The bird was as fond of hammering as any woodpecker, on the bottom of his cage, on perches, on the floor, even on his food; and his leaps or bounds without the apparent help of his wings were extraordinary. Not infrequently I have seen him spring into the air just high enough to see me over my desk,—three feet at least,—probably to satisfy himself as to my whereabouts, and drop instantly back to his work or play.
This amusing bird was also intelligent. He understood perfectly well what I wanted when I spoke to him; that is, he had a guilty conscience when in mischief that translated my tone to him. Also he recognized instantly a bird out of place, as, for instance, one on the floor which usually frequented the perches and higher parts of the room; and having taken upon himself the office of regulator, he always went after the bird thus out of his accustomed beat. When I talked to the thrasher, he answered me not only with a rough-breathing sound, a sort of prolonged "ha-a-a," but with his wings as well. Of course this is not uncommon in birds, but none that I have seen use these members so significantly as he did. His way was to lift the wing nearest me, sometimes very slightly, sometimes to a perpendicular position, but only one wing, and only after I made a remark. This exhibition was curious and interesting, and I often prolonged my talk to see the variety he could give to this simple motion. His wings were always expressive, in alighting in a new place, or where he suspected there might be danger or a surprise; the moment his feet touched he lifted one or both wings quite high, dropping them at once.
A more lithe body than that of the brown thrush I have never seen in feathers; he could assume as many attitudes as he had emotions. He often stood on a perch and postured for a long time, as if greatly excited and meditating some mad deed, and I must confess he usually carried out the intention. Not only was he able to put his body into all possible shapes, but he had extraordinary command of his feathers. He could erect them on any one part alone, on the top of the head, the shoulders, the back, or the chin. He often raised the feathers just above the tail, letting that member hang straight down, giving him the appearance of being chopped square off.
The song of this bird is well known and quite celebrated; indeed, in the Southern States he is called the French mocking-bird, as only second to the mocking-bird proper. My bird never sang above a whisper, one may say; that is, he never opened his mouth to let out the sound, though he was extremely fond of singing, indulging in it by the hour. He hardly paused for eating, or flying, or hopping around on the floor, but dropped sweet notes in between the mouthfuls, and kept up the warble through all movements.
As dusk came on the brown thrush began a wonderful series of postures, more peculiar and varied than one would suppose possible to so large and apparently clumsy a bird. Sometimes he stretched up very tall, then instantly crouched as if about to spring; one moment he turned his head downward as though to dive off, then wheeled and faced the other way; now he drew his body out long to a point, head and tail exactly on a level, then head and tail thrust up, making his back the shape of a bow; at one time he threw his head back as though about to turn a back somersault, then scraped his bill, shook himself out, and made the harsh breathing I have spoken off; in another moment he spread his tail like a fan, and instantly closed it again; then turned his head on one side very far, while his tail hung out the other side, and in this odd position jerked himself along by short jumps the whole length of his perch. Between the postures and on every occasion he scraped his bill violently. Next began movements: first he ran down his three perches, across the floor, and hopped to the upper one from the outside, touching his feet to the wires as he went, so rapidly that my eyes could not follow him; then he alighted on the perch with a graceful flop of one wing, sometimes also bowing his head several times, and uttering the breathing sound each time. Again he jumped from the upper perch to one directly under it, and returned the same way by a very peculiar motion: standing on the lower perch, he turned his head over his shoulder, and sprang back and up at the same time, landing in exactly the same position on the perch above, with perfect ease and grace.
Nothing pleased the thrasher more than watching other birds; he observed them closely, especially liking to stand on top of a cage and see the life below,—an agitated life it was apt to be when he was there. Thus he sometimes stood on the goldfinch's cage and noticed every motion with great interest, yet with an indescribably ironical air, as if he said, "My dear sir, is that the way you eat?" He showed particular interest in seed-eating birds, apparently not understanding how they could enjoy such food. Though full of bluster and pretense, he was as gentle as any bird in the room, never presumed on his size as the biggest, and, though liking to tease and worry, never really touching one. The smallest only needed to stand and face him to see that it was all bluster and fun.
All this until spring began to stir his blood and tempt him occasionally, after long posturing and many feints, to deliver a gentle dig at a neighbor's ribs. Now, too, he began to show interest in out-of-doors, standing on the window sash and looking out, which is a familiar sign that a bird's time to depart has come. In his case I did not consider it necessary to carry him to the park to liberate him, for I was sure he could take care of the sparrows and protect himself—and so it proved. When he found himself suddenly on a tall tree in the street, and before he recovered from his surprise, those disreputable birds gathered around him to see what he was like. They soon found out; he quickly recovered himself, made a wild dash that scattered them like leaves before the wind, and then planted himself on a branch to await another attempt. But sparrows, though saucy, are knowing, and not one came near him again. They had quite satisfied their curiosity, and after a few moments' waiting the brown thrush went on his way rejoicing.
"O WONDROUS SINGERS."
In the swamp in secluded recesses A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
* * * * *
Sing on! sing on, you gray-brown bird! Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour Your chant from the bushes;
O liquid and free and tender! O wild and loose to my soul! O wondrous singer!
"O WONDROUS SINGERS."
I feel considerable reluctance in approaching the subject of my small thrushes. None but a poet should speak of them—so beautiful, so enchanting in song. Yet I cannot bear to let their lovely lives pass in silence; therefore if they must needs remain unsung, they shall at least be chronicled.
There were two: one the gray-cheeked thrush, the other the veery or Wilson's, and they passed a year in my house, filling it with a marvelous rippling music like the sweet babble of a brook over stones; like the gentle sighing of the wind in pine-trees; like other of nature's enchanting sounds, which I really must borrow a poet's words to characterize:
"O liquid and free and tender! O wild and loose to my soul! O wondrous singer."
The gray-cheeked, most charming in every look and motion, uttered his notes in a free sweep or crescendo, which began low, gathered force as he went on, and then gradually died out; all in one long slur, without a defined or staccato note, making a wonderful resemblance to wind sounds, as Emerson expresses it:
"His music was the Southwind's sigh."
The song of the veery was quite different, low, rapid, interspersed with a louder, wild-sounding cry, or, as aptly described by a listener, like the gurgling sounds made by blowing through a tube into soft water, with occasional little explosions. The soft, whispered warble of a brown thrush added a certain under-tone which combined and harmonized both these, forming with them a rhapsody of a rippling, bubbling character impossible to describe, but constantly reminding one of running streams, and gentle water-falls, and coming nearer to "put my woods in song" than any other bird-notes whatever. Neither of the performers opened his mouth, so that the trio was very low, a true whisper-song.
It was somewhat curious that with one exception all the birds in the room through these months sang whisper-songs also, without opening the bill. There were six of them, and every one delighted in singing; the three thrushes, a bluebird, a female orchard oriole, and a Mexican clarin. To the thrushes, music seemed necessary to life; hour after hour they stood on their respective perches across the room, puffed out into balls, "pouring out their souls," and entrancing us not only with their suggestive melody, but with graceful and poetical movements, and a beauty of look and bearing that moved one deeply. During the aria both birds stood motionless, one with wings drooping, and accenting every note, the other with tail slightly jerking for the same purpose.
In character no less than in song the birds differed; bright, active and high-spirited, the gray-cheeked delighted in the freedom of the room, feared nothing, came upon the desk freely, and calmly met one's eyes with his own, brave free soul that he was, while his vis-a-vis was timid and shy, could not be induced to leave the shelter of his home though the door stood open all day. He never resented the intrusion of a neighbor, nor disputed the possession of his own dish.
Almost as interesting as his song was a bewitching dance with which the gray-cheeked charmed every one fortunate enough to see him. His chosen hour was the approach of evening, when, with body very erect and head thrown up in ecstasy, he lifted his wings high above his back, fluttering them rapidly with a sound like soft patter of summer rain, while he moved back and forth on his perch with the daintiest of little steps and hops: now up, now down, now across the cage, with gentle noise of feet and wings. No music accompanied it, and none was needed—it was music itself. Not only did he dance away the long hours of twilight, till so dark he could not be seen, but he greeted the dawn in the same way; long before any other bird stirred, before the hideous morning call of the first sparrow in the street, the soft flutter of his wings, the light patter of his feet was heard. In the night also, if gas was lighted, however dimly, dancing began and was continued in the darkness, long after the light was out and every other feather at rest. A sudden light stopped the motion, but revealed the dancer agitated, stirred, with soft dark eyes fixed upon the observer. This dance was not an attempt or indication of a desire to escape, as I am sure for several reasons. I can tell the instant that longing for freedom sets in. It was a fresh sign of the strange, mysterious emotion with which all thrushes greet the rising and setting of the sun.
