Now and then the tiny songster disappeared in what looked like a slight crack in the wall, but instantly reappeared, and resumed his siren strains. Spellbound I stood, looking and listening; but alas! the hour was late, the way was long, and others were waiting; I needs must tear myself away. "To-morrow I will come again," I said, as I turned back. "To-morrow I shall be here alone, and spend the whole day with the canyon wren."
Then we retraced our steps of the morning, lingering among the pleasant groves of cottonwood, oak, and aspen; pausing to admire the cactus display of gorgeous yellow, with petals widespread, yet so wedded to their wildness that they resented the touch of a human hand, resisting their ravisher with needle-like barbs, and then sullenly drawing together their satin petals and refusing to open them more; past great thickets of wild roses, higher than our heads and fragrant as the morning; beside close-growing bushes, where hid the
"Golden cradle of the moccasin flower,"
and the too clever yellow-breasted chat had mocked and defied me; and so home to the camp.
At an early hour the next morning, the carriage of my hostess set me down at the entrance of Cheyenne Canyon proper, with the impedimenta necessary for a day's isolation from civilization. I passed through the gate,—for even this grand work of nature is claimed as private property; but, happily, through good sense or indifference, "improvements" have not been attempted, and one forgets the gate and the gate-keeper as soon as they are passed.
Entering at that unnatural hour, and alone, leaving the last human being behind,—staring in astonishment, by the way, at my unprecedented proceeding,—I began to realize, as I walked up the narrow path, that the whole grand canyon, winding perhaps a mile into the heart of this most beautiful of the Rocky Mountains, was mine alone for three hours. Indeed, when the time arrived for tourists to appear, so little did I concern myself with them that they might have been a procession of spectres passing by; so, in effect, the canyon was my solitary possession for nine blissful hours.
The delights of that perfect day cannot be put into words. Strolling up the path, filled with an inexpressible sense of ownership and seclusion from all the world, I first paused in the neighborhood of the small cliff-dweller whose music had charmed me, and suggested the enchanting idea of spending a day with him in his retreat. I seated myself opposite the forbidding wall where the bird had hovered, apparently so much at home. All was silent; no singer to be heard, no wren to be seen. The sun, which turned the tops of the Pillars to gold as I entered, crept down inch by inch till it beat upon my head and clothed the rock in a red glory. Still no bird appeared. High above the top of the rocks, in the clear thin air of the mountain, a flock of swallows wheeled and sported, uttering an unfamiliar two-note call; butterflies fluttered irresolute, looking frivolous enough in the presence of the eternal hills; gauzy-winged dragonflies zigzagged to and fro, their intense blue gleaming in the sun. The hour for visitors drew near, and my precious solitude was fast slipping away.
Slowly then I walked up the canyon, looking for my singer. Humming-birds were hovering before the bare rock as before a flower, perhaps sipping the water-drops that here and there trickled down, and large hawks, like mere specks against the blue, were soaring, but no wren could I see. At last I reached the end, with its waterfall fountain. Close within this ceaseless sprinkle, on a narrow ledge that was never dry, was placed—I had almost said grew—a bird's nest; whose, it were needless to ask. One American bird, and one only, chooses perpetual dampness for his environment,—the American dipper, or water ouzel.
Here I paused to muse over the spray-soaked cradle on the rock. In this strange place had lived a bird so eccentric that he prefers not only to nest under a continuous shower, through which he must constantly pass, but to spend most of his life in, not on the water. Shall we call him a fool or a philosopher? Is the water a protection, and from what? Has "damp, moist unpleasantness" no terrors for his fine feathers? Where now were the nestlings whose lullaby had been the music of the falling waters? Down that sheer rock, perhaps into the water at its foot, had been the first flight of the ouzel baby. Why had I come too late to see him?
But the hours were passing, while I had not seen, and, what was worse, had not heard my first charmer, the canyon wren. Leaving these perplexing conundrums unsolved, I turned slowly back down the walk, to resume my search. Perhaps fifty feet from the ouzel nest, as I lingered to admire the picturesque rapids in the brook, a slight movement drew my attention to a little projection on a stone, not six feet from me, where a small chipmunk sat pertly up, holding in his two hands, and eagerly nibbling—was it, could it be a strawberry in this rocky place?
Of course I stopped instantly to look at this pretty sight. I judged him to be a youngster, partly because of his evident fearlessness of his hereditary enemy, a human being; more on account of the saucy way in which he returned my stare; and most, perhaps, from the appearance of absorbing delight, in which there was a suggestion of the unexpected, with which he discussed that sweet morsel. Closely I watched him as he turned the treasure round and round in his deft little paws, and at last dropped the rifled hull. Would he go for another, and where? In an instant, with a parting glance at me, to make sure that I had not moved, he scrambled down his rocky throne, and bounded in great leaps over the path to a crumpled paper, which I saw at once was one of the bags with which tourists sow the earth. But its presence there did not rouse in my furry friend the indignation it excited in me. To him it was a treasure-trove, for into it he disappeared without a moment's hesitation; and almost before I had jumped to the conclusion that it contained the remains of somebody's luncheon, he reappeared, holding in his mouth another strawberry, bounded over the ground to his former seat, and proceeded to dispose of that one, also. The scene was so charming and his pleasure so genuine that I forgave the careless traveler on the spot, and only wished I had a kodak to secure a permanent picture of this unique strawberry festival.
As I loitered along, gazing idly at the brook, ever listening and longing for the wren song, I was suddenly struck motionless by a loud, shrill, and peculiar cry. It was plainly a bird voice, and it seemed to come almost from the stream itself. It ceased in a moment, and then followed a burst of song, liquid as the singing of the brook, and enchantingly sweet, though very low. I was astounded. Who could sing like that up in this narrow mountain gorge, where I supposed the canyon wren was king?
At the point where I stood, a straggling shrub, the only one for rods, hung over the brink. I silently sank to a seat behind it, lest I disturb the singer, and remained without movement. The baffling carol went on for some seconds, and for the only time in my life I wished I could put a spell upon brook-babble, that I might the better hear.
Cautiously I raised my glass to my eyes, and examined the rocks across the water, probably eight feet from me. Then arose again that strange cry, and at the same instant my eye fell upon a tiny ledge, level with the water, and perhaps six inches long, on which stood a small fellow-creature in great excitement. He was engaged in what I should call "curtsying"; that is, bending his leg joint, and dropping his plump little body for a second, then bobbing up to his fullest height, repeating the performance constantly,—looking eagerly out over the water the while, evidently expecting somebody. This was undoubtedly the bird's manner of begging for food,—a very pretty and well-bred way, too, vastly superior to the impetuous calls and demands of some young birds. The movement was "dipping," of course, and he was the dipper, or ouzel baby, that had been cradled in that fountain-dashed nest by the fall. He was not long out of it, either; for though fully dressed in his modest slate-color, with white feet, and white edgings to many of his feathers, he had hardly a vestige of a tail. He was a winsome baby, for all that.
While I studied the points of the stranger, breathless lest he should disappear before my eyes, he suddenly burst out with the strange call I had heard. It was clearly a cry of joy, of welcome, for out of the water, up on to the ledge beside him, scrambled at that moment a grown-up ouzel. He gave one poke into the wide-open mouth of the infant, then slipped back into the water, dropped down a foot or more, climbed out upon another little shelf in the rock, and in a moment the song arose. I watched the singer closely. The notes were so low and so mingled with the roar of the brook that even then I should not have been certain he was uttering them if I had not seen his throat and mouth distinctly. The song was really exquisite, and as much in harmony with the melody of the stream as the voice of the English sparrow is with the city sounds among which he dwells, and the plaintive refrain of the meadow-lark with the low-lying, silent fields where he spends his days.
But little cared baby ouzel for music, however ravishing. What to his mind was far more important was food,—in short, worms. His pretty begging continued, and the daring notion of attempting a perilous journey over the foot of water that separated him from his papa plainly entered his head. He hurried back and forth on the brink with growing agitation, and was seemingly about to plunge in, when the singer again entered the water, brought up another morsel, and then stood on the ledge beside the eager youngling, "dipping" occasionally himself, and showing every time he winked—as did the little one, also—snowy-white eyelids, in strange contrast to the dark slate-colored plumage.
