The English goldfinch had been very saucy, scolding and flying over him as he went around the room, in the small bird's way; but one day it came to a sudden end. The goldfinch in his cage scolded the stranger for alighting too near his door. The mocking-bird turned, looked sharply at him, ruffled up his feathers, and jumped heavily to the top of the cage, turning one eye down upon his small foe with an air that said, "Who is this midget that insults me?" The finch was surprised, but did not fully appreciate the significance of this change of manner until he was let out, when he found at once that his amiable neighbor had suddenly become an active enemy, who chased him around the room till he panted for breath, and would not allow him a moment's rest or peace anywhere. This was strange experience for the little fellow, for heretofore none of the large birds had ever disturbed him. He scolded furiously, but he went; no one could stand against that determined approach. If the goldfinch wished to bathe, his persecutor took his place on the nearest perch, not a foot away, thus driving him to the floor with the intention of using the big birds' bath. He circled around the edge, but it did not suit, and he returned to his own, looked at his enemy, spattered a little, went back to the big dish, returned again, and thus vibrated between the two for several minutes, while the mocking-bird stood motionless, not offering any molestation, but plainly wishing to worry him. The final act occurred when both chanced accidentally to be in the same cage, not the home of either. The mocking-bird, without provocation, dropped from the upper perch upon the finch, who uttered a sharp cry and darted away. Two or three little feathers flew, though no hurt could be seen; but the smaller bird panted violently for a half hour, as though frightened, and for four or five hours sat quietly on a perch, neither eating nor making a sound,—a very unusual proceeding for the lively chattering little fellow. This proved to be a declaration of open war, and was so vigorously followed up that before many days the larger bird's door was not opened until his victim had had his outing and returned to his home. Teasing never lost its attraction for him, however. He delighted to alight on the cage and worry his little foe, or to stand near his door and stare at him. On one such occasion a curious scene occurred. They stood three inches apart, with the wires between them, when the finch suddenly began reaching upward as far as possible; taller and taller he stretched up, till he fairly stood on tiptoe. The mocking-bird, not to be outdone, imitated the movement on his side of the bars, of course towering far above his copy. It seemed to afford both of them great satisfaction; perhaps it expressed contempt more fully than was possible in any other way.
The largest bird in the room, a Mexican thrush, was considerably stronger and fiercer than our native wood-thrush, and it seemed absurd for the mocking-bird to measure swords with him. So it would have been but for the fact that the Mexican, having lost part of his wing feathers, was clumsy, unable to fly readily, and no match for his active, agile antagonist; he always conquered when hostilities reached the point of a personal encounter, but he was soon soured, and declined to meet the enemy. Two or three times they flew up together, like quarrelsome cocks, but the decisive and final dispute was over the bathing-dish. It happened that morning that the Mexican came out before the goldfinch was shut up, and hence the the mocking-bird's door was not yet opened. He flew at once to the top of his neighbor's cage to dress his feathers and shake himself out. It looked like a deliberate insult, and the captive in his cage evidently so regarded it; he crouched on the upper perch and opened his mouth at the enemy, who calmly went on with his operations. The moment the finch was safe at home I opened the door, and the mocking-bird came out in haste. Pretending not to see the Mexican, he descended to the bathing-dish, doubtless to cool his heated blood. The first splash, however, interested the enemy on his roof, and he flew to the floor; but the bather paid no apparent attention to him, and went on with his business. The Mexican approached slowly, a step at a time, with a low, warning "chack," which meant, "Make way there, I'm coming." The mocking-bird, manifestly hearing him, did not take the hint, nor look at his assailant, but serenely continued his splashing. The Mexican advanced to within six inches before he was convinced that force would be necessary. When he decided upon an attack, he manifested it by a grotesque little hop a few inches into the air, but this not alarming the enemy he drew near to the dish. Now at last the bather condescended to notice him. He stood up in the water and faced his adversary, bowing rather slowly and with dignity, feathers ruffled, and beak opening in the curious way usual with him,—stretching it wide, then closing it, and constantly repeating the operation.
After looking a moment at this peculiar display, the Mexican hopped upon the edge of the dish, and in the same instant, as though moved by the same machinery, the mocking-bird sprang backward out upon the floor. The usurper paid him no further attention, but proceeded to bathe, while his discomfited rival took a stand on the edge of the disputed dish, which was ten inches in diameter, and fanned his wings violently. I cannot otherwise name this extraordinary movement, the wings raised high above his head, and moved quickly back and forth with a fanning motion. The Mexican turned suddenly to him and he flew. Two or three times he repeated the performance, but was each time forced to fly before the large, strong beak wielded by his opponent, who finished his bath, and retired to a perch to dress his feathers. Now the mocking-bird resumed his splashing; but when thoroughly wet, the thought seemed to strike him that he was not in good fighting trim, and must dry himself as quickly as possible to be ready for war, which he at once did by flirting and shaking himself, bounding from one end to the other of a perch, as though he had suddenly gone mad. He was soon in order, and more than ready to resume hostilities. The enemy still occupied his favorite position upon his roof. Two cages stood side by side on a shelf, and across the tops of them, with great noise and tramping of feet, the Mexican delighted to run, thus amusing himself an hour at a time. Seeing him off his guard, the wary fellow watched his chance, and when his foe was at one end of the course he suddenly alighted on the other. The Mexican ran madly at him, clattering his bill furiously, when he gracefully rose from his place, flew over, and perched on the other end. The run was repeated, and the mischievous bird continued the annoyance until his victim was exhausted, panting, and in great excitement. From that day the Mexican gave up the contest with his too lively antagonist, and refused to come out of his cage at all; so that in fact the stranger reduced the colony to submission.
With the wood-thrush, the encounters differed from both the preceding. This bird had opened hostilities when the mocker first appeared, presuming on being the older resident, and the only bird who cared much to be on the floor. The disputed object, as already mentioned, was the apple, which they received on the matting, two pieces being placed at some distance apart. Seeing the thrush engaged with one, the mocking-bird quietly dropped to the other, when instantly the thrush deserted his own, ran hastily across the room, and claimed that piece. As he approached, the mocking-bird lifted himself into the air by a beautiful and graceful movement; he did not seem to fly, but to simply rise on wing. The thrush being occupied with that piece, the new-comer descended upon the abandoned slice; but the inhospitable bird wanted that also. Even when three or more pieces were at their disposal, the thrush tried to monopolize them all, though the plan of collecting them in one place never seemed to occur to him. After a little of this contention, the mocker generally succeeded in carrying off a bit to some quiet place, where he could eat at his leisure. Wishing them to live peaceably, I placed a slice of the fruit on a high gas-fixture, where the stranger was fond of alighting and no other bird ever went. He understood at once, flew over to it, and ate his fill. The Mexican observed this, and tramped over his cages (it was before he had retired from the world) in a rage, seeing "good times going on," and feeling, evidently, unable to fly so high. Somewhat later the thrush noticed the excitement, flew heavily up, with difficulty alighted beside the apple, snatched it off, and carried it to the floor.
Settlement of difficulties between these two birds was no chance happening; it was, to all appearance, a regularly planned campaign, and, like a savage, the aggressor put on his war paint and danced his war dance. It was extremely interesting to watch, although painful to realize that a bird could be animated by emotions so—must I call them human? He selected, for the declaration of his intentions, a moment when the thrush was in his own house and the door open. The approach to this cage was by a light ladder, the top round of which, about a foot in length, rested perhaps four inches from the cage, and level with the door. Upon this round the mocking-bird executed what has been called his war dance, shaking himself, shuffling (or moving along without raising the feet), and agitating his feathers in such a way that they rustled like stiff new silk. After a few minutes of this performance he flew away, returning presently to repeat it. This he did again and again, and his motive was plain. "You've domineered long enough," his manner said: "now come out here, and we'll settle this matter at once." The bird in the cage, though plainly surprised at this sudden exhibition of spirit, received it like a thrush—in silent dignity. He paid no attention to the demonstration further than to keep his eye upon the enemy, unless he appeared to think of entering the door, when he turned his open bill in that direction. A long time having passed in these manoeuvres, the thrush, apparently tired of waiting for the belligerent to vacate his front doorstep, retired to the upper perch, and the mocking-bird immediately entered below, took his stand by the food-dish, and defied the owner, who came with open beak to dispute him, but after a few moments' silent protest returned to the high perch, leaving the intruder to eat and drink as he chose.