The singular use of the feet by this bird was very peculiar, and not confined to his dancing hours. While standing on the edge of the bathing-dish, longing, yet dreading to enter the water, on alighting upon an unaccustomed perch, or venturing on to the desk, many times a day he took the little steps, lifting first one, then the other foot very slightly, and bringing it down with a sound without changing his position. It seemed to be an evidence of excitement, as another bird might exhibit by a quivering of the wings. The veery was also a dancer, but in a different way. He fanned his wings violently and moved back and forth across the top of a cage, but always in daylight, and then only on the rare occasions when, by placing his food outside, he was coaxed from his cage.
Bathing was—next to singing—the dear delight of the gray-cheeked's life, yet no bird ever had more misgivings about taking the fatal plunge. His first movement on leaving the cage was to go to the bath, around which he hovered, now this side, now that, one moment on the perch above, the next on the edge of the dish, plainly longing to be in, yet the mere approach of the smallest bird in the room drove him away. Not that he was afraid, he was not in the least a coward; he met everybody and everything with the dignity and bravery of a true thrush. Neither was it that he was disabled when wet, which makes some birds hesitate; he was never at all disordered by his bath, and however long he soaked, or thoroughly he spattered, his plumage remained in place and he was perfectly able to fly at once. It appeared simply that he could not make up his mind to go in. Then too, it soon became apparent that he noticed his reflection in the water. He often stood on the edge after bathing, as well as before, looking intently upon the image. Before the glass he did the same, looking earnestly and in a low tone "uttering his thoughts to the ideal bird which he fancied he saw before him." Indeed, I think this ideal thrush was a great comfort to him.
Once having decided to go into the bath he enjoyed it exceedingly, though in an unusual way, fluttering and splashing vigorously for a moment, then standing motionless up to his body in the water, not shaking or pluming himself, not alarmed, but quietly enjoying the soaking. After several fits of splashing alternated with soaking, he went to a perch and shook and plumed himself nearly dry, and just when one would think he had entirely finished, he returned to the dish, and began again—hesitating on the brink, coquetting with the "ideal thrush" in the water, and in fact doing the whole thing over again.
My bird had a genuine thrush's love of quiet and dislike of a crowd, preferred unfrequented places to alight on, and was quite ingenious in finding them. The ornamental top of a gas-fixture a few inches below the ceiling, which was cup-shaped and nearly hid him, was a favorite place. So was also the loose edge of a hanging cardboard map which, having been long rolled, hung out from the wall like a half-open scroll. This he liked best, for no other bird ever approached it, and here he passed much time swinging, as if he enjoyed the motion which he plainly made efforts to keep up. His plan was to fly across the room and alight suddenly upon it, when, of course it swayed up and down with his weight. The moment it came to a rest, he flew around the room in a wide circle and came down again heavily, holding on with all his might, and keeping his balance with wings and tail. He enjoyed it so well that he often swung for a long time.
Later he found another snug retreat where no bird ever intruded. He discovered it in this way: one day, on being suddenly startled by an erratic dash around the room of the brown thrush, which scattered the smaller birds like leaves before the wind, he brought up under the bed on the floor. The larger bird had evidently marked the place of his retreat, for he followed him, and in his mad way rushed under when the gray-cheeked disappeared. The bedstead was a light iron one, high from the floor, so that all this was plainly seen. No one being in sight, the brown thrush came out and turned to his regular business of stirring up the household while the little thrush was not to be seen, and perfect silence seemed to indicate that he was not there at all. After some search, aided by an indiscreet movement on his part, he was found perched on the framework, between the mattress and the wall. This narrow retreat, apparently discovered by accident, soon became a favorite retiring place when he did not care for society.
This interesting bird, with all his dignity, had a playful disposition. Nothing pleased him better than rattling and tearing to bits a newspaper or the paper strips over a row of books, although he had to stand on the latter while he worked at it; and notwithstanding it not only rustled, but disturbed his footing as well, he was never discouraged. A more violent jerk than usual sometimes startled him so that he bounded six or eight inches into the air in his surprise, but he instantly returned to the play and never rested till he had picked holes, torn pieces out, and reduced it to a complete wreck.
All through the long winter this charming thrush, with his two neighbors, delighted the house with his peculiar and matchless music, and endeared himself by his gentle and lovely disposition. No harsh sound was ever heard from him, there was no intrusion upon the rights of others, and no vulgar quarrels disturbed his serene soul. But as spring began to stir his blood he changed a little; he grew somewhat belligerent, refused to let any one alight in his chosen places, and even drove others away from his side of the room. Now, too, he added to his already melting song an indescribable trill, something so spiritual, so charged with the wildness of the woods, that no words—even of a poet—can do it justice. Now, too, he began to turn longing glances out of the window, and evidently his heart was no longer with us. So, on the first perfect day in May he was taken to a secluded nook in a park and his door set open. His first flight was to a low tree, twenty feet from the silent spectator, who waited, anxious to see if his year's captivity had unfitted him for freedom.
Perching on the lowest branch, the thrush instantly crouched in an attitude of surprise and readiness for anything, which was common with him, his bill pointed up at an angle of forty-five degrees, head sunk in the shoulders, and tail standing out stiffly, thus forming a perfectly straight line from the point of his beak to the tip of his tail. There he stood, perfectly motionless, apparently not moving so much as an eyelid for twenty minutes, trying to realize what had happened to him and in the patient, deliberate manner of a thrush to adjust himself to his new conditions. In the nook were silence and delicious odors of the woods; from a thick shrub on one side came the sweet erratic song of a cat-bird, and at a little distance the rich organ-tones of the wood-thrush. All these entered the soul of the emancipated bird; he listened, he looked, and at last he spoke, a low, soft, "wee-o." That broke the spell, he drew himself up, hopped about the tree, flew to a shrub, all the time posturing and jerking wings and tail in extreme excitement and no doubt happiness to the tips of his toes. At last he dropped to the ground and fell to digging and reveling in the soft loose earth with enthusiasm. The loving friend looking on was relieved; this was what she had waited for, to be assured that he knew where to look for supplies, and though she left his familiar dish full of food where he could see it in case of accident, she came away feeling that he had not been incapacitated for a free life by his months with her.
One more glimpse of him made it clear also that he could fly as well as his wild neighbors, and removed the last anxiety about him. A wood-thrush, after noticing the stranger for some minutes, finally braved the human presence and made a rush for the little fellow about half his size. Whether war or welcome moved him was not evident, for away they flew across the nook, not more than a foot apart, now sweeping low over the grass, then mounting higher to pass over the shrubs that defined it. A hundred feet or more the chase continued, and then the smaller bird dropped into a low bush, and the larger one passed on.
Then lonely, with empty cage and a happy heart-ache, his friend turned away and left the beautiful bird to his fate, assured that he was well able to supply his needs and to protect himself—in a word, to be free.
A BIRD OF AFFAIRS.
But now the sun is rising calm and bright; The jay makes answer as the magpie chatters, And all the air is filled with pleasant sound of waters, All things that love the sun are out of doors.
A BIRD OF AFFAIRS.
One of the most interesting birds I have studied was a blue-jay; I may say is, for he stands at this moment not six feet from me, his whole mind intent upon the business of driving small corks through a hole which they snugly fit. He takes the cork, as he does everything, lengthwise, and turns it about till he gets the smaller end outside; then pushes it into the hole and pounds it, delivering straight and rapid strokes with his iron beak, till it is not only driven up to the head, but, since he has found out that he can do so, till it drops out on the other side, when, after an interested glance to see where it has fallen, he instantly goes to the floor for another, and repeats the performance. Hammering, indeed, is one of his chief pleasures, and no woodpecker, whose special mission it is supposed to be, can excel him; in excitement, in anger, when suffering from ennui or from embarrassment, he always resorts to that exercise to relieve his feelings. I have thought sometimes he did it to hear the noise and to amuse himself, in which case it might be called drumming.
Not only does my bird occupy himself with corks, but with perches and the woodwork of his cage, with so great success that the former have to be frequently renewed, and the latter looks as though rats had nibbled it. The deliberate way in which he goes to work to destroy his cage is amusing, lifting the end of a perch and quietly throwing it to the floor, or pounding and splitting off a big splinter of the soft pine and carefully hiding it. To give him liberty, as I have, is simply to enlarge the field of his labors, and furnish him congenial employment from morning to night, the happiest and busiest member of the household. He tries everything: the covers of cardboard boxes, always choosing the spot that is weakest at the corner, and pounding till it is ruined; the cane seats of chairs, which he selects with equal judgment, and never leaves till he has effected a breach; a delicate work-basket, at which he labors with enthusiasm, driving his pickaxe bill into it and cutting a big hole. It is most curious to see him set himself to pick a hole, for instance, in a close-woven rattan chair, or a firm piece of matting stretched upon the floor. Selecting, by some esoteric wisdom, the most vulnerable spot, he pushes and pounds and pokes till he gets the tip of his beak under a strand, and then pulls and jerks and twists till he draws it out of its place. After this the task is easy, and he spends hours over it, ending with a hole in the matting three or four inches in diameter; for he is never discouraged, and his persistence of purpose is marvelous. Books are a special object of his attentions; not only does he peck the backs as they stand on the shelves, till he can insert his beak and tear off a bit, but if he finds one lying down he thrusts the same useful instrument into the edge, slightly open so as to enclose two or three leaves, and then, with a dexterous twist of the head, jerks out a neat little three-cornered piece. Thus he goes on, and after a short absence from the room I have found a great litter of white bits, and my big dictionary curiously scalloped on the edges. He is able to pound up as well as down, crouching, turning his head back, and delivering tremendous blows on the very spot he wishes, and so accurately that he easily cuts a thread, holding its strands under one toe.