This aesthetic manner of discharging family duties, alternating food for the body with rapture of the soul, continued for some time, probably until the young bird had as much as was good for him; and then supplies were cut off by the peremptory disappearance of the purveyor, who plunged with the brook over the edge of a rock, and was seen no more.
A little later a grown bird appeared, that I supposed at first was the returning papa, but a few moments' observation convinced me that it was the mother; partly because no song accompanied the work, but more because of the entirely different manners of the new-comer. Filling the crop of that importunate offspring of hers was, with this Quaker-dressed dame, a serious business that left no time for rest or recreation. Two charmed hours I sat absorbed, watching the most wonderful evolutions one could believe possible to a creature in feathers.
At the point where this little drama was enacted, the brook rushed over a line of pebbles stretching from bank to bank, lying at all angles and of all sizes, from six to ten inches in diameter. Then it ran five or six feet quietly, around smooth rocks here and there above the water, and ended by plunging over a mass of bowlders to a lower level. The bird began by mounting one of those slippery rounded stones, and thrusting her head under water up to her shoulders. Holding it there a few seconds, apparently looking for something, she then jumped in where the turmoil was maddest, picked an object from the bottom, and, returning to the ledge, gave it to baby.
The next moment, before I had recovered from my astonishment at this feat of the ouzel, she ran directly up the falls (which, though not high, were exceedingly lively), being half the time entirely under water, and exactly as much at her ease as if no water were there; though how she could stand in the rapid current, not to speak of walking straight up against it, I could not understand.
Often she threw herself into the stream, and let it carry her down, like a duck, a foot or two, while she looked intently on the bottom, then simply walked up out of it on to a stone. I could see that her plumage was not in the least wet; a drop or two often rested on her back when she came out, but it rolled off in a moment. She never even shook herself. The food she brought to that eager youngling every few minutes looked like minute worms, doubtless some insect larvae.
Several times this hard-working mother plunged into the brook where it was shallow, ran or walked down it, half under water, and stopped on the very brink of the lower fall, where one would think she could not even stand, much less turn back and run up stream, which she did freely. This looked to me almost as difficult as for a man to stand on the brink of Niagara, with the water roaring and tumbling around him. Now and then the bird ran or flew up, against the current, and entirely under water, so that I could see her only as a dark-colored moving object, and then came out all fresh and dry beside the baby, with a mouthful of food. I should hardly dare to tell this, for fear of raising doubts of my accuracy, if the same thing had not been seen and reported by others before me. Her crowning action was to stand with one foot on each of two stones in the middle and most uproarious part of the little fall, lean far over, and deliberately pick something from a third stone.
All this was no show performance, even no frolic, on the part of the ouzel,—it was simply her every-day manner of providing for the needs of that infant; and when she considered the duty discharged for the time, she took her departure, very probably going at once to the care of a second youngster who awaited her coming in some other niche in the rocks.
Finding himself alone again, and no more dainties coming his way, the young dipper turned for entertainment to the swift-running streamlet. He went down to the edge, stepping easily, never hopping; but when the shallow edge of the water ran over his pretty white toes, he hastily scampered back, as if afraid to venture farther. The clever little rogue was only coquetting, however, for when he did at last plunge in he showed himself very much at home. He easily crossed a turbulent bit of the brook, and when he was carried down a little he scrambled without trouble up on a stone. All the time, too, he was peering about after food; and in fact it was plain that his begging was a mere pretense,—he was perfectly well able to look out for himself. Through the whole of these scenes not one of the birds, old or young, had paid the slightest attention to me, though I was not ten feet from them.
During the time I had been so absorbed in my delightful study of domestic life in the ouzel family, the other interesting resident of the canyon—the elusive canyon wren—had been forgotten. Now, as I noticed that the day was waning, I thought of him again, and, tearing myself away from the enticing picture, leaving the pretty baby to his own amusements, I returned to the famous Pillars, and planted myself before my rock, resolved to stay there till the bird appeared.
No note came to encourage me, but, gazing steadily upward, after a time I noticed something that looked like a fly running along the wall. Bringing my glass to my eyes, I found that it was a bird, and one of the white-throated family I so longed to see. She—for her silence and her ways proclaimed her sex—was running about where appeared to be nothing but perpendicular rock, flirting her tail after the manner of her race, as happy and as unconcerned as if several thousand feet of sheer cliff did not stretch between her and the brook at its foot. Her movements were jerky and wren-like, and every few minutes she flitted into a tiny crevice that seemed, from my point of view, hardly large enough to admit even her minute form. She was dressed like the sweet singer of yesterday, and the door she entered so familiarly was the same I had seen him interested in. I guessed that she was his mate.
The bird seemed to be gathering from the rock something which she constantly carried into the hole. Possibly there were nestlings in that snug and inaccessible home. To discover if my conjectures were true, I redoubled my vigilance, though it was neck-breaking work, for so narrow was the canyon at that point that I could not get far enough away for a more level view.
Sometimes the bustling little wren flew to the top of the wall, about twenty feet above her front door, as it looked to me (it may have been ten times that). Over the edge she instantly disappeared, but in a few minutes returned to her occupation on the rock. Upon the earth beneath her sky parlor she seemed never to turn her eyes, and I began to fear that I should get no nearer view of the shy cliff-dweller.
Finally, however, the caprice seized the tantalizing creature of descending to the level of mortals, and the brook. Suddenly, while I looked, she flung herself off her perch, and fell—down—down—down— disappearing at last behind a clump of weeds at the bottom. Was she killed? Had she been shot by some noiseless air-gun? What had become of the tiny wren? I sprang to my feet, and hurried as near as the intervening stream would allow, when lo! there she was, lively and fussy as ever, running about at the foot of the cliff, searching, searching all the time, ever and anon jumping up and pulling from the rock something that clung to it.
When the industrious bird had filled her beak with material that stuck out on both sides, which I concluded to be some kind of rock moss, she started back. Not up the face of that blank wall, loaded as she was, but by a strange path that she knew well, up which I watched her wending her way to her proper level. This was a cleft between two solid bodies of rock, where, it would seem, the two walls, in settling together for their lifelong union, had broken and crumbled, and formed between them a sort of crack, filled with unattached bowlders, with crevices and passages, sometimes perpendicular, sometimes horizontal. Around and through these was a zigzag road to the top, evidently as familiar to that atom of a bird as Broadway is to some of her fellow-creatures, and more easily traversed, for she had it all to herself.
The wren flew about three feet to the first step of her upward passage, then ran and clambered nearly all the rest of the way, darting behind jutting rocks and coming out the other side, occasionally flying a foot or two; now pausing as if for an observation, jerking her tail upright and letting it drop back, wren-fashion, then starting afresh, and so going on till she reached the level of her nest, when she flew across the (apparent) forty or fifty feet, directly into the crevice. In a minute she came out, and without an instant's pause flung herself down again.
I watched this curious process very closely. The wren seemed to close her wings; certainly she did not use them, nor were they in the least spread that I could detect. She came to the ground as if she were a stone, as quickly and as directly as a stone would have fallen; but just before touching the ground she spread her wings, and alighted lightly on her feet. Then she fell to her labor of collecting what I suppose was nesting material, and in a few minutes started up again by the roundabout road to the top. Two hours or more, with gradually stiffening neck, I spent with the wren, while she worked constantly and silently, and not once during all that time did the singer appear.
What the scattering parties of tourists, who from time to time passed me, thought of a silent personage sitting in the canyon alone, staring intently up at a blank wall of rock, I did not inquire. Perhaps that she was a verse-writer seeking inspiration; more likely, however, a harmless lunatic musing over her own fancies.
I know well what I thought of them, from the glimpses that came to me as I sat there; some climbing over the sharp-edged rocks, in tight boots, delicate kid gloves, and immaculate traveling costumes, and panting for breath in the seven thousand feet altitude; others uncomfortably seated on the backs of the scraggy little burros, one of whom was so interested in my proceedings that he walked directly up and thrust his long, inquiring ears into my very face, spite of the resistance of his rider, forcing me to rise and decline closer acquaintance. One of the melancholy procession was loaded with a heavy camera, another equipped with a butterfly net; this one bent under the weight of a big basket of luncheon, and that one was burdened with satchels and wraps and umbrellas. All were laboriously trying to enjoy themselves, but not one lingered to look at the wonder and the beauty of the surroundings. I pitied them, one and all, feeling obliged, as no doubt they did, to "see the sights;" tramping the lovely canyon to-day, glancing neither to right nor left; whirling through the Garden of the Gods to-morrow; painfully climbing the next day the burro track to the Grave, the sacred point where
"Upon the wind-blown mountain spot Chosen and loved as best by her, Watched over by near sun and star, Encompassed by wide skies, she sleeps."