Another point to settle was the possession of the apple. The next time the thrush, not warned by previous operations, hurried up to claim a slice of the fruit which his foe had marked for his own, he was met by resistance. To avoid the rush, the mocking-bird lifted himself a few inches, but came down on the same spot. The thrush, astonished, but thrush-like to the last, stood motionless where he had stopped, his body drawn to a point, bill slightly open and turned toward the bold intruder. That bird ignored his attitude and placidly went on eating, and three similar experiences ended that annoyance.
One thing still remained unsettled: the mocking-bird decided to change his residence. No reason was apparent, but he preferred a special place in the room, a certain end of a particular shelf; and no matter what cage was there, he insisted on taking possession. The day he determined on this removal, he went in while the resident—the thrush—was out, and, having eaten, proceeded to the upper perches, and began jumping back and forth on them, as if at home. In due time the owner returned, visited the food-dishes, and started for the upper regions, but was met by a threatening attitude from the bird already there. He seemed to think the matter not worth quarreling over, since he readily settled himself on the middle perch, where he made a most elaborate and deliberate toilet, dressing every feather with care, and spending a half hour over the operation. All this time the invader stood on the top perch, backed against the wires, his long tail on one side like the train of a lady's dress, invincible determination in his manner. The calm indifference of the house-owner evidently did not please him, and the long drawn-out toilet was irritating; he grew thirsty, and dropped to the floor to drink, when the thrush remonstrated by a low, rapid "chook, chook, chook," and the mocking-bird made an impatient dive at him. This silenced but apparently did not hurt the bird, who stayed as long as he chose, and then quietly came out. From that moment the usurper claimed the cage, and the amiable owner easily contented himself with the one the other had deserted.
When the mocking-bird had thoroughly established himself in every right and privilege he chose to consider his own, I hoped there would be peace, but I had not sounded the depths in his character; he began to tease. Not content with complete victory, life seemed dull without some object to worry. I really think it was his amusement; he certainly went at it as if it were. I noticed him one morning, standing on the ladder before his door, apparently working himself up to something. He first looked at me,—I had a book, and pretended not to see him,—then at the thrush, who was on the floor as usual; he jerked his body this way and that, puffed out his feathers, especially on the throat and breast, held his tail on one side and turned upward at an angle of forty-five degrees, which gave him a wicked expression. He looked full of life to the tips of his toes, and greatly excited. The other birds observed him; the Mexican in his cage rustled his wings, jerked his body, and at last gave his usual cry. Even the little goldfinch was impressed and looked on with interest.
All this agitation did not escape the notice of the bird on the floor, who stood silent, plainly understanding, and waiting for the next move. Finally the mocking-bird started, gracefully and without haste. He first flew easily and lightly to the desk, in a moment to the back of a chair, then deliberately to an arm, next to the seat, and lastly to a round; at each step pausing, shaking himself, and threatening. When he reached the floor, he ran a few steps toward the thrush, stopped short, erected himself very straight, and puffed out as big as possible; then another little run, and the operation was repeated. He proceeded till within a foot of the thrush, when he alternated the upright position with a lowered head, and bill pointed toward the foe, changing from one to the other very suddenly. When he came so near, the thrush crouched flat on the floor, with beak turned squarely against the approaching bird, and thus awaited the onslaught.
In that attitude the mocking-bird did not apparently like to attack him. He threatened a long time, then retreated gradually, making feints, turning, running a few inches, and bringing up suddenly with a half turn back. In this manner he moved away for some distance, then flew to the round of the chair, the seat, the arm, the back, and so on till he reached the ladder again. Then for the first time the thrush changed his position and rose to his feet, when, without the least warning, the mocker flung himself madly after him, and the thrush, unprepared, ran, with a sharp cry. Obviously the mocking-bird, finding the first method of attack, which was probably his usual one, a failure, decided to try another, as the event proved, successfully. The excitement of this performance evidently gave him pleasure, no doubt helped to pass away the long hours, for be often indulged in it, always making his approach in the same deliberate way, tripping daintily a step or two at a time, examining everything in a careless way, tasting a piece of apple-skin, lifting a bit of thread, toying and dallying to all appearance, as he moved, still always advancing, and never turning aside from his purpose till he reached the distance of a foot from the thrush, crouching motionless with crown feathers erect. At that point he often stood a moment, looking grimly at his victim, then gave a quick, exaggerated jump which carried him forward not more than an inch, but sent the thrush, in a panic, running half across the room, where he brought up in a heap,—his claws sprawled as they slipped on the matting, every feather standing up,—and made no attempt to draw his feet together. A slow, formal attack he could meet, but a sudden rush was irresistible. Then the assailant turned, slowly, gracefully, the personification of tranquillity, his air saying, "Who's done anything?" yet taking a direct line for the enemy, approaching in the same way, by easy stages, but relentlessly drawing nearer and nearer, till he ended by a quick plunge, which sent the thrush off with a cry. In a moment he began again, teasing, following, tormenting; so wily, so wicked, so determined!
The motions of this bird were most bewitching; his flight the perfection of grace. He never flew straight across the room as if on business, but always in a dancing, loitering, easy way; hovering to examine a picture, slowly pausing on wing to look at anything, turning, wheeling, up or down or any way, buoyant and light as the air itself. It was his delight to exercise on wing about the room, diving between the rounds of the ladder, darting under a stretched string or into a cage full dash. His feet found rest on any point, however small,—the cork in a bottle, the tip of a gas-burner, or the corner post of a chair; nothing was too small or too delicately balanced for his light touch, and he never upset anything. He enjoyed running up and down a ladder six feet long with six or eight rounds, passing over it so rapidly that he could not be seen to touch it at any point, yet not using his wings he must have stepped upon every round. He always used his legs with a freedom rarely seen in a bird, not moving them together as usual in his kind, but handling them with astonishing independence of each other.
The body of this bird was capable of wonderful expression, not only in the free use of each member, but every feather seemed under his voluntary control. The spasmodic movement of the wings in excitement, common to many birds, was accomplished in an original manner by holding the wing slightly away from the body, and spreading or opening it a little at each jerk, without changing its position toward his side. His tail seemed as loosely connected with his body as if it were hung on wires; it moved even with his breathing, and the emphatic flirt of the member was an insult which every bird in the room understood. Intense interest in any sound was indicated by raising the feathers over the ears alone, which gave him the droll appearance of wearing velvet "ear muffs." In expressing other emotions he could erect the feathers of his chin, his shoulders or his back, either part alone, or all together, as he chose. A true bird of the south, he did not enjoy our climate, and if the room became too cool he made his opinion known by drawing his head down into his shoulders, with every feather on his body fluffed out, even to the base of the beak, till he looked as if wrapped in delicate gray furs to his nose, and almost burying his eyes.
The mocking-bird's emotions were so intense and so originally displayed that he was a constant source of interest. A hand-glass lying face up gave opportunity for an amusing exhibition one day. Leaning over it, he puffed out every feather, opened his mouth, and tried the glass with his beak at every point. Meeting no satisfaction, he turned to leave it, but first peeped slyly over the edge to see if the stranger were still there, no doubt unable to get over his surprise at seeing a bird in that position and ready to meet his bill at every point. The same glass standing up brought out a different demonstration. He stood in front of it and swelled himself out, while the feathers of the shoulders and breast were erected. Then he opened his mouth wide and attacked the reflection, but was astonished to meet the glass. He touched the bill of his double with his own, and moved all the way to the bottom of the glass, not taking it away, but apparently trying to seize the one which opposed his. He lowered his head as though to take hold of the enemy's foot, then pulled himself up as straight as a soldier, wings and tail constantly jerking with excitement. After indulging for some time in these proceedings, he dodged around behind the glass, plainly expecting to pounce upon his opponent, and surprised not to do so. Several times he drew himself up, swelled out his breast, and blustered before the glass. Once he flew up with the reflection in the manner of a quarrelsome cock, and upon reaching the top of the glass, naturally went over and landed behind, without an enemy in sight. Upon this he stared a moment, as if dazed, then shook himself out, and flew away in evident disgust.
The deliberate, leisurely dressing of plumage, with which many birds pass away the dull hours, is an occupation in which the mocking-bird never had time to indulge. He was a bird of affairs; he had too much on his mind for loitering. A few sudden, thorough shakes, a rapid snatching of the wing and tail feathers through the beak, or, after a bath, a violent beating the air with both wings while holding tightly to the perch with his feet, sufficed for his toilet. Notwithstanding his apparent carelessness, his plumage was soft and exquisite in texture, and when wet the downy breast feathers matted together and hung in locks, like hair. Through a common magnifying glass each tiny barbule was seen to be ringed with gray and silvery white, so finely that the rings could hardly be seen.
