Bird Stories from Burroughs - Sketches of Bird Life Taken from the Works of John Burroughs
by John Burroughs
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I happened to be passing in the morning when another one came out. He hopped out upon a limb, shook himself, and chirped and called loudly. After some moments an idea seemed to strike him. His attitude changed, his form straightened up, and a thrill of excitement seemed to run through him. I knew what it all meant; something had whispered to the bird, "Fly!" With a spring and a cry he was in the air, and made good headway to a near hemlock. Others left in a similar manner during that day and the next, till all were out.


The bird that seems to consider he has the best right to my hospitality is the downy woodpecker, my favorite neighbor among the winter birds. His retreat is but a few paces from my own, in the decayed limb of an apple-tree, which he excavated several autumns ago. I say "he" because the red plume on the top of his head proclaims the sex. It seems not to be generally known to our writers upon ornithology that certain of our woodpeckers—probably all the winter residents—each fall excavate a limb or the trunk of a tree in which to pass the winter, and that the cavity is abandoned in the spring, probably for a new one in which nidification takes place.

The particular woodpecker to which I refer drilled his first hole in my apple-tree one fall four or five years ago. This he occupied till the following spring, when he abandoned it. The next fall he began a hole in an adjoining limb, later than before, and when it was about half completed a female took possession of his old quarters. I am sorry to say that this seemed to enrage the male very much, and he persecuted the poor bird whenever she appeared upon the scene. He would fly at her spitefully and drive her off. One chilly November morning, as I passed under the tree, I heard the hammer of the little architect in his cavity, and at the same time saw the persecuted female sitting at the entrance of the other hole as if she would fain come out. She was actually shivering, probably from both fear and cold. I understood the situation at a glance; the bird was afraid to come forth and brave the anger of the male. Not till I had rapped smartly upon the limb with my stick did she come out and attempt to escape; but she had not gone ten feet from the tree before the male was in hot pursuit, and in a few moments had driven her back to the same tree, where she tried to avoid him among the branches. There is probably no gallantry among the birds except at the mating season. I have frequently seen the male woodpecker drive the female away from the bone upon the tree. When she hopped around to the other end and timidly nibbled it, he would presently dart spitefully at her. She would then take up her position in his rear and wait till he had finished his meal. The position of the female among the birds is very much the same as that of women among savage tribes. Most of the drudgery of life falls upon her, and the leavings of the males are often her lot.

My bird is a genuine little savage, doubtless, but I value him as a neighbor. It is a satisfaction during the cold or stormy winter nights to know he is warm and cozy there in his retreat. When the day is bad and unfit to be abroad in, he is there too. When I wish to know if he is at home, I go and rap upon his tree, and, if he is not too lazy or indifferent, after some delay he shows his head in his round doorway about ten feet above, and looks down inquiringly upon me—sometimes latterly I think half resentfully, as much as to say, "I would thank you not to disturb me so often." After sundown, he will not put his head out any more when I call, but as I step away I can get a glimpse of him inside looking cold and reserved. He is a late riser, especially if it is a cold or disagreeable morning, in this respect being like the barn fowls; it is sometimes near nine o'clock before I see him leave his tree. On the other hand, he comes home early, being in, if the day is unpleasant, by four P.M. He lives all alone; in this respect I do not commend his example. Where his mate is, I should like to know.

I have discovered several other woodpeckers in adjoining orchards, each of which has a like home, and leads a like solitary life. One of them has excavated a dry limb within easy reach of my hand, doing the work also in September. But the choice of tree was not a good one; the limb was too much decayed, and the workman had made the cavity too large; a chip had come out, making a hole in the outer wall. Then he went a few inches down the limb and began again, and excavated a large, commodious chamber, but had again come too near the surface; scarcely more than the bark protected him in one place, and the limb was very much weakened. Then he made another attempt still farther down the limb, and drilled in an inch or two, but seemed to change his mind; the work stopped, and I concluded the bird had wisely abandoned the tree. Passing there one cold, rainy November day, I thrust in my two fingers and was surprised to feel something soft and warm: as I drew away my hand the bird came out, apparently no more surprised than I was. It had decided, then, to make its home in the old limb; a decision it had occasion to regret, for not long after, on a stormy night, the branch gave way and fell to the ground:—

"When the bough breaks the cradle will fall, And down will come baby and cradle and all."