Alas that one cannot quote with truth the remaining lines!
"And not one jarring murmur creeps Up from the plain her rest to mar."
For now, at the end of the toilsome passage, that place which should be sacred to loving memories and tender thoughts, is desecrated by placards and picnickers, defaced by advertisements, strewn with the wrapping-paper, tin cans, and bottles with which the modern globe-trotter marks his path through the beautiful and sacred scenes in nature.
In this uncomfortable way the majority of summer tourists spend day after day, and week after week; going home tired out, with no new idea gained, but happy to be able to say they have been here and there, beheld this canyon, dined on that mountain, drank champagne in such a pass, and struggled for breath on top of "the Peak." Their eyes may indeed have passed over these scenes, but they have not seen one thing.
Far wiser is he (and more especially she) who seeks out a corner obscure enough to escape the eyes of the "procession," settles himself in it, and spends fruitful and delightful days alone with nature; never hasting nor rushing; seeing and studying the wonders at hand, but avoiding "parties" and "excursions;" valuing more a thorough knowledge of one canyon than a glimpse of fifty; caring more to appreciate the beauties of one mountain than to scramble over a whole range; getting into such perfect harmony with nature that it is as if he had come into possession of a new life; and from such an experience returning to his home refreshed and invigorated in mind and body.
Such were my reflections as the sun went down, and I felt, as I passed out through the gate, that I ought to double my entrance fee, so much had my life been enriched by that perfect day alone in Cheyenne Canyon.
[Footnote 1: Since the above was written, I am glad to learn that, because of this vandalism, the remains of "H. H." have been removed to the cemetery at Colorado Springs.]
IN THE MIDDLE COUNTRY.
For all the woods are shrill with stress of song, Where soft wings flutter down to new-built nests, And turbulent sweet sounds are heard day long, As of innumerable marriage feasts.
CHARLES LOTIN HILDRETH.
AT FOUR O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING.
Four o'clock in the morning is the magical hour of the day. I do not offer this sentiment as original, nor have I the slightest hope of converting any one to my opinion; I merely state the fact.
For years I had known it perfectly well; and fortified by my knowledge, and bristling with good resolutions, I went out every June determined to rise at that unnatural hour. Nothing is easier than to get up at four o'clock—the night before; but when morning comes, the point of view is changed, and all the arguments that arise in the mind are on the other side; sleep is the one thing desirable. The case appeared hopeless. Appeals from Philip drunk (with sleep) to Philip sober did not seem to avail; for whatever the latter decreed, the former would surely disobey.
But last June I found my spur; last summer I learned to get up with eagerness, and stay up with delight. This was effected by means of an alarm, set by the evening's wakefulness, that had no mercy on the morning's sleepiness. The secret is—a present interest. What may be going on somewhere out of sight and hearing in the world is a matter of perfect indifference; what is heard and seen at the moment is an argument that no one can resist.
I got my hint by the accident of some shelled corn being left on the ground before my window, and so attracting a four o'clock party, consisting of blackbirds, blue jays, and doves. I noticed the corn, but did not think of the pleasure it would give me, until the next morning, when I was awakened about four o'clock by loud and excited talk in blackbird tones, and hurried to the window, to find that I had half the birds of the neighborhood before me.
Most in number, and most noisy, were the common blackbirds, who just at that time were feeding their young in a grove of evergreens back of the house, where they had set up their nurseries in a crowd, as is their custom. It is impossible to take this bird seriously, he is so irresistibly ludicrous. His manners always suggest to me the peculiar drollery of the negro; one of the old-fashioned sort, as we read of him, and I promised myself some amusement from the study of him at short range; I was not disappointed.
My greeting as I took my seat at the open window, unfortunately without blinds to screen me, was most comical. A big pompous fellow turned his wicked-looking white eye upon me, drew himself into a queer humped-up position, with all his feathers on end, and apparently by a strong effort squeezed out a husky and squeaky, yet loud cry of two notes, which sounded exactly like "Squee-gee!"
I was so astounded that I laughed in his face; at which he repeated it with added emphasis, then turned his back on me, as unworthy of notice away up in my window, and gave his undivided attention to a specially large grain of corn which had been unearthed by a meek-looking neighbor, and appropriated by him, in the most lordly manner. His bearing at the moment was superb and stately in a degree of which only a bird who walks is capable; one cannot be dignified who is obliged to hop.
I thought his greeting was a personal one to show contempt—which it did emphatically—to the human race in general, and to me in particular, but I found later that it was the ordinary blackbird way of being offensive; it was equivalent to "Get out!" or "Shut up!" or some other of the curt and rude expressions in use by bigger folk than blackbirds.
If a bird alighted too near one of these arrogant fellows on the ground, he was met with the same expletive, and if he was about the same size he "talked back." The number and variety of utterances at their command was astonishing; I was always being surprised with a new one. Now a blackbird would fly across the lawn, making a noise exactly like a boy's tin trumpet, and repeating it as long as he was within hearing, regarding it, seemingly, as an exceptionally great feat. Again one would seize a kernel of corn, burst out with a convulsive cry, as if he were choking to death, and fly off with his prize, in imminent danger of his life, as I could not but feel.
The second morning a youngster came with his papa to the feast, and he was droller, if possible, than his elders. He followed his parent around, with head lowered and mouth wide open, fairly bawling in a loud yet husky tone.
The young blackbird does not appear in the glossy suit of his parents. His coat is rusty in hue, and his eye is dark, as is proper in youth. He is not at all backward in speaking his mind, and his sole desire at this period of his life being food, he demands it with an energy and persistence that usually insures success.
In making close acquaintance with them, one cannot help longing to prescribe to the whole blackbird family something to clear their bronchial tubes; every tone is husky, and the student involuntarily clears his own throat as he listens.
I was surprised to find the blackbirds so beautiful. When the sun was near setting, and struck across the grass its level rays, they were really exquisite; their heads a brilliant metallic blue, and all back of that rich bronze or purple, all over as glossy as satin. The little dames are somewhat smaller, and a shade less finely dressed than their bumptious mates; but that does not make them meek—far from it! and they are not behind their partners in eccentric freaks. Sometimes one would apparently attempt a joke by starting to fly, and passing so near the head of one of the dignitaries on the ground that he would involuntarily start and "duck" ingloriously. On one occasion a pair were working peaceably together at the corn, when she flirted a bit of dirt so that it flew toward him. He dashed furiously at her. She gave one hop which took her about a foot away, and then it appeared that she coveted a kernel of corn that was near him when the offense was given, for she instantly jumped back and pounced upon it as if she expected to be annihilated. He ran after her and drove her off, but she kept her prize.
Eating one of those hard grains was no joke to anybody without teeth, and it was a serious affair to one of the blackbirds. He took it into his beak, dropped both head and tail, and gave his mind to the cracking of the sweet morsel. At this time he particularly disliked to be disturbed, and the only time I saw one rude to a youngster was when struggling with this difficulty. While feeding the nestlings, they broke the kernels into bits, picked up all the pieces, filling the beak the whole length, and then flew off with them.
But they were not always allowed to keep the whole kernel. They were generally attended while on the ground by a little party of thieves, ready and waiting to snatch any morsel that was dropped. These were, of course, the English sparrows. They could not break corn, but they liked it for all that, so they used their wits to secure it, and of sharpness these street birds have no lack. The moment a blackbird alighted on the grass, a sparrow or two came down beside him, and lingered around, watching eagerly. Whenever a crumb dropped, one rushed in and snatched it, and instantly flew from the wrath to come.
The sparrows had not been at this long before some of the wise blackbirds saw through it, and resented it with proper spirit. One of them would turn savagely after the sparrow who followed him, and the knowing rascal always took his departure. It was amusing to see a blackbird working seriously on a grain, all his faculties absorbed in the solemn question whether he should succeed in cracking his nut, while two or three feathered pilferers stood as near as they dared, anxiously waiting till the great work should be accomplished, the hard shell should yield, and some bits should fall.