The most beautiful and peculiar attitude this bird assumed was when conducting an attack upon a small object. Seeing one day a steel pen-point black with ink, he stood before it at a respectful distance, and raised both wings over his back till they almost touched each other, holding the tail on one side. In two or three seconds he lowered the wings a moment, then raised them again, while his tail leaned the other side. After half a dozen such feints he delivered a gentle peck, and instantly hopped back out of the way. Seeing that it did not move, he took it in his bill and flew to the floor, where he soon satisfied himself that it was not a new variety of beetle. This was always his method with any new object of small size.
Not only did this doughty warrior vanquish the ordinary birds about him, but when a gray African parrot made his appearance in the room (on a short visit) he boldly attacked him, in spite of his size and strength. The parrot had a temporary perch before the window, and on the cage nearest to him the mocking-bird took his place, and after posturing and threatening, stooped to a crouching position, and then darted past him, trying to hit him as he went. The first time this occurred the parrot whirled on his perch and cried "Whoo!" and after that greeted every charge with a very good imitation of a policeman's rattle, probably as the loudest and most terrifying noise he could make. So determined was the belligerent fellow to subdue or annihilate the larger bird, and so reckless were his attacks, that I had to keep him a prisoner during the few days the parrot was in the room, for hospitality must not be violated. It is interesting to note that so great was his variety of resource that he had a distinctly different method of warfare in each of the six cases mentioned.
A dignified composure was so natural to my bird that he was never startled out of it, not even when suddenly enveloped in a shawl, a proceeding that greatly alarms birds of less self-possession. It was necessary on one occasion to catch him to return him to his cage, where he might be protected from the cold of the night. All the usual ways were tried without success, so lightly did he slip away, so gracefully and calmly did he flutter around the room, not in the least disturbed or confused by the darkness, and quite willing to play hide-and-seek all night. No other way availing, the last resource was tried—throwing a shawl over him as he stood crouched on the top of the cage, ready for instant flight. Not a flutter nor a cry arose, and it seemed that he must have escaped; but on looking through the cage from below, he was seen flattened against the wires, but perfectly quiet, submissive to the inevitable, like any other philosopher. He was gathered up in the folds and carefully uncovered before his own door, when he simply hopped to a perch and coolly returned the gaze of his captors, not a feather out of place, not in the smallest degree disconcerted.
Amusements were not lacking in this interesting life aside from the pleasures of worrying and teasing, which plainly were entertainments for him. He indulged in other performances which distinctly were play. Especially was this true of the habit he imitated from the Mexican,—tramping across two cages heavily, with as much noise as possible, and then with an extravagant jump landing on another cage, where he was received with a scolding, which apparently pleased him as much as any part of it. A specially quick flying-run rattled a paper fastened against the wall, which delighted him greatly; and when the cages were covered with paper, to put an end to the proceeding which annoyed the residents, he regarded it as a particular attention, and enjoyed it more than ever, doubtless because it enabled him to make a louder noise. Often he diverted himself by a mad frolic in his cage; from place to place he went half flying, and scarcely touching anything; back and forth, with great flutter of wings and great noise; up and down, under and over and around his perches, in the same wild way, so that it seemed as if he must beat his brains out. Then suddenly, when most riotous, he alighted like a feather, the image of serenity and repose. Sometimes he was seized with this sort of fury of play when out of his cage, and then he flung himself about the room in the same frantic manner, scarcely touching a perch, diving under a table, between the rounds of a chair, over a gas-fixture, behind and through any openings he could find. Should some bird in the room disapprove of this behavior, and scold, as the finch was quite apt to do, the mocking-bird instantly alighted beside him, humped his back till he looked deformed, sidled two or three steps towards him, stopped, and stared at his critic; then two or three steps more, stopping again, and in every way acting more like a mischievous monster than a bird, till the astonished finch was reduced to silence, and as meek as poor Mrs. Quilp before the antics of her malicious little spouse.
In all these actions, even in his contests with his room-mates, no anger ever appeared on the part of the mocking-bird; everything seemed done to amuse himself and pass away the weary hours, rather than from desire to hurt his neighbors. In fact, he never did positively touch a bird, to my knowledge, though he always acted as though he intended to annihilate them. He could hardly be called malicious; rather (shall we say?) mischievous, and like Ariel "a tricksy spirit."
THE "WISE BLUEBIRD."
Never was sweeter music— Sunshine turned into song. To set us dreaming of summer, When the days and the dreams are long.
Winged lute that we call a bluebird, You blend in a silver strain The sound of the laughing waters, The patter of spring's sweet rain, The voice of the wind, the sunshine, And fragrance of blossoming things. Ah! you are a poem of April, That God endowed with wings.
EBEN. E. REXFORD.
THE "WISE BLUEBIRD."
"A wise bluebird Puts in his little heavenly word."
The characteristic air and expression of the bluebird, and his enchanting little warble, could not be better described in a page of writing than the poet has here done in a couplet.
Who has not seen him in his favorite resting-place, the lowest branch of an apple-tree, standing up very straight, crown feathers erected, honest little countenance squarely facing one, motionless and silent, looking the embodiment of wisdom!
A pair of bluebirds lived in my house for nearly a year, and the calm, imposing manner of the male I have never seen disturbed. In the presence of birds much larger than himself he never lost his equanimity, paid not the slightest attention to any one, went about his daily duties and pleasures exactly as though there were not another bird, except his mate, in the room. Quite otherwise was his little spouse: quick, nervous, easily frightened, yet assuming the responsibility of everything, even her lord's comfort and safety. Her very attitude was different; she held her body horizontal, never perpendicular, as he did; and she was more lively in movement. She was a brave little soul, too. Even when greatly annoyed by a larger bird, she never failed to stand upon the defensive, open her mouth, and sometimes remonstrate in low, gentle talk. Nor did she—after she felt at home—allow a stranger to enter her door. She boldly faced the largest bird in the room, and always forced him to retire, while her mate stood calm and cool and "wise," on the upper perch. More than this, she seemed to feel it part of her duty to defend and protect his lordship, as though he were too fragile to come into contact with the rough side of life. Nothing could be droller than to see her stand guard while he bathed in the common dish on the table, and fly furiously at the grosbeak, or any bird coming too near her precious idol, who meanwhile placidly proceeded with his bath in the most matter-of-fact manner, as though expecting to be protected. I have seen similar conduct in a wild pair: the female defending her nestlings against some fancied danger, scolding, flying around the intruder, and taking the whole care upon herself; while her spouse occupied the topmost twig of the tree on which his family was in trouble, uttering at short intervals his musical cry of distress, one rich, loud note.
I did, however, on one occasion see a male bluebird excited in the defense of his young. It was in North Carolina, where a nestling chanced to alight on the favorite resting-place of a mocking-bird, and the latter a moment afterward came to his usual perch not a foot from the wild-eyed youngster. Then arose a great outcry from both bluebirds, and one after the other swooped down at that mocking-bird, coming so near I thought they must hit him. Again and again they returned to the charge with loud cries, while the mocking-bird stood quiet, crouched as though to dash into the little one, and jerking wings and tail in a wicked manner. It lasted but a moment, for the nestling itself was scared and flew to another branch, upon which the attack came to an end, and the mother went to the baby, but the father stood on a perch near the enemy, and scolded for some time.
Perhaps this individual bluebird had learned to assist in the family defense, for they had other troubles. The nest was in an unsafe spot, the hollow dead limb of a tall pine-tree, about seventy feet above the ground. The opening was in the lower side of the sloping branch, making it very easy for a nestling to fall out, and that is what I think happened the day before the little scene above described.
Hearing cries of distress from the pine grove, I hastened down to see if I could be of any assistance. Both bluebirds were on a low tree, about a foot apart, uttering constantly the mournful notes I had heard. Evidently a tragedy of some sort had occurred, and I thought at once of a falling little one. I looked carefully around the tree while the parents came down near me, much disturbed. I found nothing, but a gale was blowing and a little bird might easily have been driven far away. It was a serious matter plainly, for the cries went on without intermission the rest of the day.
During that time I saw a curious and interesting attempt at consolation on the part of the male. He flew away, and returned in a few moments with something in his beak. Alighting near his mate, he began a low, tender twitter, at the same time offering the morsel to her. She moved a few inches away; he followed, still coaxing. She flew to another branch, refusing to look at it. He followed, still asking her to accept it. At last she flew away, and he seemed astounded, stood as if he did not know what to do next, hesitated several minutes, when a bright thought seemed to strike him, and he carried it to the nest.