But hammering, though a great pleasure, is not his dearest delight. The thing for which, apparently, he came into the world is to put small objects out of sight,—bury them, in fact. No doubt the business for which Nature fitted him, and which in freedom he would follow with enthusiasm, is the planting of trees; to his industry we probably owe many an oak and nut tree springing up in odd places. In captivity, poor soul, he does the best he can to fulfill his destiny. When he has more of any special dainty than he can eat at the moment, as meat, or bread and milk, he hides it at the back of his tray, or in the hole already spoken of in connection with the corks; and when outside, nothing can be droller than the air of concern with which he goes around the floor, picking up any small thing he finds, left purposely for him, a burnt match, a small key, stray pins, or a marble, and seeks the very best and most secluded spot in the room in which to hide it. A pin he takes lengthwise in his mouth, which he closes as though he had swallowed it, as at first I feared he had. He has no doubt about the best place for that; he long ago decided that between the leaves of a book is safest. So he proceeds at once to find a convenient volume, and thrusts the pin far in out of sight. A match gives him the most trouble. He tries the cracks under the grooves in the moulding of the doors, the base board, between the matting and the wall, or under a rocker; in each place he puts it carefully, and pounds it in, then hops off, giving me one of the
"sidelong glances wise Wherewith the jay hints tragedies,"
attempting to look unconcerned, as if he had not been doing anything. But if he sees that he is observed, or the match is too plainly in sight, he removes it and begins again, running and hopping around on the floor with the most solemn, business-like air, as though he had the affairs of nations on his shoulders, the match thrust nearly its whole length into his mouth. The place usually decided upon is an opening between the breadths of matting. It is amusing when he chances to get hold of a box of matches, accidentally left open, for he feels the necessity and importance of disposing of each one, and is busy and industrious in proportion to the task before him. It is not so pleasing, however, when, in his hammering, he sets one off, as he often does; for they are "parlor matches," and light with a small explosion, which frightens him half out of his wits, and me as well, lest he set the house afire. The business of safely and securely secreting one match will frequently occupy him half an hour. He finds the oddest hiding-places, as in a caster between the wheel and its frame; up inside the seat of a stuffed chair, to reach which he flies up on to the webbing and goes in among the springs; in the side of my slipper while on my foot; in the loop of a bow; in the plaits of a ruffle; under a pillow. Often when I get up, a shower of the jay's treasures falls from various hiding-places about my dress,—nails, matches, shoe-buttons, and others; and I am never sure that I shall not find soft, milk-soaked bread in my slipper. But the latest discovered and most annoying of his receptacles is in my hair. He delights in standing on the high back of my rocking-chair, or on my shoulder, and he soon discovered several desirable hiding-places conveniently near, such as my ear, and under the loosely dressed hair. I did not object to his using these, but when he attempted to tuck away some choice thing between my lips I rebelled. I never expect to find a keyhole that he can reach, free from bread crumbs, and the openings of my waste-basket are usually decorated with objects half driven in.
The jay shows unbounded interest in everything. Every sound and every fresh sight arouses him instantly; his crest comes up, his feathers fluff out, and he is on tiptoe to see what will come next. He is remarkably discriminating among people, and takes violent likes and dislikes on the instant. Some persons, without any reason that I can discover, he salutes on their first appearance with an indescribable cry, like "obble! obble! obble!" At others he squawks madly. On one occasion he took an intense dislike to a lady, of whom birds generally are very fond, and he made a peculiar display of rage, squawking and screaming at her, raising his crest, stamping, snapping his beak, giving vicious digs at the side of the cage, as though he would eat her if he could reach her. And although he often saw her, and she tried her best to win him, he always showed the same spirit, going so far, when out of his cage, as to show fight, fly up at her, peck her savagely, and chase her to the door when she left. Again, a lady came in with her baby, and he at once singled out the infant as his enemy, fixing a very wicked glance on it, but in perfect silence. He jumped back and forth as if mad to get out, and sat with open mouth, panting as if exhausted, with eyes immovably turned to the baby. He would not pay the slightest attention to any one else, nor answer me when I spoke, which was very unusual, till they left the room, when the moment the door closed behind them he began rapidly, as if to make up for lost time. Some visitors whom he fancies, he receives in silence, but with slightly quivering wings; only the very few he loves best are greeted with a low, sweet, and very peculiar chatter, which he keeps up as long as he is talked to.
Investigating everything in the room is one of my bird's greatest pleasures, and most attractive of all he finds the drawer of my desk, on the edge of which he stands, delighted and bewildered by the variety before him. Great would be the havoc if I were not there; and the curious thing about it is that he will pull things over carelessly, with one eye on me, to see if I object. If, on touching some particular thing, he sees that I do not approve,—and he recognizes my sentiment as quickly as a bright child would,—that thing, and that only, he will have. At once he snatches it and flies away across the room, and I may chase him in vain. He regards it as a frolic got up for his amusement, and no child ever equaled him in dodging; he cannot be driven, and if cornered he uses his wings. I simply put my wits against his, follow him about till he has to drop his load to breathe, when a sudden start sends him off, and I secure it. If I cover up anything, he knows at once it is some forbidden treasure, and devotes all his energy and cunning, which are great, to uncovering and possessing himself of it. He opens any box by delivering sharp blows under the edge of the cover, and hides my postage stamps in books and magazines. He hops around the floor in a heavy way, as often sideways as straight, and holds his toes as close together as though he had worn tight boots all his life. If startled, he bounds up into the air in the oddest way, a foot or two, or even more, generally turning half round, and coming down with his head the other way. If much alarmed he will bounce up in this way half a dozen times in quick succession, and should he happen to be on a table at the time, he usually ends by landing on the floor. His alighting after any flight is most singular: he comes to the floor in a crouching position, legs sprawled, body horizontal and nearly touching the matting, looking like a bird gone mad; then instantly springs up six or eight inches, half turns, and stands upright, crest erect, and looking excited, almost frightened. If much disturbed he comes down with wings half open, tail held up, and every feather awry, as if he were out in a gale, uttering at the same time a loud squawk. He is a most expert catcher, not only seizing without fail a canary seed thrown to him, but even fluttering bits of falling paper, the hardest of all things to catch.
The blue-jay is a bird of opinions about most things, and able to express himself quite clearly; as, for example, when he found himself under a chair without rounds, on which he likes to perch, he stood and looked around on every side, and made a low, complaining cry, plainly a protest against so unnatural a chair; and again, when he scolded at the rain that came in sudden gusts against the window, or charged furiously at the crack under a door when he heard sweeping outside. In general he is very quiet when one is in the room, but the moment the door closes behind the last person his voice is heard,—whistling exactly like a boy, calling, squawking, and occasionally uttering a sweet, though not loud song, which is varied by a sound like rubbing a cork against glass. The most quiet approach silences him. When under strong emotion he may squawk or scream before spectators, but he never whistles or sings when he knows any one is in the room. When out of his sight and so long silent that he has forgotten me, I have now and then heard the song.
The funniest thing this knowing fellow does is to stamp his feet, and it is a genuine expression of impatience or displeasure. When I take something away from him or he thinks I mean to do so, or refuse him something he wants, he stands still and jerks his feet in such a way that they stamp with a loud sound, as if they were of iron. It is very droll. In serious anger, he adds to this, bowing and curtsying by bending the legs, snapping the bill, pecking, and jumping up with the body without lifting the feet.
It may be that the jay in freedom disturbs other birds, as has been affirmed, but among a number smaller than himself my bird has never once shown the least hostility. He is interested in their doings, but the only unpleasant thing he has done is to shriek and scream to stop their singing. In spite of his natural boldness, always facing the enemy, always ready to fight, and never running from danger nor allowing himself to be driven anywhere, when he is not quite well he is a timid bird. In moulting, this spring, my jay lost his entire tail, and was extremely awkward in getting about, almost helpless, in fact; and at that time he was afraid to hop to the floor, and refused to come out of the cage. (I should have said, by the way, that he feared hurting himself; he was quite as spirited as ever, as ready to show fight.) To get him out of the door I offered him the greatest inducements, with the cage on the floor, so that he could not fall far. He would stand on the lowest perch, three inches from the floor, look at the meat or whatever treasure I placed in the open doorway, and cry a faint, low, jay-baby cry, yet not dare descend, though plainly aching with desire to get the object so nearly within his reach. Even since he is entirely recovered and the possessor of a beautiful long tail, he dreads the one little step and has to be coaxed out and in his cage every day, as we coax a startled child.