About five days after the feast was spread, the young came out in force, often two of them following one adult about on the grass, running after him so closely that he could hardly get a chance to break up the kernel; indeed, he often had to fly to a tree to prepare the mouthfuls for them. The young blackbird has not the slightest repose of manner; nor, for that matter, has the old one either. The grown-ups treated the young well, almost always; they never "squee-gee'd" at them, never touched them in any way, notwithstanding they were so insistent in begging that they would chase an adult bird across the grass, calling madly all the time, and fairly force him to fly away to get rid of them.
Once two young ones got possession of the only spot where corn was left, and so tormented their elders who came that they had to dash in and snatch a kernel when they wanted one. One of the old ones danced around these two babies in a little circle a foot in diameter, the infants turning as he moved, and ever presenting open beaks to him. It was one of the funniest exhibitions I ever saw. After going around half a dozen times, the baffled blackbird flew away without a taste.
When the two had driven every one else off the ground by their importunities, one of them plucked up spirit to try managing the corn for himself. Like a little man he stopped bawling, and began exercising his strength on the sweet grain. Upon this his neighbor, instead of following his example, began to beg of him! fluttering his wings, putting up his beak, and almost pulling the corn out of the mouth of the poor little fellow struggling with his first kernel!
Sometimes a young one drove his parent all over a tree with his supplications. Higher and higher would go the persecuted, with his tormentor scrambling, and half flying after, till the elder absolutely flew away, much put out.
Long before this time the corn had been used up. But I could not bear to lose my morning entertainment, for all these things took place between four and six A. M.—so I made a trip to the village, and bought a bag of the much desired dainty, some handfuls of which I scattered every night after birds were abed, ready for the sunrise show. Blackbirds were not the only guests at the feast; there were the doves,—mourning, or wood-doves,—who dropped to the grass, serene as a summer morning, walking around in their small red boots, with mincing steps and fussy little bows. Blue jays, too, came in plenty, selected each his grain and flew away with it. Robins, seeing all the excitement, came over from their regular hunting-ground, but never finding anything so attractive as worms, they soon left.
The corn feast wound up with a droll excitement. One day a child from the house took her doll out in the grass to play, set it up against a tree trunk, and left it there. It had long light hair which stood out around the head, and it did look rather uncanny, but it was amusing to see the consternation it caused. Blue jays came to trees near by, and talked in low tones to each other; then one after another swooped down toward it; then they all squawked at it, and finding this of no avail, they left in a body.
The robins approached cautiously, two of them, calling constantly, "he! he! he!" One was determined not to be afraid, and came nearer and nearer, till within about a foot of the strange object and behind it, when suddenly he started as though shot, jumped back, and both flew in a panic.
Soon after this a red-headed woodpecker alighted on the trunk of the elm, preparatory to helping himself to a grain of corn. The moment his eyes fell upon madam of the fluffy hair, he burst out with a loud, rapid woodpecker "chitter," gradually growing higher in key and louder in tone. The blue jay flew down from the nest across the yard, and another came from behind the house; both perched near and stared at him, and then began to talk in low tones. A robin came hastily over and gazed at the usually silent red-head, and apparently it was to all as strange a performance as it was to me, or possibly they recognized that it was a cry of warning against danger.
After he had us all aroused, the bird suddenly fell to silence, and resumed his ordinary manner, but he did not go after corn. I suppose the harangue was addressed to the doll.
That was the last scene in the first act of the corn feast, for the blackbirds had become so numerous and so noisy that they made morning hideous to the whole household, and I stopped the supplies for several days, till these birds ceased to expect anything, and so came no more, and then I spread a fresh breakfast-table for more interesting guests, whose manners and customs I studied for weeks.
I was invariably startled wide awake on these mornings by a bird note, and sprang up, to see at one glance that
"Day had awakened all things that be, The lark and the thrush, and the swallow free,"
and that my party was already assembled; one or two cardinals—or redbirds, as they are often called—on the grass, with the usual attendance of English sparrows, and the red-headed woodpecker in the elm, surveying the lawn, and considering which of the trespassers he should fall upon. It was the work of one minute to get into my wraps and seat myself, with opera glass, at the wide-open window.
My first discovery made, however, during the blackbird reign, was that four o'clock is the most lovely part of the day. All the dust of human affairs having settled during the hours of sleep, the air is fresh and sweet, as if just made; and generally, just before sunrise, the foliage is at perfect rest,—the repose of night still lingering, the world of nature as well as of men still sleeping.
The first thing one naturally looks for, as birds begin to waken, is a morning chorus of song. True bird-lovers, indeed, long for it with a longing that cannot be told. But alas, every year the chorus is withdrawing more and more to the woods, every year it is harder to find a place where English sparrows are not in possession; and it is one of the most grievous sins of that bird that he spoils the song, even when he does not succeed in driving out the singer. A running accompaniment of harsh and interminable squawks overpowers the music of meadow-lark and robin, and the glorious song of the thrush is fairly murdered by it. One could almost forgive the sparrow his other crimes, if he would only lie abed in the morning; if he would occasionally listen, and not forever break the peace of the opening day with his vulgar brawling. But the subject of English sparrows is maddening to a lover of native birds; let us not defile the magic hour by considering it.
The most obvious resident of the neighborhood, at four o'clock in the morning, was always the golden-winged woodpecker, or flicker. Though he scorned the breakfast I offered, having no vegetarian proclivities, he did not refuse me his presence. I found him a character, and an amusing study, and I never saw his tribe so numerous and so much at home.
Though largest in size of my four o'clock birds, and most fully represented (always excepting the English sparrows), the golden-wing was not in command. The autocrat of the hour, the reigning power, was quite a different personage, although belonging to the woodpecker family. It was a red-headed woodpecker who assumed to own the lawn and be master of the feast. This individual was marked by a defect in plumage, and had been a regular caller since the morning of my arrival. During the blackbird supremacy over the corn supply he had been hardly more than a spectator, coming to the trunk of the elm and surveying the assembly of blue jays, doves, blackbirds, and sparrows with interest, as one looks down upon a herd with whom he has nothing in common. But when those birds departed, and the visitors were of a different character, mostly cardinals, with an occasional blue jay, he at once took the place he felt belonged to him—that of dictator.
The Virginia cardinal, a genuine F. F. V., and a regular attendant at my corn breakfast, was a subject of special study with me; indeed, it was largely on his account that I had set up my tent in that part of the world. I had all my life known him as a tenant of cages, and it struck me at first as very odd to see him flying about freely, like other wild birds. No one, it seemed to me, ever looked so out of place as this fellow of elegant manners, aristocratic crest, and brilliant dress, hopping about on the ground with his exaggerated little hops, tail held stiffly up out of harm's way, and uttering sharp "tsips." One could not help the feeling that he was altogether too fine for this common work-a-day existence; that he was intended for show; and that a gilded cage was his proper abiding-place, with a retinue of human servants to minister to his comfort. Yet he was modest and unassuming, and appeared really to enjoy his life of hard work; varying his struggles with a kernel of hard corn on the ground, where his color shone out like a flower against the green, with a rest on a spruce-tree, where
"Like a living jewel he sits and sings;"
and when he had finished his frugal meal, departing, if nothing hurried him, with a graceful, loitering flight, in which each wing-beat seemed to carry him but a few inches forward, and leave his body poised, an infinitesimal second for another beat. With much noise of fluttering wings he would start for some point, but appear not to care much whether he got there. He was never in haste unless there was something to hurry him, in which he differed greatly from some of the fidgety, restless personages I have known among the feathered folk.
The woodpecker's way of making himself disagreeable to this distinguished guest, was to keep watch from his tree (an elm overlooking the supply of corn) till he came to eat, and then fly down, aiming for exactly the spot occupied by the bird on the ground. No one, however brave, could help "getting out from under," when he saw this tricolored whirlwind descending upon him. The cardinal always jumped aside, then drew himself up, crest erect, tail held at an angle of forty-five degrees, and faced the woodpecker, calm, but prepared to stand up for his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of his breakfast. Sometimes they had a little set-to, with beaks not more than three inches apart, the woodpecker making feints of rushing upon his vis-a-vis, and the cardinal jumping up ready to clinch, if a fight became necessary. It never went quite so far as that, though they glared at each other, and the cardinal uttered a little whispered "ha!" every time he sprang up.