The pair in my room were a most affectionate and gentle couple; no disputes, not even the smallest difference, arose between them. If one wished to bathe while the other was using the bath-tub, he stood on the edge till his turn came. In the same way one usually waited for the other to finish a lunch before going down himself, though on rare occasions they descended together for a social meal. If she were alarmed, and went to the floor, as at first sometimes happened, he at once appeared in the door, looking anxiously after her, and calling tenderly. If she did not return, he flew down himself, ran about till he found her, and, after talking in a low tone for some time, started for home, when she followed him, showing that she was reassured. They always sat on the same perch, and on cool days as near each other as possible, first one and then the other "hitching" a little nearer. After bathing they sunned themselves together, even when in the cage, where the sunshine came only into one corner, and they crowded so closely that there was not room to spread out. Even that discomfort never elicited a harsh word, though he enjoyed spreading himself very completely, bending his legs, resting his breast on the floor, and opening his wings to their full extent.
This bird's anxiety when his mate was out of his sight did not, however, compare with her unrest in his absence, for her affection seemed to be of the motherly or protecting sort. Before they became familiar with the room, and learned that, though unseen, the partner was not lost, the moment he disappeared from view she began running around the cage excitedly, looking everywhere, and calling loudly. At first he answered, but, deciding to try his wings, he swept around the room, came—as some birds do—against the window, and fell to the floor, when instantly both were perfectly silent. She looked out apprehensively, and as soon as he recovered breath he flew to the top of their own cage. Then her solicitude turned to annoyance; she went to the top perch, and gently nipped his toes (which she never did to strangers) as a slight reproof. He became accustomed to going out and in sooner than his mate, for she was shy and inclined to stay at home, and she suffered much anxiety; before long she too grew accustomed to freedom, and expressed no further fears when he was out.
Making arrangements for the night was an interesting event in bluebird life. They always selected the highest perch in the darkest end of the cage, and placed themselves so close together that they looked like a wide ball, or two balls that had been almost pressed into one when in a very soft state. In the morning the feathers on the side next the mate were crushed flat, requiring much shaking and dressing to give them their ordinary appearance. What was curious, the female took the outside, no doubt with the motherly motive of taking care of him. To see them settle themselves was pleasing. Being more quiet and less nervous than his spouse, the singer generally retired first, some time before she was ready, and composed himself in a moment in his corner, for they were never restless at evening; she followed when she chose. Occasionally, however, she went first, taking her place about as far as usual from the wires, and leaving space for him. But if he went to his place, there was not room to turn around, facing the middle of the cage, as was their custom; and he seemed to appreciate the difficulty, for he hopped up on the outside, or the wrong side of her. Instantly she jumped to a lower perch, when he sidled up to his regular place, and she at once returned and took her usual position beside him. One night something startled them, and both flew wildly around the cage. I produced a light to show them the perches, so they might quiet themselves again. The male readily did so, but she remained on the lower perch. I went close to the wires and began to speak soothingly, to calm her, and induce her to resume her place, when, to my surprise, she began to reply to me, every time I spoke, standing less than a foot from me. She stared me full in the face, not at all disturbed, and answered every word I said with her musical call, in a low tone, as if to tell me the story of the fright. We kept up the queer little chat for several minutes, and she did not return to his side that night.
One advantage of studying two birds of a kind at the same time is to observe the talk between them, which has great interest for me. This pair were exceedingly talkative at first, uttering not only the usual musical three-syllable warble or call, which Lanier aptly calls the "heavenly word," but often soft twittering prattle, of varying inflection and irregular length, which was certainly the most interesting bird-talk I ever heard. When they could not see me they indulged in it more freely, with changing tones at different times, and after they became accustomed to the room and its inhabitants it was neither so frequent nor so earnest. Often at night, when one—perhaps in a dream—fell off the perch, I heard much low, tender talk, almost in a whisper, before all was quiet again; and when another bird flew wildly around the room, there was always a remark or two in an interested tone. The male did most of the talking, carrying on, often for a long time, a constant flow of what sounded marvelously like comments and criticisms, while his mate replied occasionally with the usual call. Certain notes plainly had a specific meaning, even to the others in the room. One in particular was peculiar and low, but upon its utterance every bird became instantly silent and looked at the cage, while the bluebirds themselves were so absorbed, gazing apparently into blank space, that I could easily put my hands on them before they observed me. For several minutes this low note would be repeated, and all the birds stare at nothing, till I began to feel almost uncomfortable, as I have done at similar staring at nothing on the part of animals. One can hardly resist the feeling that these creatures can see something invisible to our eyes. On one occasion, when the male uttered this note, the female was just about to eat; she stood as if petrified, with head halfway down to the food, for two or three minutes.
What I have called talk was a very low twitter in a conversational tone, on one note, not at all in a singing tone, like the usual warble or call. I have also heard it from wild bluebirds, when I could get near enough. From the first, as said above, the male did most of the talking, and the habit grew upon him, till he became a regular babbler, standing on the top perch, and keeping it up persistently all day long. I think it arose from the fact that the greater number of birds in the room were thrushes, who sang very softly, without opening the mouth. With this gentle ripple of song the bluebird's voice harmonized perfectly, and he almost entirely discontinued his lovely song, while indulging himself in talk by the hour. Strange to say, I soon noticed that his mate did not approve of it, and would not stand on the perch beside him while he continued it. At first she turned sharply towards him, and he showed that he understood her wishes by ceasing for a while; but as the habit grew, and he was not so easily silenced, she more and more deserted his side, and after two or three weeks I heard occasionally a gentle remonstrance from her. I do not believe a really harsh tone can come from a bluebird throat. One day they were taking their usual midday nap on the same perch, when a thrush across the window began his low song. That started the bluebird, and he added his chatter, which awakened his mate. She endured it for about five seconds, and then she suddenly stretched the wing nearest him so far that he was obliged to move away, when she instantly hopped down herself.
The two bluebirds differed in intelligence. The female was quicker to take an idea, but the male sooner conquered his fear. The first time I offered meal-worms to them she was so lively as to secure more than her share; but he learned in a day or two that worms were to be had outside, especially on my desk, when he at once flew over to me and demanded them, in the funniest little defiant way, looking at me most significantly, and wiping his bill ostentatiously, then jerking himself with great show of impatience. Words could not be plainer. Neither of them had difficulty in telling me their food-dish was empty; they stood on the edge and looked at me, then scraped the bill several times, making much noise about it, then looked at me again. I knew in a moment, the first time, what they wanted. When the male found out that another bird alighted on a stick I held out to him, and was carried off upon it, he seemed to be seized with curiosity, and the next time I offered it he jumped upon it beside the other, and allowed himself to be lifted to the desk. At one time, in flying around, he caught his feet in the coarse net curtains I hung before the windows to keep strange birds from trying to fly out. I went at once to him and took him off. He scolded, fluttered, and pecked, and, when I had released him, flew directly against another curtain and caught again. I went over to him, and this time he understood that I was helping him; he neither struggled nor pecked, and flew quietly when I set him free.
The bluebird never showed any curiosity about the room or the world outside the windows, but sat on his door perch for hours, with a sharp eye to the worm supply. The appearance of the cup that held them was a signal for him to come down and beg for them, but his little mate never dared trust herself on the desk, though when I threw a worm on the floor she invariably secured it. So fond was she of this delicacy that she once played a saucy trick upon a scarlet tanager. Having received a worm, he went into the first open door he saw,—which happened to be the bluebird's,—to find a place to manipulate the morsel, which he never swallowed whole. Madam stood on the perch just above the entrance, and as he came in she leaned over and snatched it out of his mouth, swallowed it, wiped her bill, and turned to him, ready for another. His stare of blank amazement was amusing to see, but he quickly made up his mind that it was not a safe place to eat, and when I gave him another he went to the roof of the same cage. She instantly mounted the top perch, put up her bill and seized the worm; but he held on, dragged it away, and then retired to his own cage with it. She positively could not resist this temptation, and even from her own cherished spouse she would sometimes snatch the desired tidbit.
The bluebirds' method of bathing differed from any I have noticed. They put the head under water, and held it there, while spattering vigorously with wings and tail. On leaving the bath the female fanned herself dry, holding tightly to the perch and beating her wings with violence, while dancing back and forth the whole length of the perch, in a bewitching manner. Her mate fanned himself also, adding a very pretty lateral shake of the wings, and raising the feathers on the crown and throat till he looked twice as big as usual. But he was very fond of sunning himself dry, in the attitude already spoken of. That position, by the way, was a not unusual one with him; he often hopped the length of three feet before a blind which stood against the wall, his legs bent, head nearly touching the floor, and tail thrust almost straight up. A droll figure he made. After hopping to the end of the blind, he would dash around behind it, as if he expected or hoped to find something.
