nature made no phonographs? Wherefore
all this waste of ointment? Does Nature encourage the habits of the
spendthrift? I recall a summer day when I strolled along a deep, lonely
ravine. It was at least a mile to the nearest human dwelling. Suddenly a
clear, melodious trill from a song-sparrow’s lusty throat rippled
through the stillness, making my pulses flutter. Here, doubtless, the
little Arion had sung his roundels all summer long, and perhaps I had
been the only person who had heard him, and then I had caught only a few
tantalizing strains—simply enough to give a taste for more. Why was the
peerless triller apparently burying his talents in this solitary haunt?

It may be true of bird song, as of the recluse flower, that “beauty is
its own excuse for being;” but I am not ashamed to record my confession
of faith, my creed, on this matter; not my dreamy cogitations with _ifs_
and _mayhaps_. There is a divine ear which catches every strain of
wayside melody, and appreciates it at its true value. Thus, no beauty or
sweetness is ever lost, no bird or flower is really an anchorite. A bird
may flit away in alarm at the approach of a human intruder, and may not
lisp a note until he is well out of the haunt; but the same songster
will unconsciously pour his dithyrambs all summer long into the ear of
God. Nature was not made for man alone; it was also made for its
Creator. Never has the brown thrasher sung with such enchanting vigor
and abandon as he did the other day at the corner of the woods when he
thought no human auditor within ear-shot. He was singing for God, albeit
unconsciously.

It is high time to get back to my waysiding, if I may coin a word. You
must go to an out-of-the-way resort, far from the din of loom and
factory, to feel the quaint, delicate fancy of Sidney Lanier’s lines,—

  “Robins and mocking-birds that all day long
  Athwart straight sunshine weave cross-threads of song,
                            Shuttles of music.”

The wayside rambler often is witness of delightful bird-pranks that must
escape other eyes. On a bright day in February I strolled to the hollow
to which I have already referred. The sun was melting the ice-mantle
from the brook, and causing the snow to pour in runlets down the banks.
In a broad, shallow curve of the stream the tree-sparrows and
song-sparrows were taking a bath. I watched them for a long time. Some
of them would remain in the ice-cold water for from three to five
minutes, fluttering their wings and tails in perfect glee; and sending
the pearl-drops and spray glimmering into the air. Their ablutions done,
they would fly up to the saplings near by, and carefully preen and dry
their moistened robes.

It was in the depth of the woods that my saucy black-cap, the titmouse,
clambered straight up the vertical hole of an oak sapling, as if he had
learned the trick from the brown creeper or the white-breasted nuthatch.
No less interesting was the conduct of the downy woodpecker, that little
drum-major of the woods. He is the tilter _par excellence_ of the
woodpecker family. He flings himself in the most reckless manner from
trunk to branch, and from branch to twig, often alighting back-downward
on the slenderest stems. Shall I describe one of his odd tricks? I had
often seen him clinging to the slender withes of the willows at the
border of the swamp, and had wondered how he could hold himself with his
claws to so meagre a support. It was a problem. How much I longed to
solve it! However, for a long time the bird so completely baffled me
that I felt like another Tantalus. One winter day, however, he happened
to be quite near the ground as I stood beneath the willows, so that I
could see just how he accomplished the mysterious feat. Imagine my
surprise! He did not cling to the withes with his _claws_ at all, as he
clings to a tree-trunk or a large bough, but grasped the slender perches
with his _feet_, precisely as if they were hands, flinging his long
toes, like fingers, clear around the stems, one foot above the other. In
ascending, he would go foot over foot; in descending, he would simply
loosen his hold slightly and slip down. Sir Isaac Newton may have made
more important discoveries, but he did not feel prouder or happier when
he solved the binomial theorem than did I when my little avian problem
was solved. I am not aware that any one else has ever described this
performance, and am strongly tempted to announce it as an original
discovery. Yet a certain writer once declared, patronizingly, that there
are some writers—himself excepted, of course—on natural history themes
who proclaim as original discoveries many facts that are perfectly
familiar to every tyro in science. Spite of the scornful reflection,
however, it is my modest opinion that there are very few observers who
have seen a woodpecker ascending a willow-withe foot over foot.

Many, many a cunning bird prank would have been missed had I kept, like
the majority of pedestrians, to the beaten track. There, for example, is
that odd little genius in mottled robes, the brown creeper, who has
performed a sufficient number of quaint gambols to repay me for all the
time and effort expended in pursuing my wayside rambles. He is always
_sui generis_, apparently priding himself on his eccentricities, like
some people you may know. A genuine arboreal creeper, he almost
invariably coasts up hill. Unlike his congeners, the nuthatch and the
creeping warbler, he never goes head-downward. Dear me, no! Whether it
is because it makes him light-headed, or he regards it as bad form, I am
unable to say. He does not even hitch down backward after the manner of
the woodpeckers, but marches up, up, up, until he thinks it time to
descend, which he does by taking to wing, bounding around in an arc as
if he were an animated rubber ball. You may almost imagine him saying:
“Pah! such vulgar sport as creeping head-downward may be well enough for
mere plebeians like the nuthatches and the striped creepers, but it is
quite beneath the caste of a patrician like myself! _Tseem! tseem!_” At
rare intervals he will slip down sidewise for a short distance, in a
slightly oblique direction, especially when he comes to a fork of the
branches.

However, he does not think it beneath his dignity to take a promenade on
the under side of a horizontal bough. One day as I watched him doing
this, he reached a point where the limb made an obtuse angle by bending
obliquely downward. Now what would he do? Would he really hitch down
that branch head-foremost, only for once? By no means. Catch him
committing such a breach of creeper decorum! He suddenly spread his
wings and hurled himself to the lower end of that oblique section of the
branch, and then ambled up to the angle in regular orthodox fashion. You
will never find him doing anything to give employment to the heresy
hunters![1]

Have any of my fellow-observers ever seen this merry-andrew convert
himself into a whirligig? I once witnessed this droll performance, which
seemed almost like a vagary. A creeper was clinging to a large oak-tree
near the base, when he took it into his crazy little pate, for what
earthly—or unearthly—reason I know not, to wheel around like a top
several times in quick succession. He rested a moment, and then repeated
the comedy.

On another occasion a creeper was preening his ruffled feathers, having
evidently just taken a bath; and how do you suppose he went about it? In
quite a characteristic fashion, you may rest assured. Instead of sitting
crosswise on a perch, as most birds would have done, he clung to the
vertical bole of a large oak-tree, holding himself firmly against the
shaggy bark, and daintily straightening out every feather from his
breast to his flexible tail. Growing tired of this position—apparently
so, at least—he shuffled up to a fork made by the trunk and a large
limb, where he found a more comfortable slanting perch on which to
complete his toilet. Once, afterward, I saw a creeper arranging his
plumes in the same way.

But the quaintest exploit of this bird still remains to be described.
One autumn day, while rambling along the foot of a range of steep
cliffs, I caught sight of one of these birds darting from a tree toward
the perpendicular wall of rock. For a few moments I lost him, but
followed post-haste, muttering to myself, “What if I should find the
little clown climbing up the face of the cliff! That would be a
performance worth describing to my bird-loving friends, wouldn’t it?”
(Surely a monomaniac may talk aloud to himself.) I could scarcely
believe my eyes, for the next moment my happy presentiment was realized;
there was the creeper scaling the vertical face of the cliff, with as
much ease and aplomb, apparently, as a fly creeping up the smooth
surface of a window-pane! Then he flew ahead a short distance, and began
mounting the cliff where its face was quite smooth and hard. Presently
he encountered a bulging protuberance, and tried to creep along the
oblique under side of it; but that feat proved to be beyond his skill,
agile as he was, and so he abandoned the attempt, and swung away to
another part of the vertical wall. I have never seen, in any of the
manuals which I have consulted, a description of a similar performance;
and if any of my readers have ever witnessed such a “coruscation” of
creeper genius, I should be glad to hear from them.

In one’s out-of-the-way saunterings, one dashes up against many a faunal
problem that defies, even while it challenges, solution. On a cold day
of early winter I was strolling along the bare, windswept banks of a
river, keeping my eyes alert, as usual, for bird curios. In the small
bushes that fringed the bank were some cunningly placed nests. In the
bottom of one of them lay many seeds of dogwood berries, with the
kernels bored out,—the work, no doubt, of the crested tits. But there
were no dogwood-trees within twenty-five rods of the place! Why had the
birds carried the shells to this nest, and dropped them into it? This is
all the more curious because it was not a tit’s nest, but very likely a
cat-bird’s. One can only surmise that the tits had gathered these seeds
in the fall, and stowed them away in the nest for winter use, and then
had eaten out the kernels when hunger drove them to it. That would be in
perfect keeping with the habits of these thrifty little providers for
the morrow.

During the winter of 1892-1893 a red-bellied woodpecker, often called
the zebra-bird, took up his residence in my woodland. (I call it mine by
a sort of usufruct, because I ramble through its pleasant archways or
sit in its quiet boudoirs at all hours and in all seasons.) With the
exception of several brief absences, for which I could not account, the
woodpecker remained until the following spring, giving me some
delightful surprises. It was the first winter he had shown the good
grace to keep me company. Perhaps he was lazy; or he may have been a
clumsy flier; or perchance he got separated from his fellows by
accident, and so was left behind in the autumn when the southward
pilgrimage began.

He was, by all odds, the handsomest woodpecker I had ever seen. His
entire crown and hind-neck were brilliant crimson, which fairly
shimmered like a flambeau when the sun peeped through a rift in the
clouds and shone upon it; and then his back was beautifully mottled and
striped with black and white, while his tail was bordered with a broad
band of deep black. What a splendid picture he made, too, whenever he
spread his wings and bolted from one tree to another! I wish an artist
could have caught him on the wing, and transferred him to canvas. He
performed a trick that was new to me, and did it several times. He would
dash to some twigs, balance before them a moment on the wing, pick a nit
or a worm from a dead leaf-clump, and then swing back to his upright
perch. Once he found a grain of corn in a pocket of the bark, placed
there, perhaps, by a nuthatch; but he did not seem to care for
johnny-cake, and so he dropped it back into the pocket. How cunningly he
canted his head and peered into the crannies of the bark for grubs,
calling, _Chack! chack!_

During the entire winter he uttered only this harsh, stirring note, half
jocose, half spiteful; but, greatly to my surprise, when spring arrived,
especially if the weather happened to be pleasant, he began to call,
_K-t-r-r! k-t-r-r!_ precisely like a red-headed woodpecker; indeed, at
first I laid siege to every tree, looking in vain for a red-head come
prematurely northward, until I discovered the trick of my winter
intimate, the red-bellied wood-chopper. Why it should have been so I
cannot explain; but whenever a cold wave struck this latitude during the
spring, he would invariably revert to his harsh _Chack! chack!_ and then
when the breezes grew balmy again, he would resume his other reveille,
making the woods echo. I also discovered—it was a discovery to myself,
at least—that the red-bellied is a drummer, like most of his relatives;
but not once did he thrum his merry _ra-ta-ta_ before spring
arrived,—another avian conundrum for the naturalist to beat his brains
against.

But hold! I might go rambling on in this way forever, like Tennyson’s
brook,—or, possibly, like Ixion revolving on his wheel,—describing the
odd pranks witnessed in my wayside rambles. It is high time, however, to
call a halt; yet, after a brief breathing-space, these miscellanies will
be resumed in the next chapter, which may, with some degree of
propriety, be entitled “Bird Curios.”



                                  II.
                              BIRD CURIOS.


Every observer of birds and animals has doubtless amassed many facts of
intense interest—at all events, of intense interest to himself—which he
has not been able to adjust to any systematic arrangement he may have
made of his material. That is true of the incidents described in this
chapter. It will, therefore, necessarily partake of the nature of
bric-à-brac. If it were not so self-complimentary, I should dub it bird
mosaic, and have done. The reader will perhaps be more disposed to trace
a resemblance to an eccentric old woman’s “crazy quilt;” and if he
prefers the homelier and less poetical title, I shall not complain.

But even a bit of patchwork must be begun somewhere, and so I shall
plunge at once _in medias res_.

The day was one of the fairest of early spring. How shall I describe it?
No sky could have been bluer, no fields greener. The earth smiled under
the favoritism of the radiant heavens in happy recognition. My steps
were bent along the green banks of a winding creek in northern Indiana.
Suddenly a loud, varied bird song fell on my ear and brought me to a
full stop. It swept down liltingly from a high, bushy bank some rods
back from the stream, and at once proclaimed itself as the rhapsody of
the cat-bird. Anxious to watch the brilliant vocalist in his singing
attitudes, I approached the acclivity, and soon espied him in the midst
of the dense copse, which was not yet covered with foliage. He redoubled
his efforts when he saw an appreciative auditor standing near. Presently
a quaint impulse seized his throbbing, music-filled bosom. He swung
gracefully to the ground, picked up a fragment of newspaper, leaped up
to his perch again, and then, holding the paper harp in his beak,
resumed his song with more vigor than before. All the while his beady
eyes sparkled with good-natured raillery, as if he expected me to laugh
at his unique performance; and, of course, I was able to accommodate him
without half an effort. An errant gust of wind suddenly wrenched the bit
of paper from his bill and bore it to the ground. The minstrel darted
after, and straightway recovered his elusive prize, flew up to his
perch, and again roused the echoes of woodland and vale with his
rollicking song, the paper harp imparting a peculiar resonance to his
tones; while his air of banter seemed to challenge me to a musical
contest. I laughingly declined in the interest of my own reputation.

He was one of the choicest minstrels of bird land I have ever
heard,—barring the sex, a Jenny Lind or an Adelina Patti,—his voice
being of excellent _timbre_, his tones pure and liquid, and his
technical execution almost perfect. Ever since that day I have been the
avowed friend of the catbird,—in truth, his champion, ready at any
moment, in season and out, to take up the glove in his defence against
every assailant. Some very self-conscious human performers—people who
themselves live in glass houses—have accused him of singing to be heard,
making him out vain and ambitious. Well, what if he does? Why do his
human compeers sing or speak or write? Certainly not purely for their
own delectation, but also, in part at least, to catch the appreciative
ear and eye of the public, and win a bit of applause. “Let him that is
without sin among you first cast a stone.” He who scoffs at my
plumbeous-hued choralist makes me his enemy,—not the choralist’s, but
the scoffer’s. So let the latter beware!

I leave the cat-bird, however, to his own resources—he is well able to
take care of himself—to tell what the birds were doing during a recent
spring, which fought in a very desultory manner its battle with the
north winds. Special attention is called to the laggard character of the
season because a tardy spring is a sore ordeal to the student of bird
life, postponing many of his most longed-for investigations. The spring
to which I refer (1892) was provokingly slow in its approach, and yet it
developed some traits of bird character that were interesting. For
instance, the first week in April was a seducer, being quite bland,
starting the buds on many trees, and putting the migrating fever into
the veins of a number of species of birds. But the snow-storms and
fierce northern blasts that came later were very hard on both birds and
buds. Many a chorus was sung during the pleasant weather, but on more
than one day afterward the cheerful voices of the feathered choir were
hushed, while the songsters themselves sought refuge from the storm in
every available nook, where they sat shivering. One cannot always
repress the interrogatory why Nature so frequently stirs hopes only to
blast them; but it is not the business of the empirical observer to
question her motives or her manners,—rather to study her as she is,
without asking why.

Cold as April was, some birds were hardy enough to go to nest-building.
Among these were the robins, whose blushing bosoms could be seen
everywhere in grove and field. On the seventh of the month a robin was
carrying grass fibres to a half-finished nest in the woodland near my
house. A week later she was sitting on the nest, hugging her eggs close
beneath her warm bosom, while the tempests howled mercilessly about her
roofless homestead. It seemed to me, one cold morning after a
snow-storm, that her body shivered as she sat there, and I feared more
than once that she would freeze to death; but no such fatality befell
her, and she resolutely kept her seat in her adobe cottage.

And this reminds me of a bird tragedy described to me by a professor in
the college located in my town. He said that a number of years ago a
robin built a nest in a tree not far from the site on which some workmen
were erecting a new college building. In May a very fierce snow-storm
came. One day the workmen noticed a half-dozen robins darting about the
nest on which the hatching bird sat, flying at her with sharp cries,
striking her with their wings, and making use of various other devices
to dislodge her from the nest. They seemed to realize that she was in
peril of her life through long inactivity and exposure to the cold. But
their efforts were unsuccessful: she would not leave her nest; her eggs
or young must have her care at whatever cost. However, the poor bird
paid dearly for her devotion. The next morning—the night had been very
cold—the workmen found her dead upon the nest. My informant vouches for
the truthfulness of the story, and says that he himself saw the faithful
mother on the nest after she had been frozen stiff.

On the twentieth of April I saw another robin sitting close on her nest,
which was built on a horizontal branch of a willow-tree, not more than
eight feet from the ground. The raw east wind lifted the feathers on her
back, as if determined to creep through her thick clothing to the
sensitive skin. A few days earlier a blue jay was seen carrying lumber
to her partly erected nursery in the crotch of an oak-tree. A pair of
bluebirds, sighing out their sorrows and joys, began building in one of
my bird-boxes during the pleasant early April weather; but when the cold
spell came, they wisely suspended operations until the storms were
overpast and they could proceed with safety. A killdeer plover’s nest
was found by my farmer neighbor on the ninth of April. It was on the
ground in an open field, with not so much as a spear of grass for
protection.

That year the crow blackbirds arrived from the south in February, all
bedecked in holiday attire, the rich purple of their necks scintillating
in the sunshine. You have perhaps observed the droll antics of these
birds as they sing their guttural _O-gl-ee_. It is amusing to see them
fluff up their feathers, spread out their wings and tails, bend their
heads forward and downward with a spasmodic movement, and then emit that
queer, gurgling, half-musical note. It would seem that the little they
sing requires a superhuman—more precisely, perhaps, a
super-avian—effort, coming aqueously, one might almost say, from some
deep fountain in their windpipes. These contortions do not invariably
accompany their vocal performances, but certainly occur quite
frequently. The red-wings also often behave in a like manner; and both
species always spread out their tails like a fan when they sing, whether
they fluff up their plumes and twist their necks or not.

Another bit of bird behavior gave me not a little surprise during the
same spring. It started this query in my mind: Is the white-breasted
nuthatch a sap-sucker? It has been proved by Mr. Burroughs and Mr. Frank
Bolles, I think, that the yellow-bellied woodpecker is. But how about
the frisky nuthatch, so versatile in ways and means? Here is an
incident. One day I saw a nuthatch thrusting his slender bill into a
hole in the bark of a young hickory-tree. Nuthatches often hunt for
grubs in that way, but something about this fellow’s conduct prompted me
to watch him closely for some minutes. He bent over the hole with a
lingering movement, as if sipping something. Presently I slowly
approached the tree, keeping my eye intent on the bird.

Of course, he flew away on my approach, but my eye was never taken from
the spot to which he had been clinging. Being forced to climb the trunk
of the tree a few feet, what discovery do you suppose awaited me? There
was a small hole pierced through the bark from which the sap was flowing
down the crannies, and into that fount the little wassailer had been
thrusting his bill, with a sort of lingering motion, precisely as if he
had been sipping the sweet liquor. The evidence was sufficient to
convince me that he had been doing this very unorthodox thing. The real
sap-suckers, no doubt, had dug the well, for there were a number of them
in the woods, and the nuthatch had been stealing the nectar. Perhaps,
however, I wrong him; he may have asked permission of the owner to drink
from the saccharine fountain.

The next autumn I took occasion to pry into the affairs of my beloved
intimates of the woods, and had more than one surprise. Some species of
birds, like some other animals, lay by a supply of food for winter,
proving that they do take some thought for the morrow. So far as my
observation goes, this provident care is displayed only by those birds
that are winter residents in our more northern latitudes. I have never
seen any of the vast company of migrants making such provision for the
proverbial rainy day; and, indeed, it would be unnecessary. To them
sufficient unto the day is the care as well as the evil thereof, and so
they take their “daily bread” as they happen to find it.

Our winter residents, however, are more thrifty, as I have observed
again and again. Here is an instance which once came under my eye. While
sauntering along the border of the woods one day in September, I noticed
several nuthatches and black-capped titmice busily gathering seeds from
a clump of sunflower stalks, and flying with them to the trees near by.
I found a seat and watched them for a long while. A nuthatch would dart
over to a sunflower stalk, cry, _Yak! yak!_ in his familiar way, as if
talking affectionately to himself, deftly pick out a seed from its
encasement, fly with it to the trunk of an oak-tree, and then thrust it
into a crevice of the bark with his long slender beak. He would then
hurry back for another seed, which he would treat in the same way.

The behavior of one of these little toilers was especially interesting.
By mistake he pushed a seed into a cranny which seemed to be too deep
for his purpose, and so he proceeded in his vigorous way to pry and
chisel it out. He seemed to say to himself: “That would be too hard to
dig out on a cold winter day; I think I’d better get it out now.” When
he had secured it, he put it into another crevice, which also proved too
deep; and so his dainty had to be recovered once more. The third
attempt, however, proved a charm, for that time he found a little pocket
just to his liking. To make very sure he did not eat the seed, I did not
take my eye from him for a single moment. The fact is, during the entire
time spent in watching the birds, I did not see them eat a single seed.
The titmice flew farther into the woods with their winter “goodies,”
where the foliage was so dense, while the birds were so quick in
movement, that it was impossible to see just where they hid their store;
but they returned too soon for a new supply to allow time for eating the
seeds.

One autumn I spent a week in a part of Kentucky where beechnuts were
very plentiful, and saw the hairy and red-headed woodpeckers putting
away their hoard of “mast” for the winter, industrious husbandmen that
they were. A farmer said that he had often seen the woodpeckers carrying
these nuts to a hole in a tree and dropping them into it. He once found
such a winter store that must have contained fully a quart of beechnuts.
In my own neighborhood the hairy woodpecker often hides tidbits in
gullies of the bark, after the manner of the nuthatch. The crested tit
also stows corn and various kinds of seeds in some safe niche for a time
of exigency. Several times in the winter, when the ground was covered
with snow, I have surprised this bird eating a corn grain in the very
depth of the woods, a considerable distance from the neighboring
cornfields.

One winter day a nuthatch picked three grains of corn in succession from
the fissures of an oak, and greedily devoured them. On another occasion
one of these nuthatches was seen diving into a hole on the under side of
a limb. Presently he emerged with a nut of some kind in his bill, and
flew away, remaining just about long enough to eat it, when he returned
for another. This he repeated until his dinner was finished.

No doubt, when cold and stormy weather comes, these birds have many a
luscious mouthful because of their forehandedness, and no doubt they
enjoy their well-kept stores as much as the farmer and his family relish
their dish of mellow apples around the glowing hearth on a winter
evening. It is no fancy flight, but a literal truth, that many a niche
and cleft is made to do duty as larder for the feathered and furred
tenants of the woods.

With the birds that migrate, autumn is the season for gathering in large
convocations, holding “windy congresses in trees,” as Lowell aptly puts
it. The aerial movements of some of these feathered armies are often
worthy of observation. Memory lingers fondly about a day in autumn when
two friends and myself were clambering up the side of a steep hill or
ridge that bounded a green hollow on the south. We had gone half-way to
the top when we turned to admire the panorama spread out picturesquely
before us. Our exclamations of pleasure at the scene were soon
interrupted by a shadow hurtling across the hollow, and on looking up,
we saw a vast army of crow blackbirds sweeping overhead, moving about
fifty abreast. How long the column was I cannot say, but it extended
over the hollow from hilltop to hilltop and some distance beyond in both
directions. The odd feature about the ebon army’s evolutions was this:
The vanguard had gone on far beyond the ravine, and was pushing over the
opposite ridge, when there was a peculiar swaying movement near the
centre directly above the hollow; then that part of the column dropped
gracefully downward toward the trees below them; at the same moment
those in the van swung lightly around to the right and returned, while
the rear part of the column advanced rapidly, and then all swept grandly
down into the tops of the tall trees in the ravine. It was a splendid
military pageant, and might well start several queries in the
interrogative mind. Where was the commander-in-chief of that sable army?
Was he near the centre of the column? If so, why should he station
himself there instead of at the head? Again, how could the message to
return be sent so speedily to the vanguard? Do birds employ some occult
method of telegraphy? But these are questions more easily asked than
answered; for no one, so far as I know, has yet given special attention
to the military tactics of the armies in feathers.

It may be a somewhat abrupt transition from a crowd to an individual,
but the reader must bear in mind that a close logical unity cannot be
preserved in a chapter composed of bric-à-brac; and, besides, is not
every crowd made up of individuals? How great was my surprise, one
summer day, to see a purple grackle stalking about in his regal manner
on the flat rocks of a shallow woodland stream, and then suddenly wheel
about, pull a crab out of the water, and fly off with it to a log, where
he beat it to pieces and devoured it! I doubt if many persons are aware
that this bird dines on crab. On the same day another grackle, striding
pompously about in the shallow water, suddenly sprang up into the air,
some six or eight feet, and caught an insect on the wing. This was a
performance on the part of a crow blackbird never before witnessed by
me.

One day in the woods my saucy little madcap, the crested titmouse, was
tilting about on the twigs of a sapling like a trapeze performer in a
circus. Sometimes, he hung lightly to the under side of a spray, and
pecked nits and other dainties from the lower surface of a leaf. While
doing so, he happened to catch sight of an insect buzzing by; he flung
himself at it like a feathered arrow; but for some reason he missed his
mark, and the insect, in its efforts to escape, let itself drop toward
the ground. An interesting scuffle followed; the titmouse whirled around
and around, dashing this way and that like zigzag lightning, in hot
pursuit, fluttering his wings very rapidly until he alighted on the
ground on the dry leaves, where he at last succeeded in capturing his
prize. He gulped it down with a sly wink, as much as to say: “Wasn’t
that a clever trick, sir? Beat it if you can!” Then he picked up a seed
and flew with it to a twig in a dogwood sapling, where he placed it
under his claws, holding it firmly as he nibbled it with his stout
little beak. His meal finished, he suddenly pretended to be greatly
alarmed at something, called loudly, _Chick, chick-a-da! chick-a-da-da!_
and darted away like an Indian’s arrow.

On the same day a golden-crowned kinglet—my Lilliputian of the
woods—surprised me by dropping from a twig above me to the ground, right
at my feet, passing within two or three inches of my face. Quick as a
flash he leaped to a sapling before me, and I saw that he held a worm in
his tiny bill. Of course, that was the prize for which he had dashed in
such a headlong way to the ground.

Few birds have charmed me more than the jolly red-headed woodpecker, and
many a quaint antic has he performed with all the nonchalance of a sage
or a stoic. He has a queer way of taking his meals. The first time it
came to my notice I was walking home, on a hot summer day, along a
railway, when a red-head bounded across the track before me, holding a
ripe, blood-red cherry in his beak. He made a handsome picture with his
pure white and velvety black coat and vest, his crimson cap and collar,
and his—here my tropes fail, and I am forced to become literal—long,
black beak, tipped with the scarlet berry. Swinging gracefully across
the railway, he presently alighted on a stake of the meadow fence, where
he seemed to place the cherry in a sort of crevice, and then sip from it
in a somewhat dainty, half-caressing way, as if it were rarely billsome.
My curiosity being excited, I eyed him awhile, and then, determined to
reconnoitre, climbed the wire fence over into the meadow, and drove him
away from his menu. There, in a small pocket of the fence-stake,
apparently hollowed out, at least partially, by the bird himself, lay
the cherry, its rind punctured in several places, where the diner-out
had thrust in his bill to sip the juicy pulp underneath,—a sort of
woodpecker’s _table d’hôte_. The crevice had a rank odor of cherries
dried in the sun,—a proof that it had been used for a dining-table for
some time. The legs and wings of several kinds of insects were also
strewn about. Since that day I have found many of these pockets in
fence-stakes, posts, dead tree-boles, and old stumps, where woodpeckers
have placed their dainties to be eaten at their convenience.

You have doubtless, seen these red-heads catching insects on the wing.
This they do with as much agility as the wood-pewee, sometimes
performing evolutions that are little short of marvellous. From my study
window I once watched one of these aeronauts as he sprang from the top
of a tall oak-tree in the grove near by, and mounted up, up, up in
graceful terraces of flight, until he had climbed at least twice the
height of the tree, when he suddenly stopped, poised a moment airily,
wheeled about, and plunged downward headlong with a swiftness that made
my head swim, closing the descent with a series of bounds, as if he were
going down an aerial stairway. Whether he performed this feat in pursuit
of an insect, or to display his skill, or only to give vent to his
exuberance of feeling, I am unable to say.

The red-head has an odd way of taking a bath during a light shower,
which he does by clinging lengthwise to an upright or oblique branch,
fluffing up his plumes as much as possible, and then flapping his wings
slowly back and forth, thus allowing the refreshing drops thoroughly to
percolate and rinse his handsome feathers. And, by the way, the subject
of bird baths is one of no small degree of interest to the ogler of the
feathered creation. It has been my good fortune to see a brilliant
company of warblers of various species—lyrics in color, one might call
them—performing their ablutions at a small pond in the woods. How their
iridescent hues flashed and danced in the sunshine, as they dipped their
dainty bosoms into the water, twinkled their wings, and fluttered their
tails, sending the spray like pearl-mist into the air! One sylvan
picture like that is worth many a mile’s tramping.

I once saw several myrtle warblers taking a dew-bath. Do you wonder how
they did it? They leaped from a twig in the trees upon the dew-covered
leaves,—it was early morning,—and fluttered about until their plumes
were thoroughly drenched, then flitted to a perch to dry their
bedraggled feathers and carefully arrange their dainty toilets.[2]

Besides, it has been my chance to witness my little confidant, Bewick’s
wren, taking a dust-bath, which he did in this manner: he would squat
flat on his belly on the ground in the lane, completely hiding his feet,
and then glide about rapidly and smoothly over the little undulations,
stirring the dust in volatile cloudlets. Never have I seen any
performance, even in the bird realm so varied and versatile, more
absolutely charming; so charming, indeed, that I believe my brief
description of it will fittingly bring this rambling chapter on “Bird
Curios” to a close.



                                  III.
                            WINTER FROLICS.


Had Mr. Lowell never written anything but “A Good Word for Winter,” he
would still have deserved a place in the front rank of American writers.
What a genuine appreciation of Nature, even in her sterner and more
unfriendly moods, breathes in every line of his manfully written
monograph! Blessed be the man whose love for Nature is so leal and
deeply rooted that he can say, “Even though she slay me, yet will I
trust in her!” When the storm howls dismally, and the icy gusts strike
you rudely in the face; when the cold rain or sleet pelts you
spitefully; when, in short, Nature seems to frown and scold and
bluster,—the loyal lover of her feels no waning of affection, but knows
that beneath all her bluster and apparent harshness she carries a
tender, maternal heart in her bosom that responds to his wooing. No,
Thomson is in error when he says that winter is the “inverted year.”
Winter, as well as summer, is the year right end up, standing squarely
on its feet; or, if it does sometimes turn a somersault, it quickly
wheels about again into an upright position. Nor is Cotton’s dictum
correct that winter is “our mortal enemy.” It has been much
misunderstood, and therefore much abused, for there are persons who will
ever and anon malign that which is above their comprehension.

It is just possible that the weather may sometimes become too cold in
the winter for open-air exercise; but the winter of 1890-1891, with its
occasional snow-storms, its alternating days of rain and clear sunshine,
was an almost ideal one for the rambler. There were times when the woods
were clad in robes more beautiful than the green of spring or the brown
of autumn; when I was compelled to exclaim with a Scottish poet,—

              “Now is the time
  To visit Nature in her grand attire.”

I mean those days when every twig and branch was “ridged inch-deep with
pearl,” making the woodland a perfect network of marble shafts and
columns.

As to the feathered tenants of the woods, they were almost as
light-hearted and gay as in the season of sunshine and flowers, save
that they were not so prolific of song. Quite a number of interesting
species were the constant companions of my winter loiterings, and
several of them occasionally regaled me with snatches of melody. Among
our winter songsters is the hardy Carolina wren. On December and January
days when the weather was quite cold, his vigorous bugle echoed through
the woods, _Chil-le-lu, chil-le-lu_, or, _Che-wish-year, che-wish-year_,
giving one the feeling that at least one brave little heart was not
discouraged on account of the dismal moaning of the wintry storm. He is
every inch a hero, and I wonder Emerson did not celebrate his praise as
well as that of the black-capped chickadee, in verse. The wren is
somewhat more of a recluse than most of my winter intimates. He has not
been quite as sociable as I should have liked. Whether it was modesty or
selfishness that made him a sort of eremite could not be determined.
Most of his contemporaries, such as the chickadees, kinglets,
nuthatches, and woodpeckers, prefer to go in straggling flocks; so that,
as soon as I see one bird or hear his call, I feel sure that he is
simply the sentinel of a bevy of feathered tilters and coasters at my
elbow. No, they do not believe in monasteries or nunneries; they do not
believe that it is good for a bird to be alone, whatever may be said of
man or woman. Listen to that kinglet, the malapert, hanging
head-downward on a spray and making his disclaimer: “No, sir, we birds
are sociable beings, as men are, and like to hold commerce with one
another. What good would it do to sing so sweetly or tilt so gracefully
were there no auditors or spectators to admire our performances?” And
all his plumed comrades cry, “Aye! aye!” by way of emphatic endorsement.

The division of these tenants of the woods into communities or colonies
is a matter of unique interest to the ornithologist. For instance, there
seemed to be at least two of these groups, one dwelling chiefly in the
eastern part of the woodland not far from a farm-house, and the other
occupying the western part. Sometimes, too, another community was found
in the partly cleared section at the northern extremity of one arm of
the timber belt. These several groups reminded one of the nomadic tribes
of Oriental countries, who rove from one locality to another within
certain loosely defined boundaries. True, it is merely a matter of
speculation; but I have often wondered if feuds and jealousies ever
arise among these various feathered tribes, as is so conspicuously the
case in the human world. I doubt it very much, for my woodland birds
dwell together in comparative harmony, and are not half so quarrelsome
and envious as many communities of men and women. Bird nature is
evidently not so depraved as human nature. Perhaps, as the birds had no
direct hand in the first transgression, the curse did not fall so
blightingly upon them.

My western bird colony were somewhat erratic in their movements. During
December and the first week in January I found them almost invariably in
a secluded part of the woods about half-way between the northern and
southern extremities; but when, about the middle or possibly the
twentieth of January, I visited the haunt, not a bird of any description
could be found. Had all of them gone to other climes? I felt a pang as
the thought came. But there was no occasion for solicitude. Near the
southern terminus of the woods, although still in a dense portion of
them, the colony had taken up a temporary abode. Here they remained for
over a week, and then, on the twenty-ninth of the month, which was a
rainy day, they shifted back to their old tryst, while scarcely a bird
was to be found in the locality they had just left. Thus by caprice, or
on account of the exigencies of food, they oscillated from place to
place.

There were some birds here all winter that were not found during the
previous winter—that of 1889-1890. The golden-crowned kinglet was one.
Every day, rain or shine, warm or cold, he flitted about so cheerfully
and with so innocent an air that I often spoke to him as if he were a
real person; and he appreciated my words of praise, too, without doubt,
for he would come scurrying near, disporting his head so that I could
catch the gleam of his amber coronal, with its golden patch for a
centre-piece. Then there was that quaint little genius, the brown
creeper, hugging the trunks of the trees and saplings, and tracing the
gullies of the bark as he sought for such food as he relished. See him
turn his cunning head from side to side to peer under a loose scale!

Among my most pleasant winter companions were the black-capped
chickadees or tomtits. Not for anything would I cast a reflection upon
these engaging birds, but candor compels me to say that they seem to be
somewhat fickle; that is, I cannot always tell where to find them, or if
they will let themselves be found at all. Early in the spring of last
year they made their appearance in these woods, remaining a week or
more, and then were not seen until about the middle of August. Again
they disappeared, returning in October, and then hied away once more and
did not come back until January. Besides, at one time they associated
with the eastern colony of birds and at another with the western. Like
some “featherless bipeds,”—Lowell’s expression,—they seemed to be of a
roving disposition. A winter ago they occasionally stirred the elves and
brownies of the woodland into transports by their sweet, sad minor
whistle, but this winter they were provokingly chary of their musical
performances.

For ever-presentness, however, both summer and winter, the crested
titmice and white-breasted nuthatches bear off the palm. Many droll
tricks they perform. One day in January a titmouse scurried from the
ground into a sapling; he held a large grain of corn between his
mandibles, and, after flitting about a few moments, hopped to a dead
branch that lay across the twigs, and deftly pushed the grain into the
end of the bough. I stepped closer, when he tried to secure the hidden
morsel; but my presence frightened him away, and I climbed the sapling,
drew the broken branch toward me, and peered into the splintered end;
yes, there was the grain of corn wedged firmly into a crevice. The
provident little fellow! He had secreted the morsel for a stormy day
when it would be impossible to procure food on the ground. If Solomon
had watched these thrifty, industrious birds, as they pursue their
untiring quest for food, he doubtless would have written in his
Proverbs: “Go to the titmouse, thou sluggard; consider his ways, and be
wise.”

Associated with the titmice, kinglets, and nuthatches were the downy
woodpeckers, which belong to the artisan family of the bird community,
being hammerers, drillers, and chisellers all combined. They pursue
their chosen calling most sedulously. “What’s the use of having a
vocation if you don’t follow it?” you may almost hear them say as they
cant their heads to one side and peep under the bark for a tidbit, or
hammer vigorously at a crevice in which a worm is embedded. The hairy
woodpeckers, which are somewhat larger, are more erratic in their
movements, none having been seen from the autumn until the latter part
of January. At this date I heard their loud, nervous _Chi-i-i-r-r_, as
they dashed from tree to tree apparently in great excitement.