Another trait our woodpeckers have that endears them to me is their habit of drumming in the spring. They are songless birds, and yet all are musicians; they make the dry limbs eloquent of the coming change. Did you think that loud, sonorous hammering which proceeded from the orchard or from the near woods on that still March or April morning was only some bird getting its breakfast? It is Downy, but he is not rapping at the door of a grub; he is rapping at the door of spring, and the dry limb thrills beneath the ardor of his blows.

A few seasons ago, a downy woodpecker, probably the individual one who is now my winter neighbor, began to drum early in March in a partly decayed apple-tree that stands in the edge of a narrow strip of woodland near me. When the morning was still and mild I would often hear him through my window before I was up, or by half-past six o'clock, and he would keep it up pretty briskly till nine or ten o'clock, in this respect resembling the grouse, which do most of their drumming in the forenoon. His drum was the stub of a dry limb about the size of one's wrist. The heart was decayed and gone, but the outer shell was hard and resonant. The bird would keep his position there for an hour at a time. Between his drummings he would preen his plumage and listen as if for the response of the female, or for the drum of some rival. How swiftly his head would go when he was delivering his blows upon the limb! His beak wore the surface perceptibly. When he wished to change the key, which was quite often, he would shift his position an inch or two to a knot which gave out a higher, shriller note. When I climbed up to examine his drum, he was much disturbed. I did not know he was in the vicinity, but it seems he saw me from a near tree, and came in haste to the neighboring branches, and with spread plumage and a sharp note demanded plainly enough what my business was with his drum. I was invading his privacy, desecrating his shrine, and the bird was much put out. After some weeks the female appeared; he had literally drummed up a mate; his urgent and oft-repeated advertisement was answered. Still the drumming did not cease, but was quite as fervent as before. If a mate could be won by drumming, she could be kept and entertained by more drumming; courtship should not end with marriage. If the bird felt musical before, of course he felt much more so now. Besides that, the gentle deities needed propitiating in behalf of the nest and young as well as in behalf of the mate. After a time a second female came, when there was war between the two. I did not see them come to blows, but I saw one female pursuing the other about the place, and giving her no rest for several days. She was evidently trying to run her out of the neighborhood. Now and then, she, too, would drum briefly, as if sending a triumphant message to her mate.

The woodpeckers do not each have a particular dry limb to which they resort at all times to drum, like the one I have described. The woods are full of suitable branches, and they drum more or less here and there as they are in quest of food; yet I am convinced each one has its favorite spot, like the grouse, to which it resorts especially in the morning. The sugar-maker in the maple woods may notice that this sound proceeds from the same tree or trees about his camp with great regularity. A woodpecker in my vicinity has drummed for two seasons on a telegraph-pole, and he makes the wires and glass insulators ring. Another drums on a thin board on the end of a long grape-arbor, and on still mornings can be heard a long distance.

* * * * *

I watch these woodpeckers daily to see if I can solve the mystery as to how they hop up and down the trunks and branches without falling away from them when they let go their hold. They come down a limb or trunk backward by a series of little hops, moving both feet together. If the limb is at an angle to the tree and they are on the under side of it, they do not fall away from it to get a new hold an inch or half-inch farther down. They are held to it as steel to a magnet. Both tail and head are involved in the feat. At the instant of making the hop the head is thrown in and the tail thrown out, but the exact mechanics of it I cannot penetrate. Philosophers do not yet know how a backward-falling cat turns in the air, but turn she does. It may be that the woodpecker never quite relaxes his hold, though to my eye he appears to do so.


Downy came and dwelt with me, Taught me hermit lore; Drilled his cell in oaken tree Near my cabin door.

Architect of his own home In the forest dim, Carving its inverted dome In a dozy limb.

Carved it deep and shaped it true With his little bill; Took no thought about the view, Whether dale or hill.

Shook the chips upon the ground, Careless who might see. Hark! his hatchet's muffled sound Hewing in the tree.

Round his door as compass-mark, True and smooth his wall; Just a shadow on the bark Points you to his hall.

Downy leads a hermit life All the winter through; Free his days from jar and strife, And his cares are few.

Waking up the frozen woods, Shaking down the snows; Many trees of many moods Echo to his blows.

When the storms of winter rage, Be it night or day, Then I know my little page Sleeps the time away.

Downy's stores are in the trees, Egg and ant and grub; Juicy tidbits, rich as cheese, Hid in stump and stub.

Rat-tat-tat his chisel goes, Cutting out his prey; Every boring insect knows When he comes its way.

Always rapping at their doors, Never welcome he; All his kind, they vote, are bores, Whom they dread to see.

Why does Downy live alone In his snug retreat? Has he found that near the bone Is the sweetest meat?