The Virginian's deliberate manner of eating made peace important to him. He took a grain of hard corn in his mouth, lengthwise; then working his sharp-edged beak, he soon succeeded in cutting the shell of the kernel through its whole length. From this he went on turning it with his tongue, and still cutting with his beak, till the whole shell rolled out of the side of his mouth in one long piece, completely cleared from its savory contents.
The red-head, on the contrary, took his grain of corn to a branch, or sometimes to the trunk of a tree, where he sought a suitable crevice in the bark or in a crotch, placed his kernel, hammered it well in till firm and safe, and then proceeded to pick off pieces and eat them daintily, one by one. Sometimes he left a kernel there, and I saw how firmly it was wedged in, when the English sparrow discovered his store, fell upon it, and dug it out. It was a good deal of work for a strong-billed, persistent sparrow to dislodge a grain thus placed. But of course he never gave up till he could carry it off, probably because he saw that some one valued it; for since he was unable to crack a grain that was whole, it must have been useless to him. Sometimes the woodpecker wedged the kernel into a crevice in the bark of the trunk, then broke it up, and packed the pieces away in other niches; and I have seen an English sparrow go carefully over the trunk, picking out and eating these tidbits. That, or something else, has taught sparrows to climb tree trunks, which they do, in the neighborhood I speak of, with as much ease as a woodpecker. I have repeatedly seen them go the whole length of a tall elm trunk; proceeding by little hops, aided by the wings, and using the tail for support almost as handily as a woodpecker himself.
The red-head's assumption of being monarch of all he surveyed did not end with the breakfast-table; he seemed to consider himself guardian and protector of the whole place. One evening I was drawn far down on the lawn by a peculiar cry of his. It began with a singular performance which I have already described, a loud, rapid "chit-it-it-it-it," increasing in volume and rising in pitch, as though he were working himself up to some deed of desperation. In a few minutes, however, he appeared to get his feelings under control, and dropped to a single-note cry, often repeated. It differed widely from his loud call, "wok! wok! wok!" still more from the husky tones of his conversation with others of his kind; neither was it like the war-cries with which he intimated to another bird that he was not invited to breakfast. I thought there must be trouble brewing, especially as mingled with it was an occasional excited "pe-auk!" of a flicker. When I reached the spot, I found a curious party, consisting of two doves and three flickers, assembled on one small tree, with the woodpecker on an upper branch, as though addressing his remarks to them.
As I drew near the scene of the excitement, the doves flew, and then the golden-wings; but the red-head held his ground, though he stopped his cries when he saw help coming. In vain I looked about for the cause of the row; everything was serene. It was a beautiful quiet evening, and not a child, nor a dog, nor anything in sight to make trouble. The tree stood quite by itself, in the midst of grass that knew not the clatter of the lawn-mower.
I stood still and waited; and I had my reward, for after a few minutes' silence I saw a pair of ears, and then a head, cautiously lifted above the grass, about fifteen feet from the tree. The mystery was solved; it was a cat, whom all birds know as a creature who will bear watching when prowling around the haunts of bird families. I am fond of pussy, but I deprecate her taste for game, as I do that of some other hunters, wiser if not better than she. I invited her to leave this place, where she plainly was unwelcome, by an emphatic "scat!" and a stick tossed her way. She instantly dropped into the grass and was lost to view; and as the woodpecker, whose eyes were sharper and his position better than mine, said no more, I concluded she had taken the hint and departed.
THE LITTLE REDBIRDS.
When the little redbirds began to visit the lawn there were exciting times. At first they ventured only to the trees overlooking it; and the gayly dressed father who had them in charge reminded me of nothing so much as a fussy young mother. He was alert to the tips of his toes, and excited, as if the whole world was thirsting for the life of those frowzy-headed youngsters in the maple. His manner intimated that nobody ever had birdlings before; indeed, that there never had been, or could be, just such a production as that young family behind the leaves. While they were there, he flirted his tail, jerked himself around, crest standing sharply up, and in every way showed his sense of importance and responsibility.
As for the young ones, after they had been hopping about the branches a week or so, and papa had grown less madly anxious if one looked at them, they appeared bright and spirited, dressed in the subdued and tasteful hues of their mother, with pert little crests and dark beaks. They were not allowed on the grass, and they waited patiently on the tree while their provider shelled a kernel and took it up to them. The cardinal baby I found to be a self-respecting individual, who generally waits in patience his parents' pleasure, though he is not too often fed. He is not bumptious nor self-assertive, like many others; he rarely teases, and is altogether a well-mannered and proper young person. After a while, as the youngsters learned strength and speed on the wing, they came to the table with the grown-ups, and then I saw there were three spruce young redbirds, all under the care of their gorgeous papa.
No sooner did they appear on the ground than trouble began with the English-sparrow tribe. The grievance of these birds was that they could not manage the tough kernels. They were just as hungry as anybody, and just as well-disposed toward corn, but they had not sufficient strength of beak to break it. They did not, however, go without corn, for all that. Their game was the not uncommon one of availing themselves of the labor of others; they invited themselves to everybody's breakfast-table, though, to be sure, they had to watch their chances in order to secure a morsel, and escape the wrath of the owner thereof.
The cardinal was at first a specially easy victim to this plot. He took the whole matter most solemnly, and was so absorbed in the work, that if a bit dropped, in the process of separating it from the shell, as often happened, he did not concern himself about it till he had finished what he had in his mouth, and then he turned one great eye on the ground, for the fragments which had long before been snatched by sparrows and gone down sparrow throats. The surprise and the solemn stare with which he "could hardly believe his eyes" were exceedingly droll. After a while he saw through their little game, and took to watching, and when a sparrow appeared too much interested in his operations, he made a feint of going for him, which warned the gamin that he would better look out for himself.
It did not take these sharp fellows long to discover that the young redbird was the easier prey, and soon every youngster on the ground was attended by a sparrow or two, ready to seize upon any fragment that fell. The parent's way of feeding was to shell a kernel and then give it to one of the little ones, who broke it up and ate it. From waiting for fallen bits, the sparrows, never being repulsed, grew bolder, and finally went so far as actually to snatch the corn out of the young cardinals' beaks. Again and again did I see this performance: a sparrow grab and run (or fly), leaving the baby astonished and dazed, looking as if he did not know exactly what had happened, but sure he was in some way bereaved.
One day, while the cardinal family were eating on the grass, the mother of the brood came to a tree near by. At once her gallant spouse flew up there and offered her the mouthful he had just prepared, then returned to his duties. She was rarely seen on the lawn, and I judged that she was sitting again.
Sometimes, when the youngsters were alone on the ground, I heard a little snatch of song, two or three notes, a musical word or two of very sweet quality. The woodpecker, autocrat though he assumed to be, did not at first interfere with the young birds; but as they became more and more independent and grown up, he began to consider them fair game, and to come down on them with a rush that scattered them; not far, however; they were brave little fellows.
At last, after four weeks of close attention, the cardinal made up his mind that his young folk were babies no longer, and that they were able to feed themselves. I was interested to see his manner of intimating to his young hopefuls that they had reached their majority. When one begged of him, in his gentle way, the parent turned suddenly and gave him a slight push. The urchin understood, and moved a little farther off; but perhaps the next time he asked he would be fed. They learned the lesson, however, and in less than two days from the first hint they became almost entirely independent.
One morning the whole family happened to meet at table. The mother came first, and then the three young ones, all of whom were trying their best to feed themselves. At last came their "natural provider;" and one of the juveniles, who found the grains almost unmanageable, could not help begging of him. He gently but firmly drove the pleader away, as if he said, "My son, you are big enough to feed yourself." The little one turned, but did not go; he stood with his back toward his parent, and wings still fluttering. Then papa flew to a low branch of the spruce-tree, and instantly the infant followed him, still begging with quivering wings. Suddenly the elder turned, and I expected to see him annihilate that beggar, but, to my surprise, he fed him! He could not hold out against him! He had been playing the stern parent, but could not keep it up. It was a very pretty and very human-looking performance.