I cannot forbear contrasting this winter with the previous one. In the
winter of 1889-1890 the song-sparrows never left us at all, but sang on
almost every pleasant day when I went to the woods or marsh; but this
winter, which was somewhat colder, they went to other climes, and left
the fringes of the pools and the thickets in the swamp tenantless,
songless, and desolate. In 1889-1890 the cardinal grossbeaks whistled
every month, making the woods ring even in January; this winter not a
single note was heard from their resonant throats. I had just begun to
fear that the pair which had greeted me so frequently the previous
winter had been slaughtered by some caterer to the shameful fashions of
the day, when, on the twenty-eighth of January, I was gladdened by the
sight of them in company with several of their relatives or
acquaintances and a bevy of tree-sparrows. Where had the grossbeaks been
since November? And if they had gone south, why did they return from
their visit so early in the season? Or perhaps a still more pertinent
inquiry would be, Why had they gone away at all? It is difficult,
however, to explain grossbeak caprice or ratiocination.

What do the birds do when it rains? No doubt, when the rain pours in
torrents, they find plenty of coverts in the thick bushes or in the
cavities of trees; but when the rain falls gently, and I make my way to
their haunts, as I often do, they flit about as industriously as ever in
their quest for food, only stopping now and then to shake the pearly
drops from their water-proof cloaks. In such humid weather the
wood-choppers in the forest—the human ones—stop their work and seek
shelter. Not so these feathered workers, who gayly continue their
playful toil, and exclaim exultingly, “Isn’t this a jolly rain?”

In another chapter mention has been made of the provident habits of
certain birds, especially the titmice and nuthatches, in laying by a
winter store. As if to confirm what has been said, one winter day a
nuthatch went scudding up and down the trunk of a large oak-tree at the
border of the woods. Presently he cried, _Yank! yank!_ as if to announce
a discovery. Then he pecked and pried with all his might, until at
length he drew a grain of corn out of a crevice of the bark, placed it
in a shallow pocket on the other side of the tree, and began to pick it
to pieces, swallowing the fragments as he broke them off. When this
grain had been disposed of, he found another, and then another, until
his hunger seemed to be appeased, when he darted off into the woods.

Other pedestrians and observers may differ from me both in temperament
and habits, but to my mind nothing could be more delightful than a
ramble in a snow-storm. Let the wind blow a gale from the west, driving
the cold pellets blindingly into your face, and trying to rob you of
your overcoat and cap; yet, if you have the spirit of the genuine
rambler, your blood will tingle with delight, as well as with a sense of
masterly overcoming, as you plod along; while you feel that every fierce
gust that strikes you is only one of Nature’s love-taps,—a little rough,
it is true, but for that very reason all the more expressive of
affection. Stalking forth into the teeth of a winter storm develops the
hardy traits of character, and puts the ingredients from which heroes
are made into the pulsing veins. Many a time, as I have pushed my way
triumphantly through the pelting wind, I have answered with a shout of
joy Emerson’s vigorous challenge,—

  “Come see the north wind’s masonry.
  Out of an unseen quarry, evermore
  Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
  Carves his white bastions with projected roof
  Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.”

My winter saunterings have never been solitary, although often taken in
haunts “far from human neighborhood.” The birds have afforded me all the
companionship I have really craved. One is never lonely when one can see
the flutter of a wing or hear the calls of the blithe commoners of the
wildwood. When your soul is fretted by the daily round of strifes and
jealousies in the human world, you can hie to the woods, and learn a
lesson of conciliation from the example of the loving fellowship that
exists in the bird community. I have often been shamed by this constant
display of amity among many feathered folk, when I thought of the
childish bickerings of men in church and state.

But moralizing aside, I must describe the behavior of my little winter
friends, the tree-sparrows. They are the hardiest birds that spend the
winter in my neighborhood, disdaining to seek shelter in the thick woods
during the most violent snow-storm. Even the snowbirds, whose very name
is a synonym for toughness, are glad to seek a covert in some secluded
forest nook; but the tree-sparrows choose the clearing at the border of
the woodland, where the wind howls loudest and blows the snow in wild
eddies. Here they revel in the storm, flitting from twig to twig,
hopping on the snow-covered ground as if it were a carpet of down, and
picking seeds from grass-stems and weed-stalks. All the while they keep
up a cheerful chirping, as if to express their appreciation of the
pleasant winter weather.

Strangest of all is their wading about in the snow. It makes me shiver
to see their little bare feet sinking into the icy crystals, and I feel
disposed to offer them my warm rubber boots; only I know they would
decline the proposal with scorn. “I am no tenderfoot!” one of them seems
to say, with cunning literalness. Their dainty tracks in the snow are
suggestive, and give to the thoughtful observer more than one clew to
bird cerebration. Let us follow one of these winding pathways. Here a
bird alighted, his feet sinking deep into the cold down; then he hopped
along to this tuft of grass, where he picked a few mouthfuls of seeds,
standing up to his body in the snow; then an impulse seized him to seek
another feeding-place; so he went plunging through the drifts, leaving,
at regular intervals, the prints of his two tiny feet side by side,
while his toes traced a slender connecting line on the white surface
between the deeper indentations. But here is another path. What impulse
seized this bird to turn back like a rabbit on his track? For it is
evident that this is sometimes done. Then here are only two or three
footprints, showing that the bird alighted suddenly, and as suddenly
yielded to an impulse to fly up again. What thought struck him just at
that moment that made him so quickly change his mind?

At one point I traced a path which bore evidence of having been used a
number of times for a long distance, as it wound here and there in an
extremely sinuous course among the bushes and briers. Probably it was a
sparrow-trail, if not a thoroughfare, and had been used by many birds.
In more than one place were small hollows in the snow, just large enough
for a bird’s body to wallow in. Usually they were at the terminus of one
of these thoroughfares. Might the birds have tarried there to take a
snow-bath? I have seen birds taking pool-baths, shower-baths, dew-baths,
and dust-baths. Who will say they never take a snow-bath?

Next to the tree-sparrows, the juncos delight to hold carnival in the
snow; but their behavior in this element is somewhat different: they are
not so fond of hopping about in it, and do not plait such a network of
tracks among the bushes. They will fly from a perch directly to the
ground near a weed-stalk or other cluster of dainties, and stand quietly
in the snow up to their little bodies while they take their luncheon.
Sometimes their white breasts rest on the surface of the snow, or in a
slight depression of it, when they look as if they were sitting in a
nest of crystals.

The eighth of January was a cold day; in a little opening in the midst
of the woods was a covey of snowbirds, and, incredible as it may seem,
several of them stood in the selfsame tracks in the snow, so long that
my own feet actually got frost-bitten while I watched them, although I
wore three pairs of socks—this is an honest confession—and a pair of
warm rubber boots. More than that, they thrust their beaks into the snow
and ate of it quite greedily. What wonderful reserves of caloric must be
wrapped up in their small bodies to enable them to keep themselves
comfortable in winter with never a mouthful of warm victuals or drink!
That the birds should thrive and be happy in the spring and summer is no
matter of surprise; but it remains for the lover of out-door life in the
winter to prove that many of them are just as cheerful and content when
the mercury has taken a jaunt to some point far below zero.

The student of Nature cannot always be in the same mood. Indeed, Nature
herself is, at times, as whimsical, apparently, as the human heart.
There are times when she seems quite stolid, keeping her precious
secrets all to herself, as if her lips had been hermetically sealed.
With all your coaxing and hoaxing and flattery, you cannot win from her
a response. Emerson, in one of his poems, speaks about the forms of
Nature dulling the edge of the mind with their monotony; and this
sometimes seems to be the case. Yet I must protest at once that it is
not generally true. There are days when Nature fairly bubbles over with
good cheer, and grows talkative and even confidential, responding to
every touch of the rambler as a well-strung harp responds to the touch
of a skilful player. It is difficult to account for her changeable
moods, but obviously they are not always to be traced only to the mind
of the observer.

During the winter of 1891-1892 many a tramp was taken to the homes of
the birds; and let me whisper that there were days when even they seemed
to be dull and commonplace. That is a frank concession for a bird-lover
to make, but it is the truth. Sometimes these feathered actors have
behaved in the most ordinary way, failing to perform a single trick that
I had not seen a score of times before, and I have actually gone home
without making a single entry in my note-book. But it has not always
been so. There, for example, was the twenty-second of January; what an
eventful day it was! The morning of the twenty-first had been very cold,
the mercury having sunk, probably in a fit of despair, to fourteen
degrees below zero. During the day, however, the weather grew
considerably warmer; and when the twenty-second came, bright and clear,
though still cold, one could take a jaunt with some comfort. The sun
shone from a cloudless sky, and having put on my warm rubber boots, I
waded out through the deep snow to the woods. The severe weather had not
discouraged the jolly juncos and tree-sparrows, or driven them to a
warmer climate. They delight in cold weather; it seems to make them all
the merrier. They were flitting about in the bushes and trees, chirping
gayly, or, like myself, were wading in the snow, although they had no
woollen stockings for their little feet, much less warm rubber boots.
What hardy creatures they are! For long distances I could trace their
dainty tracks in the snow, winding in and out among the bushes and
weeds, and making many a graceful curve, loop, angle, and labyrinth. By
following these little paths, as has been said before, you may trace the
thoughts of a bird,—that is, you may for the time become a bird
mind-reader, interpreting every impulse that seized the throbbing little
brain and breast.

While watching these birds in the woods, I observed a new freak of bird
deportment. The juncos would fly up into the dogwood-trees, pick off a
berry, nibble it greedily a moment with their little white mandibles,
and then fling it to the ground. My eye was especially fixed on one
little epicure. Presently he found a berry that was juicy and quite to
his taste, and what did he do but seize it in his beak and dash down
into the snow, where he stood leg-deep in the icy crystals until he had
eaten his blood-red tidbit! He was in no hurry, but slowly picked the
berry to pieces, flinging it again and again into the snow, devouring
the soft red pulp and throwing the rind and seed away. He must have
stood for fully five minutes in the same tracks; at all events, it
seemed a long while to me, standing stock-still in the snow, watching
him eat his cold luncheon, while my feet were becoming chilled. I should
have pitied his little feet had he not seemed so utterly indifferent to
the cold. Afterward I saw a number of juncos, as well as tree-sparrows,
taking their dinner in a similar way,—that is, on the snow, which seemed
to serve them for a table-cloth. Having eaten the pulp of the berries,
they left the pits and scarlet rinds lying on top of the snow. Crumbs
they were, scattered about by these precious children of the woods! In
this respect the snowbirds and tree-sparrows differ from the crested
titmice, which reject the pulp of the dogwood berries entirely, but bore
out the kernel of the pit and eat it with a relish. And as to the
gluttonous robins, bluebirds, woodpeckers, and waxwings, they swallow
these berries whole. Every citizen of Birdville to his own taste, so I
say.

In the corn-field adjoining the woods I witnessed another little scene
that filled me with delight. At some distance I perceived a snowbird
eating seeds from the raceme of a tall weed, which bent over in a
graceful arc beneath its dainty burden. Apparently he was enjoying his
repast all to himself. I climbed the fence, and cautiously went nearer
to get a better view of the little diner-out. What kind of discovery do
you suppose I made? I could scarcely believe my eyes. There, beneath the
weed, hopping about on the snow, were a tree-sparrow and a junco,
picking up the seeds that their little companion above was shaking down.
It was such a pretty little comedy that I laughed aloud for pure
delight. It seemed for all the world like a boy in an apple-tree shaking
down the mellow fruit for his playmates, who were gathering it from the
ground as it fell. It was a pity to disturb the birds at their
festivities, and I felt like a bully for doing so; but in the interest
of science, you see, I had to drive them away to see what kind of table
they had spread. Beneath the weed the snow was etched with dainty
bird-tracks, and thickly strewn with black seeds from the raceme of the
weed-stalk.

Farther on in the woods, another cunning little junco proved himself no
lay figure. It seemed, in fact, to be a junco day. When I first espied
him, he was standing in the snow beneath a slender weed-stem eating
seeds from his white table-cloth. But the curious feature about his
behavior was that, whenever his supply of seeds on the snow had been
picked up, he would dart up to the weed-stem (which was too slender to
afford him a comfortable perch), give it a vigorous shake, which would
bring down a quantity of seeds, and then he would flit below and resume
his meal. This he did several times. I should not have believed a junco
gifted with so much sense had not my own eyes witnessed this cunning
performance. Had some other observer told the story, I should have
laughed at it a little slyly and more than half unbelievingly; but, of
course, one cannot gainsay the evidence of one’s own eyesight.

Nothing in all my winter rambles has surprised me more than the evident
delight some species of birds take in the snow. It is a sort of luxury
to them, wading-ground and feasting-ground all in one. How they keep
their little bare feet from becoming chilblained is a mystery. The
evening of the twentieth of January was bitterly cold, the wind blowing
in fierce, howling gusts from the northwest. Yet when, at about five
o’clock, I stalked out to the pond in the rear of my house, the
tree-sparrows and song-sparrows were fairly revelling, not to say
wallowing, in the snow among the weeds. The wind was so biting that I
soon hurried back to the house, and left them to their midwinter
carousal.

Quite a respectable colony of flickers found a home during the winter in
my favorite woodland. Unlike the other birds mentioned, they do not wade
about in the snow. No; to their minds, a bare tree-wall is the
desideratum for a tramping-ground; and if they need more exercise than
promenading affords them, they can take to wing and go bounding from one
part of the woods to another. A flicker is a staid bird when he doesn’t
happen to be in a playful mood. You would have laughed at one in
December which was clinging to a branch high up in a tree with his head
right in front of a woodpecker hole, over which he seemed to be standing
guard. There he clung, as if that hollow contained the most precious
treasure, and would not desert his post, although I leaped about on the
ground, shouted loudly, and even flung my cap in the air like a wild
man, to frighten him away. How comical he looked in his rôle of
sentinel! He never smiled or even winked, but left such trifling to the
human scatter-brain below, who was so ill-mannered as to laugh at a
well-behaved woodpecker. Perhaps he had a winter store of food stowed
away in that cavity, and thought he had to guard it well, now that a
real brigand had come prowling about the premises.



                                  IV.
                           FEBRUARY OUTINGS.


If I were not afraid of the ridicule of the cynic, I should begin this
February chronicle with an exclamation of delight; but in these days,
when so many of the so-called cultured class have taken for their motto,
_Nil admirari_, one must try to repress one’s enthusiasm, or be scoffed
at, or at least patronized, as young and inexperienced. Yet it would be
out of the question for the genuine rambler to keep the valve constantly
upon his buoyant feelings. If he did so, he would be wholly out of tune
with the jubilant mood of bird and bloom and wave around him.

Almost every day of February, 1891, was a gala-day for me, on account of
the large number of birds in song at that time. The weather was not
always pleasant, but the month came in blandly, bringing on its gentle
winds many birds from their southern winter-quarters; and as they had
come, they made up their minds to stay. My notes begin with the eleventh
of the month, and my narrative will begin with that date. In the evening
I strolled out to my favorite swamp. On my arrival all was quiet; but
soon the song-sparrows, seeing that a human auditor had come, broke into
a jingling chorus. Early in the season as it was, they seemed to be
almost in perfect voice, only a little of the hesitancy and twitter of
their fall songs being distinguishable; nor did they seem to care for
the raw evening wind blowing across the meadows, or the gray clouds
scurrying athwart the sky, but kept up their canticles until the dusk
fell.

Two days later, while sauntering through a woodland, I had the greatest
surprise of the winter. For several years I had been studying the
tree-sparrows, hoping to hear them sing, but only two or three times had
my anxious quest been rewarded with even a wisp of melody from their
lyrical throats. On this day, however, I came upon a whole colony of
them in full tune, giving a concert that would have thrilled the most
prosaic soul with poetry and romance. It was the first time I had ever
really seen these birds while singing; but now, so kind was fortune, I
could watch the movement of their mandibles, the swelling of their
throats, and the heaving of their bosoms while they trilled their
roundelays. My notes, taken on the spot, run as follows: “The song is
somewhat crude and labored in technique; but the tones are very sweet
indeed, not soft and low, as one author says, but quite loud and clear,
so that they might be heard at some distance. The minstrelsy is more
like that of the fox-sparrow than of any other sparrow, though the tones
are finer and not so full and resonant. Quite often the song opens with
one or two long syllables, and ends with a merry little trill having a
delightfully human intonation. There is, indeed, something innocent and
even childlike about the voices of these sparrows. Had they the
song-sparrow’s skill in execution, they would rival that triller’s vocal
performances. How many of them are taking part in the concert! They seem
to be holding a song carnival to-day, and there is real witchery in
their music. Frequently their songs are superimposed, as it were, upon
the semi-musical chattering in which these birds so often indulge.”

But, strange to say, although the conditions were apparently in every
respect favorable, I did not hear the song of a single tree-sparrow
after that epochal day for more than a year. Evidently these birds are
erratic songsters, at least in this latitude. On the same day the
meadow-larks flung their flute-like songs athwart the fields, and the
bold bugle of the Carolina wren echoed through the woods.

_February 14._ “In the swamp the song-sparrows are holding an opera
festival,” my notes run. “One of them trills softly in a clump of
wild-rose bushes, as if asking permission to sing; and then, his request
being gladly granted, he leaps up boldly to a twig of a sapling, and
breaks into a torrent of melody. Another, in precisely the same tune,
answers him farther down the stream, the two executing a sort of fugue.
A third leaps about on the dry grass that fringes a ditch, twitters
merrily for a while, then flies to a small oak-tree near by, and—well,
such a loud, rollicking, tempestuous song I have never before heard from
a song-sparrow’s throat. Some of his tones are full and exultant, while
others in the same run are low and tender, like the strains of a
love-lorn harp. The tones produced by exhalation can be distinguished
from those produced by inhalation. Sometimes his voice sounds a little
hoarse, as if he had strained one of the strings of his lyre, but I
find, on focusing my ear upon them, that these are some of his most
melodious notes. Presently, in a fit of ecstasy, he hurls forth such a
torrent of song, in _allegro furioso_, that one almost fancies the
naiads and water-witches of the marsh are crying out for admiration.

“Here is something worthy of note—when the song-sparrow begins a trill,
he usually sings it over a number of times, and then, as if wearied with
one tune, turns to another; and yet with all his variations—and I know
not how many he is capable of singing—there is always something
distinctive about his minstrelsy that differentiates it from that of all
other birds.”

_February 17._ “Again in the swamp. It seems to me I have never before
heard the song-sparrows sing so gleefully. Every concert goes ahead of
its predecessor. Here is a sparrow hopping about on the green grass
among the bushes like a brown mouse; now he chirps sharply as if to
attract my attention, and then bursts into a melody that almost makes me
turn a somersault for very joy; and now, having sung his intermittent
trills for a few minutes, he begins to warble a sweet, continuous lay,
with an _andante_ movement, as if he could not stop.

“A little farther on, another songster, with a voice of excellent
_timbre_, is descanting on a small oak sapling. Note, he runs over
several trills, rising higher at every effort, until at last he strikes
a note far up in the scale, holds it firmly a moment, and then drops to
a lower note. Then he repeats the process, the summit of his ambition
being attained whenever he reaches that high note, which is bewitchingly
sweet. How clear and true his voice rings!

“Sometimes a silence falls upon the marsh; not a note is to be heard for
a minute or two; and then, as if by a preconcerted signal, a dozen
sparrows throw the air into musical tumult, their combined rush of notes
seeming almost like a salvo. Often, too, when I approach the marsh, no
music is heard, but no sooner have I climbed the fence into the
enclosure than the choral begins; so that I believe I am justified in
saying that the song-sparrow appreciates a human auditor. This is not
said by way of disparagement,—by no means; for almost all musicians,
whether human or avian, sing to be heard.”

On the same day I saw a song-sparrow whose central tail-feather was pure
white from quill to tip, and the bird remained in the marsh until the
twenty-fourth of the month, his odd adornment visible from afar. I was
also surprised to find two male chewinks in the bushes. A cardinal
grossbeak was also seen, and a robin’s song and the loud call of a
flicker were heard.

My next outing occurred on the nineteenth, when the weather had turned
colder, and snow was falling, mingled with sleet; yet several
song-sparrows trilled softly in the marsh. On the twenty-third crow
blackbirds were seen, and on the twenty-fourth a turtle-dove was cooing
meditatively, and the song-sparrows were holding another opera festival.
The last days of February became cold again, and March brought several
severe storms; but I think none of the hardy, adventurous birds named,
retreated to a warmer clime, even if they did regret having left their
winter quarters a little prematurely.



                                   V.
                         ARRIVAL OF THE BIRDS.


Have any of my readers kept a record of the arrival of the birds during
the spring? The northward procession of the battalions in feathers is an
interesting study. Why do some birds begin their pilgrimage from the
south so much earlier than others? What is there in their physical and
mental make-up that gives them the northward impulse even before fair
weather has come? Do they become homesick for their summer haunts sooner
than their fellows? These are questions that are much more easily asked
than answered. The size of the bird furnishes no clew to the solution,
for some small birds are better able to resist the cold than many larger
ones. There is the little black-capped titmouse—a mere mite of a
bird—which generally remains in my neighborhood all winter, cheerfully
braving the stormiest weather; while the brown thrasher, fully five
times as large, is carefully warming his shins in the sunny south, and
will not venture north until the spring has come to stay. Here, too, is
Bewick’s wren on the first day of April,—with no thought of making an
April fool of any one,—while the Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted
grossbeaks, and scarlet tanagers, all larger than he, are tarrying in
Georgia and Alabama. There is nothing in the size or color or form of
the birds that makes this difference; it is doubtless in the blood.

I have kept a careful memorandum of the arrival of these feathered
voyagers (this was during the spring of 1892), and know almost to a
certainty the day, and sometimes the hour, when they cast anchor in this
port. The winter had been unusually severe, and yet the migration began
as early as the twenty-second of February, when the first meadow-larks
put in appearance, and sent their wavering shafts of song across the
frost-bound fields. They had left only on the last day of December, but
had apparently remained away as long as they could. On the same day the
killdeer plovers also arrived, making their presence known by their
wailing cry. On the twenty-third I heard the _Q-q-o-o-ka-l-e-e-e_ of the
red-winged blackbirds, and on the morning of the twenty-fourth the first
robins dropped from the sky after a “flying trip” in the night from some
more southern stopping-place; but the weather was too cold for them to
sing. Yet the song-sparrows and meadow-larks defied the cold with their
cheerful melody. While the robin is a very gay and lavish songster, he
wants favorable weather for his vocal rehearsals, and a “cold snap” will
easily discourage him. He is evidently somewhat of a fair-weather
minstrel. It was on February twenty-eighth, a pleasant day, that I
caught the first strain of robin melody.

The towhee buntings dropped anchor on the seventh of March, filling the
woods with their fine, explosive trills. It was a pleasant day, a sort
of oasis in the midst of the stormy weather, and it did not seem inapt
to speculate a little as to the thoughts of these birds on their arrival
at their old summer haunts, after an absence of four or five months. Was
the old brush-heap, where they had built their nest the previous spring,
still there? Had the winter storms spared the twig on the sapling where
Cock Bunting had sung erstwhile his sweetest trills to his dusky mate?
“What if the woodman has cleared away our pleasant corner of the woods?”
whispers Mrs. Towhee to her lord as they approach the sequestered spot.
How their hearts must bound with joy when they find sapling and
brush-heap and winding woodway all as they had left them in the autumn!
No wonder they are so tuneful! Even the snow-storms that moan and howl
through the woods a few days later cannot wholly repress their exuberant
feelings.

On the same date a whole colony of young song-sparrows stopped at this
station on their journey northward, although you must remember that
quite a number of their elders remained here through the winter. What a
twittering these year-old sparrows made in the bushes fringing the
woods! I actually laughed aloud at their crude, tuneless, quasi-musical
efforts. They were not in good voice, and, besides, had not yet fully
learned the tunes that are sung in sparrowdom, and could not control
their vocal chords. They made many sorry and amusing attempts to chant
and trill, but their voices would break and catch in the most remarkable
ways, now sliding up too high in the scale, now sliding down too low,
and now veering too much to one side, so to speak. One tyro, I observed,
sang the first part of a run very well, almost as well, in fact, as an
adult musician could have sung it; but when he tried to finish, his
voice seemed to fly all to flinders. He made the attempt again and
again, but to no purpose. It was a day for which I have cut a notch in
the tally-stick of memory. Leaving the company of young vocalists at
their rehearsals at the border of the woods, I made my way to a swamp
not far off, where a pleasant surprise lay in ambush. Here were no
longer found young song-sparrows, but adults, and you should have heard
them sing. What a contrast between the crude songs of the young birds
and the loud, clear, splendidly intoned and executed trills of these
trained musicians!

But I must return to the subject of migration. The fifteenth of March
was a raw, blustering day, as its predecessors had been; but in the
woods several fox-sparrows were singing, not their best, of course, but
fairly well for such weather. They must have come during the night. But
why had they come when the weather was so cold? Most birds wait until
there is a bland air-current from the south on which they can ride
triumphantly. Had this small band of fox-sparrows followed the example
of a well-known American humorist, and gone to “roughing it”? Strange to
say, I saw no more fox-sparrows until the twenty-eighth, when the
weather had grown warm. That was also the day on which I saw the first
winter wren scudding about in the brush-heaps and wood-piles and perking
up his tail in the most approved bantam fashion. It may be a poor joke,
but the thought came of its own accord, that if brevity is the soul of
wit, this little wren must have a very witty tail; and it really is an
amusing appendage, held up at an acute angle with the bird’s sloping
back.

As I strolled along the edge of the woods on the same day, the fine
rhythmic trill of the bush-sparrow reached my ear. He was celebrating
his return to this sylvan resort, and his voice was in excellent trim;
the fact is, I never heard him acquit himself quite so well, not even in
May. Miss Lucy Larcom, of tender and sacred memory, has happily
characterized this triller’s song in melodious verse:—

  “One syllable, clear and soft
  As a raindrop’s silvery patter,
  Or a tinkling fairy-bell, heard aloft,
  In the midst of the merry chatter
  Of robin and linnet and wren and jay,—
  One syllable oft repeated;
  He has but a word to say,
  And of that he will not be cheated.”

But why was not the grass-finch, his relative of the fields, in just as
good voice when he arrived on the thirty-first? The last two springs
this bird had to be on his singing-grounds several days before he
recovered his full powers of voice. On the twenty-ninth the phœbe came
with his burden of sweet song, and the first of April brought Bewick’s
wren—sweet-voiced Arion of the suburbs—and the chipping sparrow, whose
slender peal of song rang through my study window. Here my record stops
for the present year; but by reference to my last year’s notes (1891) it
appears that Bewick’s wren did not then arrive until April tenth, and
chippy not until April twelfth. The difference in the seasons is
doubtless the primary cause of this divergence in the time of arrival.
April brings many other winged pilgrims,—the white-throated and
white-crowned sparrows, the thrushes, the orioles, the tanagers, the
cat-birds, the swallows and swifts, and some of the hardier warblers,
while the great army of warblers delay their coming till the first and
second weeks in May. And all the while we are having bird concerts,
cantatas, oratorios, and opera festivals, mingled with some tragedy and
a great deal of comedy, and there are love songs and cradle songs,
matins and vespers, and twitterings expressive of every shade and
variety of feeling.


I yield to the temptation to add a brief article entitled “Watching the
Parade,” which was published in a New England journal in the summer of
1893, and contains a record of some observations made during the
previous spring. By comparison with the preceding part of this chapter,
it will indicate the versatile character of bird study in the same
season of different years. I shall give it almost verbatim as first
published, hoping the rather “free and easy” style will be generously
overlooked by critical readers.


Every spring and autumn for many years I have been watching the parade;
not a parade of soldiers, or of civic orders, or even of a menagerie;
but one of far more interest to the naturalist,—the procession of the
army in feathers. A wonderful cortége it is, this army in bright array;
and every time you witness it, you add something new to your knowledge
of bird life. The last spring has been no exception, although, when the
pageant began, I wondered if I should see any new birds or hear any new
songs, and even felt a little doubtful about it.

But quite early a new bird was added to my list. It was the blue-winged
warbler, which carries about a scientific name big enough to break its
dainty back. Just think of calling a tiny bird _Helminthophila pinus_!
But happily it does not know its own name, and, like some of my readers,
would not be able to pronounce it if it did, and therefore no serious
harm is done. This bird may be known by the bright olive-green of its
back, the pale blue of its wings, the pure yellow of its under parts,
and the narrow black line running back through its eye. It seemed to be
quite wary, yet I got near enough to see it catch insects on the wing
like a wood-pewee, as well as pick them from the leaves of the trees.

The bird student must sometimes let problems go unsolved. For nearly,
perhaps quite a week, three or four large, heavy-beaked birds flitted
about in several tall tree-tops of the woods, but were so far up that,
try as I would, I could not identify them even with my opera-glass. In
my small collection of mounted birds there is a female evening
grossbeak; and the tree-top flitters looked more like it than any other
bird of my acquaintance. If they were evening grossbeaks, it was a rare
find; for these birds are almost unknown in this part of the country,
only a few having ever been discovered in this State. Their usual
_locale_ is thought to be west of Lake Superior. I was sorely tempted to
use a gun, but decided that it was just as well not to know some things
as to massacre an innocent bird.

However, other finds were more satisfactory. Strolling through the woods
one day, I caught the notes of a bird song that did not sound familiar.
Surely it was a vireo’s quaint, continuous lay; but which of the vireos
could it be? It was different from any vireo minstrelsy I had ever
heard. Peering about in the bushes for the author of those elusive
notes, I at length espied a little bird form, and the next moment my
glass revealed the blue-headed or solitary vireo. It was the first time
I had ever heard this little vocalist sing in the spring, although we
have met—he and I—on familiar terms every season for many years. Here is
a query: Why was blue-head silent other years, and so tuneful that
spring? For he was often heard after that day.

The song was varied and lively, sometimes running high in the scale, and
had not that absent-minded air which marks the roundelay of the warbling
vireo. It is much more intense and expressive, and some notes are quite
like certain runs of the brown thrasher’s song. The bird did two other
things that were a surprise: he chattered and scolded much like the
ruby-crowned kinglet. Then he caught a miller, and, as it was too large
to be swallowed whole, placed it under his claws precisely like a
chickadee or blue jay, and pulled it to pieces. This was a new trick to
me, nor have I ever read, in any of the bird manuals, of his taking his
dinner in this way.

The red-eyed vireo also chanted a little roundel that spring, as he
pursued his journey northward, his song being slower in movement and
less expressive and varied than that of his cousin just referred to.

Indeed, the procession seemed to be especially musical during that
spring. One day, in the last week in April, a new style of music rang
out at the border of the woods, and I fairly trembled lest the jolly
soloist should scud away before I could identify him; but he had no
intention of making his escape, and giving the credit of his vocal
efforts to somebody else in the bird world. At length I got my glass
upon him. He proved to be the purple finch,—rosy little Mozart that he
was! For years he has passed through these woods with the vernal
procession, but this was the first time he had ever been obliging enough
to sing in my hearing. And what a rolling, rollicking little song it
was, just as full of good cheer as bird song could be! He continued his
vocal rehearsal for many minutes on that day, but afterward he and his
fellows were as mute as the inmates of a deaf and dumb asylum. A purple
finch once sang here in the fall; but the music was quite harsh and
squeaking, very different from his springtime melody.

One of the most beautiful birds that have a part in the vernal parade is
the rose-breasted grossbeak,—a bird that you will recognize at once by
his white-and-black coat and the rosy shield he so bravely bears on his
bosom. In his summer home, farther north, I have often heard his
vivacious music (this was in northern Indiana); but until the past
spring he has always been silent as he passed through this neighborhood,
save that he would sometimes utter his sharp, metallic _Chip_. However,
on the fourteenth of May two of these grossbeaks sang a most vigorous
duet in the grove near my house; and I wish you could have heard it, for
it would have made you almost leap for joy, it was so jolly and
rollicksome. At first you may be disposed to think the grossbeak’s song
much like the robin’s, but you will soon find that it is finer in
several respects, the tones being clearer and fuller, the utterance more
rapid and varied, and the whole song much more spirited; and that is
saying a good deal, considering Cock Robin’s cheery carols. No one
should fail to hear this rosy-breasted minstrel, whatever else he may
miss. It will make him feel that life is worth living; that if God made
this bird so happy, he must intend that his rational creatures, who are
of more value than a bird, should also be cheerful.

Never were the birds so gentle and confiding as they were during that
spring. A female redstart took up her residence in my yard for fully a
week, flitting about in the trees and grape-arbor, seeking for nits and
worms; and you are to remember that I live in town (though in the
outskirts), with many houses and people about, and an electric car
whirling along the street every few minutes. A dainty bay-breasted
warbler—little witch!—kept the redstart company, letting me stand
beneath the trees on whose lower branches she tilted, and watch her
agile movements; yet one of my bird books declares that the bay-breasted
warblers remain in the highest tree-tops of the woods! Both these birds
occasionally uttered a trill.

The goldfinches, too, were very familiar. They came with the procession
as far north as my neighborhood, but stopped here for the summer,
instead of continuing their pilgrimage. Some of their brothers and
sisters remained with me all winter. Within a few feet of my rear door
stands a small apple-tree, in whose branches these feathered gold-flakes
flashed about, and sang their childlike ditties, and one little madam
fluttered in the leafy crotches of the twigs, fitting her body into them
as if trying to see if they would make good nesting-sites; the while Sir
Goldfinch sang and sang at the top of his voice. Several white-crowned
sparrows also came to eat seeds thrown out into the back yard. These
handsome sparrows were not shy, but perched on the fence or the trees,
and trilled their sweet refrains.



                                  VI.
                            WINGED VOYAGERS.


The subject of bird migration is one of absorbing interest, presenting
many a perplexing problem to the student who cares to go into the
philosophy of things. Why do the birds make these wonderful semi-annual
pilgrimages, and whence came the original impulse, are questions often
asked. With my limited opportunities for observation I cannot hope to
shed much, if any, new light on the subject; yet it seems to me that
some persons are disposed to invest it with more of an air of mystery
than is really necessary. There are several patent, if not wholly
satisfactory, reasons that may be assigned for the migrating impulse.

As this is not a scientific treatise, the writer will not be
over-methodical in presenting these reasons, but will mention them in
the order in which they occur to him. If we keep in mind the invariable
succession of the seasons, and that this annual rotation has continued
for ages, and if we also remember that all animals are dowered by their
Creator with as much intelligence as is necessary for their well-being,
much of the difficulty attaching to this subject will at once disappear.
Birds, like their human kinsmen, learn by experience and tutelage, and
are also gifted with a sure instinct that amounts in many cases almost
to reason. Take, for instance, this one fact. As the sun creeps
northward in the spring, it pours a more and more intense heat upon the
northern portions of the tropical and sub-tropical regions. The heat
would soon become intolerable to certain birds, which have doubtless
tried the experiment of spending the summer in equatorial countries; or
if individuals now living have not tried it, perhaps some of their more
or less remote ancestors have. That birds do make experiments is proved
by the fact that several pets of mine will carefully “sample” a new kind
of food offered them, and if they do not find it to their taste, will
let it severely alone; nor is it any the less evident that young birds
receive instruction from their elders. Thus the necessity of leaving the
torrid regions as summer approaches may have been impressed on the
migrating species from time immemorial.

Again, as spring advances, insect and vegetable life is revived in
regions farther north, and this certainly must act as a magnet upon the
birds, drawing them from point to point as the supply of food becomes
scarce in the more southern localities. Then, let us suppose for a
moment that all the birds did remain in the south through the summer;
there would sooner or later be a bird famine in the land, for the supply
of seeds and insects would soon be exhausted. Our feathered folk are
simply obliged, on account of the exigencies of food, to scatter
themselves over a larger extent of country. They solve the problem of
food supply and demand by these annual pilgrimages to the boreal lands
of plenty.

To go a little more to the root of the matter, we may easily imagine how
the migrating spirit got its first impulse and gradually became evolved
into a habit of something like scientific precision. If the first birds
lived in tropical climates, as was probably the case, some of them, as
the food supply became exhausted, would be crowded northward, or would
go of their own accord, and wherever they went they would find
well-filled natural larders. Having once discovered that spring
replenished the north with food, they would soon learn the desirability
of making periodical journeys to that part of the globe. With this
constant quest for food must also be coupled the instinctive desire of
most birds for seclusion during the season of reproduction,—an instinct
that would naturally drive them northward into the less thickly tenanted
districts. But it may be objected that many species make long aerial
voyages, passing over vast tracts of country to reach their chosen
summer habitats in various parts of the north; and it is well known that
the same individuals will return again and again, on the recurrence of
spring, to the same locality. How are these facts to be accounted for?