Nothing ever interested the jay more than a piano, though he is fond of any music. The first time he heard one he quickly hopped across to the player, pulled at the hem of her dress, flew up to her lap, then her arm, and mounted to her shoulder, where he stood some time, looking and listening, turning his head this way and that, raising his crest, jerking his body, and in every way showing intense excitement. Finally he took his last step, to the top of her head, where he was more pleased to be than the player was to have him. She put him down; and the next time he tried a different way, mounted to the keys, and thence to the cover, crouching and peering under the lid to see where the sounds came from. Satisfied about this, he returned to her head, which he evidently considered the best post of observation. Every time she played she received the devoted attentions of the bird, and he could not be kept away.
My blue-jay is now a beautiful creature, in perfect plumage, with breast and back plumes so long that often in repose, just after he has dressed them, the violet blue of the back meets the light drab of his breast, on the side, covering his wings completely, and making a lovely picture. All through the spring excitement, when the other birds, one after another, grew uneasy, belligerent, or unhappy, and one after another were returned to freedom, he never showed a moment's uneasiness, an instant's desire to be free, but scrupulously attended to his own regular business, which is to pound and pull and peck to pieces my furniture, and especially to destroy my books.
As these last words are written, just at dusk, the dear, troublesome rogue comes down to the corner of his cage nearest to me, and as if he understood that I had said something about him begins to talk and remonstrate in a low, loving tone. I do feel reproached, and I must unsay it. His business, his manifest destiny, is to hammer and peck the shells of nuts, and to hide them away where they will grow; and if cruel man confines him in a house, he must exercise his untiring energy, his demon of work, in what he finds there,—and who can blame him, or find fault? Not I, certainly.
In behalf of this bird against whom the pen of nearly every writer is lifted, let me quote from one of our early and most careful observers, William Bartram: "The jay is one of the most useful agents in the economy of nature for disseminating forest trees and other ruciferous and hard-seeded vegetables on which they feed. These birds alone are capable in a few years' time to replant all the cleared lands." Thoreau, who was perhaps the closest of our modern students of nature, cites this passage and emphatically affirms its justice.
THE BLUE-JAY AGAIN.
As for birds, I do not believe there is one of them but does more good than harm; and of how many featherless bipeds can this be said?
THE BLUE-JAY AGAIN.
The blue-jay came out of the egg with his mind made up. He always knew exactly what he wanted, and never doubted that he knew how to get it. I wrote of this bird some time ago, but he was then a comparatively new acquaintance. He lived with us many months after that, and became much more familiar; for besides being slow to feel thoroughly at home, he was very young, and he grew in wisdom with age. So I have more to say of him.
Human society was necessary to the jay; he cared for the other birds of the room only as objects on which to play tricks for his own amusement. He was peculiar, too, in never liking more than one friend at a time, and was very decided in his opinions of people, having a distinctly different reception for each one of the household, as well as for strangers. His mistress was always his prime favorite; and although during my absence from home he adopted some one temporarily in my place, he was never so affectionate to that one as to me, and the instant I returned resumed his old relations to each of us.
To his best beloved this bird never squawked or whistled; on the contrary, he talked in low, sweet tones, hardly more than a murmur, slightly lifting and quivering his wings, sidling as near as he could get, and if I put my face down to him touching my cheek or lips gently with his beak, in little taps, like kisses. Any one else in that position would receive a violent peck. Sometimes, when I was busy, and therefore silent a long time, and the jay was in his cage, where I was obliged to put him in order to work at all, he stood perfectly quiet and motionless an hour at a time, moving only when he was hungry, and apparently watching me every instant,—a performance very uncommon in a bird, who usually has some interests of his own, however fond he may be of a person. The moment I spoke to him his whole manner changed. He came at once as near as he could, about four feet from me, and began to talk, holding his tail on one side, and both wings spread to their fullest extent and parallel with his back. In this attitude he hopped up and down his three perches, always as near my side as possible, and evidently in great excitement. If during this exhibition any one came in, his wings instantly dropped, though he did not stop talking to me. This action of the wings showed extreme affection, and must not be profaned by common eyes. When I came close and replied to him, his agitation was almost painful to see,—such loving tones, such gentle kisses, such struggles to express himself. Not only did he insist on sharing his dainties with me, offering me mocking-bird food or bread and milk in the most loving way, but he wished to share mine; ice-cream he delighted in, cake he was as fond of as any child, and candy he always begged for, though instead of eating it he hid it somewhere about the room,—under my pillow, or between the leaves of a book, all sticky as it was from his mouth.
Second in the blue-jay's affection was a lady to whom at first he took a great dislike. She tried her best to win him, talking to him, treating him to various tidbits, and offering him the hospitality of her room,—separated from the bird-room by a passage,—and above all dancing with him. These attentions in time secured her a warm place in his regards, though his treatment of her was very different from that reserved for me. He was always gentle with me, while in her society he exhibited all his noisy accomplishments,—squawked, whistled and screamed, stamped his feet, and jounced (the only word to describe a certain raising and violent dropping of the body without lifting the feet). He ran after her when she left the room; he pecked her hand, and flew up at her face. Gradually, as he grew to like her better, the more violent demonstrations ceased; but he was always boisterous with her, generally expected a half-fight, half-frolic, and I must say never failed to enjoy it greatly.
The dance spoken of was droll. His chosen place for this indulgence was the back of a tall chair. His friend stood before this, whistled, bowed, and moved her head up and down as if dancing; and he on his perch did the same, jumping up and down in a similar way, answering her whistle for whistle, moving his feet, sliding from one side to the other, curtsying, lowering the body and flattening the head feathers, then rising, stamping his feet, and drooping his wings. This he kept up as long as she played second to him.
When this playfellow went away, the jay missed his dances and frolics. He flew into her empty room, perched on the back of the rocking-chair, where he had been wont to stand and pull her hair, and began a peculiar cry. Again and again he repeated it, louder and louder each time, till it ended in a squawk, impatient and angry, as much as to say, "Why don't you answer?" After a while he began to whistle the notes she used to imitate; finding that this brought no response, he returned to the cry; and when at last he had exhausted all his resources, he came back to my desk and consoled himself by talking to me.
A young lady in the family he greeted by flying at her, alighting on her chair-back, clawing her neck, and squawking; and before a youth who often teased him he trailed his wings on the floor, tail spread and dragging also, uttering a curious "obble! obble!" something like the cry of a turkey. The head of the household he met with stamping of the feet, and no sound; while at a maid who came in to sweep he always flew furiously, aiming for her head, and invariably frightening her half out of her wits.
The jay was extremely wary about anything like a trap, and being always on the lookout for one, he sometimes, like bigger persons, fooled himself badly. Finding him fond of standing on a set of turning bookshelves, I thought to please him by arranging over it a convenient resting-place. He watched me with great interest, but, when I had finished, declined to use the perch, though ordinarily nothing could keep him from trying every new thing. I put a bait upon it in the shape of bits of gum-drops, a favorite delicacy; but he plainly saw that I wanted him to go to it, and in the face of the fact that I had heretofore tried to keep him off the papers and magazines lying there, he decided that it was suspicious. He flew so as almost to touch the stick, and hovered before it to snatch off the candy placed there; but alight on it he would not, and did not, though I kept it in place a week.
In many ways this bird was wise; he knew exactly where to deliver his blows to effect what he desired. A cage-door being fastened with fine wire, he never wasted a stroke upon the door, but gave telling blows directly upon the wire. A rubber band was looped about a rod for him to play with, in the expectation that he would pull on it and make sport; but he disappointed us all by hammering at the loop, until he loosened it and easily pulled it off. Again it was tied on with strong linen thread; he turned his whole attention to the knot of the latter, till it yielded and was disposed of also.
Dear as was this bird, he was a more than usually troublesome pet. My desk became his favorite playground, and havoc indeed he made with the things upon it; snatching and running off with paper, pen, or any small object, destroying boxes and injuring books. Finally, in self-defense, I adopted the plan of laying over it every morning a woolen cloth, which must be lifted every time anything was taken from the desk. This arrangement did not please my small friend in blue, and he took pains to express his displeasure in the most emphatic way. He came down upon the cover, tramped all over it, and sought small holes in it through which to thrust his bill. One day he was busily engaged in hammering a book through an opening, and to cure him of the trick I slipped my hand under, caught his beak between two fingers, and held it a moment. This amazed but did not alarm the bird; on the contrary, he plainly decided to persevere till he found out the secret. He pecked the mounds made by my fingers; he stooped and looked into the hole, and then probed again. This time I held him longer, so that he had to struggle and beat his wings to get away, and then he walked off indignantly. Still he was not satisfied about that mystery, and in a moment he was back again, trying in new ways to penetrate it. I was tired before he was. He was baffled only temporarily; he soon learned to draw up the fabric, hold the slack under one foot while he pulled it still further, and thus soon reach anything he desired.