Birdie craved another fate When the spring had come; Advertised him for a mate On his dry-limb drum.

Drummed her up and drew her near, In the April morn, Till she owned him for her dear In his state forlorn.

Now he shirks all family cares, This I must confess; Quite absorbed in self affairs In the season's stress.

We are neighbors well agreed Of a common lot; Peace and love our only creed In this charmed spot.


Blackbird, cow. See Cowbird.

Bluebird, arrival in spring, 1; nest-building, 1, 2; young and cicada, 2, 3; a bewildered pair, 3-7; love and rivalry, 7-12; war with house wrens, 47-52.

Bluebird, The, poem, 13.

Bobolink, courtship, 77, 78; concealment of nest, 78-81.

Bobolink, The, poem, 82.

Bob-white. See Quail.

Butcher-bird. See Shrike, northern.

Catbird, song of, 72, 73; and black snake, 73-76; a coquette, 83.

Cedar-bird, nest-building, 122, 123; notes of, 124.

Chewink, markings of, 39; Thomas Jefferson writes to Alexander Wilson about, 39-41; inhospitality of, 83.

Chickadee, nesting of, 157-160.

Chippy. See Sparrow, chipping.

Coming of Ph[oe]be, The, poem, 31.

Cowbird, notes of, 33; parasitic habits of, 33-35.

Crow, character of, 138, 139; manners of, 139, 140; wariness of, 140-142; yearly meeting, 142, 143.

Crow, The, poem, 144.

Downy Woodpecker, The, poem, 169.

Flicker, call of, 21; courtship, 22, 25, 26; not satisfied with being a woodpecker, 22, 23; excavating a nest, 23; young, 23-25; drumming, 26, 27.

Goldfinch, nesting, 125, 126; notes of, 126-128; flight of, 127, 128; musical festivals, 128, 129.

Grouse, ruffed, 133-136.

Hawk, marsh, habits of, 106; nest of, 106-108; young, 111, 112; a pet young one, 112-117.

Hawk, red-shouldered. See Hen-hawk.

Hawk, red-tailed. See Hen-hawk.

Hen-hawk, flight of, 130-132.

High-hole. See Flicker.

Jefferson, Thomas, 39, 40.

Oriole, Baltimore, nests of, 91-94.

Oven-bird, walk of, 69; the two songs of, 69, 70; nest of, 70, 71.

Owl, screech, a brood, 151, 152; two owl neighbors, 152-156; a captive, 153; note of, 154; disappearing in his hole, 154-156.

Partridge, 133-136.

Partridge, The, poem, 137.

Ph[oe]be, arrival in spring, 28; nests of, 29, 30.

Ph[oe]be, The Coming of, poem, 31.

Quail, on nest, 109-111.

Robin, arrival in spring, 15; a graceful warrior, 16; the "robin racket," 16, 17; nest and young, 18, 19; boring for grubs, 19, 20.

Shrike, northern, 147-150; raided by a screech owl, 155.

Snake, black, and song sparrows, 55, 56; and catbirds, 73-76.

Sparrow, chipping, trying to catch a miller, 36; feeding young robins, 37, 38.

Sparrow, song, unsuccessful nestings, 53, 54; and a black snake, 55, 56; a risky experiment, 56-58; a bob-tailed song sparrow's nest, 58-60.

Swallow, chimney. See Swift, chimney.

Swift, chimney, nest of, 61, 62; flight of, 61, 62; young, 63, 64; outriding the storms, 64; habits of, 64-66; great gatherings and aerial evolutions of, 66-68.

Thrasher, brown, stealthiness of, 42; nests of, 42-46; skulking, 83.

Thrush, wood, grace and elegance of, 83, 84; newspaper in nests, 84-86; the song and the nests, 86, 87; unsuccessful nestings, 87-89; song contests, 89, 90.

Towhee. See Chewink.

Warbler, black-throated blue, a successful search for the nest of, 100-105.

Whip-poor-will, eggs of, 95; assimilative coloration of, 95, 97, 99; young, 96; gait of, 97; song of, 97, 98; an old bird with her young, 98, 99.

Wilson, Alexander, 39-41.

Woodpecker, downy, a winter neighbor, 161-164; drumming, 164-167; the mystery of his hopping up and down the trunks and branches, 167, 168.

Woodpecker, The Downy, poem, 169.

Woodpecker, golden-winged. See Flicker.

Wren, house, song of, 47; war with bluebirds, 47-52.

Wren, winter, in his summer home, 119, 120; in winter, 120, 121.

Yarup. See Flicker.

Yellowbird. See Goldfinch.


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