If we accept the glacial theory—a hypothesis pretty well established now
among scientific men—we may readily conceive that, as the sun melted the
ice at a greater distance in both directions from the equator, the
habitable area of the earth’s surface would gradually become enlarged.
For the sake of vividness let us fancy ourselves living at that period
of the world’s history. Let us select a point north of the equator where
a given pair of birds can live in summer. They find plenty of food
there, and are comparatively undisturbed by other birds, and they
therefore become attached to the place, most feathered folk having a
strong “homing instinct.” When winter comes, they and their progeny are
forced to retire to the south; but they do not forget their pleasant
summer haunt, their Mecca in the north, and therefore, at the approach
of the following spring, they obey the home impulse and hie by easy
stages to the beloved spot. Some of their number doubtless find it
possible from time to time to push farther northward, and thus other
breeding-haunts are selected. As the glacial accumulations melt away,
the whole temperate region and a large part of the frigid zone become
habitable. All this takes place by a very gradual process, requiring
thousands of years, thus giving ample time for heredity to infuse the
migratory habit into the nature of the birds. Every new generation would
learn the route and other needful details from their predecessors, and
thus the process would go on in an unending circuit year by year.

After the foregoing was written, my attention was called to the
following quotation from Dr. J. A. Allen’s valuable paper on the “Origin
of the Instinct of Migration in Birds.” The extract is taken from an
article by Frank M. Chapman, published in “The Auk” for January, 1894:
“Nothing is doubtless more thoroughly established than that a warm
temperate or sub-tropical climate prevailed down to the close of the
Tertiary epoch, nearly to the Northern Pole, and that climate was
previously everywhere so far equable that the necessity for migration
can hardly be supposed to have existed. With the later refrigeration of
the northern regions, bird life must have been crowded thence toward the
tropics, and the struggle for life thereby greatly intensified. The less
yielding forms may have become extinct; those less sensitive to climatic
change would seek to extend the boundaries of their range by a slight
removal northward during the milder intervals of summer, only, however,
to be forced back again by the recurrence of winter. Such migration must
have been at first ‘incipient and gradual,’ extending and strengthening
as the cold wave receded, and opened up a wider area within which
existence in summer became possible. What was at first a forced
migration would become habitual, and through the heredity of habit give
rise to that wonderful faculty which we term the instinct of migration.”
The reader’s attention is also directed to Mr. Chapman’s own article in
the number of “The Auk” indicated.

It may be asked why some species remain in torrid and temperate
climates, while others wing their way to the far north, even beyond the
boundary of the Arctic Circle. My answer is, There is some Power that
has wisely arranged all these matters, either by gradual development or
by an original creative fiat. Every species is made to fit with nice
precision into its peculiar niche in the creation. Perhaps Bryant
suggests the true explanation in his poem entitled “To a Waterfowl”:—

    “There is a Power whose care
  Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,
    The desert and illimitable air,
  Lone wandering, but not lost.”

This may seem like begging the question; yet, to my mind, it is
impossible to develop a philosophy of the universe without assuming an
original creative Intelligence. True, the laws of evolution will account
for many of the details, and birds, like men, are empowered in a large
measure to work out their own destiny; but somewhere there must be a
Power that has infused into Nature all these wonderful potentialities of
development. Involution must precede evolution.

But this is speculation. Account for them as we may, the facts are
evident. Within the circle of my own observation there is abundant proof
of this varied but wise adaptation in Nature. There, for example, is the
tiny golden-crested kinglet, which remains here all winter, no matter
how severe the weather, and seems to be the embodiment of good cheer;
whereas the brown thrasher, a bird many times as large, would be likely
to perish in the first snow-squall. Then, when spring arrives, Master
Kinglet hies to the north for the breeding-season, while Monsieur
Thrasher comes up from the south and becomes my all-summer intimate.

Another matter of intense interest concerning bird migration is that the
migrants which winter farthest north are, as a rule, the first to arrive
in the spring at their summer homes or vernal feeding-grounds. For
instance, in the latter part of March or the beginning of April, while
the thrashers, cat-birds, and others which winter in our Southern
States, are arriving in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio,
the warbler army, which spends the winter in the West Indies, Yucatan,
and Central America, is just crossing over from those countries to the
southern borders of the United States.

When autumn comes, experience has taught the migrants that their only
safety lies in making their way to the south before cold weather sets
in; for many of them certainly do start on this voyage long before
winter drives them from their northern haunts. In my opinion, they are
gifted with sufficient reason—call it instinct, if you like—to do this,
and I do not think they are moved by an uncontrollable impulse which
acts upon them as if they were mere automata.

Portions of the migrating army often overlap. For example, the juncos
and tree-sparrows are winter residents in my neighborhood, but very
frequently they remain here a month or more after the earliest arrivals
from the south. Presently, however, they grow nervous, flit about
uneasily, trill little snatches of song, inure themselves to flight by
longer or shorter excursions about the country, and then join the
northward procession _en route_ for their breeding-haunts in British
America. With regret I bid them adieu, but find compensation in the
knowledge that their places will be supplied by a brilliant company of
summer residents.

One of the strangest features of migration is the fact that a bird will
sometimes make the voyage from north to south, and _vice versa_—or a
part of the voyage—alone, at least as far as companionship with
individuals of its own kind is concerned. Whether this is done
advertently or inadvertently I am unable to say, but the fact cannot be
disputed. In the spring of 1892, as noted in another chapter, a hooded
warbler was flitting about a gravel bank in a wooded hollow, and
although I scoured the country for miles around day after day, I never
met another bird of this species. The little Apollo in feathers was so
gentle and familiar that surely his mates would not have escaped my
notice had there been any in the neighborhood. Why he preferred to
travel alone, or in company with other species rather than his own kin,
might be an interesting problem in avian psychology. A little farther
down the glen a single mourning warbler was also seen at almost the same
date. His companions had probably wished him _bon voyage_, and left him
to strike out in an independent course through the trackless ocean of
air.

That the army of migrants travel mostly by night is a well-known fact
that can be verified by any one who will stand out-of-doors and listen
to their chirping overhead. They seem to move in loose flocks, for there
are intervals of complete silence, followed by a promiscuous chirping
from many throats. Nor are these nocturnal calls all uttered by a single
species, but usually a number of species seem to be travelling in
company. One might say, therefore, that the feathered army moves in
squads. As they travel in the dark, very little can be said about their
flight; but every student has found species of birds in an early morning
ramble which he could not find anywhere on the previous day, proving
that they must have arrived in the night. Here is a single excerpt—many
might be given—from my note-book: “On the third of March, 1894, I took a
long stroll into the country, remaining in the fields until dusk; not a
single meadow-lark was to be seen or heard. At daybreak next morning,
however, the shrill whistle of I know not how many larks rose like
musical incense from the fields and commons in the rear of my house.
Depend upon it, had these lavish minstrels been in the neighborhood
during the previous afternoon, they would not have escaped my attention,
for they could not have kept their music in their larynxes, not they!
There is a cog in Nature’s machinery lost if the meadow-larks are silent
for a half day in the spring.”

In 1885 Mr. William Brewster, the well-known ornithologist, made some
intensely interesting discoveries on the nocturnal flight of migrants,
at Point Lepreaux Lighthouse, New Brunswick. The principal lantern,
which was in the top of the tower, cast a light that could be seen
fifteen miles away in clear weather. Even on dark and foggy nights this
lantern would throw out a strong light to such a distance that a bird
coming into the lighted area could readily be seen. On stormy nights the
lighthouse seemed to possess a fatal attraction for the lost and
rain-beaten birds, which would fly toward it and often dash against the
glass, the roof, and other portions of the tower with such force that
they fell dead or disabled. Mr. Brewster could see them approaching in
the prism of light, some dashing themselves with fatal effect against
the tower, but more, fortunately, turning aside or gliding upward over
the roof, and then pressing on toward the west with incessant chirping.
During rainy weather a larger proportion would strike the brilliant
obstruction.

It is interesting to notice that different species composed the
companies that passed the lighthouse. For instance, on the night of
September first, seven different species of warblers and one red-eyed
vireo were killed or disabled, and one Traill’s flycatcher entered the
mouth of the ventilator, and came down through it into the lantern. A
few evenings later, about forty per cent of the specimens identified
were Maryland yellow-throats, forty per cent more red-eyed vireos, and
the remaining twenty per cent were made up of two kinds of thrushes and
six kinds of warblers. These figures are given to show the heterogeneous
composition of the migrant army.

Mr. Brewster also found that no birds came about the lantern except on
densely cloudy or foggy nights, and that they came in the greatest
numbers when the first hour or two of the evening had been clear and was
succeeded by fog or storm. These data would seem to prove that the birds
began their nocturnal journey with the expectation of having pleasant
weather, and when the fog or storm rose later in the evening, they flew
lower and got bewildered by the glare of the lighthouse.

Many theories of bird migration have been proposed and argued at length,
but, on the whole, I incline to Mr. Brewster’s theory that the old
birds, having learned the advantage of these semi-annual expeditions,
and having also determined the route by means of certain landmarks, act
as aerial pilots to the army of young birds to whom the way is still
unknown. Mountain ranges, river valleys, coast lines, and sheets of
landlocked water doubtless serve the purpose of guide-posts to these
airy travellers. Much as has been written on the subject, however, there
still remains a large field for original research.



                                  VII.
                        PLUMAGE OF YOUNG BIRDS.


It is surprising what odd and variegated costumes are sometimes worn by
the juvenile members of the bird community. Frequently their attire is
so different from that of their elders that even the expert
ornithologist may be sorely puzzled to determine the category to which
they belong; yet there are usually some characteristic markings, however
obscure, by which their places in the avian system may be fixed. As a
rule, the plumage of young birds is more striped and mottled than that
of mature specimens, Nature playing some odd pranks of color-mixing in
tiding a bird over from callow infancy to full-fledged life. Fashion
plates in the world of bantlings would be of little account, as no fixed
patterns are followed.

Some parts of the growing bird’s plumage change to the normal color
sooner than others. I remember a young male indigo bird that I saw in
October, whose garb, just after fledging, must have been a warm brown
almost like that of the adult female; but now he had cast off a part of
his infantile robes, and put on in their stead the cerulean of his male
parent; his tail, rump, and the base of his wings were blue, while the
rest of his plumage was brown. He made a unique and pretty picture as he
sat atilt on a blackberry stem, asking me with loud _Tsips_ to admire
his quaint toilet. Early in the spring I have seen indigo birds in whose
plumage the tints were quite differently blended and arranged.

What a party-colored suit the young bluebird wears! His breast, instead
of being plain brick-red as in the case of the adult bird, is profusely
striped with dark brown on a background of soiled white; and his upper
parts, in lieu of the warm azure of riper years, are a lustrous brown
curiously mottled with tear-shaped blocks of white; while his wings and
tail have already assumed the normal blue of this species. In the days
of his youth the chipping-sparrow also dons a striped vest, so that, if
it were not for his smaller size, it would be difficult to distinguish
him from his relative, the grass-finch.

My admiration was especially stirred, one midsummer day, by the dainty
appearance of a small coterie of bush-sparrows flitting about on a
railroad which I was pursuing on foot; a large patch on their wings was
of a dark, glossy brown tint, extremely pretty, and looking precisely as
if it had been painted by the deft hand of an artist. Their under parts
were variously streaked with white and dusk. At first I scarcely
recognized my familiar little sylvan friends; but their intimacy with
several adult specimens, as well as several well-known diagnostic
markings, settled the question of their identity beyond a doubt.

Not every person is aware that the common redheaded woodpecker is no
red-head at all during the first summer of his buoyant young life, but a
black-head instead, or, rather, his head and neck are very dark gray.
However, one day in September I was delighted and amused to find an
adolescent woodpecker whose head and neck were beginning to turn quite
reddish, flecked everywhere with white, giving him a decidedly
picturesque appearance as he scuddled up an oblique fence-stake. Of
course the red-head is always _sui generis_, but in this case he seemed
to be more so than usual. Nearly all the woodpeckers—the downy, the
hairy, and the golden-winged—are devoid of the red spots on their heads,
while young, to prevent them, I suppose, from becoming vain.

Sometimes an entirely foreign tint is introduced into the plumage of the
young bird during his transition state. One day I was surprised to
observe a decidedly bluish cast on the striped breast of a young towhee
bunting, which was all the more curious because there is no blue
whatever in the plumage of either the adult male or female. But the most
curious freak of Nature’s dyeing I have ever seen in the bird world was
in the case of a young scarlet tanager, whose body, including the wings,
was completely girded with a band of white, the border of which was
quite irregular. As every observer knows, the only colors visible in the
adult male’s plumage are black and scarlet; still, when the scarlet
feathers are pushed aside, they show white underneath, and that may
account for the albino quality of this specimen.

When he is first fledged, the pattern of the young cardinal grossbeak’s
plumage very much resembles that of his mother; but soon the bright red
of his full dress begins to peep here and there through the
grayish-olive of his kilts and trousers, so to speak, making him look as
if he had been meddling with a keg of red paint and had splashed himself
liberally with it. By and by there is a very odd blending of tints in
his suit. Scarcely less curious is the garb of the young white-crowned
sparrow; his whole head is black or blackish-brown, except a tiny speck
of white in the centre of the crown, gleaming like a diamond in its dark
setting. In the adult bird the whole crown is a glistening white,
bordered on each side by a black band, which circles about on the
forehead and separates the crown-piece from the white superciliary line.

Some of the warblers are scarcely recognizable in their juvenile attire.
For example, the young black-poll, bay-breasted, and chestnut-sided
warblers bear little, if any, resemblance to their parents, whose
diversified nuptial robes make our woodlands radiant in the spring. The
young are quite tame in their soiled olive plumes, and look so much
alike that the ornithologist is often at his wits’ end to tell them
apart. Were it not for the yellow rumps of the magnolia and myrtle
warblers when young, one would scarcely know them from a dozen other
species as they pursue their journey southward in the autumn. The
Maryland yellow-throat does not deign to wear his black mask until he is
about eight months old, and the boy redstart contents himself with his
mamma’s style of dress until he returns in the spring from his sojourn
in the south, and does not seem to be ashamed to be tied to her
apron-string. And there is that natty little dandy, the ruby-crowned
kinglet—it is said, on good authority, that he must be two years old
before he is entitled to wear the ruby gem in his forehead; which must
be a sore deprivation for this little aristocrat in feathers. Perhaps in
kingletdom a bird does not become of age until he is two years old.

Thus it will be seen that the study of ornithology is made more
difficult, and at the same time more interesting, by this change of
toilet among the birds,—more difficult, because the observer must learn
to identify the birds in their youthful as well as in their adult
plumage; and more interesting, because of the greater variety thus given
to this branch of scientific inquiry.



                                 VIII.
                             NEST-HUNTING.


Nothing in Nature is more pregnant with suggestion than the nest of a
bird. The story of one of these deftly woven dwellings in the woods, if
fully written, might prove almost as weird and romantic as the history
of a castle on the Rhine. What madrigals, what pæans, have been sung,
and what victories celebrated, from the time the first fibres were
braided until the chirping nestlings were able to shift for themselves!
And, alas, how many fond hopes have perished as well! No doubt the ruses
and subterfuges employed to elude cunning foes or ward off their
murderous attacks, would fill a volume of valuable information on
military tactics. One might write comedies or tragedies about the
nest-life of the birds that would be no less interesting than realistic.
More than that, the study of these wonderful fabrics would virtually be
a study of the psychology of the feathered artisans, each nest being an
index of a special type of mind and a measure of the bird’s mental
resources. As William Hamilton Gibson has well said: “To know the
nidification and nest-life of a bird is to get the cream of its
history;” than which nothing could be truer or more aptly expressed.

No wonder the poets have so often been thrown into lyrical moods over
the homesteads of the birds! Mrs. Margaret E. Sangster’s poem on “The
Building of the Nest” is perhaps not unfamiliar to most readers; but one
stanza is so graceful and rhythmical that it begs for quotation at this
point:—

  “They’ll come again to the apple-tree—
    Robin and all the rest—
  When the orchard branches are fair to see
    In the snow of blossoms dressed,
  And the prettiest thing in the world will be
    The building of the nest.”

In one of my rambles I found an abandoned towhee bunting’s nest
containing three eggs, and could not help speculating as to the cause of
its desertion. Might there have been a quarrel between husband and wife,
making a separation necessary? I am loath to believe it, although, if
certain acute observers are correct, divorce is not wholly unknown in
the bird community. But in this case I am inclined to think that some
enemy had destroyed the female, for a male flitted about in the bushes,
calling a good deal and singing at intervals, and there seemed to be a
plaintive note in his song, as if he might be chanting an elegy. At all
events, the pair that built the nest had had their tragedy.

Every bird-student must admit that his quest for nests often ends in
disappointment, because many birds are adepts at concealment, while
others build in places where you would not think of looking. However, I
have had but little difficulty in finding the nests of the brown
thrasher, which erects an inartistic platform of sticks, bound together
by a few grass fibres, and thus is easily descried in the bushes, where
it is usually placed. Early in the spring I found the nest of a pair of
these birds in a thick clump of bushes near the edge of a woodland, and
resolved to keep watch over it until the young family had left their
home. The parent birds in this case were very solicitous for the safety
of their young. Every time I called they set up a pitiful to-do, which
invariably made me hurry away, after a timid peep into the cradle. There
is as much difference in the temperaments of birds of the same species
as there is among persons belonging to the same family. While the
thrashers in question seemed to be terrified at my presence, others
driven from their nests displayed little or no fear, but sat quietly on
a perch near by and allowed me to examine their domicile without so much
as a chirp.

The brown thrasher has surprised me by the variety of places he selects
for building his log house. Wilson Flagg in his book, “A Year with the
Birds,” says that this bird usually builds on the ground; and Mr.
Eldridge E. Fish, who writes pleasantly about the birds of western New
York, bears similar testimony. Perhaps thrasher-fashion in New England
and New York differs from thrasher-fashion in Ohio (in which locality
the birds display the best taste I will not say); for during the spring
of 1890 I found but two nests on the ground, and was surprised to find
even them, while at least fifteen were discovered in other places. Most
of them were on low thorn-bushes, but not all. One was built in a
brush-heap, one on a pile of “cord-wood,” another on a small stump
screened by some bushes, and two on a rail fence. Of the last two, one
was partly supported by poison-ivy vines and partly by a rail; the other
was built entirely on a rail in a projecting corner of the fence.

The thrasher, as has been said, builds an artless platform of sticks
that in some cases barely holds together long enough to answer the
purpose for which it was intended. In this respect its habits differ
from those of the wood-thrush, a bird that is very abundant and musical
in my neighborhood. I have found many of the wood-thrush’s nests, which
are built in the crotches of small saplings in the thickest part of the
woods, and are made almost as substantial as the adobe dwellings of the
robin. The thrush does not use as much mortar as his red-breasted
relative; otherwise there is a close resemblance between the nests of
the two birds.

It was amusing to find pieces of newspaper bedizening the houses of the
wood-thrushes so frequently, though it cannot be said that they showed
the highest literary taste in their selections; for one or two of the
fragments contained accounts of political caucuses. However, it would be
too much to assume that the birds had read them, as many of us “humans”
find such literature too deep for our comprehension. I shall neither
eulogize nor stigmatize this favorite minstrel by calling him a
politician, although if one were to regard his nesting-habits alone, he
deserves that sobriquet quite as well as the white-eyed vireo.

That parasite among American birds, the female cow-bunting, audaciously
spirits her eggs into the wood-thrush’s nest, to be hatched with those
that properly belong there, while she and her mate sit in the trees near
by and whistle their taunting airs, and watch to see whether their dupe
attends faithfully to the additional household cares imposed upon her.
When the birds are hatched, the victim of this piece of imposture
innocently feeds her foster children with the best tidbits she can find,
spite of the fact that they may soon crowd her own offspring out of the
nest-home. The wonder is that she does not discover the trick at once;
for her eggs are deep blue, while the cow-bird’s are white, speckled
with ashy brown. Can the wood-thrush be color-blind?

About two miles from town, along the banks of a small creek, was the
nest of that interesting little bird, the summer warbler,—a dainty
structure, composed of downy material, and deftly lodged among the twigs
of a sapling at the foot of a cliff. A cold spring gurgled from the
rocks near by; the willows and buttonwood trees bent to the balmy
breezes, and the tinkling of the brook mingled with the songs of many
birds. A place for day-dreams truly, and the summer warblers were the
dryads and nymphs flitting through the realms of fancy. If all birds
were as astute as the summer warbler, the race of cow-buntings would
soon become extinct, or would soon have to change their methods of
propagation, and go to rearing their own families. Our little
strategist, when she comes home and finds a cowbird’s egg dropped into
her nest, begins forthwith to add another story, and thus leaves the
interloper in the cellar, with a floor between it and her warm breast.
It is a genuine case of “being left out in the cold.” I have found
several of these exquisite towers that were three stories high, on the
top of which the little bird sat perched like a goddess on the summit of
Olympus. (My simile may seem a trifle farfetched, but I shall let it
stand.) But why, you dear little sprite, do you not merely pitch the
offensive egg out of the nest, instead of going to all the trouble of
building a loft? No answer, save an untranslatable trill, comes from the
throat of the dainty minstrel.[3]

Some years ago I witnessed a curious bit of bird-behavior that I have
never seen described in any of the numerous books on ornithology which I
have consulted. I make reference to it here for the first time. I was
strolling along the banks of a broad river in northern Indiana on the
first of June, when a warm, steady rain set in. How the birds contrive
to keep their eggs and nestlings dry during a shower had long been an
enigma to me, and now was my time to find out. Knowing where a summer
warbler had built her nest in some bushes, I cautiously approached, and
then stood looking down on the bird before me, which showed no
disposition to leave her progeny to the mercy of the elements. It was a
picture indeed! The darling little mother—how can one help using an
endearing term!—sat with her wings and tail spread out gracefully over
the rim of the nest all the way round, thus making a perfect umbrella of
her lithe, dainty body.

Nothing could differ more from the airy out-door nest of the summer
warbler than the dark subterranean caverns of the swallows in the bank
of the creek. One day, while sauntering along a stream, I noticed a hole
in the opposite bank. I passed on, but on second thought turned to look
at the excavation a little more closely, when a swallow darted like an
arrow into it, and in a few moments made as quick an exit. Wading across
the creek, I thrust my walking-stick, which was almost four feet long,
into the orifice over its entire length without reaching the end! Why a
bird, so neat in attire and so agile on the wing, should build her nest
in a dark Erebus like that, is a Sphinx’s riddle that must be left to
wiser heads to solve.

What a contrast is the open-air hammock of the Baltimore oriole,
swinging from the flexible branches of a buttonwood tree a little
farther up the stream! How softly the chirping brood within is rocked by
the breezes that sweep down from the slopes, laden with the odor of
clover blossoms! Somewhere near there must be a warbling vireo’s nest,
for one of these birds is singing in the trees; but my eyes are not
sharp enough to descry its pensile domicile.

On my way home, on the top of a hill, I step casually up to a small
thorn-bush, whose branches and leaves are thickly matted together, and,
as I push the foliage aside, there is a flutter of wings, followed by a
rapid chirping, and a little bird flits away, pretending to be seriously
wounded. It is a bush-sparrow. Cosily placed beneath the leafy roof
among the thick boughs is the procreant cradle. What could be more
dainty! A little nest, woven of fine grass-fibres, deftly lined with
hair, and containing four speckled eggs, real gems. How “beautiful for
situation” is this tiny cottage on the hill! Here the feathered poets
may sit on their leafy verandas, look down into the green valleys, and
compose verses on the pastoral attractions of Nature. One is almost
tempted to spin a romance about the happy couple.

On returning, one day, from an ornithological jaunt, I met my friend,
the young farmer, who knows something about my furor for the birds.
There was a knowing smile on his sunburned face. “I know where there’s a
killdeer’s nest,” he said; “would you like to see it?” Tired out as I
was with my long walk, I exclaimed: “Yes, sir! I’ll follow you to the
end of the world to see a plover’s nest.” The sentence was added merely
by way of mild (not wild) hyperbole. A shallow pit in the open
corn-field, lined with a few chips and pebbles, constituted the nest of
the plover, not having so much as a spear of grass to protect it from
rain and storm. It contained one egg and a callow youngster, the egg
being quite large at one end and pointed at the other, which gave it a
very uncouth shape. My young friend informed me that there had been five
eggs when he found the nest, all lying with their acute ends toward the
centre; the next time he went to look there were only four, then three,
and finally only two. Evidently the parent birds were having a serious
time guarding their homestead from marauders. On going to the place some
days later, I found both the egg and the baby plover gone, and I could
only hope that no mischance had befallen them.

Strange as it may seem, the winter is a favorable season for
nest-hunting. True, the birds are not then at home, to speak with a good
deal of license, or engaged in rearing families; but the deserted
structures may be more readily found after the leaves have fallen from
the trees and bushes. As I stroll through the woods or the marsh on a
winter day, scores of nests that escaped my eye during the summer are to
be seen. Especially is this the case after a snowfall, for the nests
catch the descending flakes which are piled up in them in downy mounds,
and thus attract the attention of the observer. I have often felt
inclined to heap upon myself the most caustic epithets for having passed
again and again, during the breeding-season, so near the nest of an
interesting bird without knowing of its existence until winter’s frosts
had stripped the coppice of its leaves, and have resolved as often that
the next season shall not find me napping.

In the marsh which is one of my favorite trudging-grounds, I made a
quaint discovery some winters ago, which has raised more than one query
in my mind. One day, after a snowfall, I found many deserted nests in
the thickets. Brushing the snow out of them revealed, in the bottom of
each basket, a small pile of the seeds and broken shells of wild-rose
and thorn berries. Why had the birds put them there—if it was the birds?
Perhaps the winter birds, when they arrived in the autumn, found these
old nests good storehouses in which to lay by their winter supplies. I
have never seen the birds feeding on them, but, as spring approached,
the berry seeds had nearly all disappeared.

Come with me, for I know a pleasant, half-cloistered field of clover
which is the habitat of a number of charming little birds. Just where it
is shall remain one of my semi-sylvan secrets, for one must not betray
all the confidences of one’s feathered intimates. The field cuts a right
angle in a woodland, by which it is, therefore, bounded on the east and
north, while toward the west and south the undulating country stretches
away like a billowy sea of green. The woods themselves, on the sides
adjacent to the field, are hemmed and fringed with a thick growth of
saplings, bushes, and brambles, where the feathered husbands sit and
hymn their joy by the hour to their little mates hugging their nests in
the clover and the copse. It is a quiet spot,—one of Nature’s nunneries.
Human dwellings may be seen in the distance; but it is seldom that any
one, save a mooning rambler like myself, goes there to disturb the peace
of the feathered tenants.

Here, one summer a few years ago, a pair of those wary birds the
yellow-breasted chats built a nest, which they placed snugly in the
blackberry bushes that bordered and partly hid the rail fence. I kept
close reconnoissance on this little homestead until the nascent inmates
were about half-fledged, when, to my dismay, every one of them was
kidnapped by some despicable nest-robber. My own sorrow was equalled
only by the inexpressible anguish of the bereaved parents. To add to my
troubles, a nestful of young indigo-birds came to grief in the same way.
There must be, it seems, a system of brigandage in every realm, be it
human or faunal.

A pair of bush-sparrows, however, were more fortunate in their
brood-rearing. One day, while standing near the fence, I noticed a
bush-sparrow, bearing an insect in her bill, dart down into the clover,
a short distance over in the field. I walked to the spot, when she flew
up with an uneasy chirp, proclaiming a secret that she could not keep.
There on the grass, sure enough, was her nestful of little ones. Some
accident must have befallen the fibrous cot, for the weeds and clover
were broken down and trampled flat all around it, so that it sat
loosely, on the ground, without even a blade of grass to shelter it.
Fearing that buccaneers in the shape of jays or hawks might rob the
nest, I broke off a number of weeds and made a sort of thatched roof
over it; that would also protect the panting infants from the sun, which
was beating down like a furnace. Then I took my stand a few rods away,
to see what the old birds would do. Erelong both the papa and mamma came
with billsome morsels in their mouths, and, after fluttering about
uneasily for a few minutes, darted down to the nest and fed their young.
Of course, they first had to peep, and peer, and cant their dainty heads
this way and that, to examine the roof I had improvised for the nest,
wondering, no doubt, what kind of a bungling architect had been at work
there; but finally they seemed to think all was well. Perhaps in their
hearts they thanked me for my thoughtful care.

A day or two later I called again, even at the risk of coming _de trop_.
The weeds arched over the bird crib at my former visit having withered,
I made them another green roof, sheltering them as cosily as I could and
leaving a small opening at the side for an entrance. After an absence of
a few minutes I crept surreptitiously back to the enchanted spot,—for it
drew me like a loadstone,—and there sat the trim little mother on her
cradle, covering her children to keep them warm, her reddish-brown tail
daintily reaching out through the doorway. She did not fly up as I bent
lovingly over her, and presently I stole away, desirous not to disturb
her.

The bush-sparrow is a captivating little bird, graceful of form and
sweet of voice, singing his cheerful trills from early spring until far
past midsummer. The song makes me think of a silver thread running
through a woof of golden sunshine, carried forward by a swinging shuttle
of pearl. I think the figure is not far-fetched. He is quite partial to
a dense little thorn-bush for a nesting-place, often concealing his
grassy cottage so cunningly that you must look sharply for it among the
leaves and twigs, or it will escape your eye.

One of the neatest and prettiest denizens of my clover-field was the
goldfinch. Wings of black and coat of bright yellow, he went bounding
through the ether, rising and falling in graceful festoons of flight, in
such a lightsome way he seemed to be rocking himself on the breeze. How
jauntily he wore his tiny black cap, little exquisite of the field that
he is, to whom I always go hat in hand! He deserves a monograph all to
himself, but at this time I can spare him only a few paragraphs.

As a rule, the goldfinches prefer to build their nests in small trees,
often selecting the maples along the suburban streets of the city. I was
greatly surprised, therefore, to find a nest in my clover-field, where
there were no trees at all. Noticing a bird fly into a clump of
blackberry bushes one day, I took it for a female indigo-bird. A nest
was soon found woven very neatly and compactly, and having not only
grass-fibres wrought into its structure, but also wool and thistle-down.
A queer indigo-bird’s nest, I mused. The wool in the cup was ruffled and
loose, and taking it for a deserted homestead, I carelessly thrust my
hand into it. The next moment I was sorry for the thoughtless act, for
the material looked so fresh that I decided it must be an unfinished
bird-cradle. I resolved to discover the owners, if possible. Two days
later it was in the same condition. Had I driven away the little
builders by laying defiling hands on the nest? I felt like a culprit,
and waited a week before again venturing to visit the place, when, as I
approached, a female goldfinch flew from the nest, uncovering five
dainty white eggs, set like pearls in the bottom of the cup. A
goldfinch’s nest in a blackberry bush! That was a climax of surprises,
in very truth.

On the same day, not far distant, another bush-sparrow’s nest was found
in some bushes, placed about three feet from the ground. In a few weeks
there were babies five in the goldfinch’s nest, and four in that of the
bush-sparrow. Pray keep both nests in mind, remembering that the
youngsters of both families were hatched on the same day. One evening at
twilight I again stepped out to the clover-field. The mother goldfinch
was sitting close on her nest, and did not stir as I came near. Then I
touched her lightly with my cane. Still she remained on her nest as if
glued fast, only glaring at me with her wild, beady eyes. At length I
softly laid my finger on her back, when she uttered a queer,
half-scolding cry, and leaped up to the nest’s rim, but did not fly.
There she stood, turning her head and eying me keenly until I stole
away, unwilling to forfeit her confidence and good-will. But when, on my
way home, I paused a moment to look at the bush-sparrow’s nest, the
mother flitted away with a frightened chirp before I came within reach.
She was not as confiding as her little neighbor, the goldfinch.

Now mark! On the fifteenth of August the young bush-sparrows had become
so large and well developed that when, meaning no harm, I touched them
gently with my finger, they flipped out of the nest like flashes of
lightning. The infant goldfinches were not yet more than half fledged,
and merely snuggled close to the bottom of the nest when I caressed
them. The idea of flying was still remote from their little pates. These
observations prove that young bush-sparrows develop much more rapidly
than young goldfinches; yet, strange as it may seem, the goldfinch, when
grown, flies much higher, if not more swiftly, than his little neighbor,
and continues longer on the wing.

On the same day I sat down in the clover, a few rods from the
goldfinch’s nest, and kept close watch on both the old birds and their
offspring for an hour and a half. The sun attacked me savagely with his
red-hot arrows, and the sweat broke from every pore, but I felt amply
repaid for my vigil. During the first half-hour the parent birds
ventured slyly to feed their bantlings twice. Then I crept closer, and
waited an hour; but the parent birds were too shy to bring their hungry
nestlings a single mouthful of food, choosing, it would seem, to let
them suffer hunger rather than take risk themselves. The little things
were almost famished, and behaved very quaintly. Every rustle of the
leaves in the wind caused them to start up, crane out their necks, pry
open their mouths as wide as they could, waddle awkwardly from side to
side, and chirp for something to eat. How famished they were! They even
seized one another’s heads and tried to gulp one another down. The
spectacle was just a little uncanny.

But, dear me! they were not as ignorant of the ways of the world as you
might suppose. When I lightly tapped the stems of the bushes with my
cane, instead of leaping up and opening their mouths as they were
expected to do, they shrank down into the bottom of the nest, discerning
at once the difference between those strokes on the bush and their
parents’ quiet approach or loving call. Something must have put them on
their guard, and instilled feelings of fear into their palpitating
bosoms. Perhaps it was that shy personage, the mother herself; for she
would call admonishingly at intervals from the woods, _Ba-bie! ba-bie!_
putting a pathetic accent on the second syllable. It was droll to see
the youngsters try to preen their feathers, they went about the
performance so awkwardly.

On the seventeenth of the month one of the nestlings was missing, and no
amount of looking for it in the thicket revealed any clew to its
whereabouts. None of the remaining birds were ready to fly. Two days
later they were still in the nest, although they had grown considerably
since my last visit, so that one of them was almost crowded out of the
circular trundle-bed. I could not resist the temptation to lift it in my
hand, just to see how pretty it was and how it would act. It uttered a
sharp cry of alarm, and sprang from my hand; but its wings were still so
weak that it merely fluttered in an oblique direction to the ground. The
third time I caught it, it sat contentedly on my palm, and allowed me to
stroke its back, looking up at its captor with mingled wonder and
trustfulness.

On the heads of all the nestlings a fine down protruded up through and
above the feathers. The birds looked very knowingly out of their small
coal-black eyes, but the cunning little things obstinately refused to
open their mouths for me, entice them as I would; however, when I moved
away some distance, and their mamma came with a tempting morsel, they
sprang up instantly and gulped it down. Not so very unsophisticated,
after all, for mere bantlings! On the morning of the twenty-sixth all
the young finches had left the nest, and were perched in the bushes near
by. I contrived to catch one of them and hold him in my hand a few
moments, to admire his dainty toilet and pretty dark eyes. Thus my brief
study in comparative ornithology proved that the young goldfinches left
the nest seven days after the young bush-sparrows, hatched at the same
time, had taken wing.



                                  IX.
                          MIDSUMMER MELODIES.


Several times has the statement been made in print that it is scarcely
worth one’s while to attempt to study the birds during the midsummer
months, the reason alleged being that at that time they are silent and
inactive, and their behavior devoid of special interest. Now, nothing
ministers so gratefully to the pride of the original investigator as to
prove untrue the theories that have been advanced in books and that are
current among scientific men. During the summer of 1891 I resolved to
discover for myself what the birds were doing, and so, spite of drought,
heat, and mosquitoes, I visited the haunts of my winged companions at
least every other day. The result was a surprise to myself, proving that
the unwisest thing a naturalist can do is to lay down absolute canons of
conduct for feathered folk.

It is just possible that physical stupor, induced by the extreme heat of
summer, has caused some ornithologists to observe carelessly and
listlessly, and for that reason they have supposed that the birds were
as languid as themselves; but the wide-awake student, who can brave heat
and cold alike, will never find the feathered creation failing to repay
the closest attention. Some birds are almost as active when the mercury
is wrestling with the nineties as on the fairest day of May, and those
are the ones to be studied in midsummer.

My special investigations began about the middle of July. It is true
that at that time what are usually regarded as the songsters of the
first class—the brown thrashers, wood-thrushes, cat-birds, and
bobolinks—had gone into a conspiracy of silence, not a musical note
coming from their throats, although some of them always remain in this
latitude until far into September. But when the first-class minstrels
are mute, one appreciates the minor vocalists all the more. Yet I must
not omit to say that on the thirtieth of July I caught a fragment of a
wood-thrush’s song, the last I heard for the season.

Let me recall one day in particular. It was the tenth of August, and the
weather was broiling,—hot enough to drive the thermometer into
hysterics, just the day to see how the heat would affect the feathered
tenants of the groves; and so, overcoming my physical inertia as best I
could, I stalked to the woods in the afternoon in quest of bird lore.
With the perspiration running from every pore, I trudged about for some
time without seeing or hearing a single bird. Were the books correct,
after all? Was I to be deprived of the pleasure of proving them in
error? It began to appear as if such might be the case. Presently,
however, as I pushed out into a gap at one side of the woods, an uneasy
chirping in the clumps of bushes and brambles near by sent a thrill of
gladness through my veins. I felt intuitively that there were birds in
abundance in the neighborhood, and my presentiment proved correct; for
before my brief search was completed, I was permitted to record the
songs of the indigo-bird, the cardinal grossbeak, the towhee bunting,
the wood-pewee, the Baltimore oriole, and the black-capped chickadee;
while, no sooner had I stepped out of the woods into the adjoining
swamp, than the song-sparrow chimed merrily, “Oh, certainly, certainly,
you mustn’t forget me-me-me! No-sirree, no-sirree!”