After moulting, the birds feathered out beautifully, and their spirits rose in proportion. They delighted in flight, making long, sweeping circles around the room, again and again, without stopping. A few weeks later, as spring approached, they grew somewhat belligerent towards the other inhabitants of the place; driving every bird away from their cage, even following them to their chosen resting-places, insisting on their right to every perch in the room. Then, too, began signs of courtship between the lovely pair. The first thing I noticed was at worm-feeding time. One day I had given each of them their portion. The female swallowed hers instantly, and I turned to another cage, when I heard a low, coaxing cry many times repeated. I looked around. The male stood on the upper perch, still holding his worm, which he usually dispatched as quickly as his mate did hers; and she was on a lower perch, looking up at him, mouth open, wings fluttering, asking for it. While I looked, he hopped down beside her, she opened her mouth wide, and he fed her as if she were a nestling. He was more amiable than a wild bluebird I once saw, who had brought up a long earthworm, and was beating it on top of a post preparatory to swallowing it, when his little spouse—who was sitting at the time—came to the fence rail below him, and asked in the same way for a bit. So far from sharing it with her, this greedy bird simply took a fresh hold of his prize, flew to a tree, and gobbled it down with difficulty himself. Not so my generous captive. The next day he complied with her request again, and after that it was he who did the tender coaxing, begging her to accept the slight offering of his love. Soon, too, she grew coquettish in manner, often turned a cold shoulder to him, opened her mouth at him, and scolded in the sweetest and softest voice; and one night, after they had settled on their perch, I heard gentle talk, and saw a little peck or two on her part. He did the talking, and she delivered the playful peck or push as reply. Now, too, in his desire to manifest his affection, he could not always wait for worms, but picked dainty bits from the food-dish, and tendered them in the same pretty way. She always accepted, though often she went at once to the food-dish and ate for herself; for with all this sentiment and love-making her appetite did not fail. Once she was outside and he inside the cage, when he began to call and offer her something out of his mouth. She did not wish to go in, so she flew to a perch that ran through the cage, and stood close to the wires, while he went to the same perch inside, and fed her through the wires.
About this time, too, the bluebird talk nearly ceased, and instead of it the lovely song of three notes was heard all day, and a little change they made in it—throwing in a "grace note" between the second and third—greatly added to its charm. Now, too, spring had really come, and I waited only for warm days to let them go and set up their homestead in freedom. The first mild day in May the window was opened for them. The female flew first to a tree in front of the house, where she was greeted in the rudest manner by the bird-tramps which infest our streets,—the house-sparrows. They began to assemble around her, no doubt prepared for attack, when she gave a loud cry of distress, and out flew her valiant knight to her aid. After a moment's pause by her side, they both flew, and we saw the gentle pair no more.
This true chronicle began with a quotation from Lanier; it shall end with one from Harriet Prescott Spofford:—
"A bit of heaven itself, he flew, When earth seemed heaven with bees and bloom, South wind, and sunshine, and perfume; And morning were not morn without him. Winging, springing, always flinging, Flinging music all about him."
The high-hole flashing his golden wings.
One of the special objects of my search during a certain June among the hills of northern New York was a nest of the golden-winged woodpecker; not that it is rare or hard to find, but because I had never seen one and had read attractive stories of the bird's domestic relations, the large number of young in the nest, and his devotion and pride. Moreover, I had become greatly interested in the whole family, through my attachment to an individual member of it in my own house.
I soon discovered that the orchard at the back of the house was visited every day by a pair of the birds I was seeking. One was seen running up and down a trunk of a large poplar-tree, and the next morning two alighted on a dead branch at the top of an apple-tree, perching like other birds on twigs, which seemed too light to bear their weight. But they were apparently satisfied with them; for they stayed some time, pluming themselves and evidently looking with interest and astonishment at human intruders into what had no doubt been a favorite haunt of their own. I watched them for several minutes, till a sudden noise startled the shy creatures and they were off in an instant.
After that I saw them often at the bottom of the orchard. They always flew over the place with rather a heavy business-like flight, alighted on a low branch of the farthest apple-tree, and in a moment dropped to the ground where the long grass hid them. There they remained five minutes or more before returning to the tree. Unfortunately it was a little farther than I could readily see with my glass, and the most cautious approach alarmed them. I heard them call nearly every day in loud, strong voice, "Pe-auk! pe-auk!"
Being thus baffled in my plan of following them home, I resolved upon a regular search in the small piece of woods where they always disappeared, and every morning I spent two or three hours in that lovely spot looking for any birds, but especially for the Golden-wing. In all my search, however, I found but one nest, which may have been his, where apparently a tragedy had occurred; for from the edge of the opening the bark was torn off down the trunk, and in two or three places holes were picked as though to reach the nest which had been within.
Whatever the drama enacted in that mysterious home, I was too late to see, and I have not been able as yet to make close acquaintance with the free Golden-wing.
The bird that had so interested me in his whole family I found in a bird store in New York in the month of November. He was a most disconsolate-looking object, and so painfully wild I could scarcely bear to look at him—poor, shy, frightened soul, set up in a cage to be stared at. I rescued him at once with the intention of giving him a more retired home, and freedom the moment spring opened. The change did not at first reassure him, and he was so frantic that his cage was covered to shut out the sights till he was accustomed to the sounds of a household. Gradually, an inch or two at a time, the cover that hid the world from him was reduced, till at the end of three weeks he could endure the removal of the last corner without going absolutely mad.
On the first day an opening a few inches wide was left in his screen, so that he might look out if he chose, and I took my seat as far as possible from him, with my back to him, and a hand-glass so arranged that I could see him. As soon as the room was quiet he went to the opening and cautiously thrust his long bill and his head as far as the eye beyond the edge so that he could see me. I kept perfectly still, while he watched me several minutes with evident interest, and I was glad to see that it was simply fright and not idiocy that caused his panics.
Many emotions of the bird were most comically expressed by hammering. In embarrassment or alarm, when not so great as to drive him wild, he resorted to that diversion, and the more disturbed, the louder and faster his blows. If in utter despair, as when I set his house in order for the day, he dropped to the floor on the farthest side, put his head in the corner, and pounded the tray with great violence. Every wire in the cage in turn he tested with taps of his beak, thus amusing himself hours at a time, sitting, as was his custom, crouched upon the perch or on the floor. In this way, too, he tried the quality of the plastered wall behind his cage, and was evidently pleased to find it yielding, for he bored many holes and tore off much paper, before he was discovered and provided with a background of wood to exercise upon.
The unhappy bird had a serious time learning to eat mocking-bird food with his long, curved beak; he never became very expert at it, but was as awkward as a child learning to feed itself. He first thrust it like a dagger its whole length into his dish, took out a mouthful, then turned his head sidewise, shook it and snapped his bill one side and the other, making a noise as if choking. When this performance was over, he scraped his beak against the wires and picked off the fragments daintily with the tip. When he had eaten he left a straight, smooth hole in the food, like a stab, two inches deep and perhaps half an inch in diameter. In drinking he made the same movements, filling his mouth, throwing back his head, and swallowing with great efforts.
All of the Golden-wing's attitudes were peculiar; as, for instance, he never liked to face one, but always turned his back upon spectators and looked at them over his shoulder. In sleeping he changed his position often, and was as restless as a nervous old man. Sometimes he slept on the perch, puffed out into a ball like other birds, head buried in his feathers, tail broad-spread and curled under the perch, as though it needed something to rest against. If he began his night's rest (or unrest) in this position, in a few hours he would drop heavily to the floor, scramble about a little, and then climb to one of the supports that kept the wires in place, ten inches from the bottom of the cage. There he settled himself comfortably, head buried again, tail pressed against the wires, and looking more like a spot on the wall than a bird.
He often took naps in the daytime on the floor with his head in the corner, like a bad boy in punishment, his head drawn down into his shoulders and his bill thrust up into the air at an angle of forty-five degrees. If this tired him, he simply turned his bill down at about the same angle, and tried it that way awhile.
He was an exceedingly early bird, always settled to sleep long before any other in the room, and he slept very soundly, being not easily wakened and breathing in long, steady respirations like a person in sleep. Indeed he startled me very much the first time I noticed him. The breathing was regular and strong, equal in duration to my own as I listened, and I was sure some one was in the room. I hastened to light the gas to look for the burglar, and it was not until I had made thorough search that I discovered who was the guilty one. He dreamed also, if one may judge by the sounds that came from his cage at night, complaining, whining, almost barking like the "yaps" of a young puppy, and many sorts of indescribable noises.