A day or two after the family had learned to take care of themselves, the original pair, the parents of the pretty brood, came and went together to the field, while the younglings appeared sometimes in a little flock, and sometimes one alone; and from that time they were to be rated as grown-up and educated cardinals. A brighter or prettier trio I have not seen. I am almost positive there was but one family of cardinals on the place; and if I am right, those youngsters had been four weeks out of the nest before they took charge of their own food supply. From what I have seen in the case of other young birds, I have no doubt that is the fact.
THE CARDINAL'S NEST.
While I had been studying four o'clock manners, grave and gay, other things had happened. Most delightful, perhaps, was my acquaintance with a cardinal family at home. From the first I had looked for a nest, and had suffered two or three disappointments. One pair flaunted their intentions by appearing on a tree before my window, "tsipping" with all their might; she with her beak full of hay from the lawn below; he, eager and devoted, assisting by his presence. The important and consequential manner of a bird with building material in mouth is amusing. She has no doubt that what she is about to do is the very most momentous fact in the "Sublime Now" (as some college youth has it). Of course I dropped everything and tried to follow the pair, at a distance great enough not to disturb them, yet to keep in sight at least the direction they took, for they are shy birds, and do not like to be spied upon. But I could not have gauged my distance properly; for, though I thought I knew the exact cedar-tree she had chosen, I found, to my dismay and regret afterward, that no sign of a nest was there, or thereabout.
Another pair went farther, and held out even more delusive hopes; they actually built a nest in a neighbor's yard, the family in the house maintaining an appearance of the utmost indifference, so as not to alarm the birds till they were committed to that nest. For so little does madam regard the labor of building, and so fickle is she in her fancies, that she thinks nothing of preparing at least two nests before she settles on one. The nest was made on a big branch of cedar, perhaps seven feet from the ground,—a rough affair, as this bird always makes. In it she even placed an egg, and then, for some undiscovered reason, it was abandoned, and they took their domestic joys and sorrows elsewhere.
But now, at last, word came to me of an occupied nest to be seen at a certain house, and I started at once for it. It was up a shady country lane, with a meadow-lark field on one side, and a bobolink meadow on the other. The lark mounted the fence, and delivered his strange sputtering cry,—the first I had ever heard from him (or her, for I believe this is the female's utterance). But the dear little bobolink soared around my head, and let fall his happy trills; then suddenly, as Lowell delightfully pictures him,—
"Remembering duty, in mid-quaver stops, Just ere he sweeps o'er rapture's tremulous brink, And 'twixt the winrows most demurely drops, A decorous bird of business, who provides For his brown mate and fledglings six besides, And looks from right to left, a farmer mid his crops."
Nothing less attractive than a cardinal family could draw me away from these rival allurements, but I went on.
The cardinal's bower was the prettiest of the summer, built in a climbing rose which ran riot over a trellis beside a kitchen door. The vine was loaded with buds just beginning to unfold their green wraps to flood the place with beauty and fragrance, and the nest was so carefully tucked away behind the leaves that it could not be seen from the front. Whether from confidence in the two or three residents of the cottage, or because the house was alone so many hours of the day,—the occupants being students, and absent most of the time,—the birds had taken no account of a window which opened almost behind them. From that window one could look into, and touch, if he desired, the little family. But no one who lived there did desire (though I wish to record that one was a boy of twelve or fourteen, who had been taught respect for the lives even of birds), and these birds became so accustomed to their human observers that they paid no attention to them.
The female cardinal is so dainty in looks and manner, so delicate in all her ways, that one naturally expects her to build at least a neat and comely nest, and I was surprised to see a rough-looking affair, similar to the one already mentioned. This might be, in her case, because it was the third nest she had built that summer. One had been used for the first brood. The second had been seized and appropriated to their own use by another pair of birds. (As this was told me, and I cannot vouch for it, I shall not name the alleged thief.) This, the third, was made of twigs and fibres of bark,—or what looked like that,—and was strongly stayed to the rose stems, the largest of which was not bigger than my little finger, and most of them much smaller.
On my second visit I was invited into the kitchen to see the family in the rosebush. It appeared that this was "coming-off" day, and one little cardinal had already taken his fate in his hands when I arrived, soon after breakfast. He had progressed on the journey of life about one foot; and a mere dot of a fellow he looked beside his parents, with a downy fuzz on his head, which surrounded it like a halo, and no sign of a crest. The three nestlings still at home were very restless, crowding, and almost pushing each other out. They could well spare their elder brother, for before he left he had walked all over them at his pleasure; and how he could help it in those close quarters I do not see.
While I looked on, papa came with provisions. At one time the food consisted of green worms about twice as large as a common knitting needle. Three or four of them he held crosswise of his beak, and gave one to each nestling. The next course was a big white grub, which he did not divide, but gave to one, who had considerable difficulty in swallowing it.
I said the birds did not notice the family, but they very quickly recognized me as a stranger. They stood and glared at me in the cardinal way, and uttered some sharp remonstrance; but business was pressing, and I was unobtrusive, so they concluded to ignore me.
The advent of the first redbird baby seemed to give much pleasure, for the head of the family sang a good deal in the intervals of feeding; and both of the pair appeared very happy over it, often alighting beside the wanderer, evidently to encourage him, for they did not always feed. The youngster, after an hour, perhaps, flew about ten feet to a peach-tree, where he struggled violently, and nearly fell before he secured a hold on a twig. Both parents flew to his assistance, but he did not fall, and soon after he flew to a grape trellis, and, with a little clambering, to a stem of the vine, where he seemed pleased to stay,—perhaps because this overlooked the garden whence came all his food.
I stayed two or three hours with the little family, and then left them; and when I appeared the next morning all were gone from the nest. I heard the gentle cries of young redbirds all around, but did not try to look them up, both because I did not want to worry the parents, and because I had already made acquaintance with young cardinals in my four o'clock studies.
The place this discerning pair of birds had selected in which to establish themselves was one of the most charming nooks in the vicinity. Kept free from English sparrows (by persistently destroying their nests), and having but a small and quiet family, it was the delight of cardinals and catbirds. Without taking pains to look for them, one might see the nests of two catbirds, two wood doves, a robin or two, and others; and there were beside, thickets, the delight of many birds, and a row of spruces so close that a whole flock might have nested there in security. In that spot "the quaintly discontinuous lays" of the catbird were in perfection; one song especially was the best I ever heard, being louder and more clear than catbirds usually sing.
As I turned to leave the grounds, the relieved parent, who had not relished my interest in his little folk, mounted a branch, and,
"Like a pomegranate flower In the dark foliage of the cedar-tree, Shone out and sang for me."
And thus I left him.
LITTLE BOY BLUE.
"The crested blue jay flitting swift."
To know the little boy blue in his domestic life had been my desire for years. In vain did I search far and wide for a nest, till it began to look almost as if the bird intentionally avoided me. I went to New England, and blue jays disappeared as if by magic; I turned my steps to the Rocky Mountains, and the whole tribe betook itself to the inaccessible hills. In despair I abandoned the search, and set up my tent in the middle country, without a thought of the bonny blue bird. One June morning I seated myself by my window, which looked out upon a goodly stretch of lawn dotted with trees of many kinds, and behold the long-desired object right before my eyes!
The blue jay himself pointed it out to me; unconsciously, however, for he did not notice me in my distant window. From the ground, where I was looking at him, he flew directly to a pine-tree about thirty feet high, and there, near the top, sat his mate on her nest. He leaned over her tenderly; she fluttered her wings and opened her mouth, and he dropped into it the tidbit he had brought. Then she stepped to a branch on one side, and he proceeded to attend to the wants of the young family, too small as yet to appear above the edge.
The pine-tree, which from this moment became of absorbing interest, was so far from my window that the birds never thought of me as an observer, and yet so near that with my glass I could see them perfectly. It was also exactly before a thick-foliaged maple, that formed a background against which I could watch the life of the nest, wherever the sunlight fell, and whatever the condition of the sky; so happily was placed my blue jay household.
I observed at once that the jay was very gallant and attentive to his spouse. The first mouthful was for her, even when babies grew clamorous, and she took her share of the work of feeding. Nor did he omit this little politeness when they went to the nest together, both presumably with food for the nestlings. She was a devoted mother, brooding her bantlings for hours every day, till they were so big that it was hard to crowd them back into the cradle; and he was an equally faithful father, working from four o'clock in the morning till after dusk, a good deal of the time feeding the whole family. I acquired a new respect for Cyanocitta cristata.