One of the most blithesome trillers of midsummer was the grass-finch,
which sang his canticles until about the twelfth of August, when he
suddenly took leave for parts unknown. It seemed to me he sang more
vigorously in July than in May, for several times he prolonged his trill
with such splendid musical effect as to make me rush out to the
adjoining field to find a lark-sparrow. The black-throated bunting
remained here almost as long, rasping his harsh notes until he also took
his flight. I was somewhat disappointed in the meadow-larks, having
heard but one note from their tuneful throats during August; but when
September came, they resumed their shrill choruses, which lasted until
November, increasing in vigor as the autumn advanced.

The robins were chary of their music, only two songs having been heard
during August, one of them on the fourteenth. But the little
bush-sparrow made ample compensation, chanting his pensive voluntaries
almost every day at the border of the woods until about the twentieth of
August. Still more lavish of his melody was the indigo-bird, which on
several occasions was the only songster, besides the wood-pewee, heard
during a long stroll through the woods. An irrepressible minstrel, he is
the most cheery member of the midsummer chorus. My notes say that the
Maryland yellow-throat was singing in splendid voice on the first of
August, but I am positive I heard him later in the month, as he is one
of our most rollicksome midsummer choralists. The goldfinch sang
cheerily on the first, eighteenth, and nineteenth of August, and I
cannot say how often in July and August I heard the loud refrain of the
Carolina wren.

On the tenth, twelfth, fourteenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth of August,
the Baltimore oriole piped cheerily, though he had partly doffed his
splendid vernal robes, and was beginning to don his modest autumnal
garb. The cardinal bird fluted frequently during July and August, and,
besides, regaled me with a vocal performance on the third of September.
The last record I have of the towhee bunting’s trill is the tenth of
August; but before that date he was quite lavish of his music. On many
of my tramps to the woods the sad minor whistle of the black-capped
chickadee pierced the solitudes, making one dream of one’s boyhood
days,—

  “When birds and flowers and I were happy peers,”

as Lowell would phrase it.

One of my surprises was a warbler’s trill on the twelfth of August. The
little tantalizer kept itself so far up in the trees as to baffle all
attempts at identification, but I am disposed to think it was a cerulean
warbler. On the nineteenth of August two warbler trills, one of them, I
feel almost sure, from the throat of the chestnut-sided warbler, were
heard, which is all the more novel because these birds are not
residents, but only migrants in this latitude. I should have felt amply
repaid for all my efforts, had I proved nothing more than that warblers
will sometimes regale one with an aftermath of song in the dog days.

The most persistent minstrel of the midsummer orchestra was the
wood-pewee,—the only bird whose song I heard on every excursion to the
woods during July and August; and even when September came, there seemed
to be little abatement in his musical industry. All the year round, the
song-sparrow is the most prolific lyrist of my acquaintance, but in
midsummer he is distanced by his sylvan neighbor, the wood-pewee. During
my walks on the twenty-ninth and thirty-first of August the pewee’s was
the only song heard.

Then, he does not confine himself wholly to his ordinary song,
_Phe-e-w-e-e_ or _Phe-e-e-o-r-e-e-e_, for one day in July he twittered a
quaint medley in a low, caressing tone, as if singing a lullaby to his
nestlings. At first I could not tell what bird was the author of the new
style of melody, but presently the song glided sweetly into the
well-known _Pe-e-w-e-e_. On another occasion I was charmed by the vocal
rehearsals of a young pewee. His youth was evident from the fact that he
twinkled his wings and coaxed for food from the mother bird, who
rewarded his vocal efforts by feeding him. The song was extremely
beautiful, spite of the crudeness of its execution; a clear continuous
strain, repeated quite loudly, with here and there a partially
successful attempt to emit the ordinary pewee notes. Occasionally the
parent bird would respond, as if setting the ambitious novice a musical
copy, and then he would make a heroic effort to pipe the notes he had
just heard, and several times he succeeded admirably. He had a voice of
excellent quality, but did not have it under perfect control; still, the
immature song was so innocent, so _naïve_ and striking, that it was a
temptation to wish he would never learn to sing otherwise.

Permit me to add, in conclusion, that, while the birds are not equally
musical or plentiful all the year round, yet there is never a time when
their behavior is not worth careful attention. Moreover, midsummer is
the most favorable time for the study of the quaint behavior and varied
plumage of young birds,—a theme connected with our avian fauna that
merits more consideration than it has yet received.



                                   X.
                           WHERE BIRDS ROOST.


One winter evening found me tramping through a swamp not far from my
home, listening to the dulcet trills of the song-sparrows, which had
recently returned from a brief visit to a more southern latitude. There
was no snow on the ground, and the day had been pleasant; but, as
evening approached, the west wind blew raw across the fields. For some
reason which I cannot now recall, an impulse seized me to clamber over
the fence into the adjacent meadow, where I stalked about somewhat
aimlessly for a minute or two, little thinking that I was on the eve of
a discovery,—one that was destined to lead me into a delightful field of
investigation.

The ground was rather soggy, but a pair of tall rubber boots make one
indifferent to mire and mud. The dusk was now gathering rapidly, and it
was time for most birds to go to bed. I soon found, too, that they were
going to bed, and, moreover, were taking lodgings in the most unexpected
quarters. Imagine my surprise when, as I trudged about, the little
tree-sparrows, which are winter residents in my neighborhood, flew up
here and there out of the deep grass. They seemed to be hidden somewhere
until I came near, and then they would suddenly dart up as if they had
emerged from a hole in the ground.

This unexpected behavior led me to investigate; and I soon found that in
many places there were cosey apartments hollowed out under the long,
thick tufts of marsh grass, with neat entrances at one side like the
door of an Eskimo hut. These hollows gave ample evidence of having been
occupied by the birds, so that there could be no doubt about their being
bird bedrooms. Very frequently they were burrowed in the sides of the
mounds of sod raised by the winter frosts, and were thus lifted above
the intervening hollows, which contained ice-cold water. In every case
the overhanging grass made a thatched roof to carry off the rain.

I do not mean to say that these little dugouts were made by the birds
themselves. Perhaps they were, but it is more probable that they had
been scooped out the previous summer by field-mice, and had only been
appropriated for sleeping-apartments by the sparrows. However that may
be, they were exceedingly cunning and cosey; and soft must have been the
slumbers of the feathered occupants while the wintry blasts howled
unharming above them.

Prior to that discovery I had supposed, with most people, that all birds
roost in trees and bushes. Later researches have proved how wide of the
truth one’s unverified hypotheses may be. A week or so afterward, while
strolling one evening at dusk through a favorite timber-belt, I noticed
the snowbirds, or juncos, darting up from the leaves and bushes and
small brush-heaps, beneath which they had found dainty little coverts
from the storm. In many places crooked twigs and branches, covered with
leaves, lay on the ground, leaving underneath small spaces overarched
and sheltered, and into these cosey nooks the juncos had crept for the
night. No enemies, at least in winter, would find them there, and their
hiding-places were snug and warm. Long after dark I lingered in the
woods, and everywhere startled the snow-birds from their leafy couches.
At one place a whole colony of them had taken lodgings. When my passing
frightened them away, they flew through the darkness into the
neighboring trees. After waiting at some distance for several minutes, I
returned to the spot, and found that some of the birds had gone back to
their bedrooms on the ground.

In my nocturnal prowlings through the fields and lowlands, I have
frequently frightened the meadowlarks from the grass, and that long
before nest-building or incubation had begun. Of course, they were
recognized by their nervous alarm-calls, as well as by the peculiar
sound of their fluttering wings. What surprises me beyond measure is
that they so often select low, boggy places for their roosts, instead of
the dry pleasant upland slopes. But there is no accounting for tastes in
the bird world. The grass-finches and lark-sparrows, like their
relatives just mentioned, seek little hollows in the ground for
bed-chambers, usually sheltered by grass tufts.

Long before day, one April morning, I made my way to the marsh so
frequently mentioned in this volume. The moon was shining brightly in
the southern sky. Early as it was—for as yet there was no sign of
daybreak—the silvery trills of the song-sparrows rose from the bushes
like a votive offering to the Queen of Night. From one part of the swamp
a sweet song would ring out on the moonlit air, and would at once be
taken up by another songster not far away. Then another would chime in,
and another, until the whole enclosure was filled with the antiphonal
melody. A silence would then fall upon the marsh like a dream-spirit, to
be broken soon by another outburst of minstrelsy; and thus the nocturne
continued until day broke, and it merged into the glad matin service.

But my object is to tell about bird roosts rather than about bird music.
When I reached the farther end of the marsh, several sparrow songs came
up from the ground. I walked with a tentative purpose toward a spot
whence a song came, when the little triller sprang up affrighted. The
same experiment with a number of other songsters brought a like result
in each case, proving beyond doubt, I think, that at least some of the
song-sparrows roost on the ground, and begin their matins before they
rise from their couches, so anxious are they to put in a full day of
song.

On the same morning—it was still before daybreak—a bevy of red-winged
blackbirds, which had been roosting in the long grass, flew up with
vociferous cries and protests at the rude awakening I had given them,
just when they were enjoying their morning nap. Blame them who will for
making loud ado, for there are many people who would do the same under
similar provocation. Thus it will be seen that many birds sleep on the
ground. My investigations lead me to this conclusion: As a rule, those
birds which nest on or near the ground, and spend a considerable portion
of their time in the grass, like the meadow-larks and song-sparrows,
roost on the ground, while others find bushes and trees more to their
taste. Still, there are exceptions to this rule; for on several
occasions, while bent on my nocturnal prowlings, I have driven the
turtle-dove from the ground, although this bird usually roosts in the
thorn-trees and willows.[4]

The robins choose thick trees and even wild rose-bushes for roosts. In
the apple-trees and pines of a neighbor’s yard across the fields these
birds find sleeping-apartments early in the spring, before nest-building
is begun, for a perfect deluge of robin music often pours from that
locality, both morning and evening.

The white-throats, wood-sparrows, and brown thrashers make use of the
thick thorn-trees of the marsh for lodgings. They flutter about in sore
dismay as I approach, until I start back, lest they should impale
themselves on the sharp thorns. Sometimes the thrasher ensconces himself
for the night in the brush-heaps which the wood-choppers have made on
the slopes, making his presence known by his peculiar way of scolding at
my officious intrusion.

One cannot help admiring the wise forethought displayed by many birds in
creeping into the thick thorn-bushes at night, where they may sleep
without fear of attack from their nocturnal foe, the owl. Full well they
seem to know he cannot force his bulky form through the thick network of
branch and thorn. How he must gnash his teeth with rage—if owls ever do
that—when he espies his coveted prey sleeping peacefully just beyond the
reach of his talons! Still, it sometimes happens that even a small bird
ventures into too close quarters in these terrible prickly bushes; for I
once found a dead sparrow completely wedged in among the fierce thorns,
where it had evidently been caught in such a way as to prevent its
escape.

Something over a year after the preceding facts were published, I was
seized with a whim to resume my investigations on bird roosts. One of my
nocturnal rambles seems to be deserving of somewhat minute description.
It was a delightful evening of early spring, with a warm westerly breeze
stirring the bursting leaves. The sun had set, and the dusk was falling
over fields and woods. The bright moon, a little more than half full,
lengthened out the gloaming and added many precious minutes to the
singing hours of the birds. Such a woodland chorus as I was permitted to
listen to that evening! It was a rare privilege. How the wood-thrushes
vied with the towhee buntings! Which would sing the latest? That seemed
to be the question. At length there were several moments of silence, and
I supposed all the birds had gone to sleep, when a white-throated
sparrow and a wood-pewee struck in with their sweet strains; and so the
chorus continued until it was really night. The wood-thrushes, I think,
got in the last note of the twilight serenade.

Before it had become quite dark, I espied a wood-thrush sitting in the
fork of a dogwood-tree, looking at me in a startled way; but she did not
fly. I walked off some distance, remained awhile, and then returned, to
find her still in her place. Then I strolled about until night had fully
come; the moon shone brightly, so that it was not dark. When I went back
to the dogwood-tree, the speckled breast of the thrush was still visible
in the fork which she had chosen for her bed-chamber, and I wished her
pleasant dreams.

While stalking about, I startled another wood-thrush, which had selected
a loose brush-heap on the ground instead of a sapling or tree for a
roost. The indigo-birds and bush-sparrows flew up from the blackberry
bushes as I pushed my way through them. Several times the towhee
buntings leaped scolding out of bed, having selected brush-heaps, or
dead branches lying on the ground, for roosting-places.

A discovery was also made in regard to the sleeping-apartments of the
red-headed woodpecker. As the dusk was gathering, a red-head dashed in
front of me into the border of the woods, alighting on a sapling stem,
and then began to shuffle upward toward a hole plainly visible from
where I sat; but just as he reached the hole, another red-head appeared
with a challenging air on the inside of the cavity, and red-head number
one darted away with a cry of alarm. Now was my time to discover, if
possible, where red-head number two would roost. So I kept a close watch
on the cavity, waiting about, as previously said, until nightfall, and
then, keeping my eye on the hole, so that the bird could not fly out
without being seen, I made my way to the sapling. Intently watching the
hole with my glass, I tapped the stem of the tree with my heel, when, in
the moonlight, a red head and long, black beak were protruded from the
opening above. The woodpecker was within, that much was proved; and when
I had beaten against the tree, he had sprung up to the orifice to see
who was thus impolitely disturbing his evening slumbers. He turned his
head sidewise, and looked down at me with his keen beady eyes; but
although I tapped against the tree again and again, he would not leave
the cavity. There can be no doubt that it was his bedroom,—that cosey
apartment in the sapling,—for it was still too early in the season for
the bird to begin nesting, as he had arrived only two or three days
before from his winter residence in the south. Very likely most
woodpeckers roost in the cavities which they hew in trees, for I do not
see why the one into whose private affairs I pried that evening should
have been an exception. He most probably was only following the customs
of his tribe from time immemorial.[5]

A number of experiments made with young birds purloined from the nest—I
must beg the feathered parents’ forgiveness—have added several
interesting facts to the subject in hand. One spring I became guardian,
purveyor, and man-of-all-work to a pair of young flickers, taken from a
cavity in an old apple-tree. They were kept in a large cage, in which I
placed sapling boughs of considerable size. They had not become my
protégés many days before they insisted on converting these upright
branches into sleeping-couches, clinging to the vertical boles with
their stout claws, and pillowing their heads in the feathers of their
backs. In this position they slept as comfortably as the thrushes and
orioles confined in other cages slept on their horizontal perches, or,
for that matter, as I slept in my own bed. They even slept on the under
side of an oblique branch. One of them passed one night on a horizontal
perch, although apparently his slumbers were not quite so sound and
refreshing as they would have been had he roosted in the wonted upright
position. Queerest of all, these woodpeckers sometimes selected the side
of the cage itself for a roosting-place, thrusting their claws into the
crevice between the door and its frame. Wherever they roosted, their
tails were made to do duty as braces, by being pressed tightly against
the wall to which they clung. A pair of young red-headed woodpeckers
behaved in much the same way, always preferring to sleep on an upright
perch.

During the spring of 1893 I placed in a cage the following birds, all
taken while in a half-callow state, from the nest: Two cat-birds, one
red-winged blackbird, one cow-bunting, and two meadow-larks. In a few
days all of them proclaimed their species, as well as the inexorable law
of heredity, by selecting such roosts as were best adapted to them, and
that without any instruction whatever from adult birds. The meadow-larks
almost invariably squatted on the grass with which the floor of the cage
was lined, usually scratching and waddling from side to side until they
had made cosey hollows to fit their bodies; while the remaining inmates
flew up to the perches when bed-time came.

It was quite interesting to look in upon my group of sleeping pets of an
evening, part of them roosting in the lower story of the cage and the
rest in the upper story. Several times, however, one of the larks slept
on a perch, and the red-wing, after the cat-birds and bunting had been
removed from the cage, occasionally seemed to think the upstairs a
little lonely, and so he cuddled down on the grass below, edging up
close to the larks. The strangely assorted bedfellows slept together in
this way like happy children.



                                  XI.
                            THE WOOD-PEWEE.
                              A MONOGRAPH.


Almost every person living in the country or the suburbs of a town is
familiar with the house-pewee, or phœbe-bird. It is usually looked upon
as the sure harbinger of spring. In my boyhood days my parents and
grandparents were wont to say, “Spring is here; the phœbe is singing.”
And if blithesomeness of tone and good cheer have anything to do with
the advent of the season of song and bursting blossoms, the pewit, as he
is often called, must be a true herald and prophet. He seems to carry
the “subtle essence of spring” in his tuneful larynx, and in the
graceful sweep of his flight as he pounces upon an insect. It is quite
easy to make the transition from his familiar song of _Phe-e-by_ to the
exclamation, _Spring’s here!_ by a little stretch of the fancy.

But the phœbe has a woodland relative, a first cousin, with which most
persons are not so well acquainted, because he is more retiring in his
habits, and seeks out-of-the-way places for his habitat. I refer to the
wood-pewee. If your eyes and ears are not so sharp as they should be,
you may get these two birds confounded; yet there is no need of making
such a blunder. The woodland bird is smaller, slenderer, and of a darker
cast than his relative; and, besides, there is a marked difference in
the musical performances of these birds. The song of the phœbe is
sprightly and cheerful, and the syllables are uttered rather quickly,
while the whistle of the wood-pewee is softer and more plaintive, and is
repeated with less emphasis and more deliberation. There is, indeed,
something inexpressibly sad and dreamy about the strain of the
wood-pewee, especially if heard at a distance in the “emerald twilight”
of the “woodland privacies.” Mr. Lowell seldom erred in his attempts to
characterize the songs and habits of the birds, but in his exquisite
poem entitled “Phœbe” he certainly must have referred to the wood-pewee
and not to the phœbe-bird, as his description applies to the former but
not to the latter. He calls this bird “the loneliest of its kind,” while
the pewit is a familiar species about many a country home. Taking it for
granted that he meant the wood-pewee, how happy is his description!

  “It is a wee sad-colored thing,
    As shy and secret as a maid;
  That ere in choir the robins ring,
    Pipes its own name like one afraid.

  “It seems pain-prompted to repeat
    The story of some ancient ill,
  But _Phœbe! Phœbe!_ sadly sweet,
    Is all it says, and then is still.

                               · · · · · · ·

  “_Phœbe!_ it calls and calls again;
    And Ovid, could he but have heard,
  Had hung a legendary pain
    About the memory of the bird.

                               · · · · · · ·

  “_Phœbe!_ is all it has to say
    In plaintive cadence o’er and o’er,
  Like children who have lost their way,
    And know their names, but nothing more.”

This poetical tribute is certainly very graceful, and would be true to
life if the phonetic representation were a little more accurate. Instead
of _Phœbe_, imagine the song to be _Pe-e-w-e-e-e_ or _Phe-e-w-e-e-e_,
and you will gain a clear idea of the minstrelsy of this songster of the
wildwood. However, he frequently varies his tune,—to prevent its
becoming monotonous, I opine. He sometimes closes his refrain with the
falling inflection or circumflex, and sometimes with the rising, as the
mood prompts him. In the former case the first syllable receives the
greater emphasis and is the more prolonged, and in the latter this order
is precisely reversed. When the last syllable is uttered with the rising
circumflex, it is usually, if not always, cut off somewhat abruptly.
Moreover, this minstrel often runs the two syllables of his song
together,—a peculiarity that I have represented in my notes, taken while
listening to the song, in this way: _Phe-e-e-o-o-w-e-e-e!_ There is a
characteristic swing about the melody that refuses to be caught in the
mesh of letters and syllables.

In some of the pewee’s vocal efforts he does not get farther than the
end of the first syllable. The song seems to be cut off short, as if the
notes had stuck fast in the singer’s throat, or as if something had
occurred to divert his mind from the song. Perhaps this hiatus is caused
by the sudden appearance of an insect glancing by, which attracts the
musician’s attention. This bird usually chooses a dead twig or limb in
the woods as a perch, on which he sits and sings, turning his head from
side to side, so that no flitting moth may escape him.

And what a persistent singer he is! He sings not only in the spring when
other vocalists are in full tune, but also all summer long, never
growing disheartened, even when the mercury rises far up into the
nineties. What a pleasant companion he has been in my midsummer strolls
as I have wearily patrolled the woods! On the sultriest August days,
when all other birds were glad to keep mute, sitting on their shady
perches with open mandibles and drooping wings, the dreamful, far-away
strain of the wood-pewee has drifted, a welcome sound, to my ears
through the dim aisles. He seems to be a friend in need. How often, when
the heat has almost overcome me, as I pursued my daily beat, that song
has put new vigor into my veins! When Mr. Lowell wrote that

      “The phœbe scarce whistles
  Once an hour to his fellow,”

he must have been listening to a far lazier specimen than those with
which I am acquainted.

Most birds fall occasionally into a kind of ecstasy of song, and the
wood-pewee is no exception. One evening, after it had grown almost dark,
a pewee flew out into the air directly above my head from a tree by the
wayside, and began to sing in a perfect transport as he wheeled about;
then he swung back into the tree, keeping up his song in a continuous
strain, and in sweet, half-caressing tones, until finally it died away,
as if the bird had fallen into a doze during his vocal recital. I
lingered about for some time, but he did not sing again. Why should he
repeat his good-night song?

I have frequently heard young pewees in midsummer singing in a
continuous way, instead of whistling the intermittent song of their
elders. It sounds very droll, giving you the impression that the little
neophyte has begun to turn the crank of his music-box and can’t stop.
His voice is quite sweet, but his execution is very crude. Wait,
however, until he is eight or nine months older, and he will show you
what a winged Orpheus can do. My notes say that on the thirtieth of
July, 1891, I heard a “pewee’s quaint, prolonged whistle, interlarded
with his ordinary notes.” Thus it will be seen that he is a somewhat
versatile songster, proving the poet’s lines half true and half untrue:—

  “The birds but repeat without ending
    The same old traditional notes,
  Which some, by more happily blending,
    Seem to make over new in their throats.”

Younger readers may, perhaps, need to be informed that the wood-pewee
belongs to the family of flycatchers, as do also the king-bird or
bee-martin, the phœbe-bird, the great-crested flycatcher, and a number
of other interesting species, all of which have a peculiar way of taking
their prey. The pewee will sit almost motionless on a twig, lisping his
plaintive tune at intervals, until a luckless insect comes buzzing near,
all unconscious of its peril, when the bird will make a quick dash at
it, seize it dexterously between his mandibles, and then circle around
gracefully to the same or another perch, having made a splendid “catch
on the fly.” If the quarry he has taken is small, it slips at once down
his throat; but should it be too large to be disposed of in that summary
way, he will beat it into an edible form upon a limb before gulping it
down. Agile as he is, he sometimes misses his aim, being compelled to
make a second, and occasionally even a third attempt to secure his
prize. I have witnessed more than one comedy which turned out to be a
tragedy for the ill-starred insect. Sometimes the insect will resort to
the ruse of dropping toward the ground when it sees the bird darting
toward it, and then a scuffle ensues that is really laughable, the
pursuer whirling, tumbling, almost turning somersault in his desperate
efforts to capture his prize. Once an insect flew between me and a pewee
perched on a twig, when the bird darted down toward me with a directness
of aim that made me think for a moment he would fly right into my face;
but he made a dexterous turn in time, caught his quarry, and swung to a
bough near by. If one were disposed to be speculative, one might well
raise Sidney Lanier’s pregnant inquiry at this point, the reference
being to the southern mocking-bird, and not to our pewee,—

  “How may the death of that dull insect be
  The life of yon trim Shakspeare, on the tree?”

It has been my good fortune to find one, but only one, nest of this
bird. It was placed on a horizontal branch about fifteen feet above the
ground, and was a neat, compact structure, decorated on the outside with
grayish lichens and moss, giving it the appearance of an excrescence on
the limb.[6] It is said by those who have closely examined the nests,
that they are handsomely built and ornamented, and are equalled only by
the dainty houses of the humming-bird and the blue-gray gnat-catcher.
The eggs, usually four in number, are of a creamy white hue, beautifully
embellished with a wreath of lavender and purplish-brown around the
larger end or near the centre.

Though our bird prefers solitary places for his home, he is far from
shy, if you call on him in his haunt in the wildwood. He will sit
fearless on his perch, even if you come quite near, looking at you in
his staid, philosophical way, as if you were scarcely worth noticing.
Nor will he hush his song at your approach, although he does not seem to
care whether you listen to him or not. It is seldom that he can be
betrayed into doing an undignified act; and even if he does almost turn
a somersault in pursuing a refractory miller, he recovers his poise the
next moment, and settles upon his perch with as much _sang froid_ as if
nothing unusual had occurred. Altogether, the wood-pewee is what
Bradford Torrey would call a “character in feathers.”



                                  XII.
                         A PAIR OF NIGHT-HAWKS.


The night-hawk and the whippoorwill are often confounded by persons of
inaccurate habits of observation. It is true, both birds are members of
the goatsucker family; but they belong to entirely different genera, and
are therefore of much more distant kin than many people suppose. The
whippoorwill is a forest bird, while the night-hawk prefers the open
country. Besides, the whippoorwill is decidedly nocturnal in his habits,
making the woods ring at night, as every one knows, with his weird,
flutelike melody; whereas the night-hawk is a bird of the day and
evening. Then, a peculiar mark of the night-hawk is the round white spot
on his wings, visible on the under surface as he performs his wonderful
feats overhead,—a mark that does not distinguish his woodland relative.

As a rule, the gloaming is the favorite time for the night-hawk’s
wing-exercises; then he may be seen whirling, curveting, mounting, and
plunging, often at a dizzy height, gathering his supper of insects as he
flies; but his petulant call is often heard at other hours of the day,
perhaps at noon when the sun is shining with fierce warmth. Even during
a shower he seems to be fond of haunting the cloudy canopy, toying with
the wind.

His call, as he tilts overhead, is difficult to represent phonetically,
both the vowels and consonants being provokingly elusive and hard to
catch. To me he seems usually to say _Spe-ah_. Sometimes the _S_ appears
to be omitted, or is enunciated very slightly, while at other times his
call seems to have a decidedly sibilant beginning. On several occasions
he seemed to pronounce the syllable _Scape_.

I had often watched the marvellous flight of these birds, as they passed
like living silhouettes across the sky; but they had always seemed so
shy and unapproachable that, prior to the summer of 1891, I had
despaired of ever finding a night-hawk’s nest. However, one evening in
June, while stalking about in the marsh, I suddenly became aware of a
large bird fluttering uneasily about me in the gathering darkness.
Presently it was joined by its mate, and then the two birds circled and
hovered about, often coming into uncomfortable proximity with my head,
and muttering under their breath, _Chuckle! chuckle!_ Several times one
of them alighted for a few moments on the rail-fence near by, and then
resumed its circular flight. Even in the darkness I recognized that my
uncanny companions were night-hawks, and felt convinced that there must
be a nest in the neighborhood, or they would not display so much
anxiety. It was too late to discover their secret that evening, and,
besides, I really felt a slight chill creeping up my back, with those
dark, ghostly forms wheeling about my head, and so I went reluctantly
home.

Two days later I found time to visit the marsh. On reaching the spot
where the two birds had been seen, presto! a dark feathered form started
up before me from the ground. It was the female night-hawk; and there on
the damp earth, without the least trace of a nest or a covering of any
kind, lay two eggs. At last I had found a night-hawk’s nest! The
ground-color of the eggs, which were quite large, was of a dirty
bluish-gray cast, mottled and clouded with darker gray and brown.

The behavior of the mother bird was curious. She had fluttered away a
few rods, pretending to be hurt, and then dropped into the grass. On my
driving her from her hiding-place, she rose in the air and began to
hover about above my head, and then, to my utter surprise, she swooped
down toward me savagely, as if she really had a mind to attack me. As I
walked away, she seemed to grow angrier and bolder, making a swift dash
at me every few minutes, and actually coming so near my head as to cause
me involuntarily to raise my cane in self-defence. A quaver of
uneasiness went through me. I really believe she would have struck me
had I given her sufficient provocation. There was a brisk shower falling
at the time, and so, fearing the eggs might become addled, I hurried to
the remote end of the marsh. Suddenly my feathered pursuer disappeared.
Wondering if she had resumed her place on the nest, I sauntered back to
settle the doubt, but presently espied her sitting lengthwise on a top
rail of the fence, while her eggs lay unprotected in the rain. Her dark,
mottled form and sleepy, half-closed eyes made a quaint picture. I
slowly withdrew, and as long as I could see her with my glass, she kept
her perch on the rail without moving a pinion.

On the twenty-third of June another call was made on the night-hawk
family, when I found two odd-looking bairns in the nest, if nest it
could be called. They were covered with soft down, the black and white
of which presented a wavy appearance. Their short, thick bills were
covered with a speckled fuzz, except the tips. I stooped down and
smoothed their downy backs with my hand, but there was no expression of
fear in their sluggish eyes.

Both parents were present on the twenty-sixth of June. For a while the
male bird pursued his mate savagely through the air, as if venting on
her his anger at my intrusion, and then, mounting far up toward the sky
and poising a moment, he plunged toward the earth with a velocity that
made my head dizzy, checking himself, as is his wont, with a loud
resounding _Bo-o-m-m_. The female again pursued her unwelcome visitor,
swooping so near my head two or three times that I could have reached
her with my cane. The cock bird, curiously enough, never displayed so
much courage, but kept at a safe distance.

On the twenty-ninth the young birds had been moved about a half rod from
the original site of the nest, and hopped off awkwardly into the grass
when I tried to clasp them with my hand. The benedict was absent this
time, and was never seen on any of my subsequent visits while the young
birds were fledging. By the first of July the bantlings hopped about in
a lively manner at my approach to their domicile, and wheezed in a
frightened way, spreading out their mottled pinions. On the seventh of
July neither of the parents was to be seen, and the youngsters sat so
cosily side by side on the ground that I had not the heart to disturb
their slumbers. Approaching cautiously on the tenth, I almost stepped on
the mother bird before she flew up. At the same moment both young birds
started from the ground, and fluttered away in different directions on
their untried wings, their flight being awkward and labored. A few weeks
later four night-hawks were circling about above the marsh,—no doubt the
family that had been affording me such an interesting study. What was my
surprise when one of them resented my presence by swooping down toward
me, as the female had done a few weeks before!

Reference has already been made incidentally to the night-hawk’s curious
habit of “booming,” as it is called. This sound is always produced as he
plunges in an almost perpendicular course from a dizzy height,—or, more
correctly, at the end of that headlong plunge, just as he sweeps around
in a graceful curve. There is something almost sepulchral about the
reverberating sound. How it is produced is a problem over which there
has been no small amount of discussion in ornithological circles. But
after considerable study of this queer performance, I am persuaded that
it is a vocal outburst, produced either for its musical effect (though
it is far from musical), or else to give vent to the bird’s exuberance
of feeling as he makes his swift descent.

His thick, curved bill seems admirably adapted to produce this sound, as
do also his arched throat and neck. It has seemed to me, too, that his
mandibles fly open at the moment the boom is heard, although I cannot be
sure such is the case. Besides, the peculiar _chuckle_, previously
referred to, had about it a quality of sound suggestive of kinship with
the bird’s resounding boom. The hollow, wheezy alarm-call of the young
birds, heard on several of my visits to the nest in the marsh,
corroborates this theory. But there is still further proof that this
hypothesis is correct. The night-hawk often makes his headlong plunge
without booming at all, but merely utters his ordinary rasping, aerial
call, which has been translated by the syllable _Spe-ah_. Then he
sometimes combines the two calls, and on such occasions both of the
sounds are uttered with a diminished loudness, as one would expect if
both are vocal performances, but as one would _not_ expect if the
booming were made by the concussion of the bird’s wings with the
resisting air, as some ornithologists suppose. The female sometimes
booms, but her voice obviously lacks the strong, resounding quality that
characterizes the voice of her liege lord.



                                 XIII.
                           A BIRDS’ GALA-DAY.


In Mr. Emerson’s poem entitled “May Morning” this stanza occurs:—

  “When the purple flame shoots up,
    And Love ascends the throne,
  I cannot hear your songs, O birds,
    For the witchery of my own.”

It would seem, therefore, that to be a poet does not always give one the
coign of vantage in observing Nature, but may, on the contrary, prove a
positive disadvantage. Should the rambler go about “crooning rhymes” and
making an over-sweet melody to himself, instead of keeping his ear alert
to the music around him, he would be likely to miss many a wild, sweet
song fully as enchanting as his own measured lines. No music of my own,
however, diverted my mind from Nature’s blithe minstrels as, on the
twenty-ninth of April, 1892, I pursued my avian studies in some of my
favorite resorts.

It was nine o’clock when I reached the quiet woodland lying beyond a
couple of fields. The first fact noted was the return of a number of
interesting migrants which had not been present on the preceding day.
They had, as is their wont, come by night from some more southern
rendezvous. Among them was the oven-bird or accentor, announcing his
presence with his startling song, which at first seemed to come from a
distance, but gradually drew nearer, like a voice walking toward me as
it grew louder and more accelerated. On account of this quaint
ventriloquial quality of voice, the little vocalist is often very
difficult to find, and you are sure to look in a dozen places before you
at last descry him. What a sedate genius he is, as he sits atilt on a
twig, or walks in his leisurely fashion on the leaf-carpeted ground,
looking up at you at intervals out of his sage, beady eyes.

I have hinted that the oven-bird was first seen and then heard. In this
respect the habits of different species of birds differ widely. The
accentors, meadow-larks, orioles, bobolinks, Bewick’s wrens, summer
warblers, white-crowned sparrows, and some other species usually begin
at once to celebrate with pæans their return to their old haunts;
whereas the wood-thrushes, brown thrashers, and white-throated sparrows
seem to wait several days after their arrival before they tune their
harps,—a diversity of behavior difficult to explain. Scarcely less
inexplicable is the fact that some species arrive in scattered flocks,
others in battalions and armies, and others still, one by one. My notes
made on this day contain this statement: “Yesterday I heard a single
call of the red-headed woodpecker; to-day the woods are full of these
birds.”

On the first day of April the first Bewick’s wren of the spring
appeared, but, strange to say, not another wren was seen until near the
end of the month. A single bird often goes ahead of the main body of
migrants like a scout or outrider; while not infrequently a small
company precedes the approaching army in the capacity, perhaps, of an
advance guard.

Threading my way through the “dim vistas, sprinkled o’er with
sun-flecked green,” to an open space near the border of the woods, I had
the opportunity of listening to an improvised cat-bird concert, without
a cent of charge for admission. Here some mental notes were made on the
vocal qualities of this bird in comparison with those of the celebrated
brown thrasher, and with some hesitancy I give my conclusions. Each
songster has his special points of excellence. The thrasher has more
voice volume than his rival, his technique is better, he glides more
smoothly from one part of his song to another, and executes several runs
that for pure melody and skill in rendering go beyond the cat-bird’s
ability; but, on the other hand, it must be said that the latter
minstrel’s song contains fewer harsh, coarse, unmusical notes; his
voice, on the whole, is of a finer quality, is pitched to a higher key,
and his vocal performances are characterized by greater artlessness or
_naïveté_. Though professing to be no connoisseur, I have never felt so
deeply stirred by the thrasher’s as by the cat-bird’s minstrelsy. There
does not seem to be so much fervor and real passion in the vocal efforts
of the tawny musician.

A little farther on, I again turned my steps into a dense section of the
woods. Suddenly there was a twinkle of wings, a flash of olive-green, a
sharp _Chip_, and then there before me, a few rods away, a little bird
went hopping about on the ground, picking up dainties from the brown
leaves. What could it be? Was I about to find a species that was new to
me? It really seemed so. My opera-glass, when levelled upon the bird,
revealed olive-green upper parts, yellow or buff under parts, and four
black stripes on the head, two on the pileum and one through each eye.
It was the rare worm-eating warbler (_Helmitherus vermivorus_) at
last,—a bird that had for many years eluded me. The little charmer was
quite wary, chirping nervously while I ogled him,—for it was a male,—and
then hopped up into a sapling, and finally scurried away out of sight.

A few steps farther on in the woods an extremely fine cat-like call
swung down, like thread of sound, from the tree-tops. Of course, it was
my tiny acquaintance the blue-gray gnat-catcher, and his pretty spouse,
who had arrived, perhaps from Cuba or Guatemala, a few days before. What
an immense distance for their frail little wings to traverse, “through
tracts and provinces of sky”! You seldom see anything more dainty and
dream-like than the fluttering of these birds from one tree-top to
another, reminding you of an animated cloudlet hovering and darting
about in mid-air. Not a more fay-like bird visits my woodland than the
blue-gray gnat-catcher. Even the ruby-throated hummingbird, though still
smaller, seems rather roly-poly in comparison; and no warbler, not even
the graceful redstart, can flit about so airily. One of the
gnat-catchers in the tree-top presently darted out after a miller, which
tried to escape by letting itself fall toward the ground. A vigorous
drama followed. The bird plunged nimbly after, whirling round and round
in a spiral course until it had secured its wriggling prize.

The gnat-catcher lisps a little song,—a gossamer melody, it might be
called. His slender voice has quite a “resonant tang.” On that day I did
not take notes on his music, but the next day I had a good opportunity
to do so; and I give the result, especially as no minute description of
this bird’s song has been recorded, so far as I know. I had often heard
it before, but had neglected to listen to it intently enough to analyze
its peculiar quality. Bending my ear upon it, I distinctly and
unmistakably detected, besides the bird’s own notes, the notes of three
other birds,—those of the cat-bird’s alarm-call, of the phœbe’s song,
and of the goldfinch’s song and call. The imitation in each case was
perfect, save that the gnat-catcher’s tones were slenderer than those of
the birds whose music he had (if I may so speak) plagiarized. Is this
tiny minstrel a mocker? Perhaps my description may be a surprise to many
students of bird minstrelsy, but I can only say that, having listened to
the song for fully an hour, I could not well have been mistaken. Several
times the reproduction of the goldfinch’s song was so perfect that I
looked the tree all over again and again with my glass for that bird,
but goldfinches there were none about. Moreover, the gnat-catcher was in
plain sight, dropping quite low in the tree part of the time; and there
can be no doubt that every strain proceeded from his lyrical little
throat.