The blue-jay always pried into packages by pecking a hole in the wrapper and examining the contents through that; and boxes he opened by delivering upward blows under the edge of the cover. The waste-basket he nearly emptied from the outside by dragging papers through the openings in the weaving. Seeing two or three unmounted photographs put into a book, he went speedily for that volume, thrust his beak into the slight opening made by the pictures, and pulled them out, flying at once across the room with one in his mouth. It was secured and put back, and the book held down by a heavy weight; but he found the place at once, and repeated the naughtiness. The book had to be completely covered up before the photographs were safe.
After the blue-jay had put on a new suit of feathers he flew with great ease, and selected for a retreat the top of a door into the passageway mentioned, which usually stood open. It was not long before his curiosity was roused to know what was outside the door that so often swallowed up his friends,—that into the hall. He resolved to find out, and to that end, when stationed on the elevated perch of his choice, held himself in readiness, upon the exit of any one, to fly out. He did not wish to get away; he merely took a turn in the hall, and came back; and once, when accidentally left in that unfamiliar place, he stayed in the bath-room, with window wide open, for half an hour before he was found. He became so expert in flying out of the door that it was a difficult matter to pass through without his company; we had to train ourselves in sleight-of-hand to outwit him. There were two ways of getting the better of him; mere suddenness was of no use,—he was much quicker than we were. One way was to go to the room on the other side of the passage, where he was sure to follow, and before he fairly settled there, to dodge back and shut the door,—a proceeding so unexpected that he never learned to allow for it. The other way was to go to the hall-door as if intending to open it; instantly the bird swooped down, ready to slip out also, but finding the way closed, swept around the room and alighted somewhere. This was the second to open the door and step out, for he always paused a moment before flying again.
The only notice the jay ever took of the birds, as said above, was to tease them, or put them in a flutter; as society he plainly despised them. They soon learned to regard him as a sort of infernal machine, liable at any moment to explode; and they were fully justified, for he was fond of surprising them by unexpectedly flying around the room, tail spread, feathers rustling, squawking madly in a loud voice. He usually managed in his career to sweep close over the head of every bird, of course frightening them off their perches, and thus to put the whole room into a panic. They took refuge anywhere,—under the bed, behind the chairs, against the wires, and on the floor,—while the mischief-maker circled around, filling the air with shrieks, then suddenly dropped to the round of a chair and calmly dressed his feathers, as if he had merely been exercising his wings.
Poor little fellow! he was hardly more than a baby, and not very brave. A big grasshopper which once got into the room afforded him great excitement and the spectators much amusement. He saw it before his cage was opened, and as soon as he came out he went after it. The insect hopped up three feet, and so startled the bird that he jumped almost as high. When it alighted he picked it up, but seeming not to know what to do with it, soon dropped it. Again it hopped, and again the jay repeated his bound; and this performance went on for some minutes, one of the drollest of sights,—his cautious approach, the spring of the insect, and his instant copy of the same, as if in emulation. After being picked up several times the grasshopper was disabled; then when the bird came near, it lifted its wings, plainly to scare its persecutor; it did awe him. Meanwhile an orchard oriole had been eagerly looking on, and on one occasion that the grasshopper was dropped he pounced upon it and carried it off to a chair, where he proceeded to eat it, though it was so big as to be almost unmanageable. The jay did not like being deprived of his plaything. He ran after the thief, and stood on the floor, uttering a low cry while watching the operation. In the oriole's moving the clumsy insect fell to the floor, when the jay snatched it; and it was evident that he had got a new idea about its use, for he carried it under a chair and demolished it completely,—not even a wing remained.
More disturbing to the jay, strange as it may seem, was a tree. It was really touching to see a bird afraid of this, but the poor youngster had been taken from the nest to a house. A Christmas tree was brought into the bird-room to please the residents there, when, to our amazement, the jay went into a wild fright, flew madly around near the ceiling, squawking, and making the other birds think something terrible had happened. He flew till he was breathless, and was evidently very much distressed. For three or four days he was equally alarmed the moment he caught sight of it in the morning and whenever I moved it an inch, though the other birds liked it and were on it half the time. When he did get used to it he did not go upon it, but to the standard below, where he could pick the needle-like leaves and carry them off to hide about the room.
The blue-jay took his bath in an original way as he did everything else. First, he stood beside the wide, shallow dish, looked at it, then at me and all around the room, one wing drooping and the other laid jauntily over the back, while he talked in a low tone, as if he said, "If anybody is going to object, now is the time." No one ventured to dispute his right, and suddenly he plumped into the middle, neither alighting on the edge nor testing the water. Then there was a lively frolic, with tail spread, crest raised, wings beating, and the water flying several feet around. He was a very beautiful bird when in perfect-plumage. There were six distinct shades of blue, besides rich velvety black, snowy white, delicate dove color, and blue-gray. He is too well known to need description, but a jay is not often so closely seen when alive and in perfection of plumage. This bird had a charming way of folding his wings that hid all the plain blue-gray. When held thus and laid together over the back, there were displayed first the beautiful tail, with broad white edges to the feathers; above it the wings looking like a square cut mantle, of the same colors; above this a deep pointed shoulder cape, of rich violet blue, the feathers fluffed up loosely; and at the top of all, his exquisite crest.
For who the pleasure of the spring shall tell, When on the leafless stalk the brown buds swell, When the grass brightens and the days grow long, And little birds break out in rippling song.
You must know in the beginning that Virginia wore feathers. But she had as many trials with her suitors as though she dressed in silks, and she displayed so much of what we call "human nature" that her story is as interesting as that of half the Ethels and Marguerites of the romances.
She came of a good old family, the Cardinals, and, belonging to the Virginia branch, was called properly Virginia Cardinal, or, in scientific, fashion, Cardinalis Virginianus. She was a beauty, too. It is well known that the cardinal himself has a full suit of the most brilliant red, but it is not so familiar a fact that the dames of the tribe are more modest and wear the family colors simply as linings and in subdued tints: rich rose-colored wing-facings, light coral-hued beak, delicate pink crest, all toned down by the soft olive brown of the breast and back, over which is everywhere a lovely suggestion of red.
The home of Virginia, when she came to the bird-room, was a large cage by the window; that of the cardinal being next to it, equally commodious, but a little farther from the light. This personage, her first admirer, made the mistake that larger suitors sometimes fall into, with equally disastrous results,—he "took things for granted." Between the cages was a door, but, to try the temper of the birds, it was at first closed. The cardinal was evidently pleased with his lovely neighbor; he went as near to her as he could get, and uttered some low remarks, to which she listened, but did not reply. Later, when a meal-worm was given to him, he did not eat it, but held it in his beak, hopped over to her side, tried to get through the wires, and plainly thought of offering it to her. His disposition appearing so friendly, a human hand interposed and opened the door. Instantly he went into her cage, and apparently thinking better of the intended offering he ate it himself, and proceeded to investigate her food-dishes and try the seed, then hopped back and forth between the two cages, and at last selected the perch he preferred and took possession. He paid no attention to her in the way of recognizing her ownership, which he would naturally do to another bird; he assumed that whatever belonged to the cardinal family belonged to him; perhaps he even thought she went with the house,—it certainly looked as though he did.
But the little dame had a mind of her own. On his first intrusion she vacated her home and passed into his. When he appeared in his cage she quietly hopped back; on his return she changed cages with equal alacrity; when he settled himself on her perch, she was quite contented on his. There was no dispute, no warfare; she simply said, in manner, "All right, my friend, select your abode, and I'll take the other. I'm satisfied with either, but I intend to have it to myself." After awhile it seemed to strike his lordship that she avoided him, and he resolved to settle that matter; here making his second mistake, in trying to force instead of to win. He entered the cage where she sat quietly, and flew at her. She dodged him and took refuge in the other apartment; he followed; and thus they rushed back and forth several times, till she stopped for breath on a lower perch, while he was on an upper one in the same cage. Then he leaned far over and fixed his eyes on her, crest raised to its greatest height, wings held slightly out, and addressed her in a very low but distinct song, which resembled the syllables "cur-dle-e! cur-dle-e! cr-r-r"; the latter sounding almost like a cat's purr. After singing this several times, and being slighted by her leaving the cage, he laid his crest flat down, muttered something so low that it could not be noted, and looked very much put out. Soon, however, he shook his feathers violently, flung himself at her, and she dodged, as before. When both happened to be for a moment in their own cages, the door was suddenly closed between, and each had his own, as at first. Madam was delighted, but the cardinal resented it; he tried to remove the obnoxious barrier, pecked at it, shook it, and could not be reconciled. He grew hungry and was obliged to eat, but between every two seeds he returned to struggle with the bars that kept him from her. Meanwhile Virginia had apparently forgotten all about him, eating and making her toilet for the night, as cheerful as usual.