I had not watched the blue jays long before I was struck with the peculiar character of the feathered world about me, the strange absence of small birds. The neighbors were blackbirds (purple grackles), Carolina doves, golden-winged and red-headed woodpeckers, robins and cardinal grosbeaks, and of course English sparrows,—all large birds, able to hold their own by force of arms, as it were, except the foreigner, who maintained his position by impudence and union, a mob being his weapon of offense and defense. Beside him no small bird lived in the vicinity. No vireo hung there her dainty cup, while her mate preached his interminable sermons from the trees about; no phoebe shouted his woes to an unsympathizing world; no sweet-voiced goldfinch poured out his joyous soul; not a song-sparrow tuned his little lay within our borders. Unseen of men, but no doubt sharply defined to clearer senses than ours, was a line barring them out.
Who was responsible for this state of things? Could it be the one pair of jays in the pine, or the colony of blackbirds the other side of the house? Should we characterize it as a blue jay neighborhood or a blackbird neighborhood? The place was well policed, certainly; robins and blue jays united in that work, though their relations with each other bore the character of an armed neutrality, always ready for a few hot words and a little bluster, but never really coming to blows. We never had the pleasure of seeing a stranger among us. We might hear him approaching, nearer and nearer, till, just as the eager listener fancied he might alight in sight, there would burst upon the air the screech of a jay or the war-cry of a robin, accompanied by the precipitate flight of the whole clan, and away would go the stranger in a most sensational manner, followed by outcries and clamor enough to drive off an army of feathered brigands. This neighborhood, if the accounts of his character are to be credited, should be the congenial home of the kingbird,—tyrant flycatcher he is named; but as a matter of fact, not only were the smaller flycatchers conspicuous by their absence, but the king himself was never seen, and the flying tribes of the insect world, so far as dull-eyed mortals could see, grew and flourished.
Close scrutiny of every movement of wings, however, revealed one thing, namely, that any small bird who appeared within our precincts was instantly, without hesitation, and equally without unusual noise or special publicity, driven out by the English sparrow; and I became convinced that he, and he alone, was responsible for the presence of none but large birds, who could defy him.
One of the prettiest sights about the pine-tree homestead was the way the jay went up to it. He never imitated the easy style of his mate, who simply flew to a branch below the three that held her treasure, and hopped up the last step. Not he; not so would his knightly soul mount to the castle of his sweetheart and his babies. He alighted much lower, often at the foot of the tree, and passed jauntily up the winding way that led to them, hopping from branch to branch, pausing on each, and circling the trunk as he went; now showing his trim violet-blue coat, now his demure Quaker-drab vest and black necklace; and so he ascended his spiral stair.
There is nothing demure about the blue jay, let me hasten to say, except his vest; there is no pretension about him. He does not go around with the meek manners of the dove, and then let his angry passions rise, in spite of his reputation, as does that "meek and gentle" fellow-creature on occasion. The blue jay takes his life with the utmost seriousness, however it may strike a looker-on. While his helpmeet is on the nest, it is, according to the blue jay code, his duty, as well as it is plainly his pleasure, to provide her with food, which consequently he does; later, it is his province not only to feed, but to protect the family, which also he accomplishes with much noise and bluster. Before the young are out comes his hardest task, keeping the secret of the nest, which obliges him to control his naturally boisterous tendencies; but even in this he is successful, as I saw in the case of a bird whose mate was sitting in an apple-tree close beside a house. There, he was the soul of discretion, and so subdued in manner that one might be in the vicinity all day and never suspect the presence of either. All the comings and goings took place in silence, over the top of the tree, and I have watched the nest an hour at a time without being able to see a sign of its occupancy, except the one thing a sitting bird cannot hide, the tail. And, by the way, how providential—from the bird student's point of view—that birds have tails! They can, it is true, be narrowed to the width of one feather and laid against a convenient twig, but they cannot be wholly suppressed, nor drawn down out of sight into the nest with the rest of the body.
When the young blue jays begin to speak for themselves, and their vigilant protector feels that the precious secret can no longer be kept, then he arouses the neighborhood with the announcement that here is a nest he is bound to protect with his life; that he is engaged in performing his most solemn duty, and will not be disturbed. His air is that so familiar in bigger folk, of daring the whole world to "knock a chip off his shoulder," and he goes about with an appearance of important business on hand very droll to see.
The bearing of the mother of the pine-tree brood was somewhat different from that of her mate, and by their manners only could the pair be distinguished. Whatever may be Nature's reason for dressing the sexes unlike each other in the feathered world,—which I will leave for the wise heads to settle,—it is certainly an immense advantage to the looker-on in birddom. When a pair are facsimiles of each other, as are the jays, it requires the closest observation to tell them apart; indeed, unless there is some defect in plumage, which is not uncommon, it is necessary to penetrate their personal characteristics, to become familiar with their idiosyncrasies of habit and manner. In the pine-tree family, the mother had neither the presence of mind nor the bluster of the partner of her joys. When I came too near the nest tree, she greeted me with a plaintive cry, a sort of "craw! craw!" at the same time "jouncing" herself violently, thus protesting against my intrusion; while he saluted me with squawks that made the welkin ring. Neither of them paid any attention to me, so long as I remained upon a stationary bench not far from their tree; they were used to seeing people in that place, and did not mind them. It was the unexpected that they resented. Having established our habits, birds in general insist that we shall govern ourselves by them, and not depart from our accustomed orbit.
On near acquaintance, I found the jay possessed of a vocabulary more copious than that of any other bird I know, though the flicker does not lack variety of expression. When some aspiring scientist is ready to study the language of birds, I advise him to experiment with the blue jay. He is exceedingly voluble, always ready to talk, and not in the least backward in exhibiting his accomplishments. The low-toned, plaintive sounding conversation of the jays with each other, not only beside the nest, but when flying together or apart, or in brief interviews in the lilac bush, pleased me especially, because it was exactly the same prattle that a pet blue jay was accustomed to address to me; and it confirmed what I had always believed from his manner, that it was his most loving and intimate expression, the tone in which he addresses his best beloved.
Beside the well-known squawk, which Thoreau aptly calls "the brazen trump of the impatient jay," the shouts and calls and war-cries of the bird can hardly be numbered, and I have no doubt each has its definite meaning. More rarely may be heard a clear and musical two-note cry, sounding like "ke-lo! ke-lo!" This seems to be something special in the jay language, for not only is it peculiar and quite unlike every other utterance, but I never saw the bird when he delivered it, and I was long in tracing it home to him. Aside from the cries of war and victory, jays have a great variety of notes of distress; they can put more anguish and despair into their tones than any other living creature of my acquaintance. Some, indeed, are so moving that the sympathetic hearer is sure that, at the very least, the mother's offspring are being murdered before her eyes; and on rushing out, prepared to risk his life in their defense, he finds, perhaps, that a child has strayed near the tree, or something equally dreadful has occurred. Jays have no idea of relative values; they could not make more ado over a heart-breaking calamity than they do over a slight annoyance. Some of their cries, notably that of the jay baby, sound like the wail of a human infant. As to one curious utterance in the jay repertoire, I could not quite make up my mind whether it was a real call to arms, or intended as a joke on the neighborhood. When a bird, without visible provocation, suddenly burst out with this loud two-note call, instantly every feathered individual was on the alert,—sprang to arms, as it were. Blue jays joined in, robins hurried to the tops of the tallest trees and added their excited notes, with jerking wings and tail, and at the second or third repetition the whole party precipitated itself as one bird—upon what? Nothing that I could discover.
STORY OF THE NESTLINGS.
While I was studying the manners and customs of the bird in blue, babies were growing up in the pine-tree nest. Five days after I began to observe, I saw little heads above the edge. On the sixth day they began, as mothers say, to "take notice," stirring about in a lively way, clambering up into sight, and fluttering their draperies over the edge. Now came busy and hungry times in the jay family; the mother added her forces, and both parents worked industriously from morning till night.