The forenoon and part of the afternoon slipped away all too rapidly,
bringing many valuable additions to my stock of bird lore; but I must
pass others by to describe the most important “find” (to me) of this
red-letter day in my experience. At about half-past four o’clock I
reached an old bush-covered gravel-bank where many birds of various
species have been encountered. As I stepped near a pool at the foot of
the bank, a little bird flashed into view, setting my pulses all
a-flutter. It was the hooded warbler, the first of the species I had
ever seen. He was recognizable at once by the bright yellow hood he
wore, bordered all around with deep black. A bright, flitting blossom of
the bird world!

For fully an hour I lingered in that “embowered solitude,” watching the
bird’s quaint behavior, which deserves more than a mere passing notice.
He was not in the least shy or nervous, but seemed rather to court my
presence. Almost every moment was spent in capturing insects on the wing
or in sitting on a perch watching for them to flash into view. Like a
genuine flycatcher, as soon as a buzzing insect hove in sight, he would
dart out after it, and never once failed to secure his prize. Sometimes
he would plunge swiftly downward after a gnat or a miller, and once,
having caught a miller that was large and inclined to be refractory, he
flew to the ground, beat it awhile on the clods, and then swallowed it
with a consequential air which seemed to say, “That is my way of
disposing of such cases!” Several times he mounted almost straight up
from his perch, and twice he almost turned a somersault in pursuit of an
insect. Once he clung like a titmouse to the bole of a sapling. I could
often hear the snapping of his mandibles as he nabbed his prey. When an
insect came between him and myself, he would fearlessly dash directly
toward me, as if he meant to fly in my face or alight on my head, often
coming within a few feet of me. He seemed to be as confiding as a child.
When I stepped to the other end of the gravel-bank, going even a little
beyond it, curiously enough, the bird pursued me; then, as an
experiment, I walked back to my first post of observation, and, to my
surprise, he followed me again. Was he really desirous of my company? Or
did he know that I intended to ring his praises in type? At length I
stole away a short distance among the trees, but presently a loud
chirping in my rear arrested my attention. I turned back, and found it
to be my new-made friend, the hooded warbler, who, strange to say,
seemed to be calling me back to his haunt. Then I climbed to the top of
the gravel-bank; he selected perches higher up in the saplings than
before, so as to be nearer me,—at least, so it appeared. The
affectionate little darling! The only other sound he uttered during the
entire time of our hobnobbing—his and mine—was the slenderest hint of a
song, which was really more of a twitter than a tune.

But at last I bade the little sorcerer a reluctant adieu. In a hollow of
the woods I lay down on the green grass, and listened for half an hour
to the lyrical medley of a brown thrasher perched on a treetop. It was
indeed a wonderful performance, and the longer I listened the more its
witchery grew upon me. My special purpose in bending my whole attention
upon this performance was to see if the thrasher mimicked the songs of
other birds. Many persons think him a genuine imitator; indeed, in some
places he is called the northern mocking-bird. I am forced to say,
however, that, as far as my observation goes, he does not mimic, but
sings his own compositions, like the original genius he is. In all that
song, and others since listened to, not a single strain did he utter
that I could positively identify as belonging to the musical repertoire
of another bird. It is true, he sometimes, in the midst of his song,
uttered the alarm call of the robin; but as both birds belong to the
same family, this was not to be wondered at, and affords no evidence of
the gift of imitation. If the thrasher does mimic his fellow-minstrels,
as many persons contend, the borrowed notes are so brief and so
intermingled and blent with his own music as to be unrecognizable.

On the other hand, this tawny vocalist utters musical strains that are
entirely unlike anything else in the whole realm of bird minstrelsy,
proving his song to be characteristic. The brown thrasher is not a
musical pirate, but an original composer,—a sort of Mozart or Beethoven
in the bird world. And how wonderful are some of his slurred runs!
Nothing in the domain of music could be finer, and the harsh notes he
frequently interpolates only serve to accentuate and enhance the melody
of those that are truly lyrical.

In his engaging book entitled “Birds in the Bush,” Bradford Torrey, who
is second to none in the school of popular writers on feathered folk,
characterizes this tawny vocalist in a most admirable manner. However,
in regard to the matter of mimicry, his observations differ slightly
from my own; yet I gladly quote what he says rather incidentally on the
subject. One day he was listening to three thrashers singing
simultaneously. “In the midst of the hurly-burly,” he writes, “one of
the trio suddenly sounded the whippoorwill’s call twice,—an absolutely
perfect reproduction.” Then he adds, somewhat jocosely, in a foot-note:
“The ‘authorities’ long since forbade _Harporhynchus rufus_ to play the
mimic. Probably in the excitement of the moment this fellow forgot
himself.” Of course, one cannot gainsay the testimony of so careful an
observer and so conscientious a reporter as Mr. Torrey; yet it is
possible that this whippoorwill call was only a slip of the thrasher’s
voice and not an intended imitation; at all events, in my opinion, such
vocal coincidences, whether accidental or designed, are of rare
occurrence.

Since the foregoing observations were made and first published, I have
often sought to prove them untrue, but have failed. No thrasher has
ever, in my hearing, unmistakably plagiarized a single strain from his
fellow-musicians. Fearing my ear for music might be defective, rendering
me incapable of distinguishing correctly the various songs of birds, I
put myself to the test in this way: On one of the streets of my native
town there is a brilliant mocking-bird, whose cage is often hung out on
a veranda. Again and again I have stopped to listen to his ringing
medley, and have never failed to hear him distinctly mimic the songs and
calls of other birds, such as the robin, blue jay, cardinal grossbeak,
and red-headed woodpecker. Why should I be able instantly to detect the
notes of other birds in the mocker’s song and never once be able to
detect them in the song of the thrasher?

But it is fully time to return to my ramble. The gifted songster in the
tree-top would sometimes pipe a strain of such exquisite sweetness that
it seemed to surprise himself; he would pause a moment, as if to reflect
upon it and fix it in mind for future use; and erelong he would repeat
it, reminding his admiring auditor of Browning’s lines on the Wise
Thrush,—

          “He sings each song twice over,
  Lest you should think he never could recapture
  The first fine careless rapture.”

New strains were continually introduced. So loud and full were some of
his notes that “the blue air trembled with his song,” and the woods
fairly woke into echoes. It is really doubtful if the disparaging term
“hurly-burly” should be applied to such peerless vocalization. It was
bird opera music of the highest style, improvised for the occasion, and
formed a fitting conclusion to this rare birds’ gala-day.



                                  XIV.
                            RIFE WITH BIRDS.
                        A JAUNT TO A NEW FIELD.


A four days’ outing along the Ohio River one spring brought me some
“finds” that may be of interest to bird lovers. Everywhere there were
the twinkle of wings, the twitter of voices, and the charm of song;
indeed, so plentiful were the feathered folk that the title of this
article is far less poetical than realistic and descriptive. It was the
latter part of May, the time in that latitude when the birds were in
full song, at least those which were not too busy with their family
cares. Sixty-four species were seen during a stay of four days in the
neighborhood.

Mine host was a farmer whose premises afforded a habitat for numerous
birds, there being many trees and bushes in the yard and a large orchard
near by. In one of the silver maples a pair of warbling vireos had built
a tiny pendent cradle, as is their wont, set in a bower of shining twigs
and green leaves. There it swayed in the zephyrs, rocking the birdlings
to sleep and filling their dreams with rhythm; and the lullabies that
the happy parents sang were cheerful and engaging, in spite of the fact
that some critic has pronounced the minstrelsy of the warbling vireo
tiresome. Tiresome, forsooth! Truth to tell, the more closely you listen
to it the sweeter it grows. All day long, from peep of dawn to evening
twilight, those quaint, continuous lays could be heard, now subdued and
desultory, now almost as vigorous as a robin’s carol.

It sometimes seemed as if the vireos and orchard orioles were rival
vocalists. If so, a prize should be awarded to both,—to the vireos for
persistency, for never letting up; to the orioles for richness and
melody of tone. Many a rollicking two-part concert they gave.

But there were other voices frequently heard in the chorus, though not
so continuously as those of the birds just mentioned. A song-sparrow,
which had built a dainty cot in a bush not two rods from the veranda,
sometimes trilled an interlude of entrancing sweetness, taking the bays
for real tunefulness from every rival. Then, to my surprise, a Maryland
yellow-throat, shy little fellow in other places, would frequently sing
his heart out in the small trees and silver maples of the front yard. He
did not fly off or discontinue his song when an auditor stood right
beneath his perch, but would throw back his masked head, distend his
golden throat, and deliver his trill to his own and everybody else’s
satisfaction. Very often, too, the indigo-bird, just returned from a
bath in the cerulean depths, would enrich the harmony with the most
rollicksome, if not the most tuneful lay of the chorus. As a sort of
accompaniment, the chipping-sparrow often trilled his silvery monotone;
and once a robin added his _Cheerily, here, here!_

So much for the birds about the house, though there were many others
that have not been mentioned; in fact, there were some twenty species in
all. There were also birds a-plenty in other places. A half day was
spent in some fields bordering the broad river. On a green slope was a
bush-sparrow’s nest, daintily bowered in the grass by the side of a
blackberry bush, and in a thicket hard by two yellow-breasted chats had
placed their grassy cradles, proclaiming their secret to all the world
by their loud cries of warning to keep away. It is odd that these birds,
shy and nervous as they are, should go so far out of their way to tell
you that they have a nest somewhere in the copse that you mustn’t touch,
mustn’t even look for. While you are yet a quarter of a mile away, they
will utter their loud cries of warning; and if you go to the thicket
where they are, you will be almost sure to find their nest, so poorly
have they learned the lesson of discretion.

In a little hollow of the copse a dying crow lay prone upon the ground.
At intervals he would struggle and gasp in a spasmodic way. When I
gently moved him with my cane, he grasped it with his claws and held it
quite firmly. I put the stick to his large black beak. He took hold of
it feebly, ready to defend himself even with his last gasp, for that it
proved to be; he lay over and died the next instant. I could not give
the pathology of the case, as no wounds could be found on his body.

One of the most interesting finds of the day was the nest of a green
heron, often called “fly-up-the-creek.” The nest, only a loosely
constructed platform of sticks, was placed on the branches of a leaning
clump of small trees, and was about twenty feet from the ground. The
startled bird flew back and forth in the row of trees, and even went
back to the nest while I watched her at a distance, but was too shy to
remain there when I went near. In spite of the offensive nicknames
foisted upon this heron, it is a handsome bird. As this one flew back
and forth she made quite an elegant picture, with her long, glossy-brown
neck and tail, white throat-line, ash-blue back, dappled under parts,
and the long, slender feathers draping her hind-neck. But why was she
called the green heron? Look as sharply as I would, I could descry no
green in her plumage. A few days later, however, I examined a mounted
specimen, and then the puzzle was solved; for an iridescent green patch
on the wing was so marked a feature of its coloration as to account for
the bird’s common name.

Memory will always linger fondly about a certain afternoon and evening
spent on the steep hills mounting up toward the sky a quarter of a mile
or more back from the river. To a pedestrian like myself, used to
rambling over a comparatively level scope of country, these high hills
afforded a wonderful prospect, and almost made my head dizzy, as I
clambered far up their steep sides. Perhaps the mountain-climber would
think them tame. It made my head swim that evening to see a towhee
bunting dart from a copse near by and hurl himself with reckless abandon
down the declivity, as if there were not the slightest danger of
breaking his neck or dashing himself to pieces. He stopped just in time
to plunge into another thicket for which he had taken aim.

As the sun sank, I seated myself on the grass far up the steep, and
looked down on the beautiful valley below me. There was the broad Ohio,
wending its way between the sentinel hills, the green clover fields and
meadows smiling good-night to the sinking sun, and the brown ploughed
fields with their green corn-rows. A wood-thrush mounted to a dead twig
at the very top of a tall oak some distance below me, and poured forth
his sad vesper hymn, so bewitchingly sweet and far-away; the while
Kentucky warblers and cardinal grossbeaks piped their lullabies or
madrigals, as they chose, from the darkling woods; and, altogether, it
was a never-to-be-forgotten evening.

An early morning hour found me climbing the acclivity and mounting to
the top of the hill. In a clover-field the gossamer _Tse-e-e_ of the
grasshopper sparrow, a birdlet among birds, pierced my ear. Presently a
pair of these sparrows were seen on the fence-stakes, and, yes, one of
them had a worm in its bill, indicating that there were little ones in
the neighborhood. If I could find a grasshopper sparrow’s nest! Often
had I sought for one, but without success. For a long while my eyes
followed the bird with the worm in her bill. Every now and then she
would dart over into the grass as if to feed her bantlings, and I would
mark the spot where she alighted; but when I went to it no nest or
birdlings were to be found. Again and again I fairly trembled, thinking
myself on the verge of a discovery, only to be balked completely in the
end. But one victory was won; I got close enough to the bird to see
distinctly with my glass the yellow markings on the edge of the wings,—a
characteristic I had never before been able to make out. Curiously
enough, one wing of this bird was quite profusely tinged with yellow,
while the yellow of the other could just be distinguished.

Why should not a bird-student frankly chronicle his failures as well as
his successes? During the day I encountered three birds that I was
unable to identify, try as I would. One was singing lustily in some tall
trees, and when at length I got my glass upon him he looked like a
Carolina wren; but that bird has been a familiar acquaintance for many
years,—comparatively speaking,—and I have so often heard his varied
roundels that they certainly are all known to me. Moreover, the quality
of this mysterious singer’s voice and the manner of his execution were
wholly different from those of the Carolina or any other wren of my
acquaintance. The following is a transcription of the song as near as it
could be represented by letters: _Che-ha-p-e-e-r-r-r!_
_che-ha-p-e-e-r-r-r!_ repeated at brief intervals loudly and vigorously,
but without variation. The bird had a white superciliary line,
brownish-barred wings, and whitish under parts. A consultation of all
the manuals in my possession fails to solve the problem.

In a deep gorge, cut through the country by a small creek—small now, at
least—on its way to the river, two curious bird calls were heard; but
one bird kept himself hidden in a dense thicket, and the other bolted
into the dark woods that covered a steep acclivity. The first bird sang
rather than called, and the words he said sounded quite distinct:
_Che-o-wade’ll-wade’ll-chip!_—a sentiment that he repeated again and
again.

In spite of these disappointments my jaunt through this ravine was
exceedingly pleasant,—so delightfully quiet and solitary; not a human
sound to disturb the sacredness of the place; nothing but the songs and
calls of wild birds.

  “’Twas one of those charmed days
    When the genius of God doth flow;
  The wind may alter twenty ways,
    A tempest cannot blow:
  It may blow north, it still is warm;
    Or south, it still is clear;
  Or east, it smells like a clover-farm;
    Or west, no thunder fear.”

In one of the loneliest parts of the ravine there appeared on the scene
my first Louisiana water-thrush, often called the large-billed wagtail.
There it stood “teetering” on a spray or a rock, or skimming through the
shallow water, its speckled breast and olive back harmonizing—I had
almost said rhyming—with the gray of the creek’s bed, the crystal of the
water, and the green of the thicket-fringed banks. It was part and
parcel of the scene,—a lone bird in a lone place. But, hold! not lone,
after all. Presently a young wagtail, the image of its mamma, emerged
from somewhere or nowhere, and ran toward the old bird with open mouth,
twinkling wings, and a pretty, coaxing call. She thrust something into
its mouth; but still the bantling coaxed for more, when she dashed away
a few feet, picked up another tidbit from the water, ran back to her
little charge, and fed it again. But now, when it still pursued her, she
seemed to lose her patience, for she rushed threateningly toward it,
causing it to scamper away, and then she flew off. Yet after that she
fed either the same or another youngster a number of times. Once a
water-thrush went swinging down the gorge, the very poetry of graceful
poise and movement, looking more like a naiad than a real
flesh-and-blood birdlet.

On a horizontal branch extending out over the rippling stream, a
wood-thrush sat on her mud cottage; but whether she appreciated the
romantic character of the situation or not, she did not say. There were
many other interesting feathered folk in the gorge and on its wooded
steeps, each “a brother of the dancing leaves;” but to describe them all
would take too long, and merely to name them would be too much like
reciting a dry catalogue.



                                  XV.
                    VARIOUS PHASES OF BIRD LIFE.[7]


                                   I.
                            BIRD COURTSHIP.

No one who has studied the birds can deny that there is genuine sexual
love among them. Many species act on the principle that “a pure life for
two” is the only kind of life to live, and therefore a match once made
is a match that lasts until death does them part. There may be
fickleness, divorce, and downright unfaithfulness among birds sometimes,
and there certainly is polygamy among some species; but such examples of
irregularity are rather the exception than the rule. Monogamy largely
prevails, and I have no doubt that any departure from the regular
connubial relation creates a scandal in bird circles.

As in the human world, so in the bird world a period of courtship
precedes the celebration of the nuptials. But the mode differs in
different kingdoms of creation. Many lovers in feathers conduct their
wooing in a somewhat rudely persistent and obtrusive fashion. Society
would soon ostracize the human suitor having such manners, and might
even consider him amenable to the civil courts, and put him in jail as a
character unfit to be abroad. However, if hot pursuit, brazen manners,
and half-coercive measures are considered “good form” in bird land, we
of the human genus are the last who have a right to find fault, for are
we not the most conventional beings on the face of the earth? You might
almost as well be in limbo or inferno as out of style. Was there not a
time when even the flaming sunflower was regarded as the highest emblem
of the beautiful, merely because it was the “fad,” and not because
anybody really felt that it possessed special æsthetic qualities?
“People who live in glass houses ought not to throw stones,” is the
saucy challenge of the merry chickadee to his human critic, as he
dashes, like an animated “nigger-chaser,” after the little Dulcinea whom
he has marked for his bride. Then he stops, and, balancing on a spray,
whistles his sweetest minor tune, _Pe-e-w-e-e, pe-e-e-w-e-e_; which,
being interpreted, probably means,—

  “Does not all the blood within me
  Leap to meet thee, leap to meet thee,
  As the spring to meet the sunshine?”

No doubt many a feathered swain is smitten, and smitten very deeply too,
with Cupid’s arrow, flung by some charming capturer of hearts. A little
boy’s love-letter to a lassie who had taken his throbbing heart by
storm, ran thus: “I love you very dearly. You are so nice that I don’t
blame anybody for falling in love with you. I don’t see why _everybody_
doesn’t fall in love with you.” If one may judge from the impetuosity
with which most feathered lovers press their suits, there must be many
instances of such captivation in bird land.

Have you ever been witness of the wooing of that half-knightly,
half-boorish bird, the yellow-hammer? In the grove near my house several
pairs of these birds had a great time one spring settling their hymeneal
affairs. For hours a lover would pursue the object of his affections
around and around, never giving her a moment’s respite. No sooner had
she gone bounding to another tree than he would dash after, often
flinging himself recklessly right upon the spot where she had alighted,
compelling her to hitch away, to avoid being struck by her impetuous
lover. His policy seemed to be to take her heart by storm, to wear her
out, to give her no time to think matters over, to compel her, _nolens
volens_, to consent to his proposed marital alliance. No doubt she
finally, said yes, merely to get rid of him, and then failed of her
purpose. After the courtship has passed its first stage, and the wooed
one has grown less shy, the bowings and scrapings of the yellow-hammers
are truly ludicrous. The female will flit away only a short distance,
and will sometimes turn toward her mottled suitor, when they will wag
their heads at each other, now to this side, now to that, in the most
serio-comical manner imaginable. It is the way these lords and ladies of
woodpeckerdom make their royal obeisances.

On a pleasant day in February two downy woodpeckers were “scraping
acquaintance.” The male pursued his sweetheart about in the trees after
the manner of his kind; but occasionally she would stand at bay and
apparently challenge him to come nearer if he dared. Then both of them
would lift their striped forms to an almost perpendicular position,
their heads and beaks pointing straight toward the sky, and their bodies
swaying grotesquely from side to side. This little comedy over, the
finical miss bolted to another tree, with her cavalier in hot pursuit.

Coy as the feathered ladies usually seem, many of them apparently are
genuine flirts, and would feel greatly disappointed should their lovers
give over the chase. They evidently want to be won, but not too easily.
(Perhaps it might be said, _en passant_, there are belles in other than
the bird community who resort to similar _naïve_ and winsome ruses.) In
a shady nook of the woods I once saw a gallant towhee bunting employing
all the arts at his command to win a damsel who seemed very demure. He
was an extremely handsomely formed and finely clad bird,—a real _édition
de luxe_. He flew down to the ground, picked up a brown leaf in his
bill, and flourished it at her, as much as to say, “It is time for
nest-building, dear.” Then he spread his wings and handsome tail, and
strutted almost like a peacock about on the leafy ground. But, no, she
would not, and she would not, and there was no use in talking; she
flitted, half contemptuously, to a more distant bush. That proud cockney
need not think she cared for him! She wasn’t going to lose her heart to
every lovelorn swain who came along. But, mark you, when I tried to
separate them, by driving one to one side of the path and the other to
the opposite side, the little hypocrite contrived every time, with
admirable finesse, to flit over toward her knightly suitor. Three times
the experiment brought the same result. Her maidenly reserve had a good
deal of calculation in it, after all, innocent as she appeared. Perhaps
she had conned Longfellow’s wise quatrain:

  “How can I tell the signals and the signs
  By which one heart another heart divines?
  How can I tell the many thousand ways
  By which it keeps the secret it betrays?”

That the course of true love does not always run smooth in the bird
world as elsewhere, goes without saying. There are feuds and jealousies.
Sometimes two beaux admire the same belle, and then there may be war to
the death. I have seen two rival song-sparrows clutch in the air, peck
and claw at each other viciously, and come down to the ground with a
thud that must have knocked the breath out of them for a few moments.
Incredible as it may seem, an acute observer of bird life declares that
the females are most likely to quarrel and fight over their lovers. At
such times the male stands by, looks on approvingly, and lets them fight
it out, no doubt pluming himself on the fact that he is of sufficient
importance to be the cause of a duel or a sparring-match among the
ladies.

Even those birds that seem to be the impersonation of kindliness often
engage in vigorous wrangles before they are able to settle the troubles
that arise from match-making. The bluebird, of the siren voice and
cerulean hue, is a case in point. Mr. Burroughs describes, in his
inimitable way, the vigorous campaign of two pairs of bluebirds, which
could not decide the subject of matrimony among themselves without
resort to arms. Both the males and females engaged in more than one
set-to. Once the hotheaded lovers closed with each other in the air,
fell to the ploughed ground, and remained there, tugging and pecking and
tweaking for nearly two minutes. Yet, when they separated, neither
seemed to be any the worse for the _mêlée_.

The tiny hummers are extremely belligerent birds. A writer describes the
contests of certain hummingbirds in the island of Jamaica when moved by
jealousy. When two males have become rivals, they will level their long,
pointed bills at each other, and then dash together with the swiftness
of an arrow; they meet, separate, meet again, with shrill chirping, dart
upward, then downward, and circle around and around, until the eye grows
weary of watching them, and can no longer follow their rapid transits.
At length one falls, exhausted, to the ground, while the other rests,
panting and trembling, on a leafy spray, or perhaps tumbles, mortally
wounded, to the earth. There are some diminutive hummers, called Mexican
stars, which become perfect furies when their jealousy is aroused. Their
throats swell; their crests, wings, and tails expand; and they clinch
and spear each other in the air like the veriest disciples of Bellona.
Thus a giant passion may dwell in a pygmy form.

It will be pleasant to turn to more gentle ways of pressing a love-suit.
The manners of some males are very courtly while trying to win a spouse.
They strut about most gracefully, and display their plumes to the best
advantage, as if they would charm the coy damsel of their choice. The
dainty kinglets erect and expand their crest feathers so that the golden
or ruby spot spreads over the entire crown, making them look handsome
indeed.

It has never been my good fortune to witness the wooing of the ruffed
grouse, miscalled the partridge in New England and the pheasant in the
Middle States; but Mr. Langille has seen the performance, and with good
reason goes into raptures over it. He describes it in this way: “Behold
the male strutting before the female in time of courtship! The first
time I saw him in this act I was utterly at a loss to identify him. The
ruff about the neck is perfectly erect, so that the head is almost
disguised; the wings are partially opened and drooped gracefully; the
feathers are generally elevated; the tail, with its rich, black band, is
spread to the utmost and thrown forward. Thus he stands, nearly
motionless, a genuine object of beauty.”

One of the most brilliant exhibitions of this kind must be that of the
great emerald birds of Paradise, as they disport themselves before the
object of their affection. They gather in flocks of from twelve to
twenty on certain trees. Mr. A. R. Wallace, in his “Malay Archipelago,”
gives an interesting description of these “dancing-parties,” as they are
called by the natives. The wings of the male birds, he says, “are raised
vertically over the back; the head is bent down and stretched out; and
the long plumes”—those that spring like spray from the sides or
shoulders—“are raised and expanded till they form two magnificent golden
fans, striped with deep red at the base, and fading off into the pale
brown tint of the finely divided and softly waving points; the whole
bird is then overshadowed by them, the crouching body, yellow head, and
emerald-green throat forming but a foundation and setting to the golden
glory which waves above them.”

No wonder the maiden’s reserve all melts away, and she soon yields
willing consent to her lover’s importunings! There is only one flaw in
this beautiful picture, and that is made by man himself,—man, the
meddler in avian happiness. While the birds are absorbed in their
courtship, the natives, for love of pelf, steal near and shoot them with
blunt arrows. Sometimes all the males are thus murdered, ruthlessly,
heartlessly, before the danger is discovered. Of course the mercenary
butchers sell the plumes for decorative purposes. Gold is the only thing
that glitters in the eyes of a sordid world. Some people spell “God”
with an “l.”

No doubt vocal display also plays a large part in the courtship of
birds. Nothing else in the early spring can wholly account for the
wonderful musical tournaments that one hears lilting so lavishly on the
air. Many a damsel, doubtless, listens to the numerous vocalists of her
neighborhood, and then chooses the suitor whose voice possesses the
finest qualities, or whose madrigals have the truest ring. How many
things may combine to determine the choice of the parties, it would be
difficult to say. Perhaps some birds are handsomer than others in the
eyes of those that are looking for mates; perhaps some have more courtly
and agreeable manners; perhaps some put more fervor into their wooing or
more passion into their songs; perhaps some are better tempered; others
may be more industrious or frugal or tidy, and thus will make better
husbands or housewives. Many a lass doubtless is sorely puzzled as to
whom she shall choose for a mate. One may even fancy her crooning
Addison’s quaint, paradoxical lines to a whimsical lover concerning
whose eligibility she harbors some doubt,—

  “In all thy humors, whether grave or mellow,
  Thou’rt such a touchy, testy, pleasant fellow,
  Hast so much wit and mirth and spleen about thee,
  That there’s no living with thee or without thee.”

One question—not a profound one, I confess—must bring this chapter to a
close: Do the plumed ladies ever propose? One might imagine a lovelorn
female bird throwing aside her maidenly reserve in a fit of desperation,
and singing the lines of Mrs. Browning,—

              “But I love you, sir;
  And when a woman says she loves a man,
  The man must hear her, though he love her not.”


                                  II.
                            BIRD NURSERIES.

A bird’s nest is a bedroom, dining-room, sitting-room, parlor, and
nursery all in one; for there the young birds sleep, eat, rest,
entertain their guests (if they ever have any), and receive their
earliest training. Yet there is no doubt that in treating the nest as a
nursery we make use of the aptest simile that could be chosen. Those who
have not given the matter special attention would scarcely suspect how
many and varied are the interests that cluster around these dwellings of
our little brothers and sisters of field and woodland. The growth of the
bantling family, their mental development, their deportment in the nest,
their chirpings and chatterings, their way of beguiling the time, the
length of their stay in their childhood home,—all these, and many other
problems of equally absorbing interest, can be solved only by the
closest surveillance. But it is no light task to watch a nest at close
enough range to study the natural, unrestrained ways of the young birds.
The fact is, in many, perhaps most, cases it cannot be done.

But before describing the inmates of the nursery it would be well to
give some attention to the nursery itself, its site and structure. By
going to the books I might tell you of many quaint nests, of the nests
of the tailor-bird, the water-ouzel, the parula warbler, the burrowing
owl, and many others; but—begging pardon for my conceit—I prefer not to
get my material second-hand. One would rather describe one’s own
observations, even though one may not be able to present so rare a list
of curios. The nest of the common wood-thrush, right here in my own
neighborhood, is of far more personal interest than the remarkable nest
of the fairy martin of Australia, which I have small hope of ever
seeing.

Having mentioned the nest of the wood-thrush, I might as well begin with
it. It is not a remarkable structure from an architectural point of
view. It might be called a semi-adobe dwelling, thatched with various
kinds of grasses and leaves, and lined with vegetable fibres. It is much
like the nest of the robin, only Madam Thrush does not go quite so
extensively into the plastering business. It has been interesting to
study the ingenuity of these sylvan architects in choosing sites for
their nests. They seem to know just where a nest may be built with the
least labor in order to make it sit firmly in its place. In the woods
that I most frequently haunt there is a sort of bushy sapling whose
branches, at a certain point on the main stem, often grow out almost
horizontally for a few inches, and then form an elbow by shooting up
almost vertically, thus making an arbor, as it were, which says plainly
to the thrush, “This is just the site for a nest.” In these crotches the
wood-thrush rears her dwelling, its walls being firmly supported all
around by the perpendicular branches. Do these saplings grow for the
special benefit of the wood-thrush, or does the feathered artificer
accommodate herself to the circumstances, or is there mutual adaptation
between bird and bush? That is a problem for the evolutionist.

But the thrush often selects other sites for her nursery. One day I
found a nest deftly placed on the point of intersection of two almost
horizontal limbs. From the lower one several small branches grew up in
an oblique direction, to give the walls of the mud cottage firm support.
The intersecting boughs belonged to two different saplings. Another nest
that did not have very strong external support was set down upon the
short stub of a limb, which ran up into the mud floor and held the
structure firmly in place.

One day I stumbled upon a very tall thrush nest, looking almost like a
tower in its crotch. As the nestlings had left, I lifted it from its
place and tore it apart, thinking the thrush might have fallen upon the
summer warbler’s ruse to outwit the cow-bunting by adding another story
to her hut, thus leaving the bunting’s intruded egg in the cellar. But
such was not the case; she had simply done the unorthodox thing of using
an old nest, still in good condition, for a foundation upon which to
rear the new structure. Will the theologians of thrushdom bring charges
of heresy against her? Was it really a case of “_higher_ criticism”? It
may have been, especially when you remember that these thrushes often
weave into their nests fragments of newspapers, some of which may
contain theological discussions.

One peculiarity in the nest-building of most of the birds of my
neighborhood may as well be mentioned now as later; they seldom build in
the densest and most secluded parts of the woods, but usually choose
some bush or sapling near the border, or close to a woodland path or
winding road, where people sometimes pass. Perhaps they do this because
the natural enemies of birds, such as squirrels, minks, and hawks, fight
shy of these pathways traversed by human feet. Perhaps, too, the birds
do not like the gloom and loneliness of the more sequestered portions of
the woods. They like to be semi-sociable, at least, and are not disposed
to make monks and nuns of themselves.

A far more artless nest is that of the turtle-dove. This bird should
attend an industrial college for a term or two, to learn the art of
building; but it would do no good: the meek little thing would cling
obstinately to her inherited ideas, and never become a connoisseur in
nest construction. Sometimes, when you stand beneath her cottage, you
can see her white eggs gleaming through the interstices of the loosely
matted floor. As a rule, she builds on a branch; but something possessed
one little mother, in the spring of 1891, to build her nursery on a
large stump about six feet high, standing right in the midst of the
woods. I fear she was not a well trained bird; but I watched her
closely, and must concede that, whether her conduct was in “good form”
or not, she reared her brood in the most approved manner. I could come
within two feet of her, and almost touch her with my cane, before she
would fly from the nest. How her little round eyes stared at me without
so much as a blink! But she was greatly agitated; for her bosom
palpitated with the violent throbbing of her heart.

“I’ve found a turtle-dove’s nest on the ground,” said my friend, the
young farmer across the fields, one spring day. (No matter about the
year of grace, for every year is a year of grace in bird study.) My head
was shaken skeptically, and I smiled in a patronizing way, for a
turtle-dove’s nest on the ground was an unknown quantity in all my study
of birds; but my friend declared, “Honest Injun!” and I left him to his
obstinate opinions. But, hold! who, after all, proved to be the donkey?
A few days later I myself stumbled upon a turtle-dove’s nest in a
clover-field, flat on the ground. Bird students, be careful how you
dispute the word of these sharp-eyed tillers of the soil!

But for birds that invariably choose old mother earth for the foundation
of their houses, commend me to the American meadow-larks. In this
respect they are certainly groundlings, though not in a bad sense. All
their nests are constructed on the same general plan, it is true; but
the details are quite diverse, proving that architectural designs in the
lark guild of builders are almost as numerous as the builders
themselves. My young farmer friend found a nest early in the spring,
with not a blade of grass near it for protection, while the structure
itself was arched over only a very little in the rear. Another nest was
situated in a pasture, and was almost as devoid of roofing as was the
first nest. But rather late in the spring a nest was found, hidden most
deftly in the clover and plantain leaves, which were woven together in
the most intricate manner so as to form a canopy over the cosey cot. At
one side there was a tunnel, some two feet long, forming the only
entrance to the apartment. The nest proper was arched over from the rear
for fully one half its width. Not ten feet away was another lark’s nest
that was almost wholly exposed to the light and air. In the lark world
there is evidently a good deal of room for originality. There seem to be
many larks of many minds.

My quest for cuckoos’ nests during the summer of 1892 was well rewarded,
but I shall stop to describe only one of these finds. The young birds
having left, I lifted the nest from the swaying branch on which it hung,
and examined it. The foundation was composed of twigs and sticks
intertwined and plaited together with some degree of skill, but it was
the lining that stirred my interest. First, it consisted of a number of
dead forest leaves from which the cellular texture had been completely
stripped, leaving only the petiole, midrib, and veins; underneath this
was a more compact carpet of the same kind of leaves, of which the
blade, instead of being stripped off, was perforated with innumerable
small holes, making them look like extremely fine sieves. In some cases
the blades seemed to be split, leaving the veins and veinlets exposed,
so that one could trace their intricate net-work. Another cuckoo nest
had both the stripped and perforated leaves, but fewer of each kind.
Whether the birds themselves did the artistic work on these leaves or
not,—that is a question. The stripping of the upper layer of their
blades would allow the dust and scaly substance shed by the young birds,
to sift through to the second layer, where it would not come in direct
contact with the nurslings. The two carpets were laid, no doubt, in the
interests of health and cleanliness.

But it is time to turn our attention to the children of the nursery. The
life of young birds in the nest,—what a field for study! One thing they
learn very early, probably almost as soon as they emerge from the shell;
that is, to open their mouths for food. No tutor or professor needed for
that! Most young birds soon become quite clamorous for their rations.
Lowell must have looked into more than one bird nursery, or he scarcely
would have thought of writing the lines,—

  “Blind nestlings, unafraid,
  Stretch up, wide-mouthed, to every shade
  By which their downy dream is stirred,
  Taking it for the mother-bird.”

A nestful of half-callow younglings, standing on tiptoe, craning up
their necks, wabbling from side to side, opening their mouths to the
widest extent of their “gapes,” knocking heads and beaks together, and
chirping at the top of their voices,—I confess it makes a picture more
grotesque than attractive. By and by, as the pin-feathers begin to grow,
the infant brood seem to feel an itching sensation, which causes them to
pick the various parts of their bodies to remove the scaly substance
that gathers on the skin and at the bases of the sprouting feathers. But
how awkwardly they go about this exercise! Their heads seem to be too
heavy for their long, slender necks, and go waggling and rolling from
side to side, often missing the mark aimed at. However, the muscles of
the nurslings are developing all the while. Soon they lift themselves to
their full height, stretch themselves, jerk their tails higher than
their heads in a most amusing way (you smile, but they don’t), and then
squat down upon the floor of the nest again. A day or so later the most
advanced youngster feels the flying impulse stirring in his veins, and
so, after stretching himself as previously described, he extends his
wings to their utmost reach, and flaps them in a joyous way over his
cuddling companions, sometimes rapping them smartly on the head. Soon
there comes a day when he hops to the edge of the nest, looks out upon
the wide, beckoning world like a young satrap, and flaps his wings with
a semi-conscious feeling of strength. Ere long, encouraged by his
parents, he spreads his wings, and takes a header for the nearest twig.
Why, his wings will bear him up on the buoyant air! He has graduated
from the nursery and the grammar grade into the high school.