The next morning, the outside doors of the two cages were opened, and both birds at once came out into the room. The cardinal, not yet over his tiff of the evening before, took wing for the trees outside the windows, and brought up, of course, against the glass. He was greatly disappointed. He alighted on top of the lower sash, tested, examined, and tried to solve the mystery. Virginia, too, tried to go through the pane, but learned in one lesson that it was useless. She did not care much about it any way, for she was perfectly contented inside. She went around the room, hovering slowly under the ceiling, which is always of interest to birds, and then set herself to work in a most systematic manner to find out all about the new world she was in. She examined the outside perches and tried each one; she explored the bathing table, flirted out a little water from the dishes, and at last thought it time to make acquaintance with her neighbors.
She began with the robin, and flew to his roof. The robin was not pleased, snapped at her, opened his mouth, uttered a queer low robin-cry, "seep," and pecked at her feet, while she stood quietly looking down at the show from above, as much interested as though it were arranged to amuse her. At length she began to make the more formal visit. She dropped to the door-perch and approached the entrance. The inhospitable owner met her there, not to welcome and invite her in, but to warn her out! He lowered his head, opened his beak, and bowed to her, looking very wicked indeed. It was plain that he was "not receiving" that morning. But Virginia had come to call, and call she would. Nothing daunted by his coolness, she hopped in. The robin was amazed; then declared war in his peculiar way,—first a hop of six inches, with wings spread, then a savage clatter of the bill. His guest met this demonstration quite calmly. She lowered her head, to defend herself if necessary, but made no other movement. Her calmness filled the robin with horror; he fled the cage. Then she went all over it, and satisfied herself that it was much like her own, only the food-dish was filled with some uneatable black stuff, instead of the vegetarian food she preferred. She soon departed.
Meanwhile the cardinal was wasting his time over the window problem, touching the glass with his beak, flying up a few inches before it, gently tapping the pane as he went. It was two or three days before he made up his mind he could not get through. After that he was as indifferent to the outside as any bird in the room, and turned his attention once more to Virginia. Whenever they were in their cages, with the door open between, he assumed the lord-and-mastership of the two; he drove her away from her own food-cups, usurped her perch and her cage, and made himself disagreeable generally. Finally, one day when she was sitting quietly on the upper perch of his deserted cage, he came into the same cage, and, resting on the low perch close to the door, his tail hanging outside, began a low call, a curious sort of "e-up," with a jerk on the second syllable. Though a common enough sound for a cardinal, this plainly meant more than was apparent to human spectators. Virginia at once grew uneasy, hopped across the upper perches, and when her nervousness became too great dashed down past him, though he was partly in the doorway, and into her own cage, where she resumed her restless jumps. He was not pleased with her reception of his attentions; he sat a long time in that attitude, perfectly still, perhaps meditating what step he should take next, glancing at her meanwhile over his shoulder, but not stirring a feather. Time passed, and he came to a decision of some sort, which was shown by a change of position. He turned around, and took his seat on the corresponding perch in her cage, just before the door. This impressed Virginia; she stopped her hopping and looked over at him with an air of wondering what he would do next. What he did was to hop one step nearer, to the middle perch. Upon this she abandoned her place, came to the floor, and began to eat in the most indifferent manner; then passed into his cage, then back to the floor of her own, still eating, while he sat silent and motionless on the middle perch, evidently much disturbed by her conduct. After an hour of this performance he retired to her upper perch, and stayed there.
The same day, the jealousy of the unsuccessful wooer was aroused by a fine, fresh-looking cardinal whom he saw in the looking-glass. In flying past it he caught a glimpse of his reflection, and at once turned, alighted before it, and began calling vehemently; holding out, and quivering his wings, and flying up against the figure again and again in the most savage way. The next day he began to mope and refused to come out of the cage; whether because of illness, or disappointed affections, who shall say?
The time of her tormentor's retirement was one of great happiness to Virginia. She paid her usual visit to the robin, and he, as at first, vacated the cage, this having become the regular morning programme. Now, too, she went on to extend her acquaintance by entering the cage of another neighbor, a scarlet tanager, a shy, unobtrusive fellow, who asked nothing but to be let alone. This bird also did not reciprocate her neighborly sentiments; he met her with open beak, but finding that did not awe her, nor prevent her calmly walking in, he hastily left the cage himself. During the time that her persecutor was sulking, and not likely to bother, she had leisure for the bath, which she enjoyed freely, coming out with her long breast-feathers hanging in locks and looking like a bundle of rags. Her last experimental call was now made upon another household, the Baltimore orioles, and there she met with something new—perfect indifference. Even when both of the birds were at home they did not resent her coming in. She went to the upper perch with them; the cage was big, there was plenty of room, and they were willing. Their manners, in fact, were so agreeable that if their cups had been supplied with seed, I think she would have taken up her abode with them; as it was, she frequently spent half an hour at a time there. On this eventful day Virginia began to sing, for in her family the musical performances are not confined to the males.
After several days of retirement, the cardinal plucked up spirit to resume his annoyance of Virginia, and for a few nights a queer sort of game was played by the two, explain it who can. If the barrier between the cages was removed after the outside doors were shut for the night, he at once went to her cage and to the middle perch. Virginia, on the upper perch, waited till he reached that spot, then dropped to the floor, slipped through the door into his cage, and went to the upper perches there, where she hopped back and forth, while he did the same in her cage. Suddenly, after a few moments, down he came again through the door to his own middle perch, when instantly, as before, she retreated into her cage. Thus they went on an hour at a time; he apparently following her from one cage to another, and she declining to occupy the same apartment with him. Occasionally it was not so calm; he lost his temper, or grew tired of trying to please; once or twice, without warning, he lowered his head, looked ugly, and fairly burst into her cage and flung himself at her. She dived under or bounded over a perch, any way to escape him, and took refuge in the other cage.
This could not go on long; the cardinal lost interest in everything, took to moping, and at last died,—disappointed affection, shall we say, or what? Virginia was relieved; she sang more and in a louder tone, hopping around her cage with a seed in her mouth, flying through the room, or splashing in the bath; in fact she was bubbling over with song all the time, as if she were so happy she could not keep still. She paid her daily visits to the cages, forcing the robin to take an outing, which he did not care to do while moulting and not very sure of his powers.
Many birds show emotions by raising the feathers on different parts of the body, but this bird was remarkable in the expression of her crest alone. When she peeped into a strange cage, and was somewhat uncertain of her reception, the crest laid flat down, her very head seemed to shrink; she stepped in at the door, excited, for it might be peace and it might be war; the feathers rose and fell alternately; if suddenly startled, the crest sprang to its highest point; and when singing, or passing peacefully about the room, it dropped carelessly back on her head.
Virginia was allowed a week's solitary enjoyment of the two cages, and then one day a new tenant appeared in the cardinal's quarters. She was out in the room when he arrived, but she instantly came over and alighted on his roof, to have a look at him. Most expressive was her manner. She stood in silence and gazed upon him a long time; all her liveliness and gayety were gone, and she appeared to be struck dumb by this new complication of her affairs. It was plain that she was not pleased. Perhaps her dislike was evident to the new bird, for suddenly he flew up and snapped at her, which so surprised her that she hopped a foot into the air. When the time came to open the door into her cage, the stranger was delighted to go in, but Virginia dodged him, exactly as she had done his predecessor. He did not lose his temper and condescend to the vulgarity of flying at her, as the first admirer had done. He looked interested to see that she avoided him, but after all he did not take it much to heart. This cardinal, like the other, was not yet acclimated—if one may call it so—to life in a house, and after a week he also took his departure.
Now Virginia, free again, became at once very gay. She sang all the time; she kept the robin stirring; she bathed; she waxed fat. But her time was approaching. Spring came on, and with the first warm weather the birds began to disappear from the room. First the tanager expressed a desire to mingle with society once more, and went his way; then the orioles were sent to carry on their rough wooing in the big world outside; the robin followed; and at last Virginia was left with several big empty cages and only two birds, a reserved and solitude-loving Mexican clarin, and a saucy goldfinch, so long a captive that he had no desire for freedom. Now for the first time Virginia was lonely; the strange quiet of the once lively room worked upon her temper. She snapped at her little neighbor; she haunted the window-sill and gazed out; while nothing hindered her passage excepting the weather, our climate being rather cool for her.
At last July, with its great heat, arrived, and the restless bird was carried by a kind friend, who offered to do this good deed, to a place in Central Park, New York, where a small colony of her kind have established themselves and build and nest every year. Here she was set free, and here she met her third suitor. The place and the season were propitious, and Virginia was ready to look with favor on a smart young cardinal in the brightest of coats, who came in response to her calls the moment she found herself on a tree, really out in the world. A little coaxing, a few tender words, and she flew away with him, and we saw her no more.
FRIENDSHIP IN FEATHERS.
Why should I cumber myself with regrets that the receiver is not capacious? It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space, and only a small part on the reflecting planet. EMERSON.
FRIENDSHIP IN FEATHERS.
Emerson somewhere speaks of a friendship "on one side, without due correspondence on the other," and I often thought of it while watching the curious relation between two birds in my house last winter; for the more one studies our feathered neighbors, the better he comes to realize that the difference between their intelligence and that of man himself is "only of less and more."