The Golden-wing was extremely fond of hanging against the side of his cage on the support spoken of above. Not only did he sleep in that position, but dress his plumage, turning his head back over his body and sides, and even arranging the feathers of his breast, each one by itself, with scrupulous care. Like many others this bird objected to having his cage used as a perch by his neighbors. He expressed his sentiments by quick jerks, first of the shoulders and then of the whole body, and if the intruder did not take the hint, he opened his enormous bill and took hold of a stray toe, which usually drove away the most impertinent.
The door of the cage was opened to my captive as soon as he became quiet and happy within it. After his first surprise and dismay at finding himself in the big world again, he enjoyed it very much. Being unable to fly through the loss of some wing feathers, his cage was placed on the floor, and he ran in and out at pleasure. He was more than usually intelligent about it, too; for although the door was small, and he had to lower his head to pass through, he was never at a loss for an instant.
One thing that shows a bird's characteristics and that I have never seen any two do in exactly the same way, is to explore a room when first released from a cage. This bird, like his predecessors, had his own peculiar notion, which was to go behind everything. He squeezed himself between a trunk, or a heavy piece of furniture, and the wall, where it did not seem possible that one of his size could pass, and showed so great an inclination to go through a hole in the open-work fire-board that I hastily covered it up. After a while he tested the matting and carefully investigated, by light taps of his bill, each separate nail. His step was heavy, and he did not hop, but ran around with a droll little patter of the feet, like a child's footsteps.
Having exhausted the novelty of the floor, he turned his eyes upward, perhaps noticing that the other birds were higher in the room, where they had taken refuge when he made his sudden and somewhat alarming appearance among them. He did not try to fly, but he was not without resources; he could jump, and no one could outdo him in climbing, or in holding on. After a moment's apparent consideration of the means at his command, he ran to the corner and mounted a trunk by springing up halfway, holding on a moment in some mysterious manner, and then by a second jump landing on top. From that point it was easy to reach the bird's table, and there was a ladder placed for the benefit of another that could not fly. This ladder he at once pounced upon, and used as if he had practiced on one all his life.
I shut the cage-door at the upper end to keep him out of his neighbor's house, while the owner, an American wood-thrush, stood upon the roof, looking ruefully at this appropriation of his private property. Upon reaching the closed door the traveler jumped across to another cage nearly a foot away. This was a small affair occupied by an English goldfinch, who was then at home and not pleased by the call, as he at once made known. Golden-wing, however, perhaps with the idea of returning past insults from the saucy little finch, jerked himself all around the cage, inserting his long bill as though trying to reach something inside.
Having wearied of annoying the enemy, he sprang back to the ladder, descended by the table and trunk to the floor as he had gone up, without a moment's hesitation as to the way, which proved him to possess unusual intelligence. He did not take the trouble to climb down, but put his two feet together and jumped heavily like a child, a very odd movement for a bird. It was his constant habit in the cage to jump from the perch to the floor, and from one that was two inches above the tray he often stepped down backwards, which I never before saw a bird do.
When after three hours of exploration he returned to his home, the door was closed and the cage hung up. He was satisfied with his first outing, and refreshed himself with a nap at once. But the first thing the next morning he came down to his door and pecked the wires, looking over at me most intelligently, plainly asking to have it opened. He never mistook the position of the door, and if knocking had not the desired effect, he took hold of a wire and shook and rattled it till he was attended to.
It was interesting to see how familiar he suddenly became, when no effort had been made to induce him to be so. I never had so much trouble to win the confidence of a bird, but when won, the surrender was complete. He came up to me freely and allowed me to catch him in my hand without resistance, which is very uncommon. (Perhaps I ought to say that I do not try to tame my birds.) He displayed a child-like, confiding disposition, both in his unreasoning terror at first, and his unquestioning faith at last.
These investigations were conducted without a sound, for the bird was entirely silent while awake. But there came a day when he made a curious exhibition of his ability. It was the ninth of February, and the goldfinch was calling, as he often did. The woodpecker sat on his perch with wings held tightly against his sides, "humped" up as though he were high-shouldered. The plumage of his breast was puffed out so broadly that it came over the wings, and in a front view completely hid them, while the feathers of his shoulders were erected till he resembled a lady with a fur shoulder cape. Withal, his head was drawn down to his body, and his beak pointed upward at an angle of forty-five degrees. In this peculiar and absurd position he began a strange little song, ludicrously weak and low for a bird of his size. The tones were delivered in a sharp staccato style, like "picking" the strings of a violin very softly, several notes uttered with queer sidewise jerks of the head, and eyes apparently fixed on the goldfinch. After a phrase or two he scraped his bill violently and then began again.
This performance he varied by bowing his head many times, swaying his whole body from side to side, flirting his tail and shaking his wings. It was an extraordinary display, but whether his manner of making himself agreeable, or of expressing contempt, I could only guess. The goldfinch looked on with interest, though I think he understood it no better than I did; he seemed surprised, but rather pleased, for he repeated his calls, and the Golden-wing kept up the strange exhibition for some time.
I became greatly attached to my beautiful bird, which appeared, in the presence of his wise and wary room-mates, cat-birds and thrushes, like a big, clumsy, but affectionate baby. It was solely on his account and principally, I must confess, to try and surprise a wild bird at the above described entertainment so as to determine its character, that I wished to make acquaintance with its free relations, study their ways when at liberty in their own haunts, and have a glimpse if possible of the Golden-wing babies.
A year later I had the opportunity I so much desired of making acquaintance with the young of this family. I was sitting one morning on the edge of a deep ravine filled with trees, deeply engaged in the study of another bird, when suddenly a stranger came with an awkward flop against the trunk of a tree not ten feet from me. I saw in an instant that it was the infant I had looked for so long. He was exactly like the parents, with a somewhat shorter tail. I should hardly have suspected his youthfulness but for his clumsy movements, and the fact that he did not at once take flight, which a Golden-wing more experienced in the ways of human-kind would have done instantly. He seemed somewhat exhausted by his flight, and clung to the trunk, with soft dark eyes fixed upon me, ready to move if I did.
I did not; I sat motionless for half an hour and watched him. When somewhat rested he dodged around the other side of the trunk, and peeped at me through a fork in the branches. Then he scrambled upon a small branch, where he perched crosswise. But he had trouble to keep his balance in that position, so he climbed about till he found a limb fully two inches in diameter, on which he could rest in the favorite flicker attitude—lengthwise. Then with his head outward to the world at large, and his tail turned indifferently toward me,—whom he doubtless regarded as a permanent and lifeless feature of the landscape,—he settled himself, crouched flat against the bark, for a comfortable nap.
All this time I had been conscious of low Golden-wing talk about me; the familiar "wick-up! wick-up!" almost in a whisper, a softened "pe-auk!" from the ravine, and the more distant "laugh," so called. The infant on the tree heard too. He moved his head, listened and looked, but whether or not they were words of caution and advice from the wiser ones of his race, he refused to be frightened and did not move till I rose to leave him, when, greatly startled, he took flight across the ravine.
A STORMY WOOING.
Not an inch of his body is free from delight, Can he keep himself still if he would? Oh, not he! The music stirs in him like wind through a tree.
A STORMY WOOING.
If, as Ruskin says, "the bird is little more than a drift of the air, brought into form by plumes," the particular bit shaped into the form we call the orchard oriole must be a breath from a Western tornado, for a more hot-headed, blustering individual would be hard to find; and when this embodied hurricane, this "drift" of an all-destroying tempest, goes a-wooing, strange indeed are the ways he takes to win his mate, and stranger still the fact that he does win her in spite of his violence.
In a certain neighborhood, where I spent some time in the nesting season, studying a bird of vastly different character, orchard orioles were numerous, and in their usual fashion made their presence known by persistent singing around the house. For it must be admitted, whatever their defects of temper or manners, that they are most cheerful in song, the female no less than the male. First of the early morning bird chorus comes their song, loud, rich, and oft-repeated, though marred in the case of the male by the constant interpolation of harsh, scolding notes. Anywhere, everywhere, all day, in pouring rain, in high wind that silences nearly every bird voice, the orioles sing. One could not overlook them if he wished, so noisy, so restless, and so musical. Nor do they care to be unseen; they make no attempt at concealment. No oriole ever steals into a neighborhood in the quiet way of the cat-bird, silently taking an observation of its inhabitants before making himself obvious; on the contrary, all his deeds are before the public, even his family quarrels. He comes to a tree with a bustle, talking, scolding, making himself and his affairs the most conspicuous things in the neighborhood.