Every year has its eccentricities, so to speak; that is, the character
of the weather and other modifying causes afford the faunal life an
occasion for a development that is peculiar. Thus the observations made
by the naturalist one year are not necessarily mere repetitions of those
made other years. Nature is not often guilty of tautology. I yield
therefore to the temptation to add a few chronicles made during the
spring of 1893, which, I hope, will not destroy the unity of this
article on bird nurseries. One day in June, while strolling through the
woods, I heard the song of a red-eyed vireo. It was a kind of talking
song, or recitative, as if the bird were discoursing on some favorite
theme, and improvising his music as he went. His voice was so loud and
clear that I could hear it far away, drifting through the green,
embowered aisles of the woods. This vigorous chanson was a surprise, for
I have never before known this vireo to remain in my neighborhood during
the summer. He mostly hies farther north. But a still greater surprise
lay in ambush for me a few days later, in one of my rambles through the
woods. Suddenly there was a light flutter of wings near my head, and
there hung a tiny nest on the low, swaying branches of a sapling.

That it was a vireo’s nest was evident, for it was fastened to the twigs
by the rim, without any support below, swinging there like a dainty
basket. Presently I got my glass on the bird herself, and found her to
be a red-eyed vireo. That was my first nest of this species, and proud
enough I was of the discovery. The outside of the little cot was
prettily ornamented with tufts of spider-webs. As usual with this bird,
a piece of white paper was wrought into the lower part of the nest.
Three vireo’s eggs and one cow-bunting’s lay in the bottom of the cup.

Every few days I called on the bird, going close enough only to see her
plainly, without driving her off the nest. She made a pretty picture
sitting there, one fit for an artist’s brush, with her head and tail
pointing almost straight up, her body gracefully curved to fit the deep
little basket, and her eyes growing large and wild at her visitor’s
approach. At length, one day, I felt sure there must be little ones in
the nest, and so I went very close to her; yet she did not fly. Then I
moved my hand toward her, and finally touched her back before she
flitted away. A featherless cow-bunting lay in the hammock, but the
vireo’s eggs were not yet hatched. A few days later the nest was robbed.
Some heartless villain, probably a blue jay, had destroyed all the
children. I could have wept, so keen was my sense of bereavement.

The cow-buntings imposed a great deal on other kind-hearted bird parents
that spring. Almost every nest contained one or two of this interloper’s
eggs, and, as if Nature abetted the designs of the parasite, these eggs
were almost always hatched first. One wood-thrush’s nest contained two
bunting and three thrush eggs. As soon as the bantlings had broken from
the shell, the buntings could be readily distinguished from the
thrushes, for the former feathered much more rapidly than the latter.
When the youngsters were about half grown, they crowded one another
considerably in their adobe apartment, but, to all intents and purposes,
they lived together in beautiful domestic harmony. At all events, no
unseemly family wrangles came under my eye. By and by, on one of my
visits, I found that the buntings had left the maternal roof (to speak
with a good deal of poetic license), while the thrush trio still sat
contentedly on the nest, and did not display any fear when I caressingly
stroked their brown backs, but looked up at me in a _naïve_, confiding
way that was very gratifying. Quite different was the conduct of the
inmates of a bush-sparrow’s nest, hidden in the grass at the woodland’s
border. The baby sparrows rushed pell-mell from their pretty homestead
when I came near, leaving a bunting, which had been hatched and reared
with them, alone in the nest. He was not nearly so far developed as his
brothers and sisters, and had no intention of being driven from home.

But here is an instance more like that of the bunting-wood-thrush
episode just described. A pretty basket, woven of fine fibrous material,
swung from the lower branches of an apple-tree in the orchard of one of
my farmer friends, and contained three young orchard orioles and one
cow-bunting. One day I procured a step-ladder and climbed up to the
nest, when the bunting sprang out with a wild cry and toppled to the
ground, while the young orioles, not yet half-fledged, merely pried open
their mouths for food. Yet these birds, when grown, are fully as
dexterous on the wing as their foster relatives, the buntings.

During the same spring some observations on youthful blackbirds were
made. They may be of sufficient interest to register in this place. Did
you know that a part of the heads of infant blackbirds remains bare a
week or two after the other portions of their bodies are well feathered?
This is true of the three species of my acquaintance,—the purple
grackles, the red-winged blackbirds, and the cow-buntings. The bald
portion includes the forehead, part of the crown, the chin, and throat,
and extends behind and below the ears, which are covered with a tiny
tuft of fuzz. Had this unfeathered portion been red instead of black,
the youngsters would have looked quite like diminutive turkey-buzzards.
One may be pardoned for being somewhat puzzled over the childish
conundrum, Why young blackbirds, of all the birds in the circle of one’s
acquaintance, must go bareheaded during the first few weeks of their
life. By and by, however, the feathers grow out on this space as thickly
as on the remainder of their bodies.

Strange that I have found so few black-capped titmice’s nests, familiar
and abundant as they are in my neighborhood, both summer and winter; but
my quest was rewarded in two instances during the spring of 1893,—the
first nest being in the top of a truncated sassafras-tree. The snag was
perhaps twenty feet high. On one of my visits the birds were hollowing
out their little apartment. They would dart into the narrow opening, and
presently emerge, carrying small fragments of partly decayed wood in
their beaks and dropping them to the ground. Some weeks later, I climbed
the tree (with much fear and trembling, be it said), but the birds had
made the cavity so deep that I could not see the bottom, and break open
their sylvan nursery I would not. The second titmouse nest was in a very
slender branch of a sassafras-tree,—so slender, indeed, that it was a
wonder the birds were able to make a hollow in it. At first it looked
precisely like a black patch burned on the bough’s surface. When one of
the feathered atoms stood in the tiny doorway and looked out, she made a
pretty picture,—one that would have put a throb of joy into an artist’s
bosom.

Yet there is another picture that I should prefer to have painted, not
on account of its attractiveness, but on account of its quaintness; it
was the nest, eggs, and young of a pair of green herons in an orchard.
The nest was built high in an apple-tree, and was only a loose platform
of sticks. Although anything but an expert climber, I contrived to scale
that tree three times to satisfy my curiosity. The first time there were
four eggs of a greenish-blue cast—not jewels by any means—in the nest.
On my second visit four of the oddest birdlings I ever looked upon
greeted me with wide-open eyes and mouths. They were covered with light
yellowish down, and the space about the eyes was of a greenish hue,—one
of the characteristic markings of the adult birds. When they opened
their mouths, expecting to be fed, their throats puffed out somewhat
like the throats of croaking frogs, making a good-sized pocket inside to
receive chunks of food. The thought struck me that perhaps the pocket
was designed as a sort of temporary storage place for victuals until the
nestling was ready to swallow them. The birds made a low, quaint noise
that cannot be represented phonetically. Indeed, the picture they made
was slightly uncanny, so I did not linger about it overlong.

A week later my third and last call on the heron household was made.
What an odd spectacle it presented! The young birds had grown
wonderfully, though still covered with down, with very little sign of
feathers. As my head appeared above the rim of the nest, they slowly
craned up their India-rubber necks, then rose on their stilt-like legs,
and looked at me with wondering, wide-open eyes that gleamed almost like
gold. The spectacle made me think of ghouls, incongruous as the simile
may seem. When I touched one of the birds, it huddled, half-alarmed,
down to the bottom of the nest. Another slyly stalked off to the edge of
the platform, upon a thick clump of twigs and leaves, eying me keenly as
he moved away. I hurriedly climbed down, lest he should topple to the
ground and dash himself to death; and thus, while I was on the brink of
causing a tragedy, yet, as a sort of emollient to my conscience, I
consoled myself with the thought that I had really prevented one.

Another interesting discovery of the same spring was a killdeer plover’s
nest, which my farmer friend across-lots found in a clover-field. There
had been a heavy rainfall, making the ploughed ground as soft as mush;
but my tall rubber boots were mud-proof, and so I went to pay the
plovers my respects. This was after six o’clock in the evening. I found
one little bird in the shallow, pebble-lined nest, and three eggs, one
of them slightly broken at the larger end. The plover nestling was an
odd baby, with its large head, fluffy, square-shouldered body, and
slender beak sticking straight out. A small piece of the egg-shell still
clung to its back. On taking the tiny thing into my hand, what was this
I saw? It had only three toes on each foot, instead of four, as most
birds have; and those three were all fore toes, while the bird had no
hind toe at all. Why the plover should have no hind toe is an enigma;
but then, the ostrich has none, either, and only two in front,—“every
species after its kind.”

Early the next morning two more youngsters had broken shell, and come
forth to keep their more precocious brother company. The eldest was
marked quite distinctly about the head and neck like its parents, having
the characteristic white and black bands, thus early proclaiming the
persistence of its type. When I set it down—for I had lifted it in my
hand—it started to run over the soft ground, enhancing its speed by
flapping its tiny wings. The picture was indescribably cunning. The bird
was so small that it looked like a downy dot scudding over the
undulations of the ground. Think of a baby only about fifteen hours old
running away from home in that manner! I caught the infantile scapegrace
and placed it back in its cradle, where it remained. During the night
there had been a very heavy fall of rain, and yet these youngsters,
small as they were, had not been drowned, having doubtless been covered
by their parents. At six o’clock in the evening they had all left the
nest, and, search as I would, I could find no clew to their whereabouts,
though the parent birds were flying and scuttling about with loud cries
of warning to me to keep my distance. Thus it would seem that young
plovers, like young partridges, grouse, and ducks, leave the nest at a
very tender age.

Before closing, I must mention something odd that befell a kingfisher’s
nest. A year prior I had found a nest in a high bank in a sloping field,
where the water had washed out a deep gully. In passing the bank one day
I noticed that it had been partly broken down; there had been a
landslide on a small scale, caused by the washing of the heavy spring
rains. Half way to the top, on a narrow shelf, lay a clutch of
kingfisher’s eggs, some of them broken by the caving of the bank. The
landslide had occurred after the cavity had been made and the eggs
deposited, thus blasting the hopes of the kingfishers. However, they had
not become despondent, for, later in the season, they burrowed a hole
for an underground nursery in another part of the bank.


                                  III.
                           BIRD HIGH SCHOOLS.

It is not to be supposed that there is a regularly graded system of
instruction in the school-life of the birds. There may be method in
their learning, but it would be difficult to state positively just where
the primary, grammar, high-school, and college grades merge into one
another, or when diplomas of efficiency are granted, if granted at all.
But that there is something of a system of pedagogy among birds, and
that the juniors do receive instruction from their seniors, no observer
of feathered life can doubt for a moment. In the systems of human
instruction the child-life of the young learner usually ends with his
high-school course; he then stands at the threshold of young manhood,
ready to do a good deal of wrestling with his problems on his own
account. Taking that fact as our cue, we should say that the high-school
instruction of the youthful bird begins when he leaves the nest, and
ends when he is able to fly with dexterity, and provide for his own
support, at least in the main. It is not probable that the lecture
system prevails in the bird community, or the method of class
instruction now in vogue, or that books and charts and blackboards are
used; but the instruction is chiefly individual, and is carried on
mostly by example, coercion, and urgent appeal. There is not an
inexhaustible number of branches to be pursued by the little
undergraduates in plumes; but their efforts at obtaining an education
consist chiefly in mastering three grand accomplishments,—flying,
feeding, and singing.

If ever you have seen a bevy of young red-headed woodpeckers, led by
several of their elders, taking their wing-exercises, choosing a certain
tree in the woods for a point of departure, and then sailing around and
around with loud cries of delight, you must have concluded that it was a
veritable class in calisthenics. One seldom has an opportunity to see
young birds taking their first lessons in flight, but it is worth one’s
time and patience to be present at such a recitation. The parents set
the example by flying from the nest to a perch near by, and then coax
and scold their children to follow their example. If the little learners
hesitate, as they usually do, their impatient teachers exclaim: “Why,
just try it once. You never will learn to fly any younger. If you will
only spread your wings, let go of the rim of the nest, and venture out
on the air, you will find that it will bear you up. Don’t be afraid.”
But perhaps the pupils complain that it makes their heads dizzy to look
down from their awful height. Then the teachers pooh-pooh at their
fears, and cry condescendingly, “The idea of being afraid! Why, just see
here!” and they mount up into the air, poise, careen, and perform other
extraordinary feats, while the youngsters gaze at them in wide-eyed
wonder. At last, after much persuasion and many half-attempts, one of
the youngsters spreads his pinions and flutters laboriously until he
scrambles upon the nearest twig, with bated breath and throbbing pulses.
He is frightened half to death, but he has found that the friendly air
will support him if he makes proper use of his wings, and so he will
soon make another effort, and another, until he begins really to enjoy
the exercise. However, several days may elapse before the youngest and
weakest member of the class can muster sufficient courage to take his
first aerial journey.

Some species of birds graduate from the nest much sooner than others. In
one case I observed that a family of goldfinches remained in the nest
just seven days after a family of bush-sparrows, hatched on the same
day, had taken their flight.[8] The yellow-billed cuckoo has given me no
little surprise in this respect. When he first creeps out of his shell
apartment, he is a callow, ungainly infant, black as coal, with a sparse
covering of stiff bristles; but almost before a week has passed, he has
hopped from his washed-out cradle to try the realities of the great
world around him. Why the agile little goldfinch should remain in the
crib so much longer than his less dexterous fellow-pupil, the cuckoo, is
a problem of bird school-life that I must leave for solution to wiser
heads.

Having gone from the nest, the young bird has not yet learned all about
the art of flying; no, indeed! He must become perfect by practice. Many
a blunder will he make. At first he cannot always nicely calculate the
distance to the twig that he has in view, and so he fails to give
himself the proper propulsive force; he misses his footing by going too
far, or not far enough, and then where he will alight is a question of
what he happens to strike first. Probably a wild, desperate scramble
will ensue, which ends only when the youthful novice has fallen plump
upon the ground. He may be very much alarmed; but as soon as he recovers
his breath, his courage rises, and he tries again.

Although the young birds have the whole world for their larder, with
victuals just to their taste constantly at their elbow, they must learn
even the art of eating, and, until they do so, they demand that their
parents be their caterers. For several weeks after they have passed the
first term of school-life, they will still sit on a limb, open their
mouths, twinkle their wings, and allow their patient victuallers to
thrust morsel after morsel down their throats. My opinion is that the
patience of their parents wears out after a time, and they leave the
overgrown youngster to paddle for himself. How proud he must be of the
exploit when he catches his first insect and successfully stows it away
in his maw! In a deep, quiet glen I watched a family of young phœbes and
their parents catching insects on the wing. It was amusing. The old
birds evidently felt that it was about time for their pupils to learn to
provide their own victuals, but the youngsters stoutly demanded that
their luncheons be brought them in the accustomed manner. They must have
noticed that the old birds would occasionally catch an insect and
dispose of it themselves. Once when the parent bird darted out for a
small cabbage butterfly, a young fellow swooped down at her with such
force that she let the insect squirm out of her bill and flutter to the
ground, and thus make good its escape before she could recover it. Both
birds lost their dinner through the greed and rashness of the little
gourmand. Another time an old bird caught a yellow butterfly, dashed to
a limb, and quickly gulped it down, wings and all, before any of the
presumptuous high-schoolers could reach him. The bearing of the bird was
most laughable. Finally, several of the young birds darted out into the
air for passing insects, proving that they were taking lessons in that
fine art; but their gymnastics were far from perfect, and they hit the
mark scarcely half the time.

With most young birds music is a part of their high-school curriculum.
Perhaps you have thought that they learn their lessons in vocal music
without special instruction, but this is not always the case.
Observation proves that the old birds have them under tutelage, setting
them lyrical copies, which they are expected to learn by frequent
rehearsal. I have myself observed such a performance in the case of the
wood-pewee, as described in the chapter on “Midsummer Melodies.” First
attempts are crude and awkward, although the tones may be very fine. It
requires frequent drill to bring the vocal organs under perfect control,
just as is the case with human singers. If you have listened to the
squeaking, chattering, twittering medley of young song-sparrows, you
have realized how much practice is necessary before the would-be
vocalists will be able to execute the wonderful trills of which they are
master when they graduate from the musical conservatory.

I must tell you of a little bird high-school class over which I once
assumed charge. It consisted of three wood-thrushes, two bluebirds, and
a brown thrasher, all of which were taken from the nest before they were
ready to fly, and confined in a large wire cage. Very soon they learned
to take food from my hand. But in many things that are essential to bird
life and bird weal they had no tutors and no drill-masters, and
therefore had to learn them as best they could. Yet it was surprising
how soon they gained proficiency. Without a single copy from adult
birds, all of them were able to fly about from perch to perch in a few
days. It was not more than a week before they began to pick in an
awkward way, but after more than five weeks they would still open their
mouths and take food from the hand. The mechanical act of eating was
something they had to learn by slow degrees. While they could readily
pick up a tidbit, it seemed to be a difficult task to get it back far
enough into the mouth to swallow it. This was especially true of the
thrasher, whose bill was long. How he would toss a morsel about, pinch
it, fling it away, catch it up again, and pound it against a perch,
before he could work it back into his capacious throat!

They were amusing pets, those feathered pupils of mine. From them I have
gained an insight into bird character which could have been gained in no
other way. The difficulty in observing birds in the wild state is, you
cannot study them at close range, and hence cannot watch their
development from day to day. None the less interesting were my little
pupils because they had to depend on their own wits and learn their
lessons without a pedagogue. How did they learn to bathe without being
shown how! They learned it, that is sure; and they went through the
exercise precisely as birds do in the wildwood. They would leap into the
bath-dish, duck their heads into the water, flutter their wings and
tails until thoroughly rinsed, and then fly up to a perch to preen their
bedrenched plumage. But they made some mirth-provoking blunders. One day
a wood-thrush got astride of the rim of his bath-tub, one leg outside
and the other inside, and in that interesting position tried to take his
ablution. He looked exceedingly droll, and seemingly could not
understand why he did not succeed better. Another time the thrasher
remained outside of the bath-dish, and thrust his head over the rim into
the water, squatting on the sand and twinkling his pinions. But the time
came when all the birds discovered of their own accord that the proper
way was to leap right into the lavatory.

How early in life do juvenile birds begin to sing? That is a question, I
venture to say, that very few students of bird life would be able to
answer. It may be difficult to believe—if my own ears had not heard, I
should be very skeptical of the accuracy of the assertion—but my
wood-thrushes had not been in my care more than three or four weeks
before one of them began to twitter a little song. He could not have
been much more than five weeks old. This is all the more remarkable when
it is remembered that there were no adult thrushes within a half-mile of
the house. He seemed to discover that he had a voice, and thought he
might as well use it.

Ah, yes, and sad to relate, my high-school pupils soon learned to
quarrel, and that without the example of their elders. When I threw a
billsome morsel on the floor of the cage, several of them would make a
dive for it, and soon get into a wrangle. “It’s mine! it’s mine!” each
would proclaim by his greedy behavior. Then perhaps two would seize it,
and tug at it like boys fighting for an apple. Or if one contrived to
get it first, the rest would try to wrench it from his beak, and thus
they would pursue one another about in a wild chase. The thrasher, being
younger than his fellows, was for a time cheated out of every choice
morsel he secured; but he finally learned to help himself and swallow
his victuals instanter. Two of the thrushes, probably males, seemed to
have a mutual grudge. They would pursue each other until the fugitive
would turn and stand at bay, snapping his mandibles in a savage manner,
as if they were worked by steel springs. I regret being compelled to
publish these pugnacious tendencies in my beloved pets; but I prefer
giving a realistic rather than a fictitious or roseate sketch of the
school-days of these pupils in plumes.


                                  IV.
                               BIRD WORK.

“Life is real, life is earnest,” might be just as truly said of “our
little brothers of the air” as of us, their big brothers of the soil. If
you think that their whole career consists of nothing but play and song
and bounding joy, you have seen very little of the bird life around you.
For the mother bird, at least, the whole period of nesting, sometimes
extending over several months, is a time of drudgery, anxiety, and, far
too often, of disappointed hopes. I have heard a bird mother’s wail that
went like iron into my soul, and told me all too plainly that it had
come from a bereft and broken heart. When we remember how many tragedies
occur in the feathered community, we scarcely care about singing, “I
wish I were a little bird.” Had you witnessed the unutterable agony of a
pair of yellow-breasted chats one spring, when their four pretty bairns
were stolen by some heartless buccaneer, you would have thanked the
Pleiades, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and all your other lucky stars, that
you were a man or woman and not a bird.

“Oh! it would be so pleasant to fly and tilt in the air, to dash from
twig to twig, to make long aerial voyages to foreign countries!” Do I
hear you say that? Wait a moment. Have you ever thought that even the
long, bounding flight of the swallows and swifts, accomplished
apparently without effort, may sometimes become a weariness to the
flesh, especially when insects are scarce and their maws empty? Then,
those long nocturnal journeys that birds make during the migrating
season may often tax their strength to the utmost. Indeed, if you will
listen to their feeble chirping, as they sweep overhead through the
darkness, you will often detect a note of fatigue running through it, as
much as to say, “Ah, I wish we were at our journey’s end!” No, bird life
is not all roseate. It has its humdrum and drudgery, its wear and tear,
its prose as well as its poetry, its hard realism as well as its
romance.

One of the tasks of bird life is the building of nests. It is true, the
birds always do this work with a zest that makes it seem half play; but,
after spending a day in gathering material and weaving it into the nest,
scarcely taking time to stop for meals, I have no doubt the little
toilers are ready to retire when bedtime comes. Have you ever watched
these little artists constructing their nests? They first lay the
foundation, which is usually made of rather coarse material, and is more
or less loosely woven; and then they proceed to build the
superstructure. Some birds, like the robin and the bluebird, will have
their mouths full of material every time they come to the nest; while
others, such as the dainty warblers, will return with a single fibre.
Usually the bird leaps into the cup of the nest, and deftly weaves in
the new material with its bill; and then shifts around with a quivering
motion of body and wings, to give the structure proper shape and size.
The nest must be made to fit the body of the bird like a glove, so that
she may rest easily in it during the long period of incubation. The
robin and the wood-thrush bring mud and clay; this they mix, no doubt,
with their own saliva, which gives it its viscid character. The dainty,
blue-gray gnat-catcher collects lichens of various kinds, with which she
decorates the high walls of her compact little cottage. Does this tiny
artist sometimes build nests just for fun or æsthetic effect? I watched
the building of two nests one spring that were never used. With what a
graceful touch the feathered dots laid the lichen bricks in the walls!

The hatching of the eggs must be a severe tax on the patience of the
mother bird, for the principal part of this work devolves upon her.
Sitting hour by hour upon the nest, looking out upon the wide spaces of
air waiting to be conquered by her active wings; with nothing except
hope to feed her mind; with not even a book or a newspaper to
read,—well, here is a chance to let patience have her perfect work. Then
think of her uneasiness at the approach of every foe. It is work; it is
not mere idleness. As for her lord, it may seem only like holiday sport
to sit in the tree-top and sing all the livelong day, to beguile the
weary hours of his sitting mate. But perhaps it often takes on the hue
of work, too, when singing becomes a duty. Small wonder, if the
choralist’s vocal chords often become jaded and sore, while there may be
danger of bringing on throat or lung trouble. Besides, he must often
carry a dainty morsel to his spouse when he would much prefer to eat it
himself. Then, he must take his turn on the nest while his partner goes
off for a “constitutional” to get the stiffness out of her joints, or
gathers a relay of food and preens her ruffled plumes.

One of the most unpleasant tasks of the time of incubation and brood
rearing is the warding off of enemies. And they are numerous. No
feathered parents can feel sure that they shall be able to tide their
little family safely over this perilous period. Have you ever seen the
plucky wood-pewee engaging in a contest with that highwayman in
feathers, the blue jay? How he dashes at the bloodthirsty villain,
snapping his mandibles viciously at every onset, and sometimes pecking a
feather from his enemy’s back! Nor will he give up the battle until the
jay steals off with a hangdog expression on his face. The little
warbling vireo is no less game when the jay comes too near his
precincts.

One day in spring I was witness to a curious incident. A red-headed
woodpecker had been flying several times in and out of a hole in a tree
where he (or she) had a nest. At length, when he remained within the
cavity for some minutes, I stepped to the tree and rapped on the trunk
with my cane. The bird bolted like a small cannon-ball from the orifice,
wheeled around the tree with a swiftness that the eye could scarcely
follow, and then dashed up the lane to an orchard a short distance away.
But he had only leaped out of the frying-pan into the fire. In the
orchard he had unconsciously got too near a king-bird’s nest. The
king-bird swooped toward him, and alighted on his back. The next moment
the two birds, the king-bird on the woodpecker’s back, went racing
across the meadow like a streak of zigzag lightning, making a clatter
that frightened every echo from its hiding-place. That gamy flycatcher
actually clung to the woodpecker’s back until he reached the other end
of the meadow. I cannot be sure, but he seemed to be holding to the
woodpecker’s dorsal feathers with his bill. Then, bantam fellow that he
was, he dashed back to the orchard with a loud chippering of exultation.
“Ah, ha!” he flung across to the blushing woodpecker; “stay away the
next time, if you don’t fancy being converted into a beast of burden!”

A large part of a bird’s toil, after there are children in the nest,
consists in providing victuals for them. For this purpose the whole
country around must be scoured, and sometimes long journeys must be
made. I have watched a kingfisher flying again and again from a winding
creek in the valley to her nest on a hillside nearly a half-mile
distant, with a minnow in her bill, while the sun was pouring a
sweltering deluge upon the fields. It kept her busy every moment to
supply the imperious demands of her hungry brood in the bank. A common
field-bird, which I watched one day for a long while, would often return
to her nest every minute with an insect. Many, many times have I obeyed
Lowell’s injunction,—

  “Come up and feel what health there is
    In the frank Dawn’s delighted eyes,
  As, bending with a pitying kiss,
    The night-shed tears of Earth she dries.”

But even at that early hour the feathered toilers have always been ahead
of the human wage-workers in beginning the labors of the day. The
nestlings must have a twilight breakfast; and then, in the evening, as
long as the gloaming lasts, they noisily demand just one more mouthful
for supper.

Young birds are ravenous feeders. They seem to live to eat, and have no
thought of eating to live. For an hour and a half, one August day, I
kept watch of a nestful of bantlings, and during that time the parent
birds were so shy that they fed their infants only twice. At last the
little things became fairly desperate for food, springing up in the nest
and opening their mouths with pitiful cries every time the breeze
stirred the bushes about them. They were so famished that I hurried away
lest they should go to preying on one another, for they would sometimes
greedily seize one another by the bills or heads, and try to gobble one
another down. Incidents like this prove that the old birds must be on
the jump every moment to procure a sufficient supply of food for their
young. Even after they have left the nest, the juvenile members of the
family must be fed for several weeks. As long as mamma and papa will get
their luncheons for them, they will make little effort to help
themselves. I have seen the dainty little accentor feeding a great,
overgrown mossback of a cow-bunting, which had to “juke” down to her
like a giant to a dwarf to receive the morsel she offered him. What a
drudgery it must have been to collect victuals enough to fill his
capacious maw! Think of a toil-worn, care-fretted little mother feeding
a strapping boy that will not work!

Moreover, adult birds often are kept busy for hours supplying their own
craving for food. One April day a hooded warbler, natty little beau,
near an old gravel-bank in the woods, was watched by me for an hour and
a half. During that time he must have caught an insect almost every
minute, and sometimes no sooner had he gulped down one than he made a
swift dash for another. Had he not been so very, very handsome, I should
have dubbed him a gourmand.

At certain seasons of the year what an active life the red-headed
woodpeckers are compelled to lead, in order to satisfy the demands of
their stomachs! With intervals of scarcely more than a few seconds, they
bound out from a perch, seize an insect on the wing, and wheel back
again. For hours this half work, half frolic is kept up. By the way,
almost all birds sometimes engage in this flycatcher game of taking
their prey on the wing. The Baltimore orioles, the bluebirds, the
yellow-bellied woodpeckers, the crested tits, the chippies, the
indigo-birds, and even the white-breasted nuthatches and English
sparrows, to say nothing of many species of warblers, catch insects in
this way.

Many birds have to “scratch for a living,” and that in a literal sense.
There is the towhee bunting, for example. Instead of getting down on his
breast, however, like the hen or the partridge, he stretches himself up
on his legs as if they were stilts, and then bobs up and down in an
amusing fashion, while he scatters leaves and dirt to side and rear. I
do not know whether the robins scratch or not, but they often jerk the
leaves from the ground with their bills, and hurl them away with a
half-disdainful air. Several young wood-thrushes kept in a cage removed
obstructions in the same way.

Even the merry bobolink, the Beau Brummel of our meadows and
clover-fields, cannot spend every day

  “Untwisting all the chains that tie
  The hidden soul of harmony;”

for the time comes when he must do the work of a staid husband and
father, and help to take care of the growing brood. With all his
pirouetting in the air, he carries in his bosom an anxious heart, as you
will quickly see if you go too near his snuggery in the grass. The wild
scramble in which birds of all kinds often have to engage, in order to
secure a refractory insect, proves that there is ample room for the play
of their best energies. Thus we see that the birds have plenty to do
besides rollicking, singing, enjoying gala-days, and taking excursions
to gay watering-places. Like their human brothers and sisters, they must
toil patiently on “through the every-dayness of this work-day world.”
They, too, may have their literature—unwritten, however—on the “dignity
of labor.”


                                   V.
                               BIRD PLAY.

How strange it is that animals never laugh! If you watch a group of
monkeys playing their antics, you will find their faces as sedate as a
judge’s, save, perhaps, a merry twinkle of the eye. Comical as their
gambols are, one would think they would break into convulsions of
merriment. True, animals have various ways of giving vent to their
exuberant feelings, but this is done very slightly by means of facial
expression. Their risibles must be meagrely developed. What has been
said in regard to animals in general is also true of birds, whose eyes
often twinkle and are intensely expressive, but whose countenances
proper reveal very little of the emotion swelling in their breasts.

Yet by the movements of their bodies you can easily read their feelings.
You can tell at a glance by the conduct of a bird whether or not it is
alarmed at your presence, or whether it is engaged in a frolic or in
watching a wily foe. How different is the behavior of most birds in the
breeding-season, with a nest near at hand, from their demeanor at other
times! Look at that brown thrasher perched in a tree-top on a spring
morning, singing his pæan to the surrounding woodland, and notice how
fearless he appears. Contrast his manners two months later when he goes
skulking through the tanglewood, afraid to be seen. Conceal their secret
as they may, an expert student of birds can almost always tell if there
is a nest in the neighborhood.

It is, therefore, by their conduct rather than by their facial
expression that birds reveal their love of play. That they do have their
frolics, no one can doubt. Much of their time is occupied in labor, and
that often of the most serious, if not arduous, kind, and they
frequently combine toil and play; but there are times when they seem to
give themselves up to unmixed sportiveness. There is not much system in
their games, so far as I have observed. They mostly engage in frolics of
a rough-and-tumble kind, for the pure love of the fun, and perhaps with
no thought of winning a prize.

It is possible, however, that the company of red-headed woodpeckers I
watched one day in the woods were having a genuine flying-race. One tree
was selected as a point of departure, from which they would start and
fly around in a wide circle,—perhaps their race-track,—always returning
to the same tree with loud chattering, which sounded like shouts of
applause. This exercise they kept up for hours, always starting from the
same tree and describing nearly the same circle. If it was not a contest
of speed, I am at a loss to know what it was.

The woodpeckers, especially the youngsters, have another game that has a
decidedly human flavor; it is the game of bo-peep among the trunks and
branches of trees. A red-head will shy off from his companions, conceal
himself somewhere behind a tree-trunk, and then peep from his
hiding-place in an exquisitely comical way, until he is espied by some
sharp-eyed fellow-frolicker. A vigorous chase will follow, as pursuer
and pursued dash wildly away among the trees. Sometimes, when the
fugitive is too hotly pursued, he will stop and keep his companion at
bay by presenting his long, spearlike bill as a sort of bayonet.

Another tree-climber is the brown creeper. I have described many of his
pranks in the first chapter of this volume. One November day I witnessed
a performance that beats the record. Two creepers were hitching up the
trunks of the trees in their characteristic manner, when one of them
suddenly dropped straight down about fifteen feet, scarcely more than an
inch from the trunk of the tree; then, instead of alighting, he darted
straight up again the same distance, fluttered a moment uncertainly on
the wing, and then dropped again to the foot of the tree, where he
alighted, and resumed his upward march. But that was not all. Presently
his companion, not to be outdone, began to whirl around and around the
tree, descending in a spiral course until he reached the foot. There he
tarried a moment to take breath, and then, much to my surprise, whirled
himself up in the same way, a distance of perhaps twenty feet,
accomplishing it in four or five revolutions. But, as if to distance all
creepers’ pranks ever witnessed before, he descended again in the same
spiral course. These performances can be interpreted only as ways in
which to give vent to the spirit of frolic in the creeper nature.

On the same day my dancing dot in feathers, the golden-crowned kinglet,
performed one of his favorite tricks, which is not often described in
the books. You will remember that in the centre of the yellow
crown-patch of the males, there is a gleaming golden speck, visible only
when you look at him closely. But when the little beau is in a
particularly rollicksome mood, or wants to display his gem to his mate
or kindred, he elevates and spreads out the feathers of his crest, and
lo! a transformation. The whole crown becomes golden! That gleaming
speck expands until it completely hides the yellow and black of the
crown. It has been my good fortune on several occasions to see the
ruby-crowned kinglet transfigure himself in the same way, except, that
his entire crown became ruby. Probably the little Chesterfield that can
exhibit the most brilliant coronal wins the sweetest damsel in the
kinglet community for a wifie.

Perhaps, as a rule, our winter birds find the season rather cold for
play; yet they often frolic in the snow like children, even when they do
not stalk through it in quest of food. This is especially true of the
snow-birds and tree-sparrows. Birds are especially fond of splashing in
water. Even in the winter-time, when it flows ice-cold into the stream
or pond from the melting snow on the banks, certain birds will plunge
into it, and enjoy their bath for many minutes. They do not seem to be
satisfied with merely wetting their plumes, but remain in the water,
twinkling their wings and tails, much longer than is actually necessary.
Several times in the autumn I have seen a large company of warblers of
different species taking a bath in a woodland pond. How they enjoyed
their ablutions! Again and again they would return to the water, as if
loath to quit it.

To my mind, the flicker is one of our most playful birds, spite of his
staid looks. I have seen a half-dozen of these birds on a single tree,
scudding about after one another and calling, _Zwick-ah! zwick-ah!_ in
their affectionate way. Not infrequently two of them will face each
other, and begin bowing in a vigorous style, turning their heads
dexterously from side to side to avoid collision. This is sometimes kept
up for several minutes. It is very comical, the only drawback being that
the birds themselves do not laugh. Why they should engage in so
ridiculous a performance with so serious an air, is a problem that still
belongs to the unknown.

A cut-throat finch, a pet, was, as a rule, a very sedate little body,
but one day he had to come down from his pedestal to get rid of his
surplus of feeling. This he did by dancing a sort of jig to his own
music, swaying his body to and fro in a most laughable way. On another
day an English sparrow flew upon his cage, which was hanging on the
veranda, when “Pompey” turned his head toward his visitor, burst into
song, and bobbed his head from side to side. No doubt the sparrow felt
that he was receiving an ovation.

A most laughable incident occurred one day in my large cage of birds.
“Flip,” a fine young wood-thrush, was rehearsing his song. A young
thrasher leaped up beside him on the perch. The two birds turned their
heads to each other, and looked into each other’s eyes a moment; then
Flip opened his mouth at his visitor, and broke into song, the tones
coming right out of his gold-lined throat. All the while he jerked his
head from side to side or up and down in perfect time with his music,
his eye gleaming intelligently, as if he enjoyed the fun. Even my loud
outburst of laughter did not put a stop to the little farce. Flip was a
bright bird. He afterward had a cage all to himself, and regaled his
hosts with many a cheerful song, such as only the wood-thrush is master
of. Occasionally he would leap to the end of his cage, open his mouth
wide at “Brownie,” whose cage stood next to his, and sing a comic song;
at least, it seemed comic.

These incidents, although they do not prove that birds have elaborate
games, do prove that they possess the play spirit, and no doubt their
pastimes and amusements are relished fully as much by them as ours are
by us; perhaps more so.


                                  VI.
                              BIRD DEATHS.

If only some master dramatist could write the tragedies of bird land!
They would be highly exciting, and would afford ample room for the play
of genius; for there are adventures and disasters without number.
Perhaps it is on account of the many reverses that there is so often a
pensive strain in the songs of the birds,—a minor chord running like a
shimmering silver line through the weft of the woodland music. Robert
Burns, in his “Address to a Woodlark,” touched the very marrow of bird
sadness, and pleaded with the little singer to cease its song, or he
himself would go distracted,—

  “Say, was thy little mate unkind,
  And heard thee as the careless wind?
  Oh! nocht but love and sorrow joined
    Sic notes o’ wae could wauken.

  “Thou tells o’ never-ending care,
  O’ speechless grief and dark despair;
  For pity’s sake, sweet bird, nae mair!
    Or my poor heart is broken.”

If Coleridge had studied the birds more carefully, and acquainted
himself with their griefs, he never would have written, in mockery of
Milton’s “L’Allegro,”—

  “A melancholy bird! O, idle thought!
  In nature there is nothing melancholy!”

I have seen a pair of birds whose little brood had just been cruelly
slaughtered, and my heart bled for them when I saw that their anguish
was too great for expression. Perhaps birds that have been bereaved soon
forget their sorrow, and yet I doubt it; for if you listen to the minor
treble of the black-capped chickadee, you cannot help feeling that he is
singing a dirge for some long-lost love, or, if not that, may be
recounting, by some occult law of heredity, the story of the many
sorrows of his ancestors from the beginning down to his own generation.
What ravishing sadness there is in the songs of the white-throated and
white-crowned sparrows! The bluebird is always sighing as he shifts from
post to post, and nothing could be more melancholy than the call of the
jay in autumn. The crow at a distance complains of his disappointment,
while the wood-thrush, in his evening and morning voluntaries, rehearses
the sad memories of his life. Keats speaks of the “plaintive anthem” of
the nightingale, and Thomson declares that even the merry linnets “lit
on the dead tree, a dull, despondent flock.”