This friendship, then, was all on one side. It was not a case of "love at sight"; on the contrary, it was first war, and the birds had been room-mates for months before any unusual interest was shown; neither was it simple admiration of beauty, for the recipient of the tenderness was at his worst at the moment; nor, again, could it be the necessity of loving somebody, for the devotee had lived in the house ten years, and had seen forty birds of almost as many kinds come and go, without exhibiting any partiality. The parties to this curious affair were, first, the beloved, a male scarlet tanager, whose summer coat was disfigured with patches of the winter dress he was trying to put on; and secondly, the lover, a male English goldfinch, scarcely half his size.
The tanager, as perhaps every one knows, is one of our most brilliant birds, bright scarlet with black wings and tail. He is as shy as he is gay, living usually in the woods, and not taking at all kindly to the enforced companionship of mankind. I had long been anxious to make the acquaintance of this retiring bird, partly because I desire to know personally all American birds, and partly because I wanted to watch his change of plumage; for the scarlet uniform is only the marriage dress, and put off at the end of the season. Hence whenever I saw a tanager in a New York bird store I brought it home, though dealers always warned me that it would not live in confinement. My first attempts were disastrous, certainly. The birds refused to become reconciled, even with all the privileges I gave them, and one after another died, I believe for no other reason than their longing for freedom. Let me say here that feeling thus, they would have received their liberty, much as I wished to study them, only their plumage was not in condition to fly, and they would go out to certain death. My hope was to make them contented through the winter, while they put on a new suit of feathers, and open the doors for them in summer.
The subject of this tale, and the last of the series, I procured of a dealer who has learned to keep tanagers in good condition, and I never had trouble with this bird's health or spirits. It was not until May that he wished to leave me. When he joined the circle in the room he had just thoroughly learned that a cage was a place he could not get out of, and he had ceased to try. The first morning when his neighbors came out of their cages he was as much astonished as if he had never seen birds out of a bird store. He stretched up and looked at them with the greatest interest. When one or two began to splash in the large shallow bathing dishes on the table, he was much excited, and plainly desired to join them. I opened his door and placed in it a long perch leading to freedom. For some time he did not come out, and when he did, the sudden liberty drove out of his head all thoughts of a bath. When he flew, he aimed straight for the trees outside the window, and of course came violently against the glass.
This experience all house birds have to go through, and it is sometimes several days before they learned the nature of glass. The tanager learned his lesson more quickly. He fell to the floor at first, from the shock, but in a few moments recovered himself and returned, this time alighting on the top of the lower sash and proceeding to examine the strange substance through which he could see, but could not go. He gently tapped the glass with his beak the whole length of the window, passing back and forth several times till satisfied. Turning at last from that, he cast his eye around for another exit, and settled on the white ceiling as the most likely place. Then he flew all about the room close to the ceiling, touched it now and then with his beak, and finding it also impassable, he came down to the window again. He had not the least curiosity about the room, and was not at all afraid of me. The world outside the windows and his cage when he was hungry, were all that he cared for at present—except the bath.
The goldfinch was bathing the second time he came out, and he went directly to the table and perched on the side of the dish. Now the one thing the little fellow most delighted in was his morning bath, and he at once resented the intrusion of the stranger. He flew at him with open beak and lifted wings, scolding vigorously, in fact gave him so hostile a reception that he quickly retired to the top of the cage, where he stood a long time. Afterward also, the goldfinch showed so strong a determination that the intruder should not enjoy his beloved bath, that at last I had to keep him in his cage while the new-comer had a chance at the water.
This did not go on long, however, for very soon the tanager deliberately gave up the world of the bird-room, and insisted on remaining in his cage. In vain was his door set open with the others, in vain did the birds splash and splatter the water, he would not come out, though he did not mope or lose his appetite. In truth, it seemed merely as if he scorned the advantages offered; if he could not go out free into the trees, he would as lief stay in his cage—and he did. This is a not uncommon habit of cage birds. They often need to be driven or coaxed out. Having once learned that the cage is home with all its comforts and conveniences, they prefer to be there.
The tanager was always a very shy bird; he did not like to be looked at. If he could manage it, he would never eat while any one saw him. Often, when I put a bit of apple or a meal-worm in his cage, he stood and looked at it and at me, but did not move till I turned away, or walked out of his sight, when he instantly pounced upon it as if starved. To make him altogether happy I put a screen around one corner of his cage, behind which were his dishes, and after that it was very droll to see him crouch behind that and eat, every moment or two stretching up to glance over the top and see if I had moved. If I stirred as though about to leave my chair, he at once whisked to the upper perch as if he had been caught in a crime.
The first I noticed of the goldfinch's friendliness to him was after he had lived with us five or six months.
This small bird, in a room of larger ones, was somewhat driven about. I do not mean hurt, but if any one wanted a certain perch he did not hesitate to take it, even if it were already occupied by so little a fellow. He soon learned that near the tanager he was not often molested, and he began first to frequent the perch that ran out of the cage—the doorstep in fact. Finding that he was not disturbed, he soon moved his quarters just inside the door. Most birds quickly resent the intrusion of another into their cage, but the tanager never did. So long as he was left alone on his favorite upper perches, he did not care who went in below. This being the case, after a while the goldfinch ventured upon the middle perch. Still he was not noticed; but presuming on the friendly attitude of his host, he one day hopped upon the perch beside him. This was a step too far; the house-owner turned an open beak toward him, and in unmistakable tones told him to leave—which he at once did, of course.
This boundary made by the tanager was never changed, but in the rest of the cage the goldfinch made himself at home, and at once assumed the position of protector. Seeing that the owner did not,—and sure it was somebody's duty,—he began to guard the door, warning away any one who wished to enter, with harsh scolding, fluttering of wings, and swelling up of his little body, amusing to see. The boldest bird in the room was awed by these demonstrations coming from the inside as though the cage were his own. The tanager looked on all this with some interest, but expressed no more gratitude at being protected than he had resentment at being driven from the bath.
Soon I noticed a certain chattering talk from the small bird that he had never indulged in excepting to another of his kind—his companion when he first came to me. It was very low but almost continuous, and was plainly addressed to the tanager. As his friendliness progressed, he found the lower perch too far from his charmer, and not being allowed to sit beside him he took to clinging upon the outside of the cage as near to the tanager's usual seat as he could get. The only perching place he had there was a band of tin that held the wires steady, but in spite of what must have been the discomfort of the position, there he hung by the hour, talking, calling, and looking at his idol within. He left the spot only to eat and bathe, and I think if the cage had been supplied with seed he would never have gone at all. When the bird inside hopped to the perch at the other end of the cage, which was the extent of his wanderings, the finch at once followed on the outside, always placing himself as near as possible. It was really touching, to all but the object of it, who took it in the most indifferent way. When the tanager went down to eat, his escort accompanied him as far as the door perch, where he stood and looked on earnestly, ready to return to his old place the moment the luncheon was finished.
On the rare occasions that the self-elected hermit went out, the goldfinch displayed great concern, evidently preferring to have his favorite at home where he could defend him. He flew uneasily across from the cage to his side, then back, as if to show him the way. He also desired to watch the empty house, to preserve it from intrusion, but was constantly divided between his duties of special porter, and bodyguard. But he did his best, even then; he followed the wanderer. If the tanager went to a perch the goldfinch at once alighted on the same, about a foot away, and sidled up as near as he was allowed. He was free to come within about three inches, but nearer he was driven off, so the little fellow placed himself at this distance and there stayed patiently as long as his friend remained. If the latter had been more responsive, I believe the goldfinch would have nestled up against him.
The tanager sometimes strayed into a strange cage, and then the anxious guard followed to the steps and even within, talking earnestly, and no doubt pointing out the danger, yet if the owner unexpectedly appeared he met him at the threshold and fiercely defended the door against the proprietor himself. Occasionally the erratic recluse went to the floor—a place never visited by his little attendant, whose trouble was almost painful to see. He at once placed himself on the lowest perch, stretched out and looked over, following every movement with his eyes, in silence, as though the danger was too great to allow conversation, and when his charge returned to a perch, he uttered a loud and joyous call as though some peril had been escaped.
The stanch little friend had many chances to show his loyalty. The other birds in the room were not slow to take advantage of one who never defended himself. In particular a Brazilian cardinal, a bold saucy fellow with a scarlet pointed crest and a loud voice, evidently considered the tanager cage common ground, open to everybody, until the goldfinch undertook its defense. It was amusing to see the small bird stand just inside, and rage, puff himself out, wave his wings, and fairly drive away the foe. So impertinent was the Brazilian that the finch declared general war upon him, and actually chased his big antagonist around the room and away from his favorite perches, hovering over his head, and flying around it in small circles, trying to peck it, till he flew away defeated, probably because he was too much amazed to think of resisting.