Many times he is most annoying. When following some shy bird to its nest, or moving down toward the grove where are the brooklet and the birds' bathing-place, no matter how quietly one may approach, footsteps deadened by thick sand and no rustling garments to betray, the orchard oriole is sure to know it. He is not the only bird to see a stranger, of course; the brown thrush is as quick as he, but he silently drops to the ground, if not already there, and disappears without a sound; the cardinal grosbeak slips down from his perch on the farther side and takes wing near the ground; the cat-bird, in the center of a thick shrub, noiseless as a shadow, flutters across the path and is gone; others do the same. The orchard oriole alone shouts the news to all whom it may concern in his loudest "chack! chack!" putting every one on his guard at once, and making the copse in a moment as empty as though no wing ever stirred its leaves.
On first noticing the ways of the birds about me on the occasion mentioned, I saw that there was some sort of a disturbance among them; scarcely ten minutes passed without a commotion, followed by a chase through the branches of a tree, one bird pursuing another so hotly that twigs bent and leaves parted as they passed, the one in advance often uttering a complaining cry, and the pursuer, a loud, harsh scold. Something exciting was evidently going on; some tragedy or possibly comedy, in this extremely sensational family. I was at once interested to see what it might be and how it would end; and in fact, before I knew it, I was as much absorbed in oriole matters as though no other feathered life was to be seen.
There were in the party two males, one in his second year, and therefore immature in coloring, being olive-yellow on the breast, brown on wings and tail, with a black mask over eyes and chin; the other was older, and a model of oriole beauty, being bright chestnut on the lower parts, with velvety black hood coming down on the breast. With them was one female, and though far from being friends, the three were never separated. The trouble seemed to be that both males were suitors, and notwithstanding the pretty little maid appeared to have a mind of her own and to prefer the younger of her wooers, the older plainly refused "to take no for an answer," and was determined to have his own way, bringing to bear on his courtship all the persistence of his race. In that particular quality of never giving up what he has set his heart on, the oriole cannot be excelled, if indeed he can be equaled in the bird world; for a time, and a long time, too, he is a bird of one idea, and by fair means or foul he will almost certainly accomplish his desire, whatever it may be.
Life never grew dull in the party mentioned; they were always talking, singing, or going for each other in the mad way already described. Sometimes the chase was between the males, but oftener the female flew for her life apparently, while the rough wooer followed closely with great noise and confusion. The affair ended occasionally with a cry of distress as though somebody was pecked, but several times she stood at bay and defied him with mouth open, feathers bristled up, wings fluttering, and every way quite ready to defend herself. Like other blusterers, on the first show of fight he calmed down, and the matter ended for the time. Peace lasted from ten to twenty minutes, during which they hopped about the tree, or hung head-downward on the Spanish moss, talking in low tones, though the male never omitted delivering a scolding note with every two or three pleasant ones. Her voice was charming, in a tender call, a gentle chatter, or a sweet song, unspoiled by the harsh tones of her partner. She was also a very pretty bird, bright yellow below, olive-yellow on the back, no black about the face, and legs and feet blue as the sky, and she was as graceful as she was beautiful.
Repose of manner was unknown to the orchard orioles. One was scarcely ever seen sitting or standing still. The song was given while moving, either flying or hopping about on the tree. If one did pause while it was uttered, the body jerked, and the head turned this way and that, as though he really was too restless to be perfectly quiet for a moment.
The most tempestuous times were when the younger suitor put himself forward and persuaded the fair yellow damsel to show him some slight preference. The venerable lover was not slow to resent this, and to fall like a hurricane upon the pretender, who disappeared like a dead leaf before the blast, and so quickly that he could not be followed—at least by anything less rapid than wings. Once, however, I saw a curious affair between the two suitors which was plainly a war-dance. It followed closely upon one of the usual flurries, conducted with perhaps louder cries and more vehemence than common, and began by both birds alighting on the grass about a foot apart, and so absorbed in each other as to be utterly oblivious of a spectator within ten feet of them on the balcony. No tiger out of the jungle could hold more rage and fury than animated those feathered atoms, bristled up even to the heads, which looked as if covered with velvet caps. They paused an instant, then crouched, jerked their tails, "teetered" and posed in several attitudes, ending each new movement with a solemn bow, perhaps equivalent to a handshake among larger fighters. What one did the other exactly copied, and both seemed to be trying to get one side of the opponent, so as to secure some advantage. To prevent this, each kept his face to the foe, and moved as he moved. Thus they passed down one side, then back, down the other and return, neither able to get the slightest superiority of position. It was extremely grotesque, and was continued several minutes, while I eagerly watched to see what would happen next. What did happen was entirely unexpected, a unique anti-climax, quite worthy of the undignified character of the bird. On a sudden, as by one consent, both flew opposite ways; both alighted in low trees about thirty feet apart, and each one sang a loud joyous song, as of victory!
In this turbulent way life went on for two or three weeks; I could not tell how long, for it was in full progress when I came. There was always a vulgar broil, often a furious encounter, stopping just short of coming to blows, and it seemed really doubtful if the orioles would succeed in settling their matrimonial affairs before summer. The third member of the belligerent party, the demure little object of all this agitation, was meekness and gentleness itself, never aggressive, but always flying before the furious onslaught of her would-be spouse. Why then did she not select her mate and thus end the trouble, which, according to the books, it must do?
Turning away from the more conspicuous males with their endless contests, and watching her closely, I saw that she was trying her best to do so. She plainly preferred the younger and less quarrelsome suitor, and often followed him off, bringing down upon herself in consequence the wrath of the elder, and instant pursuit, which ended in the disappearance of her chosen hero, and a forced endurance of the tyrant's presence, till it appeared that she would have to "marry him to get rid of him," as our plain-spoken grandmothers characterized a similar situation in human affairs.
When these birds could spare time from their own absorbing matters, they were very inquisitive in the affairs of their neighbors. After the mocking-bird babies were out, the orioles often visited them, while the parents were absent, for no reason that I could discover but to see what they were like, and how they got on, for nothing about them was disturbed. If, however, an oriole was found by one of the old mocking-birds perched on the edge of the nest, he was driven away with a piece of mocking-bird mind on the subject of meddlers. Likewise they frequently paid visits to a nuthatch colony at the top of a tall pine-tree. Whether more aggressive among these smaller birds, or not, could not be seen. But the facts were that upon an oriole's disappearing through those heavy pine branches, away above our heads, there instantly arose a great outcry in the querulous nuthatch voice, and the intruder returned to the lower world with some precipitation, while gentle, complaining sounds came from the invaded territory for some time. So, too, in different degree the birds showed interest in me, peering down between the leaves of the tree in which they spent most of their time, and making remarks or expressing opinions, climbing—which they literally did—to the end of a twig, stretching up tall to look over the top and stare at me, or when flying slowly past, hovering a moment just in front of me with perfect fearlessness and earnest attention to my pursuits.
At length the crisis in the oriole matters came, as come it must, and not long after the war-dance that has been described. The season was advanced and nesting time already begun. In fact, it was ended in several families; mocking-birds were about ready to fly, young chipping sparrows peeped from every tuft of grass, baby bluebirds were trying their wings at their doors, the yellow-throated warbler was stuffing her youngsters on the next tree, and the late kingbirds had nearly finished their nests. Whether a pitched battle at last settled the dispute, whether the modest little dame united with her chosen mate against the common enemy, or whether perchance—though this is not likely—the elder bird tired of his useless warfare, will never be known, for the whole matter was settled before we mortals were out of bed, in the magic morning hours when so many interesting things go on in bird and beast life. When I came out, I saw at once that a decision had been reached. The younger bird had won his bride, and with much talk and love-making the happy pair were busying themselves about a building spot. This first day of their honeymoon was not, however, very peaceful; old troubles are not so soon forgotten, and the discarded suitor found it hard to believe that the repulse was final and he really should not have his own way. He frequently made his appearance in the old scenes, making himself agreeable in the usual way; but the newly wedded were now a pair, and when both flung themselves upon him he recognized at last the inevitable, no longer resented it, and left them in peace.
With much talk and discussion the tree that had been the scene of the stormy wooing was selected for the homestead, and the young wife at once set to work upon the foundation, while her spouse in his new role of lord and master stood on a higher twig and gave his opinions; much advice, no doubt, and plenty of instruction. I doubt his mastery, however, for I noticed that, though meek, madam had a mind of her own and an orchard oriole's persistence in carrying out her plans. He talked, it is true, blustered and strutted around, but she worked quietly, steadily, and in a business-like way, utterly oblivious of him.
During this day, too, even this first day, not five hours after he had tried to coax the bride away, the elderly suitor came back from some unknown quarter, with a brand-new wife of his own; precipitation worthy of the vulgar house-sparrow of our city streets, which these birds also resemble in their constant broils. That naturally put a complete end to further dispute over sweethearts; but they could not change their nature, and I observed that each young husband had a vast amount of fault to find, much scolding and grumbling. Happily it did not seem to disconcert the little wives; they sang as sweetly, and worked as steadily as though they were used to it, and expected nothing better, which was well for them.