It would be difficult to arrange a “table of mortality” for the birds.
However, as they know nothing about life insurance, there is no call for
such a compilation; but even if the statistician could state the number
of deaths, there is no arithmetic that could compute the heartaches and
heartbreaks experienced by “our little brothers of the air.” “In the
midst of life we are in death,” might well be put into the litany of the
birds. If they had burial-grounds, there would be plenty of employment
for the sexton and some grave “Old Mortality.”

The elements themselves sometimes play sad havoc with the birds. Mr.
Eldridge E. Fish, of Buffalo, N. Y., tells of an October storm in which
many golden-crowned kinglets were dashed to the ground, while others
flew against windows of houses in which lights were left burning. The
storm was so severe that the little voyagers, travelling southward by
night, were compelled to alight, and thus many of them were destroyed.
The same writer speaks of a cold rain which froze as it fell, coating
everything with ice, and thus cutting off the birds’ supply of food, so
that many bluebirds perished. To my certain knowledge, robins, which
breed very early in the spring, sometimes are frozen to death while
hugging their nests, when a cold wave swoops from the north. The same
calamity sometimes overtakes the crossbill during the winter in the
forests of Canada. Apparently even Nature herself is not always a tender
mother to her offspring. Do not ask me why, for I am not writing a
philosophical thesis.

Birds have many natural enemies. I can still hear the cries of a young
bird that a sparrow-hawk had seized in his talons and was bearing
overhead. What a savage cannibal he seemed to be! Not for anything would
I cast undeserved odium on the reputation of any bird, but I fear very
much that the blue jay is both a robber and a murderer. In the season
when eggs and young birds are in the nest, he has a sly, hang-dog air,
which, to my mind, proclaims not only a guilty conscience, but also a
sinister purpose. At other seasons he seems to have an open, frank
manner. It is true, I myself have never seen him in the very act of
robbing a fellow-bird’s nest, but I have often seen pewees, vireos,
sparrows, and goldfinches charge upon him with desperate fury when he
came in the vicinity of their homesteads. Indeed, all the smaller birds
seem to have a mortal terror of him, which can be accounted for only on
the ground that he is known to be a highwayman.

A farmer friend, who loves the birds, and has none of the unreasoning
prejudice against them sometimes displayed by country folk, told me that
he once saw a blue jay pounce upon a chippie’s nest, snatch up a callow
bantling in his bill, and fly off with it across the field to his nest.
In a few moments he returned, and bore away another nestling. By this
time the farmer’s ire was aroused, and he got his gun and put an end to
the feathered brigand’s life on his return for the third mouthful. This
is more than circumstantial evidence. Yet in defence of the handsome
rascal it may be said that he does good in other directions, for he rids
the earth of many pestiferous insects. Gladly would I acquit him of all
blame if that were possible.

Mr. Burroughs thinks that birds which have suffered at the blue jay’s
hands—or, rather, beak—often retaliate by destroying the jay’s eggs. He
found a jay’s nest with five eggs, every one of which was punctured,
apparently by the sharp bill of some bird, with the sole purpose of
destroying them, for no part of their contents had been removed. He
suggests that in the bird world the Mosaic law may be, “An egg for an
egg,” instead of “An eye for an eye.”

The life of young birds hangs on a very brittle thread. A kind of
Damocles’ sword seems to be dangling over them. What a “slaughter of
innocents” in a single season! I think that of the many nests I found
during the spring of 1892 fully half were raided. How often, on finding
a nest, I have resolved to watch it until the young birds were ready to
leave; but on going back a few days later, the cradle was rifled of its
treasures. These frequent “tragedies of the nests” make the bird-lover
sick at heart. It is no paradox to say that many birds are killed before
they are born.

Birds often meet with fatal accidents. They sometimes impale themselves
on a thorn, or creep into places in thorn-trees from which they cannot
extricate themselves. A robin hung itself one spring by a kite-string
that swung in a loop from the roof of my house,—a case of involuntary
suicide. A nuthatch that I saw one day in the woods had its leg broken,
and I could not help thinking of its lingering agony before it would
starve to death. A pet nonpareil, a dear, bright-hued little fellow, was
well and happy one evening; but the next morning he lay dead on the
bottom of the cage, perhaps the victim of a convulsion. Another pet
nonpareil was not in good health; so I thought a bath in tepid water
might be good for him; but alas! the ablution proved too much for the
little invalid, which, in spite of our utmost efforts to save his life,
succumbed to the inevitable. A like fate befell a young turtle-dove
which a neighbor found in the woods and brought me for a gift.

But the cause of a great deal of mortality among birds is man’s
inhumanity to them. The thirst for blood seems to be inherent in many
coarse natures, and as killing a fellow-man is illegal and almost sure
to be summarily punished, many men gratify their greed for gore by
slaying innocent birds and animals.

  “Butchers and villains, bloody cannibals!
  How sweet a plant have you untimely cropped!
  You have no children, butchers! if you had,
  The thought of them would have stirred up remorse.”

The small boy with a sling or a spring-gun or an air-rifle is a source
of much grief to the birds. He even kills the tiny kinglets that flit to
and fro in the trees bordering our streets, and seems to think it sport.
More senseless and wicked still was the fashion in vogue a few years
ago, perhaps not yet quite obsolete, which compelled the massacre of
thousands of bright-hued birds for feminine—I should say
unfeminine—adornment. To say nothing of the “loudness” and bad taste of
such a fashion, it is extremely unwise to put birds to death, for no one
can compute the number of injurious insects they annually devour. A bird
on the bonnet means so much less bread on the table. A bird in the
orchard is a sort of scavenger and pomologist combined, and does his
share in giving you a dish of fruit for dinner. The scarlet tanager
looks like a living ruby in a green tree; but—I speak bluntly—it looks
like a chunk of gore on a woman’s bonnet. In behalf of good taste and
the birds, I enter my protest against this barbaric custom.

True, birds have elements of the Adamic nature in them. Many of them do
relish forbidden fruit, and must be driven off, lest they rifle your
cherry-tree; but it is seldom necessary to kill them, even then,
especially those that live wholly on insects and fruit.

A correspondent once sent me a number of queries. How do birds come to
their “last end”? Do none of them die natural deaths? If they do, why do
we never, or at least very rarely, find dead or dying birds in the
fields and woods? My response to these questions is: Very few birds die
natural deaths,—that is, merely of sickness or old age,—though a few of
them may. When a bird becomes feeble or is crippled, it falls an easy
prey to a prowling hawk, owl, shrike, eagle, or cat. Should a bird
escape all these enemies, and finally lie down and die in a natural way,
it would doubtless soon be found and devoured by a carrion-eating fowl
or quadruped, and thus its corpse would never be seen by human eyes. Sad
indeed it is to think of the numberless ways in which birds meet “the
last enemy.”

Be it far from me to use caustic speech against any man or set of men;
but it makes me both indignant and sick at heart to read the bloody
chronicles of most of the so-called “collectors.” How many embryo birds
they slay merely to gratify their morbid craze for gathering “clutches,”
as they suggestively call a set of eggs! Not long ago a collector
narrated, in an ornithological journal, the harrowing story of his
having rifled the nest of a hairy woodpecker five or six times in a
single season, the poor bird laying a new deposit after each burglary,
until at last she grew suspicious and sought a safer site for her nest.
The writer described his part of the performance with apparent gusto, as
if he had made a splendid contribution to science! If he must have a
collection of hairy woodpecker’s eggs, why not take a single “clutch,”
and then leave the bird to make her second deposit and rear her brood in
peace?

To my mind, many “professionals” shoot a score of birds where they ought
to shoot but one. The long record of slaughtered birds is sickening. The
Newgate Calendar scarcely furnishes a parallel. Even our most scientific
journals print many of these bloody annals. It is true, a reasonable
number of specimens must be collected for scientific purposes, but
surely no adequate excuse can be given for shooting hundreds of
individuals of the same species merely to have the honor of saying that
an astounding number of specimens were “taken.” If the cause of natural
history cannot be promoted without destroying the humane instincts of
the naturalist himself, the price is too great; it were better left
unpaid. A bird in the bush is worth forty in the hand, especially if the
forty are dead; worth more, too, I venture to add, to the cause of
science itself.



                                  XVI.
                      THE SECRET OF APPRECIATION.


It is an open secret, and perhaps not a very profound one. I need not
prolong the reader’s suspense, if mayhap he should feel any, by assuming
a mysterious air, but may as well frankly divulge the secret at once.
There are times when melodrama is sadly out of place—if, indeed, it is
ever in place. What, then, is the secret of appreciation? It is simply
being _en rapport_ with the object or truth to be appreciated. No more
patent fact was ever declared than that which Saint Paul wrote:
“Spiritual things are spiritually discerned.” There must be mental
kinship, or there cannot be true valuation. Bring a depressed or
distracted mind to the most exhilarating service, and you will miss its
pith and point, and go away unrewarded.

The same truth obtains in our commerce with Nature, which, it would
seem, will not brook a rival in our hearts if we would win from her all
her treasured sweets. “Give me your whole mind, your whole attention,”
she says, “or I will close up every fountain of refreshment.” What
benefit will that man whose mind is absorbed in the affairs of the
market derive from a woodland stroll? What secret will the rustling
leaves speak to him, or the opening flowers, or the chirping birds? He
sees no transit of swift wings, and the sunshine dapples the
leaf-carpeted ground in vain for eyes that see only the ledger and
day-book in the sylvan haunt.

My own experience confirms the foregoing statements. For several months
one summer I felt depressed and abstracted on account of several
untoward circumstances which need not be described, for “every heart
knoweth its own bitterness.” In this mood I sometimes sauntered out to
my woodland haunts; but I saw very little, and what I did see bore the
stamp of triteness, and seemed as dull and languid as myself. My heart
was otherwhere. A secret, gnawing grief draws the thoughts inward, and
breaks the spell of the outer world, charm she never so sweetly. The
soul hopelessly hungering for the unattainable comes almost to despise
the blessings within its grasp. A-lack-a-day, that anything should ever
come between the heart and its gentle mistress, Nature! And so it was
that even the birds, my precious intimates, became a weariness both to
the flesh and the spirit.

Master Chickadee was nothing but a lump of flesh covered with
mezzo-tinted feathers, all prose, no poetry; a creature that I had once
invested with a rare charm (in my own mind), but now only a lout of a
bird, a buffoon, whose noisy chatter broke harshly into my gloomy
meditations. Once I had fairly revelled in the army of kaleidoscopic
warblers, and had called them to their faces all kinds of endearing
names, like a lover wooing a bride; but now, in my dejected frame of
mind, they were prosaic enough, and provokingly shy, and I felt too
indifferent even to ogle them with my glass as they tilted in the
tree-tops. What a humdrum life was the life of the birds, anyway, and
how indescribably humdrum my semi-frequent beat in the woods was
becoming!

But by and by, in the autumn, an event occurred that transformed my
inner world, dispelling the darkness, dissipating the clouds, bathing
all in sunshine. Then I hied to the fields and woods, and, behold, a
metamorphosis! The inner miracle had wrought an outer wonder. Never was
there “such mutual recognition vaguely sweet” between the autumn woods
and my appreciative heart. The ground, flecked with sunshine, filtering
through the browning leaves, became a work of mosaic fit for a king to
tread on, and the westerly breeze sang a pæan through the branches. And
how many birds there were! A flock of robins were chirping in the grove,
now and then breaking into song, as if they had forgotten that spring
was past and that it was unconventional for robin redbreast to sing in
the autumn; but they seemed to be willing to make a breach of the
_convenances_ to give me delight.

Numerous warblers chirped in the tree-tops, or swung out on the
upbuoying air to catch some ill-fated insect on the wing; and although I
could not identify many of them, I felt no annoyance, as I had at other
times, for I could truly “rejoice with those that do rejoice,” because I
had no sorrow of my own to distract my mind. I could have forgiven
almost any trick a bird had seen fit to play me. The brown creeper, just
from his haunt in some primeval forest of British America, went hitching
up a tree-bole in his own quaint way without even the courtesy of a
friendly how-d’-you-do; but I forgave the slight, and told him he was a
poet,—there was rhythm in every movement, and his feathers rhymed each
with its fellow.

Across the breezy hills to the river valley I made my way in lightsome
mood, finding birds a-plenty wherever I went. More than once the
song-sparrows broke into their autumnal twitter, aftermath of their
springtime choruses when they were in full tone; and occasionally the
Carolina wren uttered his stirring reveille, which, though perhaps not
tuneful in itself, seemed tuneful to me that day, because there was
music in my own mind. When you are in the right mood, even the distant
caw of the crow or the plaintive cry of the blue jay sets the harp of
your soul to melody; while the riotous piping of the cardinal grossbeak
makes you feel as if you were “married to immortal verse.”

But, alas! when “loathed melancholy, of Cerberus and blackest midnight
born,” is your unbidden companion, every overture of Nature is a burden,
an intrusion into the privacy of your grief, and—

  “Vainly morning spreads her lure
  Of a sky serene and pure.”

In a leaf-strewn arcade beneath the overarching bushes hard by the
river, were the merry juncos, my companions of the winter, which had
come back from their summer vacation in the north. How glad I was to
salute them and welcome them home! Their trig little forms, sprightly
motions, confident air of comradery, and merry trills were a joy to me.
And then I could not help wondering if any of them might be the same
birds I had met during the early summer on one of the green mountains of
Canada, where I had spent a day of rapturous delight. In the same
sequestered angle, autumn though it was, the phœbe bird brought back
reminiscences of spring, with his cheery whistle; while farther down the
valley his shy relative, the wood-pewee, complained dulcetly that winter
was coming to drive him from his pleasant summer haunts. Every sound,
whether joyful or sad, struck a responding chord in my heart, because
Nature had my undivided thought.

When the mind is distracted by sorrows it cannot shake off, it boots
little that the chirp of the chestnut-sided and cerulean warblers is
sharp and penetrating; that the call of the black-throated green,
black-throated blue and myrtle warblers is somewhat harsh; that the
Maryland yellow-throat expresses his alarm or disapproval in a note
still lower in the scale and quite rasping; that the Blackburnian and
parula warblers tilt about far up in the tree-tops, as if they scorned
the ground; that the black-throats and creepers dance airily about in
the bushes or lower branches of the trees, come confidingly near you, a
tiny interrogation point dangling from every eyelash, ask you what you
are about, what you do when you are at home, whether you have just come
from the hospital that you look so pale, and, having decided that you
are a harmless monomaniac, to say the worst, go about their playful toil
of capturing insects, apparently unmindful of your presence. But when
your heart is jolly and full of nature love, all these simple facts,
proving the large diversity of temperament in bird-land’s denizens, are
a source of joy to you; you note them, are glad on account of them,
though you scarcely know why.

In a quiet retreat just beyond a steep-graded railway-track the
black-throated green warblers were very abundant and unusually
rollicksome. It was strange how they could dash about in the thorn-trees
without impaling themselves on the terrible spears. One little fellow
swung out of a tree after a miller, which dropped upon a fence-post near
by. Why did the natty bird act so queerly? He danced about on the top of
the post, tried to pick up something, but was baffled in all his
efforts; then he scudded around the post a few inches below the top like
a nuthatch, uttering his harsh little chirp. At length I stepped up,
determined to solve the enigma. There was the solution; the miller had
wriggled into a deep hole in the post, so that the bird could not reach
it. With a slender stick I drew it out of its hiding-place, and placed
it on the top of the post; but whether the bird ever went back and
profited by my well-meant helpfulness I do not know. Begging the poor
miller’s pardon, I felt happy in befriending the charming fairy of a
bird. With gladness throbbing in every corpuscle, it was not in my place
to question Nature’s economy in making the sacrifice of one life
necessary to the sustenance of another.

Tramping on, I presently found myself in a marsh stretching back from
the river-bank. As I stood in the tangle of tall grass and weeds,
listening to the songs and twitters of various birds, the sentiment, if
not the precise lines, of Lowell, came to mind like a draught of
invigorating air,—

  “Dear marshes! vain to him the gift of sight
    Who cannot in their various incomes share,
  From every season drawn, of shade and light,
    Who sees in them but levels brown and bare.
  Each change of storm or sunshine scatters free
    On them its largess of variety,
  For Nature with cheap means still works her wonders rare.”

But what was that sharp chirp? It instantly drew my thoughts from the
marsh itself and the poet’s tribute. Opera-glass in hand, I softly stole
near the bushy clump from which the sound came. Ah! there the bird was,
tilting uneasily on a slender twig. The swamp-sparrow! It was the first
time I had positively identified this bird in my own neighborhood,—not,
I suppose, because it had not been present often and again, but because
I had been too dull of sight to see it. Then came a glad memory. I
recalled the peculiar circumstances under which I had seen my first
swamp-sparrow, hundreds of miles away. During a visit to Boston and
vicinity, a year prior, I spent a never-to-be-forgotten afternoon with
Bradford Torrey, who needs no introduction to intelligent readers. We
walked out to some of his favorite haunts. It was an ideal October day,
and the charming New England landscape threw a spell over me that gave
me a kind of other-worldly feeling. My companion was all I had expected
him to be, and more,—a good talker and an appreciative listener,—and
even now, when I recall my saunter with this quiet, gentle bird-lover,
it seems more like a dream than a reality.

The afternoon had slipped well by when we came to a bush-fringed brook
and Mr. Torrey told me that there were swamp-sparrows in the thickets.
“How much I should like to see one!” I cried. “The swamp-sparrow is a
stranger to me.” “You shall have your wish gratified,” he replied; and
forthwith he climbed the fence, stalked to the other side of the stream,
and slowly, gently drove the chirping sparrows toward me, so that I
could see their markings plainly with my glass. How lovingly I ogled
them! I could not get my fill of the birds shown me by one whom I had
loved so long at a distance. It was an epoch in my poor life,—an epoch
in a double sense. Who will censure my feeling of gratified pride? In
the evening, after our stroll, as we walked to and fro on the platform
at the railway-station waiting for the train to start, I remarked: “Mr.
Torrey, I shall never forget my first meeting with the swamp-sparrow.”

“No,” he responded innocently, as if my humble remembrance would confer
an honor upon him; “whenever you see that bird hereafter, you will think
of me, won’t you?” I told him I should; and that evening in the marsh, a
year later, I kept my tryst with memory, while tears, half sad, half
glad, dimmed my eyes.

But hark! A little farther on, from the sparse bushes of a grassy bank,
came the swinging treble of a white-throated sparrow, like a votive
offering. What enchantment possessed the birds that evening? Had Orpheus
with his miracle-working harp come back to earth? I was half tempted to
believe for the nonce in the transmigration of souls, for the notes
drifted so sadly sweet on the still air, as if the fabled minstrel had
indeed returned to mundane realms. Among the thick clusters of weeds and
bushes that fringed a railway, which I pursued in my homeward walk, many
birds were going to roost,—sparrows, warblers, red-winged blackbirds,
and cardinal grossbeaks. My passing along alarmed them, and sent them
dashing from their leafy couches.

Thus the afternoon passed. I had not, perhaps, learned as many new
things about my kinsmen in plumes as on many other rambles, but I had
discovered the secret of appreciation; that the mind must be unharassed
by carking care or depressing sorrow to win the best from Nature. Give
me a lightsome heart, and I will trudge with any pedestrian. Give me a
heavy heart, and the weight clings to the soles of my feet like
barnacles to a ship’s bottom. Given the proper mood, the lines of an
American poet—no need to mention his name—have the ring of gospel
truth,—

  “Nature, the supplement of man,
  His hidden sense interpret can;
  What friend to friend cannot convey
  Shall the dumb bird instructed say.”



                                 XVII.
                       BROWSINGS IN OTHER FIELDS.


Even the most home-loving body may sometimes gain refreshment, and at
the same time have his mental vision broadened, by a jaunt to another
neighborhood; and if he has a hobby, he may beguile the days in riding
it, and thus evade, for a time at least, that most harrowing of all
maladies, homesickness. Well, to make a long story short, and a dull one
a little brighter, let me say at once that I have, more or less
recently, made several visits to various points of interest, and
everywhere have found delightful comradeship with the birds. First, I
shall speak of a trip to Montreal, that gem city on the St. Lawrence,
beautiful for situation as well as for other attractive features.

South of the city a mountain rears its green, symmetrical mass. True, it
is not very lofty as mountains go; but standing there alone in the midst
of a far stretching plain, it seems really majestic, especially to one
unused to great altitudes. It is a favorite pleasure-resort for
residents and visitors, having been converted into a beautiful park,
with winding paths and driveways, many shady nooks, with comfortable
benches to lounge on, and a tower on the summit, from which you can look
down upon a scene that is really enchanting. Nestling at the foot of the
mountain is the city, with its towers, steeples, well-laid streets, and
palatial residences; curving and gleaming far to the northeast and
southwest is the mighty St. Lawrence, its green banks holding it in
loving embrace far as the eye can reach; in another direction you trace
the Ottawa River meandering far to the northwest like a ribbon of
silver, and dividing into two branches a few miles away, thus forming
the island of Montreal; beyond the St. Lawrence is the Lake of Two
Mountains, and far away in the misty distance toward the south and
southwest, are the blue outlines of the Green and Adirondack ranges; in
other directions the plain stretches level until it melts in the hazy
distance, and is dotted with farm-houses, villages, well-cultivated
fields, and green woodlands.

One afternoon a few unoccupied hours were at my disposal. I determined
to spend them on Mount Royal, as the eminence is called. A car wheels
you up an inclined plane, almost perpendicular near the top, at least
two-thirds of the way to the summit. Having filled myself with the scene
from the tower, I was starting off to make a tour of the park, when my
footsteps were arrested by a quaint new song coming from a clump of
trees farther down the declivity. Interest in everything else vanished
in a moment. A good deal of time was spent before I could get a sight of
the minstrel. Much to my surprise, he turned out to be a thrush; the
species, however, could not be determined at the time for lack of my
opera-glass, as the bird was perched rather high in a tree. In the brief
time at my disposal just then, I saw a number of other birds, and
resolved to spend a day on the mountain studying them, as soon as other
duties would permit.

That day came in good time. An early morning hour found me skirting the
steep sides of the mountain, alert for feathered dwellers. It was the
tenth of July, too late for the best songs and for finding birds in the
nest, and yet I felt fairly well satisfied with the results of the day’s
excursion. Presently the song of the thrush, whose identity I had come
to settle, was heard in the copse. A look at him with my glass proved
him to be the veery, or Wilson’s thrush, only a migrant in my State, and
one that pursues his pilgrimage both to the north and south in
patience-trying silence.

To my ear the song was sweet, almost hauntingly so. Some notes were
quite like certain strains of the wood-thrush’s rich song, but others
seemed more ringing and bell-like, and the whole tune was more skilfully
and smoothly rendered,—that is, with less labored effort. Still, I am
loath to say that the general effect of this bird’s song is more
pleasing than that of the wood-thrush, for there is something far-away
and dreamy about the minstrelsy of the latter that one does not hear in
the song of any other species.

The veeries evidently had nests or younglings among the bushes, for they
called in harsh, alarmed tones as I entered their secluded haunts, but I
had not the good fortune to find a nest. Indeed, it was too late to
discover any nests at all, except such as had been deserted. But, to my
great delight, I found that the jolly juncos breed on the mountain, for
there they were carrying food to their little ones, which had left the
nursery and were ensconced in the thick foliage. These birds are winter
residents in my own neighborhood, but in the spring they hie to this and
other localities of the same and higher latitudes to spend the summer.
It was refreshing to meet my little winter intimates. They were quite
lyrical, but their little trills did not seem any more tuneful here in
their breeding-haunts than in their winter residences, especially when
Spring pours her subtle essence into their veins.

Nothing surprised me more than to find song-sparrows on the top of the
mountain, whereas they are usually the tenants of the swamps and other
lowlands in my neighborhood. Here they were rearing families on the
mountain’s crest as well as along the streams that laved the mountain’s
base. They also sang their tinkling roundels in both places, sometimes
ringing them out so loudly that they could be distinctly heard above the
clatter of the street cars.

At one place, in a cluster of half-dead trees and saplings, a colony of
warblers were tilting about; all of them only migrants about my home in
Ohio, but breeding here. There were old and young creeping warblers, the
elders singing their trills in lively fashion, and the young ones
twittering coaxingly for food. Here were also a number of
redstarts,—sonnets in black and gold,—the young beseeching their parents
constantly for more luncheon. A beautiful chestnut-sided warbler wheeled
into sight and reeled off his jolly little trill, and then gave his
half-grown baby a tidbit from his beak. On another part of the mountain
the song of a black-throated green warbler fell pensively on the ear,
coming from the thick branches of a tall tree, like a requiem from a
broken heart. Presently he flitted down into plain view, his curiosity
drawing him toward his auditor sitting beneath on the grass. No doubt
his mate was crouched on her nest far up in one of the trees.

In a thicket on the acclivity of the mountain, I heard a loud, appealing
call, which was new to me; and yet it evidently came from the throat of
a young bird pleading for its dinner. By dint of a good deal of peering
about and patient waiting, I at length found it to be a juvenile
chestnut-sided warbler. Lying on the ground beneath the green canopy of
the bushes, I watched it a long time, hoping to see the old bird feed
it; but she was too shy to come near, although the youngster grew almost
desperate in its entreaties. An old nest in the crotch of a sapling near
at hand announced where the little fellow had, no doubt, been hatched.
It was a beautiful nest, as compactly built as the cottage of a
goldfinch, and was decorated, like a red-eyed vireo’s nest, with tiny
balls of spider-web and strips of paper.

Not far away from this charmed spot a red-eyed vireo had hung her basket
to the horizontal fork of a small swaying branch. It was still fresh,
and in such good condition as to convince me that it had just been
completed by the little basket-maker, which had not yet deposited her
dainty eggs in the cup. No other bird on the mountain sang as much as
this vireo, with the sharp red eyes and golden breast. On the whole, I
doubt not that Mount Royal would be an almost ideal place for bird
study, if one could spend the month of June on its wooded summit,
slopes, and acclivities.

The next visit to be described was made to the somewhat celebrated
Zoölogical Garden at Cincinnati, Ohio, which contains a really
magnificent collection of animals and birds. However, a description of
the latter must suffice, although the animals interested me almost as
deeply. There are many cages and aviaries containing rare species of
feathered folk, the only difficulty being that they are not so
thoroughly labelled as they might be for the convenience of visitors,
many of whom are sufficiently interested to want to know at least the
common names of the birds. All curators and superintendents of such
institutions should recognize the importance of complete and systematic
labelling of the specimens in their care.

The first aviary at which I stopped consisted of a collection of
bright-hued and sweet-toned birds, most of them foreigners. Here one
could revel in variety; for there were crimson-eared waxbills from West
Africa, black-headed finches from India, cut-throat finches and other
dainty folk from across the sea, with indigo-birds, nonpareils,
goldfinches, and song-sparrows from our own land. Of these, the
nonpareils, or painted finches, were the most gifted singers, having
loud, clear voices that rang far above the voices of their
fellow-prisoners. No birds make daintier pets than these pretty
creatures, with their delicate blue and red costumes. The next best
singer in this collection was the American goldfinch, which was not far
behind the nonpareil, and really excelled him in one respect,—that is,
his song was more prolonged and varied.

The next collection was certainly a parti-hued one, containing cardinal
grossbeaks, Brazilian cardinals, crow blackbirds, towhee buntings, brown
thrashers, and English blackbirds, I had the pleasure of hearing the
song of the Brazilian cardinal. It was quite fine, but scarcely
comparable with the rich, full-toned, and varied whistle of our
cardinal-bird, being much less vigorous, slower in movement, and feebler
in tone. It was gratifying to be able to give the palm to our North
American songster.

But of all the clatter of bird music and bird noise combined that I have
ever heard in my life, the song of the English starling bore off the
bays. Never before had I listened to such divers sounds from a bird’s
throat, nor had I even fancied that they were possible. Small wonder a
well-trained starling costs from twenty to forty dollars at the bird
stores! No description can do justice to the starling’s song. He begins
in a low, subdued tone, and seems at first to be quite calm; but
gradually he grows excited, his body quivers and sways from side to
side, his neck is craned out, his throat expands and contracts
convulsively, and, oh! oh! oh!—pardon the exclamations—the hurly-burly
that gurgles and ripples and bubbles and pours from his windpipe! At one
point a double sound is produced, or two sounds nearly at the same
moment,—one low and guttural, the other on a higher key,—presently a
half-dozen notes rush forth pell-mell, accompanied by a quick snapping
of the mandibles; then a succession of loud, musical, explosive notes
fall on the ear; and finally the bird, as if in a spasm of ecstasy,
opens his mouth wide and utters a clear, rapturous trill as a sort of
musical peroration. It is simply wonderful. At first the bird seems to
control the song, but erelong the song seems to master the bird
completely. To my mind, it seemed that the songster in the intervals of
silence had wound up his music-box, and then, having got started, was
unable to stop until the spring had run down. Some of the notes of the
strain were quite melodious, while others were rather grating.

But what was that silvery song, rising above all the other clangor of
music? It was the trill of my peerless little friend, the white-throated
sparrow, which I have met so often in my own woodland trysts. Were I to
award the prize to any bird in the whole Zoo for sweetness of tone, it
would certainly be given to this matchless minstrel. No other bird’s
voice had such a purely musical quality; and he sang just as loudly and
sweetly as he does in his native copse, bringing back the memory of many
a pleasant woodland ramble.

A beautiful family group next claimed attention. It comprised two adult
silver pheasants, a male and female, and two little chicks recently from
the shell, which had been hatched in the Zoo. They looked like downy
chickens, and were about as large. There was no hint of the long,
gorgeous plumes that their papa bore so proudly; nothing but brownish,
slightly checkered down made up their suits. When their mamma pecked at
something on the ground, they would scamper to her for it, as you have
seen small chickens do. Unlike most young birds, they picked up their
food themselves, and did not pry open their mouths to be fed.

Had you seen the birds I next stopped to ogle, you would have joined in
my merriment; for they were the great kingfishers of Australia. What
heavy bills they carried, looking like good-sized clubs! One of them
pounded his beak against his perch until it fairly rattled with the
concussion. When I tapped lightly against the wires, they stretched out
their necks, and hissed at me out of their huge mouths.

Nothing was more pleasing than a large wired house containing a dozen or
more blue jays. Rain was falling gently at the time, and the refreshing
drops filtered upon the birds through the wire roof. How they enjoyed
their bath as they flitted from perch to perch! But the rain did not
descend rapidly enough for several of them; and so, in order to drench
their plumage more thoroughly, they plunged into the leafy bushes
growing in their apartment, and crept about over and through the
sprinkled foliage until their feathers were well rinsed.

An interesting bird was the yellow-headed blackbird, which is a resident
of some of our Western States, but which does not deign even to visit my
neighborhood. His whole head and neck are brilliant yellow, as if he had
plunged up to his shoulders in a keg of yellow paint, while the rest of
his attire is shiny black. He utters a loud, shrill whistle, quite
unlike any sound produced by his kinsmen, the crow blackbird and the
red-wing. He seemed to feel quite at home in his cage with several other
species of birds.

Many a time I have thought I heard a tumult of bird song in the fields
or woods, but at the Zoo I was greeted with a perfect din from the
throats of more than two dozen indigo-birds, all singing simultaneously.
They simply drowned out every other sound in the neighborhood when they
chimed in the chorus. Even the goldfinch, doing his level best, could
not be heard until there was a lull in the shriller music. In the same
enclosure were the bluebirds and robins. My pity went out to one of the
robins, which was trying to build a nest, but could not find a proper
site nor the right kind of material. She would pick up a bunch of fibres
and strings from the ground, fling them on the window-sill, and then
squat down upon them to press them into the desired concave with her red
bosom; but it was all to no purpose, for she had no mortar with which to
rear the walls of a cottage.

Leaving the robin to her fruitless labors, I turned to a collection of
weaver-birds of various species and divers markings. There was one,
especially, with a black head and neck and yellow body, that attracted
notice. He was rather handsome; his song, however, was a perfect squall,
especially the closing notes. These birds did not sing all the time, but
intermittently, one of them beginning with a few ringing notes as a
prelude, and then the others joining, all screaming louder and louder as
the chorus went on, until they ended in a supreme racket. Then there
were a few moments of quiet, followed by the united chorus as before,
making such a tumult that one voice could scarcely be distinguished from
another. A dainty little sparrow, unnamed, seemed to fill in the
intervals with his chirpings, forming a sort of semi-musical interlude.

The enclosure which contained the yellow-headed blackbird was divided
into a number of apartments. Here were parrots of various species, among
them a number of white-throated Amazons. You have doubtless heard a
dozen or more parrots screaming simultaneously. On my visit these birds
created a terrible hubbub. They cried and laughed and sighed and groaned
and shrieked until my ears were almost deafened. But in the midst of it
all, when there was a slight lull, could be heard the silvery trill of a
white-throated sparrow, sounding like the music of an angel amid a
tumult of imps.

Near the centre of the garden there is a long pond enclosed by wire
fencing, and on and about this pond is to be found an interesting group
of water-fowls. There was a large bluish-colored crane with a ruff of
feathers about his head. A workman came along and snapped his fingers at
the bird, which hopped and leaped about and almost turned a somersault.
A great blue heron had made a nest of sticks and twigs on the bare bank
of the pond, and was sitting on two eggs. While I was watching her, she
rose slowly on her long stilts, stretched out her stiffened wings,
rearranged the sticks with her bill, and then sat down on her eggs
again, turning them under her breast. What an opportunity for a bird
student if day by day he could have watched her build her nest and rear
her young!

Swimming about on the pond like a couple of feathered craft were two
great white pelicans with long bills and elevated wings. A tuft of
feathers or bristles grew on the top of their upper mandibles. They
seemed to be guying each other, or probably were engaged in a real naval
battle; for they pursued each other around and around, engaged in
various martial movements and counter-movements, and every now and then
clashed together their great beaks like two men fencing with swords. But
they avoided close contact. How lightly and smoothly they glided about
on the water!

Standing on a platform on the other side of the pond, were two more
large, almost gigantic pelicans, not of the same species as the two just
mentioned, having no tufts on their beaks, but a large featherless spot
on the side of their heads encircling the eye. There they stood,
silently preening their plumes, dexterously drawing each snowy feather
between their mandibles. How long they had been making their toilet I
cannot say. Presently the first two pelicans came sailing over to the
platform, and climbed awkwardly upon it. Would there be a pitched battle
between them and the other two birds? One of the latter stretched forth
his neck, and, to my great surprise, puffed out a large membranous bag
or pouch at his throat like that of a frog, and uttered a warning cry.
But soon the quartette of feathered Goliaths settled down into quiet,
and adjusted their plumes without the least interference with one
another’s comfort.

Following a winding pathway, I presently reached an apartment which
contained sixteen great horned owls, sitting in a row and looking as
wise as Greek sages. It was amusing to see them expand their eyes and
stare through the blinding light, then blink, close one eye and dilate
the other, and then shut both so nearly that only narrow chinks were
visible between the lids. Several of them opened their small, human-like
mouths, and hissed at me softly whenever I stirred. In another part of
the ground there was a collection of barn owls, with faces that looked
very intelligent; but the birds seemed to be quite wild, glaring with
their black eyes and swaying their heads from side to side in a nervous,
irritable way.

I felt many times repaid for my saunter through the Zoo, and would
advise all who have an opportunity of visiting a good zoölogical garden
not to let it go by unimproved. A great deal of information as well as
pleasure may be thus gained.

Wherever one is, one must get people to talking about one’s mania. How
else could it be said that there is method in one’s madness, or in what
respects it differs from mere lunacy? While visiting with a delightful
family living in a city some distance from my home, our conversation
drifted—perhaps with a good deal of calculation on my part—to the birds,
with the result that I was put in possession of several facts worth
noting, chiefly because they prove how helpful some birds are to one
another in their domestic relations. No birds are more ingenious in
planning for one another’s comfort and safety than our “foreign
brethren,” the English sparrows. The mistress of this intelligent
family, a woman who has keen eyes and ears for the birds, declared that
she always heard one sparrow in the trees about the house waking up its
sleeping mates at break of day, like the father of a family rousing his
drowsing children. It called in shrill tones as if it were saying, “Wake
up! wake up! Day is coming! Time to go to work!” As it continued its
clamor, it seemed to be flying about from one point to another, visiting
every bedroom, until at length a faint peep was heard here and there in
response from various members of the sparrow household, and erelong the
entire company was awake. When my friend told me this story, I was
considerably surprised, not to say a little skeptical. But, remaining in
their home over night, I had an opportunity to confirm the story, for I
was myself awakened in the morning by the loud, impatient calls of a
sparrow rousing his family; and the process took place just as my
informants had described it, leaving no longer any room for doubt.

The same kind friends described another cunning freak of bird behavior.
A lady’s bedroom window opened near some bushy trees, in which a pair of
birds—perhaps robins—had built a nest. At night the lady would often
hear the male singing. But sometimes he would grow drowsy, and would
become silent,—he had evidently got to napping,—when there would be a
coaxing, complaining _Pe-e-e-p! pe-e-e-p!_ from the little wife on the
nest, evidently asking him to “sing some more.” Then he would tune his
pipe again until his throat got tired and his eyelids heavy. In this way
the exacting wife kept her spouse serenading her for a large part of the
night. Perhaps, like children, she could not sleep unless some one was
singing to her. At all events, it was very bright of her to demand a
lullaby or love-song from her husband to put her to sleep.