This was not, however, the worst enemy he had to deal with. Next door to the tanager lived a robin, a big, rollicking, fun-loving fellow who considered such a retiring personage fair game. His pleasure was to see that the tanager went out every day, and he made it his business to enforce the regulation he had set up. His tactics were to jump upon the roof of the cage, coming down violently just over the head of the tanager, who, of course, hopped quickly to the other perch. Then the robin began a mad war-dance across the cage, wings held up, tail spread, bill clattering, and altogether looking as full of mischief as any bad boy one ever saw, while the tanager went wild below, flying in a panic back and forth, but not for some time thinking of leaving the cage. The instant this performance began, the little champion was upon him; he alighted at one end of the short tramping ground on the cage, and met his big foe with open beak and every sign of war. The robin simply lowered his head and went for him, and the little bird had to fly. He pluckily returned at once to the other end and faced him again.
Observing that the goldfinch alone was not able to keep the robin away, I provided the cage with a roof of paper, which is usually a perfect protection, since birds dislike the rustle. It did not dismay this naughty fellow, however; on the contrary, it gave an added zest because of that very quality. He pranced across it in glee, making a great noise, and when the violence of his movements pushed it aside, he peered down on the tanager, who stood panting. The sight pleased him, and he resumed his pranks; he lifted the handle of the cage and let it drop with a clatter; he jerked off bits of paper and dropped them into the cage, and in every way showed a very mischievous spirit. Meanwhile, all through the confusion the goldfinch scolded furiously, flying around to get a peck at him, and in every way challenging him to fight. Occasionally, when he became too troublesome, the robin turned and snapped his beak at him, but did not choose to leave the bigger game.
When at last he tired of his fun, or was driven away, the goldfinch flew to the side of the cage where the frightened tanager had taken refuge, though there was not even a strip of tin to hold on, uttered his loud cheerful call several times, plainly congratulating and reassuring him, and telling him all was safe; and here he clung with difficulty to the upright wires, all the time slipping down, till the tanager went to the upper regions again. Every time the robin so much as flew past, the tireless little fellow rushed out at him, scolding. When finally the robin went into his own cage, and the tanager returned to his usual place, the goldfinch at once assumed his uncomfortable perch and sang a loud sweet song, wriggling his body from side to side, and expressing triumph and delight in a remarkable way.
The approach of spring made a change in the tanager. He had not so completely given up the world as it appeared. He began to chirp, to call, and at last to sing. He was still so shy he went down behind his screen to sing, but sing he must and did. Now, too, he began to resent the attentions of his admirer, occasionally giving the poor little toes a nip, as they clung to the tin band near his seat. He also went out now, and turned an open beak upon his friend. From simply enduring him, he suddenly began offensive operations against him. Poor little lover! an ungrateful peck did not drive him away, but simply made him move a little farther off, and stopped his gentle twittering talk a while. But the tanager grew more and more belligerent. He came out every day, took soaking baths, and returned to his examination of the windows, for the trees were green outside, and plainly he longed to be on them. He stood and looked out, and called, and held his wings up level with his back, fluttering them gently.
All this time the devotion of the little one never changed, though it was so badly received. When the tanager turned savagely and gave his faithful friend a severe peck, instead of resenting it the hurt bird flew to another perch, where he stood a long time, uttering occasionally a low, plaintive call, as if of reproach, all his cheerfulness gone, a melancholy sight indeed. I waited only for warm days to set free the tanager, and at last they came. Early in June the bird was put into a traveling cage, carried into the country, where a lovely bit of woods and a pretty lake insured a good living, and the absence of sparrows made it safe for a bird that had been caged. Then the door was opened, and he instantly flew out of sight.
The bird left at home seemed a little lost for a few days, moped about, often visited the empty cage, but in a short time entirely abandoned it, and evidently looked no more for his friend. But he is changed too: not quite so gay as before; not so much singing; and not a word of the soft chattering talk we heard so constantly while his beloved friend was here.
THE ROSY SHIELD.
Soft falls his chant as on the nest Beneath the sunny zone, For love that stirred it in his breast Has not aweary grown, And 'neath the city's shade can keep The well of music clear and deep.
And love that keeps the music, fills With pastorial memories. All echoing from out the hills, All droppings from the skies, All flowings from the wave and wind Remembered in the chant I find.
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING.
THE ROSY SHIELD.
One of the most winning inhabitants of my bird-room last winter bore on his snow-white breast a pointed shield of beautiful rose-color, and the same rich hue lined his wings. With these exceptions his dress was of sober black and white, though so attractively disposed that he was an extremely pretty bird—the rose-breasted grosbeak.
Nor was beauty his only attraction; he was a peculiar character, in every way different from his neighbors. He was dignified, yet his dignity was not like that of a thrush; he was calm and cool, yet not after the manner of an orchard oriole. He possessed a lovely gentleness of disposition, and a repose of manner unparalleled among my birds. Vulgar restlessness was unknown to him; flying about for mere exercise, or hopping from perch to perch to pass away time, he scorned. The frivolous way common to smaller birds of going for each seed as they want it, was beneath him. When he wished to eat he did so like a civilized being, that is, took his stand by the seed-cup, and stayed there, attending strictly to the business in hand till he had finished, leaving a neat pile of canary-seed shells in one spot, instead of the general litter common to cages. The meal over, he was ready to go out of the cage, place himself comfortably in one of his favorite corners, and remain for a long time, amused with the life in the room and the doings in the street, on both of which he seemed to look with the eye of a philosopher. In the same deliberate and characteristic way he disposed of a meal-worm, or a bit of beef, which he enjoyed. He never bolted it outright like a thrush, nor beat it to death like a tanager, nor held it under one toe and took it in mouthfuls like an oriole: he quietly worked it back and forth between his mandibles till reduced to a pulp, and then swallowed it.
The rosy shield-bearer was preeminently a creature of habit. Very early in his life with us he selected certain resting places for his private use, and all the months of his stay he never changed them. The one preferred above all others was the middle bar of the window-sash, in the corner, and I noticed that his choice was always a corner. In this sunny spot he spent most of the time, closely pressed against the window-casing, generally looking out at the trees and the sparrow-life upon them, and regarding every passer-by in the street, not in an unhappy way, but apparently considering the whole a panorama for his entertainment. When events in the room interested him, his post of observation was a bracket that held a small cage, where he often sat an hour at a time in perfect silence, looking at everybody, concerned about everything, his rosy shield and white breast effectively set off by the dark paper behind him.
Although thus immobile and silent, the grosbeak was far from being stupid. He had decided opinions and tastes as well defined as anybody's. For example, when he came to me his cage stood on a shelf next to that occupied by two orchard orioles, and he was never pleased with the position. He was hardly restless even there, while suffering what he plainly considered a grievance, but he was uneasy. I saw that something was wrong, and guessed at once that it was because his upper perch was three inches lower than that in the next cage, and to have a neighbor higher than himself is always an offense to a bird. As soon as I raised his cage he was satisfied on that score, and no more disturbed me in the early morning by shuffling about on his perch and trying to fly upward.
But still things were not quite to his mind, and he showed it by constantly going into the cage of the orioles and settling himself evidently with the desire of taking up his residence there. He was so gentle and unobtrusive everywhere, that no one resented his presence in the cage, and he could have lived in peace with almost any bird. But I wanted him contented at home, and moreover, I was curious to find out what was amiss, so I tried the experiment of removing his cage from its position next to the lively orioles, and hanging it alone between two windows, where, although not so light, it had the advantage of solitude. The change completed the happiness of the grosbeak. From that day he no more intruded upon others, but went and came freely and joyously to his own cage, and from being hard to catch at night he became one of the most easy, proceeding the moment he entered his home toward dark to the upper perch to wait for me to close the door before going to his seed-dish. In fact, he grew so contented that he cared little to come out, and often sat in his favorite corner of the cage by the hour, with the door wide open and the other birds flying around. Now, too, he began to sing in a sweet voice a very low and tender minor strain.
Among his other peculiarities this bird scarcely ever seemed to feel the need of utterance of any soft. On the rare occasions of any excitement he delivered a sharp, metallic "click"; a sudden alarm, like the attack of another bird, called out a war-cry loud and shrill, and very odd; and in the contest over the important question of precedence at the bath he sometimes uttered a droll squeal or whining sound. Besides these, he made singular noises in bathing and dressing his feathers, which are not uncommon among birds, but are difficult to describe. They always remind me of the rubbing of machinery in need of oil.
This beautiful bird was not easily frightened; the only time I ever saw him seriously disturbed was at the sight of a stuffed screech-owl, which I brought into the room without thinking of its probable effect. I placed it on a shelf in a closet, and I soon noticed that the moment the closet door was opened the grosbeak became greatly agitated; he darted across the room to a certain retreat where he always hurried on the first alarm of any sort, and remained in retirement till the fancied danger was over, while the others flew madly about. In this place he stood posturing in much excitement, and uttering at short intervals his sharp "click." For some time I did not understand his conduct, nor think of connecting it with the owl on the shelf; but when it did occur to me I tried the experiment of bringing it out into the room, when I immediately saw, what I should have remembered at once, that it was an object of terror to all the birds.