The elder oriole and his mate soon settled in another place, and I saw them no more, but I was sorry to see upon what tree the young pair decided to build, for a kingbird had an unfinished nest in one of the lower branches, and two families so aggressive would make a lively neighborhood no doubt. Hostilities began indeed on the first day. Watching the oriole at her building, I caught the pretty innocent-looking creature stealing material from the kingbird's nest, while her virtuous spouse perched himself on the upper branch of the tree, exactly as if on the watch for returning owners. In a low tone he talked to her as she entered the uncompleted nest, worked busily a moment, then appeared on the edge with a soft white feather, gathered it into a convenient shape, and flew with it in her beak to the upper branch. Twice afterward I saw that performance repeated, and each time it was a white feather taken. On one occasion the kingbird was at home. There was a sharp cry of distress, a bustle, and in a moment Madam Oriole flew off with a feather, while the outraged owner stood on a neighboring branch and uttered two or three plaintive cries. Considering the size and the belligerent nature of the kingbird, I was astonished, but exactly thus it happened.
I greatly wished to stay and see the result, for I had confidence enough in the bravery of the kingbirds to be sure that the end was not yet. Also, I longed to watch the restless pair whose ups and downs I had found so interesting. I should like to see the orchard oriole in the role of a father; a terribly fussy one he would be without doubt. Above all, I most desired to see the infant orioles, to know if they begin their quarrels in their narrow cradle, and if their first note is a scold. But the troubles of this courtship had, like the wars of Augustus and Arabella in a three-volume novel, consumed so much time that there was none left for post-nuptial chronicles, and I was obliged to leave them with a neighborhood quarrel on hand which promised full employment for the head of the family while his little mate was sitting.
O hark to the brown thrush! hear how he sings! Now he pours the dear pain of his gladness! What a gush! and from out what golden springs! What a rage of how sweet madness!
D. A. WASSON.
"Flutterbudget" is the one expressive word that exactly characterizes a certain brown thrush, or thrasher, the subject of a year's study. This bird is perhaps the only restless creature that bears the name of thrush, and he is totally unlike the rest of his family, having neither dignity, composure, nor repose of manner. My brown thrush, however, was exceedingly interesting in his own way, if only as a study of perpetual motion, of the varieties of shape and attitude possible to him, and the fantastic tricks upon wing of which he was capable. One never tired of watching him, for he was erratic in every movement, always inventing some new sort of evolution, or a fresh way of doing the old things, and scarcely a moment at rest. A favorite exercise was flying across the room, planting his feet flatly against the side wall, turning instantly and flying back. This he often did a dozen times in succession. His feet were always "used to save his head" (contrary to our grandmothers' teachings). When he made the usual attempt to fly through the window on his first outing in the room, he went feet first against it, and thus saved himself a bumped head. His movements were abrupt in the extreme, and always so unexpected that he frequently threw the whole feathered family into a panic, apparently without the least intention of doing so. Standing beside the cage of another bird, he would wheel quickly and face the other way, absolutely nothing more, but doing this in a manner so startling that the occupant of the cage scolded roundly. He specially delighted in clambering all over the cage of a goldfinch, acting as if he should tear it in pieces, and greatly annoying the small bird. He often flew up the side of the window casing, as though climbing it like a ladder, his feet touching it now and then; and he did the same on the curtains of coarse net. Again he flew across the room before the three windows, turning to each one in turn, planted his feet squarely on the linen shade, as on the wall above mentioned, and without a pause passed to the end of the room, and touched it with his feet in the same strange way. Often when standing for the moment perfectly still before a window, he suddenly flew up, put both feet in this unbirdlike way against the window-shade, turned and went to his cage. In like manner he came in contact with a cage, the books on the shelves, the back of a chair, or any piece of furniture, taking from that point a new direction. When startled he instantly bounded into the air as though the ground were hot under his feet, and often turned a corner or two before he came down. In the middle of his most lovely song he was quite likely, without the least warning, to make a mad dash somewhere, turn a sharp corner, dive in another direction, and alight on the spot he had left a moment before, and all in so spasmodic a way that every bird was panic-stricken.
The thrasher was exceedingly wary, and nothing was droller than his manner of approaching anything, whether a worm I had thrown on the matting for him, or the bathing-dish. In the case of the worm, the moment he saw his prey—which I selected for its liveliness—he came to a nearer perch, and stood there a few minutes, posturing, shaking his plumage in great excitement, looking at me and then at the tempting object. Very soon he dropped to the floor and started towards the worm in the funniest way; running a few steps, stopping short and turning half round, ready for instant flight, flirting his feathers with a great rustle, turning an anxious eye on me, then on the wriggling attraction, running a step or two, and repeating the performance. In this way he advanced very gradually till near enough to half encircle his prey; or to run and hop sideways as though to describe a circle, turning away at each pause as before, all the time jerking and fluttering in intense agitation, and always keeping an eye on me. Not that he was in the least afraid of me; it was simply his sensational way of doing everything. When he finally came within reach of the worm, he snatched it, and ran as though the enemy were upon him.
His performances before entering the bath were even more amusing. The bathing-dish, a broad, deep plate, stood upon a towel on a table. The bird alighted on the table, and began first to peck the towel, pulling the fringe, working at any loose thread he discovered, and industriously enlarging any small hole he chanced to find. In doing thus he often turned over the edge, when he sprang back as though he had seen a ghost. Recovering from the shock, he circled around the dish with little hops, occasionally giving a gentle peck at the edge of the dish, or a snip at the water with his beak. Thus he waltzed around the bath perhaps forty times, now and then going so far as to jump up on the edge, make a dash at the water, and back off as if it were hot, or to give a hop into the middle of the water and out again so quickly that one could hardly believe he touched it. When, after all this ceremony, he did go in to stay, he made most thorough work, splashing in a frantic way, as though he had but a moment to stay, and in one minute getting more soaked than many birds ever do. After this short dip he dashed out, flew to a perch, and in the maddest way jerked and shook himself dry; pulling his feathers through his beak with a snap, and making a peculiar sound which I can liken only to the rubbing of machinery that needs oil.
The brown thrush was never so violent and eccentric in movement as just after his bath. Allowing himself often but a moment's hasty shake of plumage, he darted furiously across the room, startling every bird, and alighting no one could guess where. Then, after more jerks and rapid shakings, he flung himself as unexpectedly in another direction, while at every fresh turn birds scattered wildly, everywhere, anywhere, out of his way, bringing up in the most unaccustomed places; as, for instance, a dignified bird, who never went to the floor, coming to rest under the bed, or a ground-lover flattened against the side of a cage. All this disturbance seemed to please the thrasher, for he had a spice of mischief in his composition. A never failing diversion was teasing a goldfinch. He began his pranks by entering the cage and hammering on the tray, or digging into the seed in a savage way that sent it flying out in a shower, which result so entertained him that I was forced to close the door when the owner was out. This the thrush resented, and he next took to jumping against the side of the cage, clinging a moment, then bouncing off with so much force that the cage rocked violently. Then he placed himself on the perch by the door, and pounded, and pulled, and jerked, and shook the door, till, if the owner were home, he was nearly wild. Having exhausted that amusement, he jumped on the top and in some way jarred the cage roughly. To protect it I made a cover of paper, but, contrary to my intentions, this afforded the rogue a new pleasure, for he soon found that by tramping over it he could make a great noise, and he quickly learned the trick of tearing the paper into pieces, and uncovering the little fellow, who, by the way, was not in the least afraid, but simply enraged and insulted, and when outside stood and faced his tormentor, blustering and scolding him well.
Tearing paper was always amusing to the brown thrush. I have seen him take his stand near the wall, peck at the paper till he found a weak spot where it would yield and break, then take the torn edge in his bill and deliberately tear it a little. It was "snatching a fearful joy," however, for the noise always startled him. First came a little tear, then a leap one side, another small rent, another panic; and so he went on till he had torn off a large piece which dropped to the floor, while I sat too much interested in the performance to think of saving the paper. (The room and its contents are always secondary to the birds' comfort and pleasure, in my thoughts.) A newspaper on the floor furnished him amusement for hours, picking it to pieces, tearing pictures, from which he always first pecked the faces, dragging the whole about the floor to hear it rattle and to scare himself with. A pile of magazines on a table made a regular playground for him, his plan being to push and pull at the back of one till he got it loose from the rest, and then work at it till it fell to the floor. He never failed to reduce the pile to a disreputable-looking muss.