The conduct of many kinds of birds in the autumn while preparing for
their Hegira to the south is extremely interesting. They assemble in
flocks, sometimes large enough to suggest an ecumenical council, and
fall to cackling, twittering, discussing, and in many other ways making
preparation for their aerial voyage to another clime. They really seem
to regret being compelled to leave their pleasant summer haunts, if one
may judge from the length and fervor of their goodbyes. Perhaps they are
like human beings who have a strong attachment for home, and must visit
every nook and tryst to say _au revoir_ before they take their
departure. One can easily imagine how dear to their hearts are the
scenes of their childhood, and of their nest-building and brood-rearing.

No birds make a greater to-do over their leave-taking in the autumn than
the house martins, I once visited for a few days with some friends who
live in the country and have had a bevy of martins in their boxes for
many years. They described the behavior of these birds when fall comes.
At a certain date in September they will gather in a compact flock, sing
and whistle and chatter at the top of their voices, circle about the
premises, alighting on the trees, fences, and buildings, and then will
rise in the air and sail away through the blue ether. Strange to say,
they may return in a day or two, and repeat their evolutions; and this
may be done several times before they say adieu and begin their
southward pilgrimage in real earnest. Why do they do this? One might
well rack one’s brain in vain conjectures. Do they lose their way the
first time? Or do they get a bad start, and then come back to try again?
Or do they get homesick after they have gone some distance, and return
once more to look upon the familiar scenes? It would be difficult to
sift all the processes of bird cerebration.



                                 XVIII.
                    A BIRD ANTHOLOGY FROM LOWELL.[9]


In making a study of Lowell’s poetry for a special purpose, one cannot
help admiring the genius with which he transmutes every theme he touches
into gold. His Muse is exceedingly versatile, ranging at her own sweet
will over a wide and varied field. There may be times when you are not
in the mood for smiling at his humor or weeping at his pathos; but his
delineations of Nature are always so true, so musical, so picturesque,
that they seldom fail to strike a responsive chord in the breasts of
those readers who are not.

  “Aliens among the birds and brooks,
  Dull to interpret or conceive
  What gospels lost the woods retrieve.”

No other American poet seems to get quite so near to Nature’s throbbing
heart. Dream though he sometimes may, he seldom loses his hold on the
world of reality. Nature in her own garb is beautiful enough for him,
and does not need the garnishing and drapery of an over-fanciful
interpretation. It is not my purpose, however, to eulogize Lowell’s
poetry, even his poetry of Nature, in a general way, or attempt an
analysis of it, but simply to call attention to his metrical
descriptions of the feathered creation. Among all our American poets, he
is the limner _par excellence_ of bird ways. It is true that Emerson is
somewhat rich in allusions to our feathered denizens, and especially
felicitous in his characterizations; but his references are briefer,
more casual, and far less frequent than those of Lowell, who takes toll
of them, one might almost say, without stint; for he says of himself,—

  “My heart, I cannot still it,
  Nest that has song-birds in it.”

Lowell never speaks of the birds in a stereotyped way, as many poets do,
but mentions them by name, and often describes their behavior with a
deftness and accuracy of touch that fairly enchant the specialist in
bird lore. Having given no little attention to the study of birds, I
feel prepared to say that Lowell’s hand is almost always sure when he
undertakes to depict the manners of the “feathered republic of the
groves.” I have found, I think, only one technical inaccuracy in all his
numerous allusions;[10] and I believe I may say, without boasting, that
I am familiar with every bird whose charms he has chanted. Indeed, he
himself boasts modestly, as poets may, of his familiarity with the birds
in his beautiful tribute to George William Curtis, saying,—

  “I learned all weather-signs of day and night;
  No bird but I could name him by his flight.”

In the first place, let me point out the remarkable felicity of his more
general references to birds and their ways. The music of the minstrels
of the air often fills his bosom with pleasing but half-regretful
reminders of other and happier days, as, for example, when he penned
those exquisite lines, “To Perdita, Singing,”—

    “She sits and sings,
    With folded wings
    And white arms crost,
  ‘Weep not for bygone things,
    They are not lost.’”

Then follow some lines of rare sweetness, the concluding ones of which
are these,—

  “Every look and every word
  Which thou givest forth to-day,
  Tells of the singing of the bird
  Whose music stilled thy boyish play.”

A similar pensive reference is found in our poet’s ode, “To the
Dandelion,” which is as deserving of admiration as many of the more
famous odes of English poesy. He thus apostrophizes “the common flower”
that fringes “the dusty road with harmless gold,”—

  “My childhood’s earliest thoughts are linked with thee;
  The sight of thee calls back the robin’s song,
      Who, from the dark old tree
  Beside the door, sang clearly all day long;
    And I, secure in childish piety,
  Listened as if I heard an angel sing
      With news from heaven, which he could bring
    Fresh every day to my untainted ears,
    When birds and flowers and I were happy peers.”

A bird often affords our poet a metaphor or a simile by which to
represent some sad reminiscence of his life. Listen to this sweet minor
strain,—

  “As a twig trembles, which a bird
    Lights on to sing, then leaves unbent,
  So is my memory thrilled and stirred;—
    I only know she came and went.”

With what a plaintive melody the last line lingers in one’s mind, like
some far-off melancholy strain, singing itself over again and again with
a persistency that will not be hushed,—“I only know she came and went.”
There are times, too, when our bard falls into a slightly despondent
mood, and even then the birds serve to give a turn to his pensive
reflections,—

  “But each day brings less summer cheer,
    Crimps more our ineffectual spring,
  And something earlier every year
    Our singing birds take wing.”

To my mind, he is less attractive when his verse takes on this cheerless
hue, and I therefore turn gladly to his more jubilant lays, in which he
seems to have caught the joy of the full-toned bird orchestra, as he
does at more than one place in “The Vision of Sir Launfal,”—

    “The little birds sang as if it were
    The one day of summer in all the year,
  And the very leaves seemed to sing on the trees.”

What bird lover has not often been caught in such a mesh of bird song,
on a bright day of the early springtime? Even good-natured Hosea Biglow
cannot always repress his enthusiasm for the birds, although he is quite
too chary of his allusions to them,—that is, too chary for the man who
has birds on the brain. His unsophisticated sincerity cannot brook a
perfunctory treatment of Nature’s blithe minstrels, for he breaks out
scornfully in denouncing those book-read poets who get “wut they’ve
airly read” so “worked into their heart an’ head” that they

    “... can’t seem to write but jest on sheers
  With furrin countries or played-out ideers.
                               · · · · · · ·
  This makes ’em talk o’ daisies, larks, an’ things,
  Ez though we’d nothin’ here that blows an’ sings.
  Why, I’d give more for one live bobolink
  Than a square mile o’ larks in printer’s ink!”

Hosea, in spite of the meagreness of his allusions to bird life, still
proves beyond a doubt that he is conversant with the migratory habits of
the birds, and that he has been watching a little impatiently for their
vernal appearance in his native fields and woods, as every bird student
who reads the following lines will testify,—

  “The birds are here, for all the season’s late;
  They take the sun’s height, an’ don’ never wait;
  Soon’z he officially declares it’s spring,
  Their light hearts lift ’em on a north’ard wing,
  An’ th’ ain’t an acre, fur ez you can hear,
  Can’t by the music tell the time o’ year.”

Sometimes a single line or phrase proclaims our poet’s loving
familiarity with the feathered world, and gives his verse an outdoor
flavor that positively puts a tonic into the appreciative reader’s
veins, almost driving him out beneath the shining vault of the sky; as
when the poet refers to “the cock’s shrill trump that tells of scattered
corn;” or to “the thin-winged swallow skating on the air;” or laments
because “snowflakes fledge the summer’s nest;” or remarks incidentally
that the “cat-bird croons in the lilac-bush;” or that “the robin sings,
as of old, from the limb;” or that “the single crow a single caw lets
fall;” or asks, “Is a thrush gurgling from the brake?” How vivid and
full of woodsy suggestion are the following lines from that captivating
poem, “Al Fresco”:—

  “The only hammer that I hear
  Is wielded by the woodpecker,
  The single noisy calling his
  In all our leaf-hid Sybaris.”

Nothing could be more characteristic of woodpeckerdom than that
quatrain. Still more rhythmical are the first six lines—a metrical
sextette that sing themselves—of the poem entitled “The Fountain of
Youth,”—

  “’Tis a woodland enchanted!
  By no sadder spirit
  Than blackbirds and thrushes,
  That whistle to cheer it
  All day in the bushes,
  This woodland is haunted.”

And what a picture for the fancy is limned in the following lines:—

  “Like rainbow-feathered birds that bloom
  A moment on some autumn bough,
  That, with the spurn of their farewell,
  Sheds its last leaves!”

A flashlight view that, of one of the rarest scenes in Nature. The poet
must have bent over more than one callow brood of nestlings, or he never
could have written so knowingly about them,—

          “Blind nestlings, unafraid,
  Stretch up wide-mouthed to every shade
  By which their downy dream is stirred,
  Taking it for the mother bird;”

for such is the unsuspicious habit of most bantlings in the nest. It
would be difficult to find a defter touch than that with which Lowell
describes a resplendent morning, “omnipotent with sunshine,” whose
“quick charm ... wiled the bluebird to his whiff of song,”

                  “While aloof
  An oriole clattered and a robin shrilled,
  Denouncing me an alien and a thief;”

particularly if it is borne in mind that the allusion is to the
chattering alarm-call of the oriole and the robin. Exquisite indeed is
the description of—

  “The bluebird shifting his light load of song
  From post to post along the cheerless fence;

while it would puzzle one to find anywhere a more poetical and at the
same time realistic portrayal than this,—

  “Far distant sounds the hidden chickadee
  Close at my side,”—

especially if the reference be to the little black-capped titmouse’s
minor whistle, which has a strange, sad remoteness when heard in the
sylvan depth, reminding one of the myth of Orpheus mourning for his lost
love. No less vivid are the lines,—

      “The phœbe scarce whistles
  Once an hour to his fellow;”

or these,—

  “O’erhead the balanced hen-hawk slides,
  Twinned in the river’s heaven below;”

or this description of a winter scene,—

  “I stood and watched by the window
    The noiseless work of the sky,
  And the sudden flurries of snow-birds
    Like brown leaves whirling by.”

Hark!—

  “All pleasant winds from south and west
    With lullabies thine ears beguiled,
  Rocking thee in thine oriole’s nest,
    Till Nature looked at thee and smiled.”

Listen again!—

  “The sobered robin, hunger-silent now,
  Seeks cedar-berries blue, his autumn cheer.”

If one were only there to see:—

  “High flaps in sparkling blue the far-heard crow,
  The silvered flats gleam frostily below;
    Suddenly drops the gull, and breaks the glassy tide.”

Of course even the casual observer has often been aware of the fact that
“the robin is plastering his house hard by;” and many of us may have
looked upon a winter scene like the following, but I am sure we never
thought of painting it in just such tropical colors,—

  “The river was numb, and could not speak,
    For the weaver Winter its shroud had spun;
  A single crow on the tree-top bleak
    From his shining feathers shed off the cold sun.”

Hosea Biglow seems to think he knows where to find

  “Some blooms thet make the season suit the mind,
  An’ seem to match the doubting bluebird’s notes,”

liverworts and bloodroots being among those talismanic plants. There is
a world of serenity in the following metrical etching, which makes one
almost long to die and be forever at rest:—

                “Happy their end
  Who vanish down life’s evening stream
  Placid as swans that drift in dream
    Round the next river-bend.”

Our poet had the charming habit of making some characteristic bird-way
do deft metaphorical duty in his verse, like the skilful weaver who runs
a line of exquisite tint through his weft. Here is an instance, found in
the poem called “Threnodia,”—

  “I loved to see the infant soul
                               · · · · · · ·
  Peep timidly from out its nest,
  His lips, the while,
  Fluttering with half-fledged words,
  Or hushing to a smile
  That more than words expressed,
  When his glad mother on him stole
  And snatched him to her breast!
  O, thoughts were brooding in those eyes,
  That would have soared like strong-winged birds
  Far, far into the skies,
  Gladding the earth with song
  And gushing harmonies.”

Here is another fine simile,—

  “As if a lark should suddenly drop dead
    While the blue air yet trembled with its song,
  So snapped at once that music’s golden thread.”

In the following stanzas on “The Falcon”—used as a metaphor for
Truth—there is a captivating multiplicity of figures,—

  “I know a falcon swift and peerless
    As e’er was cradled in the pine;
  No bird had ever eye so fearless,
    Or wing so strong as this of mine.

  “The winds not better love to pilot
    A cloud with molten gold o’errun,
  Than him, a little burning islet,
    A star above the coming sun.

  “For with a lark’s heart he doth tower,
    By a glorious upward instinct drawn;
  No bee nestles deeper in the flower
    Than he in the bursting rose of dawn.”

It almost throws one into “a midsummer night’s dream” to read this
picturesque line,—

  “The clouds like swans drift down the streaming atmosphere.”

That must have been an expressive face indeed whose features were

  “As full of motion as a nest
  That palpitates with unfledged birds,”

albeit one may be permitted to hope, without irreverence, that it made a
more attractive picture than did the callow youngsters gaping and
wabbling in their nursery. But here is a delineation of bird life so
graphically and richly colored that one longs for the brush of the
artist to transfer it to canvas. Listen! listen! There is an exhilarant
in the atmosphere.

  “The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
    Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
  And lets his illumined being o’errun
    With the deluge of summer it receives;
  His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
  And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
  He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,—
  In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?”

The last two lines, by the way, are in perfect keeping with Mr. Lowell’s
generous instincts, which were always on the side of the lowly and
unappreciated. Seductive as the figure is, there seems to be something
slightly forced in the poet’s conceit that the thrushes sing because
they have been “pierced through with June’s delicious sting,” unless it
might be justified on the principle that pain and trial often enhance
moral values.

There is a beautiful stanza in the poem, “On Planting a Tree at
Inverara,”—

  “Hither the busy birds shall flutter,
  With the light timber for their nests,
  And, pausing from their labor, utter
  The morning sunshine in their breasts.”

With all his poet’s soul Lowell loved the serene, as when he
congratulates himself on having left the grating noise and stifling
smoke of London, and found in some sequestered haunt

              “Air and quiet too;
    Air filtered through the beech and oak;
    Quiet by nothing harsher broke
  Than wood-dove’s meditative coo.”

The word “meditative” is extremely felicitous, but no more so than the
hop-skip-and-spring of the following lines from a Commencement dinner
poem:—

  “I’ve a notion, I think, of a good dinner speech,
  Tripping light as a sandpiper over the beach,
  Swerving this way and that, as the wave of the moment
  Washes out its slight trace with a dash of whim’s foam on’t,
  And leaving on memory’s rim just a sense
  Something graceful had gone by, a live present tense;
  Not poetry,—no, not quite that, but as good,
  A kind of winged prose that could fly if it would.”

Like all discriminating lovers of “Nature’s blithe commoners,” Lowell
had his favorites, whose praises he frequently rung with a sincerity
that cannot be doubted for a moment. He was especially partial to the
bobolink. He must have often peeped into the

  “Tussocks that house blithe Bob o’ Lincoln,”

or his Muse would not have been so adept and faithful in her hymning
descriptions. We will lend a listening ear while she sings her chansons
on the virtues of the bird our poet loved so truly. First, I will call
attention to the following portraiture of that cavalier of the meadow,
the male bobolink, at the season when there are bantlings in the
grass-domed nest which demand his paternal care, as well as that of his
faithful spouse,—

    “Meanwhile that devil-may-care, the bobolink,
  Remembering duty, in mid-quaver stops
    Just ere he sweeps o’er rapture’s tremulous brink,
  And ’twixt the windrows most demurely drops,
    A decorous bird of business, who provides
    For his brown mate and fledgelings six besides,
  And looks from right to left, a farmer ’mid his crops.”

One can almost see the poet leaning against the rail fence of the clover
field, with pencil in hand, drawing the portrait of the bird which is
posing unconsciously before him, so true is his delineation of bobolink
life. But to find Lowell at his best you must read his description of
Robert o’ Lincoln at _his_ best. Hark!—

  “A week ago the sparrow was divine;
  The bluebird, shifting his light load of song
  From post to post along the cheerless fence,
  Was as a rhymer ere the poet come;
  But now, oh, rapture! sunshine winged and voiced,
  Pipe blown through by the warm, wild breath of the West,
  Shepherding his soft droves of fleecy cloud,
  Gladness of woods, skies, waters, all in one,
  The bobolink has come, and, like the soul
  Of the sweet season, vocal in a bird,
  Gurgles in ecstasy we know not what,
  Save _June! Dear June! Now God be praised for June._”

The only fault to be found with this exquisite tribute is that it is
rather too much involved to glide melodiously from the lips, or be quite
clear to the mind until after a second or third reading. Not so
picturesque, but more simple and musical, is this bit,—

  “From blossom-clouded orchards, far away
  The bobolink tinkled.”

The provincial tongue of Hosea Biglow presents us with the following
rare bit of portraiture, which has all the strength and freshness of a
painting from Nature:—

        “June’s bridesman, poet o’ the year,
  Gladness on wings, the bobolink is here;
  Half-hid in tip-top apple-bloom he sings,
  Or climbs against the breeze with quiverin’ wings,
  Or, givin’ way to’t in mock despair,
  Runs down, a brook o’ laughter, thro’ the air,”—

a rhythmical tribute that is both an honor to the poet and a compliment
to the bobolink.

The Baltimore oriole also claims Mr. Lowell’s admiration. There is one
descriptive passage relative to this bird that, in my opinion, goes
ahead of even the famous bobolink eulogy just quoted:

              “Hush! ’Tis he!
  My oriole, my glance of summer fire,
  Is come at last, and, ever on the watch,
  Twitches the pack-thread I had lightly wound
  About the bough to help his housekeeping,—
  Twitches and scouts by turns, blessing his luck,
  Yet fearing me who laid it in his way,
  Nor, more than wiser we in our affairs,
  Divines the providence that hides and helps.
  _Heave, ho! Heave, ho!_ he whistles as the twine
  Slackens its hold; _once more, now!_ and a flash
  Lightens across the sunlight to the elm
  Where his mate dangles at her cup of felt
  Nor all his booty is the thread; he trails
  My loosened thought with it along the air,
  And I must follow, would I ever find
  The inward rhyme to all this wealth of life.”

The last sentence is a deft turn at weaving, oriole-like, a thread of
moral reflection into a fine piece of description. Even in his later
years Lowell could not throw off the spell that this summer flake of
gold had thrown over him; for in his volume called “Heartsease and Rue”
he has inserted a little poem entitled “The Nest” that for rhythmical
flow and beauty has not been excelled by any of his earlier productions.
He first describes the nest in May as follows:—

  “Then from the honeysuckle gray
    The oriole with experienced quest
  Twitches the fibrous bark away,
    The cordage of his hammock nest,
  Cheering his labor with a note
  Rich as the orange of his throat.

  “High o’er the loud and dusty road
    The soft gray cup in safety swings,
  To brim ere August with its load
    Of downy breasts and throbbing wings,
  O’er which the friendly elm-tree heaves
  An emerald roof with sculptured leaves.
                               · · · · · · ·
  Thy duty, wingëd flame of Spring,
  Is but to love and fly and sing.”

Then he chants a pathetic “palinode,” as he calls it, in December, when

      “... homeless winds complain along
  The columned choir once thrilled with song.

  “And thou, dear nest, whence joy and praise
    The thankful oriole used to pour,
  Swing’st empty while the north winds chase
    Their snowy swarms from Labrador.
  But, loyal to the happy past,
  I love thee still for what thou wast.”

Besides the bobolink and the oriole, the blackbird is often made to do
charming duty in Lowell’s verse. Every student of the birds has often
seen the picture described by the line,—

  “Alders the creaking red-wings sink on;”

or heard

      “... the blackbirds clatt’rin’ in tall trees
  An’ settlin’ things in windy Congresses,—
  Queer politicians, though, for I’ll be skinned
  Ef all on ’em don’t head against the wind.”

A number of quotations in which the robin figures conspicuously have
already been given. One more occurs to me,—that in which Hosea Biglow
exclaims,—

  “Thet’s robin-redbreast’s almanick; he knows
  That arter this ther’ ’s only blossom-snows;
  So, choosin’ out a handy crotch an’ spouse,
  He goes to plast’rin’ his adobë house.”

But hold! here is still another:—

  “The Maple puts her corals on in May,
  While loitering frosts about the lowlands cling,
  To be in tune with what the robins sing,
  Plastering new log-huts ’mid her branches gray.”

It can scarcely be hoped to make this anthology from Lowell exhaustive,
for almost every time I turn the leaves of his poetical works I stumble
upon some reference to the birds before unnoted; but this article would
be incomplete should one of his choicest bits of metrical description,
which must bring both anthology and book to a close, be omitted. It is
found in the poem entitled “The Nightingale in the Study,” the whole of
which must be read to catch the drift of its moral teaching. The poet
doubtless attributes more magnanimity to the cat-bird than that carolist
is entitled to,—but no matter; the Muses cannot be over-precise. Here is
a charmer:—

  “‘Come forth!’ my cat-bird calls to me,
    ‘And hear me sing a cavatina
  That, in this old familiar tree,
    Shall hang a garden of Alcina.

                               · · · · · · ·

  “‘Or, if to me you will not hark,
    By Beaver Brook a thrush is ringing
  Till all the alder-coverts dark
    Seem sunshine-dappled with his singing.

  “‘Come out beneath the unmastered sky,
    With its emancipating spaces,
  And learn to sing as well as I,
    Without premeditated graces.

                               · · · · · · ·

  “‘Come out! with me the oriole cries,
    Escape the demon that pursues you!
  And hark! the cuckoo weatherwise,
    Still hiding, farther onward wooes you.’”

But this time, for a wonder, the poet declines the invitation to go out
of doors, because, as he says, “a bird is singing in my brain;” and yet
he does so with evident regret, for he exclaims, in response to the
cat-bird’s plea,—

  “‘Alas, dear friend, that, all my days,
    Has poured from that syringa thicket
  The quaintly discontinuous lays
    To which I hold a season ticket,—

  “‘A season ticket cheaply bought
    With a dessert of pilfered berries,
  And who so oft my love has caught
    With morn and evening voluntaries,

  “‘Deem me not faithless, if all day
    Among my dusty books I linger,
  No pipe, like thee, for June to play
    With fancy-led, half-conscious finger.

  “‘A bird is singing in my brain,
    And bubbling o’er with mingled fancies,
  Gay, tragic, rapt, right heart of Spain
    Fed with the sap of old romances;’”

and so for once the poet of the birds cannot be lured from his study,
where he has been caught in the weft of old Moorish and Castilian
legends, and he concludes his apology with the only slighting allusion
in all his verses, so far as I have discovered, to his beloved winged
minstrels:—

  “‘Bird of to-day, thy songs are stale
    To his, my singer of all weathers,
  My Calderon, my nightingale,
    My Arab soul in Spanish feathers.

  “‘Ah, friend, these singers dead so long,
    And still, God knows, in purgatory,
  Give its best sweetness to all song,
    To Nature’s self her better glory.’”

Thus the Lowell anthology has swollen to a veritable anthem, and gives
to this modest volume a peroration that it can never hope to deserve.



                               APPENDIX.
                             MY BIRD LIST.


The following is an alphabetical list of the birds which I have seen in
my neighborhood, Springfield, Clark County, Ohio. It is given for the
convenience of bird students, who are always interested in the _locale_
of the feathered tribe. The small figure (1) indicates residents all the
year round; (2), summer residents; (3), winter residents; (4), migrants.

  Bittern, American.²
  Blackbird, red-winged.²
  Bluebird.² (occasionally winter resident).
  Bobolink.²
  Bob-white.¹
  Bunting, black-throated;
    Dickcissel.²
  Butcher-bird.⁴
  Buzzard, turkey.²

  Cat-bird.²
  Cedar-bird.⁴
  Chat, yellow-breasted.²
  Chickadee, black-capped.¹
  Cow-bird.²
  Creeper, brown.³
  Crow.¹
  Cuckoo, black-billed.²
    yellow-billed.²

  Dickcissel.²
  Dove, turtle or mourning.¹
  Duck, wood.²

  Finch, purple.⁴
  Flicker.¹
  Flycatcher, Acadian.⁴
    crested.²
    least.⁴
    Traill’s.⁴
    yellow-bellied.⁴

  Gnatcatcher, blue-gray.⁴
  Goldfinch, American.¹
  Grass-finch.²
  Grossbeak, cardinal.¹
    rose-breasted.⁴
  Grouse, ruffed.¹

  Hawk, red-shouldered.³
    sharp-shinned.³
    sparrow.¹
  Heron, great blue.²
    green.²
  Humming-bird, ruby-throated.²

  Indigo-bird.²

  Jay, blue.²
  Junco; snowbird.³

  Killdeer.²
  Kingbird.²
  Kingfisher, belted.²
  Kinglet, golden-crowned.³
    ruby-crowned.⁴

  Lark, horned or shore.³
    meadow.²

  Martin, purple.²
  Night-hawk.²

  Nuthatch, white-breasted.¹
    red-breasted.⁴

  Oriole, Baltimore.²
    orchard.²
  Oven bird.²
  Owl, screech.¹

  Pewee, wood.²
  Phœbe; house pewee.²
  Pipit, American.³

  Redstart.⁴
  Robin.² (sometimes in winter).

  Sandpiper, spotted.²
  Sapsucker, yellow-bellied.⁴
  Shrike, loggerhead.⁴
  Sparrow, chipping.²
    English.¹
    field.²
    fox.⁴
    grasshopper.²
    lark.⁴
    Savanna.⁴
    song.¹
    swamp.⁴
    tree.³
    white-crowned.⁴
    white-throated.⁴
  Swallow, bank.²
    barn.²
    cliff or cave.
    white-bellied or tree.²
  Swift, chimney.²

  Tanager, scarlet.²
  Titmouse, tufted.¹
  Thrasher, brown.²
  Thrush, hermit.⁴
    Wilson’s or veery.⁴
    wood.²
  Towhee; chewink.²

  Vireo, blue-headed.⁴
    red-eyed.²
    warbling.²
    white-eyed.⁴
    yellow-throated.⁴

  Warbler, bay-breasted.⁴
    black and white.⁴
    Blackburnian.⁴
    black-poll.⁴
    black-throated blue.⁴
    black-throated green.⁴
    blue-winged.⁴
    Canadian.⁴
    cerulean.⁴
    chestnut-sided.⁴
    Connecticut.⁴
    golden-winged.⁴
    hooded.⁴
    Kirtland’s.⁴
    magnolia.⁴
    Maryland yellow-throat.²
    mourning.⁴
    myrtle.⁴
    Nashville.⁴
    palm or red-poll.⁴
    Tennessee.⁴
    Wilson’s; green black-capped.⁴
    worm-eating.⁴
    yellow or summer.²
  Water-thrush.⁴
    Louisiana.⁴
  Whippoorwill.²
  Woodpecker, downy.¹
    golden-winged; flicker.¹
    hairy.¹
    red-bellied; zebra-bird.³
    red-headed.²
    yellow-bellied.⁴
  Wren, Bewick’s.²
    Carolina.¹
    house.²
    short-billed marsh.⁴
    winter.⁴



                               FOOTNOTES.


[1]Some months after the foregoing had appeared in the columns of a
    popular journal I had occasion to modify one assertion. For many
    years I had been studying the creeper, and had never seen him
    descend a tree or bough head-first until one autumn day while
    loitering in the woods. A creeper was hitching up the stem of a
    sapling in his characteristic manner; as I drew near, he seemed to
    catch a glimpse of a tidbit in his rear, near the sapling’s root. In
    his extreme haste to secure it before I drove him away, he wheeled
    around, scuttled down over the bark head-foremost a distance of
    perhaps two feet, picked up his morsel, and then dashed out of
    sight, as if ashamed of his breach of creeper etiquette, probably to
    eat humble pie at his leisure. That was in the autumn of 1892. Since
    then no creeper, to my knowledge, has been guilty of a similar
    offence against the _convenances_.

[2]Long after this statement had appeared in print, Mr. Bradford Torrey
    described, in the “Atlantic Monthly,” a similar performance which he
    witnessed in Florida; and, rather oddly, myrtle warblers were also
    the actors in this instance.

[3]Mr. Eldridge E. Fish, to whom reference has already been made, after
    reading this article, which first appeared in a weekly paper,
    suggested in a letter that the little warbler could not well remove
    the intruded egg without breaking it, which would spoil her nest
    altogether. Hence she simply adds another story to her dwelling.
    This is doubtless the true explanation.

[4]This is, after all, no exception, for I have since found a number of
    turtle-doves’ nests on the ground.

[5]The reader will see, from the facts given in the remainder of the
    chapter, that I reckoned without my host in supposing that
    woodpeckers usually sleep in cavities of trees. That they sometimes
    select such places for roosts cannot be doubted; but that such is
    always or even generally their habit the experiments described
    farther on conclusively disprove. It is only fair to say that the
    rest of the chapter was added long after the foregoing had been
    written, and proves how unsafe it is for the naturalist to make
    generalizations.

[6]Since this was written, I have found several more nests, and have
    even watched the skilful architects at their house-building.

[7]This series of papers, as well as some others in this volume, was
    written at the suggestion of Mr. Amos R. Wells, of “The Golden
    Rule,” Boston, and was first published in that journal.

[8]This episode is referred to in the chapter on “Nest-Hunting.”

[9]This article, under the title of “Lowell and the Birds” was first
    published in the “New England Magazine,” for November, 1891, shortly
    after the poet’s death. Copyright credit is here given to the
    publisher of that magazine.

[10]The one noted in the chapter on “The Wood-Pewee.” As the poem on
    this bird is quoted in that article, it has been purposely omitted
    from this collection of passages.



                                 INDEX.


                                   A
  Accentor, 199.
  Addison, quoted, 168.
  Allen, J. A., quoted, 79-80.

                                   B
  Bird baths, 15, 38, 39, 51, 205.
  Bird colonies, 42-44.
  Bird migration, 64, 76-86.
  Bird plumage, 87-91.
  Bird roosts, 116-126.
  Bird sadness, 207, 208.
  Bird song, my creed regarding, 13, 14.
  Birds of Paradise, 167.
  Blackbirds, 180, 249, 258.
      crow, 29, 34, 35, 63.
      red-winged, 29, 65, 120, 125.
      yellow-headed, 235.
  Bluebirds, 28, 88, 165, 190, 209, 249, 250.
  Bobolink, 200, 247, 255, 256.
  Bolles, Frank, 29.
  Brewster, William, 84-86.
  Browning, Robert, quoted, 150.
  Browning, Mrs. E. B., quoted, 169.
  Bryant, W. C., quoted, 81.
  Bunting, black-throated, 112.
      cow, 96, 97, 125, 178, 180, 199.
      towhee, 66, 89, 93, 113, 156, 163, 200.
  Burns, Robert, quoted, 207.
  Burroughs, John, 29, 165, 211.

                                   C
  Cat-bird, 24-26, 82, 125, 143, 259-261.
  Chapman, Frank M., 80.
  Chat, yellow-breasted, 102, 154, 193-4.
  Chewink, 62.
  Chickadee, 42, 44, 217, 250.
  Coleridge, quoted, 208.
  Collectors, 214.
  Creeper, brown, 15, 17-20, 44, 203, 219.
  Cross-bill, 209.
  Crow, 154, 251.
  Cuckoo, yellow-billed, 174, 187.

                                   D
  Dove, turtle, 13, 63, 120, 172, 173.

                                   E
  Emerson, 42, 52, 244.
      quoted, 10, 11, 49, 141, 158, 225.

                                   F
  Falcon, 252.
  Finch, cut-throat, 206.
      purple, 72.
  Fish, Eldridge E., 94, 97, 209.
  Flicker, yellow-hammer, 57, 124, 162, 205.
  Flycatcher, Traill’s, 85.

                                   G
  Gibson, W. H., quoted, 92.
  Gnat-catcher, blue-gray, 144-146, 195.
  Goldfinch, 74, 104-109, 113, 187, 232, 235.
  Grackle, purple (_see_ Crow blackbird), 35.
  Grass-finch, 68, 88, 112, 118.
  Grossbeak, Brazilian, 232.
      cardinal, 46, 62, 90, 113, 156, 232.
      evening, 71.
      rose-breasted, 64, 73.
  Grouse, ruffed, 166.

                                   H
  Hawk, hen, 250.
      sparrow, 210.
  Heron, great blue, 237.
      green, 155, 181-183.
  Howells, W. D., quoted, 11.
  Hummers, 165.

                                   I
  Indigo-bird, 87, 102, 153, 235.

                                   J
  Jay, blue, 28, 196, 210, 234.
  Juncos (_see_ Snow-birds), 51, 53-56, 82, 118, 219, 229.

                                   K
  Killdeer, 28, 65, 99, 183.
  King-bird; bee-martin, 197.
  Kingfisher, Australian, 234.
      belted, 184.
  Kinglets, 42, 166.
      golden-crowned, 36, 44, 81, 204, 209.
      ruby-crowned, 91, 204.

                                   L
  Langille, J. H., quoted, 166.
  Lanier, Sidney, quoted, 14-15, 133.
  Larcom, Lucy, quoted, 68.
  Lark, 247, 252, 253.
      meadow, 65, 84, 112, 118, 125, 173.
  Longfellow, quoted, 164.
  Lowell, 40, 45.
      quoted, 113, 128-9, 130, 131, 175, 198, 222, 243-261.

                                   M
  Martin, house or purple, 241.
  Mexican stars, 166.
  Milton, quoted, 200.
  Montreal, 226.
  Mount Royal, Canada, 227-231.

                                   N
  Nests, 20, 92-109, 169-185.
  Night-hawk, 135-140.
  Nonpareil, 212, 232.
  Nuthatch, white-breasted, 15, 29, 31, 35, 42, 45, 47, 212.

                                   O
  Oriole, Baltimore, 64, 99, 113, 249, 257, 260.
      orchard, 153, 180.
  Oven-bird, 142.
  Owls, 121, 238.

                                   P
  Parrots, 236.
  Pelicans, 237.
  Pewee, wood, 114, 115, 127-134, 190, 196, 220, 244.
  Pheasant, silver, 234.
  Phœbe, 69, 126, 189, 220, 250.

                                   R
  Redstart, 74, 91, 230.
  Robin, 27, 65, 73, 112, 120, 200, 211, 233, 246, 249, 250, 251, 259.

                                   S
  Sandpiper, 254.
  Sangster, Margaret E., quoted, 93.
  Shakespeare, quoted, 212.
  Snow-bird (_see_ Junco), 49, 51, 250.
  Sparrow, bush, 12, 68, 88, 99, 102-104, 105, 106, 109, 112, 120.
      chipping, 69, 88, 210.
      English, 239.
      fox, 67.
      grasshopper, 156.
      lark, 112, 118.
      song, 13, 15, 46, 56, 58, 60-62, 63, 65, 66, 114, 119, 153, 164,
          229.
      swamp, 222.
      tree, 15, 49-51, 53, 55, 56, 59-60, 116.
      white-crowned, 90.
      white-throated, 120, 224, 233, 237.
  Starling, English, 232.
  Swallow, bank, 98.
  Swan, 251, 253.

                                   T
  Tanager, scarlet, 65, 89, 213.
  Thrasher, brown, 14, 64, 81, 82, 94, 120, 121, 143, 148-151, 190, 202,
          206.
  Titmouse, black-capped, 15, 31, 32, 64, 113, 180.
      crested, 20, 32, 35, 45.
  Thrush, Wilson’s, 227, 228.
      wood, 95, 122, 156, 159, 170-172, 179, 190, 206, 259.
  Torrey, Bradford, 39, 134, 149, 223.

                                   V
  Vireo, blue-headed, 71-72.
      red-eyed, 72, 85, 177, 230.
      warbling, 99, 152, 196.

                                   W
  Wallace, A. R., quoted, 167.
  Warblers, 38, 82, 85, 86, 90, 217.
      bay-breasted, 74.
      Blackburnian, 220.
      black-throated blue, 220.
      black-throated green, 220, 221, 230.
      blue-winged, 70.
      cerulean, 114, 220.
      chestnut-sided, 114, 220, 230.
      creeping, 220, 229.
      hooded, 83, 146-148, 199.
      Kentucky, 156.
      Maryland yellow-throat, 85, 91, 113, 153.
      mourning, 83.
      myrtle, 38, 39, 220.
      parula, 220.
      summer, 96-98.
      worm-eating, 144.
  Water-thrush, Louisiana, 158.
  Waxbills, 231.
  Weaver-birds, 236.
  Whippoorwill, 135, 149.
  Wood-dove, 254.
  Woodpeckers, 17, 42, 124, 248.
      downy, 15, 46, 163.
      hairy, 32, 46.
      red-bellied; zebra-bird, 21.
      red-headed, 32, 36-38, 89, 123, 125, 142, 186, 197, 199, 202.
      yellow-bellied; sap-sucker, 29, 30.
  Wren, Bewick’s, 39, 64, 69, 143.
      Carolina, 41, 113, 157.

                                   Z
  Zoölogical Garden, a visit to, 231-239.



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