On the seventh day I was up early, as usual, and, also as usual, my first act was to admire the view from my window. I fancied it was the most beautiful in the early morning, when the sun, behind the rampart of locust and other trees, threw the yard into deep shade, painting a thousand shadow pictures on the grass; but at still noon, when every perfect tree stood on its own shadow, openings looked dark and mysterious, and a bird was lost in the depths, then I was sure it was never so lovely; again at night, when wrapped in darkness, and all silent except the subdued whisper of the pine, with its
"Sound of the Sea, O mournful tree, In thy boughs forever clinging,"
I knew it could not be surpassed. I was up early, as I said, when the dove was cooing to his mate in the distance, and before human noises had begun, and then I heard the baby cry from the pine-tree,—a whispered jay squawk, constantly repeated.
On this day the first nestling mounted the edge of his high nursery, and fluttered his wings when food approached. Every night after that it grew more and more difficult to settle the household in bed, for everybody wanted to be on top; and no sooner would one arrange himself to his mind than some "under one," not relishing his crushed position, would struggle out, step over his brothers and sisters, and take his place on top, and then the whole thing would have to be done over. I think that mamma had often to put a peremptory end to these difficulties by sitting down on them, for frequently it was a very turbulent-looking nest when she calmly placed herself upon it.
Often, in those days, I wished I could put myself on a level with that little castle in the air, and look into it, filled to the brim with beauty as I knew it was. But I had not long to wait, for speedily it became too full, and ran over into the outside world. On the eighth day one ambitious youngster stepped upon the branch beside the nest and shook himself out, and on the ninth came the plunge into the wide, wide world. While I was at breakfast he made his first effort, and on my return I saw him on a branch about a foot below the nest, the last step on papa's winding stair. Here he beat his wings and plumed himself vigorously, rejoicing, no doubt, in his freedom and in plenty of room. Again and again he nearly lost his balance, in his violent attempts to dress his beautiful plumage, and remove the last remnant of nest mussiness. But he did not fall, and at last he began to look about him. One cannot but wonder what he thought when he
"First opened wondering eyes and found A world of green leaves all around,"
looking down upon us from his high perch, complete to the little black necklace, and lacking only length of tail of being as big as his parents.
After half an hour of restless putting to rights, the little jay sat down patiently to wait for whatever might come to him. The wind got up and shook him well, but he rocked safely on his airy seat. Then some one approached. He leaned over with mouth open, and across the yard I heard his coaxing voice. But alas! though he was on the very threshold, the food-bearer omitted that step, and passed him by. Then the little one looked up wistfully, apparently conscious of being at a disadvantage. Did he regret the nest privileges he had abandoned? Should he retrace his steps and be a nestling? That the thought passed through his head was indicated by his movements. He raised himself on his legs, turned his face to his old home, and started up, even stepped one small twig nearer. But perish the thought! he would not go back! He settled himself again on his seat.
All things come in time to him who can wait, and the next provision stopped at the little wanderer. His father alighted beside him and fed him two mouthfuls. Thus fortified, his ambition was roused, and his desire to see more, to do more. He began to jump about on his perch, facing first this way, then that; he crept to the outer end of the branch he was on, and was lost to view behind a thick clump of pine needles. In a few minutes he returned, considered other branches near, and, after some study, did really go to the nearest one. Then, step by step, very deliberately, he mounted the winding stair of his father, using, however, every little twig that the elder had vaulted over at a bound. Finally he reached the branch opposite his birthplace, only the tree-trunk between. The trunk was small, home was invitingly near, he was tired; the temptation was too great, and in a minute he was cuddled down with his brothers, having been on a journey of an hour. In the nest, all this time, there had been a hurry and skurry of dressing, as though the house were to be vacated, and no one wished to be late. After a rest and probably a nap, the ambitious young jay took a longer trip: he flew to the next tree, and, I believe, returned no more.
The next day was spent by all the nestlings in hopping about the three branches on which their home was built, making beautiful pictures of themselves every moment; but whenever the bringer of supplies drew near, each little one hastened to scramble back to the nest, to be ready for his share. The last day in the old home had now arrived. One by one the birdlings flew to the maple, and turned their backs on their native tree forever; and that night the "mournful tree" was entirely deserted.
The exit was not accomplished without its excitement. After tea, as I was congratulating myself that they were all safely out in the world, without accident, suddenly there arose a terrible outcry, robin and blue jay voices in chorus. I looked over to the scene of the fray, and saw a young jay on the ground, and the parents frantic with anxiety. Naturally, my first impulse was to go to their aid, and I started; but I was saluted with a volley of squawks that warned me not to interfere. I retired meekly, leaving the birds to deal with the difficulty as they best could, while from afar I watched the little fellow as he scrambled around in the grass. He tried to fly, but could not rise more than two feet. Both the elders were with him, but seemed unable to help him, and night was coming on. I resolved, finally, to "take my life in my hands," brave those unreasoning parents, and place the infant out of the way of cats and boys.
As I reached the doorstep I saw that the youngster had begun to climb the trunk of a locust-tree. I stood in amazement and saw that baby climb six feet straight up the trunk. He did it by flying a few inches, clinging to the bark and resting, then flying a few inches more. I watched, breathless, till he got nearly to the lowest branch, when alas! his strength or his courage gave out, and he fell back to the ground. But he pulled himself together, and after a few minutes more of struggling through the grass he came to the trunk of the maple next his native pine. Up this he went in the same way, till he reached a branch, where I saw him sitting with all the dignity of a young jay (old jays have no dignity). While he was wrestling with fate and his life was in the balance, the parents had kept near him and perfectly silent, unless some one came near, when they filled the air with squawks, and appeared so savage that I honestly believe they would have attacked any one who had tried to lend a hand.
But still the little blue-coat had not learned sufficient modesty of endeavor, for the next morning he found himself again in the grass. He tried climbing, but unfortunately selected a tree with branches higher than he could hold out to reach; so he fell back to the ground. Then came the inexorable demands of breakfast, with which no one who has been up since four o'clock will decline to comply. On my return, the straggler was mounted on a post that held a tennis net, three or four feet from the ground. One of the old birds was on the rope close by him, and there I left them. Once more I saw him fall, but I concluded that since he had learned to climb, and the parents would not accept my assistance any way, he must take care of himself. I suppose he was the youngest of the brood, who could not help imitating his elders, but was not strong enough to do as they did. On the following day he was able to keep his place, and he came to the ground no more.
From that day I saw, and, what was more evident, heard the jay babies constantly, though they wandered far from the place of their birth. Their voices waxed stronger day by day; from morning to night they called vigorously; and very lovely they looked as they sat on the branches in their brand-new fluffy suits, with their tails a little spread, and showing the snowy borderings beautifully. Twenty-two days after they bade farewell to the old home before my window they were still crying for food, still following their hard-working parents, and, though flying with great ease, never coming to the ground (that I could see), and apparently having not the smallest notion of looking out for themselves.
BLUE JAY MANNERS.
Early in my acquaintance with the jay family, wishing to induce the birds of the vicinity to show themselves, I procured a quantity of shelled corn, and scattered a few handfuls under my window every night. This gave me opportunity to note, among other things, the jay's way of conducting himself on the ground, and his table manners. To eat a kernel of dry corn, he flew with it to a small branch, placed it between his feet (the latter of course being close together), and, holding it thus, drew back his head and delivered a blow with that pickaxe beak of his that would have broken a toe if he had missed by the shadow of an inch the grain for which it was intended. I was always nervous when I saw him do it, for I expected an accident, but none ever happened that I know of. When the babies grew clamorous all over the place, the jay used to fill his beak with the whole kernels. Eight were his limit, and those kept the mouth open, with one sticking out at the tip. Thus loaded he flew off, but was back in two minutes for another supply. The red-headed woodpecker, who claimed to own the corn-field, seemed to think this a little grasping, and protested against such a wholesale performance; but the overworked jay simply jumped to one side when he came at him, and went right on picking up corn. When he had time to spare from his arduous duties, he sometimes indulged his passion for burying things by carrying a grain off on the lawn with an air of most important business, and driving it into the ground, hammering it well down out of sight.
The blue jay's manner of getting over the ground was peculiar, and especially his way of leaving it. He proceeded by high hops, bounding up from each like a rubber ball; and when ready to fly he hopped farther and bounded higher each time, till it seemed as if he were too high to return, and so took to his wings. That is exactly the way it looked to an observer; for there is a lightness, an airiness of bearing about this apparently heavy bird impossible to describe, but familiar to those who have watched him.