Upon The Tree-Tops
by Olive Thorne Miller
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[Sidenote: FOREST SOUNDS.]

The morning after the absurd incident of a mouse-hunt, by the dog who in his character of protector was our daily companion, we started out afresh, with ears for nothing but wren songs. Making a wide detour to avoid the scene of yesterday's excitement, we were soon comfortably seated near the spot the wren seemed to haunt, and silence fell between us. That is to say, we were quiet, though nothing is farther from the truth than our common expression "silent woods." The forest is never silent. Hushed it may be of man's clamor, and empty as well of his presence, but it is filled with sounds from its own abundant life; not so loud, perhaps, and aggressive to the ear as the rumble of Broadway, but fully as continuous; and if the human wanderer in its delightsome shades will but bring his own noisy progress to a halt, he will enjoy a new sensation. There is the breeze that sets all the leaves to whispering, not to speak of rougher winds that fill the dim aisles with a roar like Niagara. There are the falling of dead twigs, the rustle of leaves under the footsteps of some small shy creature in fur, the dropping of nuts, and the tapping of woodpeckers. There are the voices of the wood-dwellers,—not songs alone, but calls and utterances of many kinds from birds; cries and scolding of squirrels, who have a repertoire astonishing to those who do not know them; squawks and squeals of little animals more often heard than seen; and, not least, the battle-cries of the winged hosts "who come with songs to greet you" wherever and whenever you may appear.

Moreover, the moment one of the human race is quiet,—such is our reputation for unrest,—the birds grow suspicious, and take pains to announce to all whom it may concern that here is an interloper in nature. Even if there be present no robin,—vociferous guardian of the peace,—a meek and gentle flicker mounts the highest tree and cries "pe-auk! pe-auk!" as loud as he can shout, a squirrel on one side shrieks at the top of his voice, veeries call anxiously here and there, while a vireo warbles continuously overhead, and a redstart "trills his twittering horn."

When the wren song began, quite near this time, everything else was forgotten, and after a few moments' eager suspense we saw our bird. He was little and inconspicuous in shades of brown, with tail stuck pertly up, wren fashion, foraging among the dead leaves and on old logs, entirely unconscious that he was one of the three distinguished singers of the wood; none but the hermit thrush and the veery being comparable to him. Whenever, in the serious business of getting his breakfast, he reached a particularly inviting twig, or a more than usually nice rest on a log, he threw up his little head and poured out the marvelous strain that had taken us captive, then half hopped, half flew down, with such energy that he "whirred" as he went. We watched his "tricks and manners," and, what was more, we steeped our souls in his music as long as we chose, that morning.


The lovely long June days were never more fascinating. Every morning we went into our beloved woods to watch its bird population; to find out who was building, who had already set up housekeeping; to penetrate their secrets, and discover their wonderfully hidden nests. Each day we heard the witching song that never lost its charm for us. One morning—it was the fifteenth of the month—we were sauntering up one of the most inviting paths. The dog was ahead, carrying on his strong and willing neck his mistress's stool, she following closely, steadying the same with her hand, while I, as was my custom, brought up the rear. Suddenly, as we approached a pile of dead limbs from a fallen tree, my friend stopped motionless, and as usual the caravan came to instant halt. Without taking her eyes from the brush heap, she silently pulled the stool from the dog's neck and sat down upon it. I seated myself beside her, and the dog stretched himself at our feet.

"A wren," she whispered briefly, and in a moment I saw it. A mother, no doubt, for her mouth was full of food, and she was fidgeting about on a branch, undecided as yet what she should do, with that formidable array in front of her very door, as it afterward turned out. A wren is a quick-witted little creature, and she was not long in making up her mind. She flitted around us, turned our right flank (so to speak), and vanished behind us.

We took the hint, changed our front, and, after the moment's confusion, subsided again, gently waving our maple boughs to terrorize the foe that was always with us, and keeping sharp watch while we held whispered consultation as to whether that was the winter wren, and the mate of our singer.

"Oh, if she has a nest!" said my comrade, to whose home belonged these woods. "The winter wren is not known to nest here. We must find it."


Silence again, while a tanager called his agitated "chip-chur!" in the tops of the tall beech-trees, a downy woodpecker knocked vigorously at the door of some ill-fated grub in a maple trunk, and the wren burst into his maddest melody afar off. We were not to be lured this morning. We were enjoying the excitement of discoverers. Where a bird is carrying food must be a nest with birdlings, and nothing could draw us from that.

We waited. In a few minutes the bird appeared again with her mate. Was he the singer? Breathless hush on our part, with eyes fixed on the two restless parents, who were anxious to pass us. In a moment one of them became aggressive. He—or she—flew to a twig eight or ten feet from us, jerked himself up in a terrifying way, as though about to annihilate us, and then bowed violently; not intending a polite salutation, as might be supposed, but defiance, threat, or insult. We held our ground, refusing to be frightened away, and at last parental love conquered fear; both of them flew past us at the same instant, went to one spot under the upturned roots of a fallen tree, and in a moment departed together.

My fellow-student hurried eagerly to the place, dropped upon her knees on the wet ground, amid rank ferns and weeds, leaned far under the overhanging roots with their load of black earth, thrust careful fingers into something, and then rose, flushed and triumphant.

"Come here," she commanded. "A nest full of babies! Oh, what luck!"

There it was, sure enough, away back under the heavy roof of earth and roots, a snug round structure of green moss, little bigger than a croquet ball. The hole occupied by the roots when the tree stood erect was now filled with water, and before it waved a small forest of ferns. It was an ideal situation for a nest; pleasant to look at, and safe—if anything could be safe—from the small fur-clad gentry who claimed the wood and all it contained for their own.

"The hermit has no finer eye For shadowy quietness"

than had this pair of wise little wrens.

From the blissful moment of our discovery, whatever interesting excursion was planned, whatever choice nest to be sought, or charming family of nestlings to be called upon, our steps first turned of themselves up the wren path. Every day we saw the birds go in and out, on household cares intent, and we soon began to look for the exit of the younglings.

[Sidenote: I WAS STARTLED.]

During this time of close watching, it happened that for a day or two I was obliged to make my visit alone. Why is it that solitude in the depths of the forest has so mysterious an effect on the imagination? One dreads to make a noise, and though having nothing to fear, he instinctively steals about as if every tree concealed a foe. The first morning I sauntered along the lonely paths in silence, admiring for the hundredth time the trunks of the trees, with their varied decorations of lichen and their stately moss-grown insteps, and pausing a moment before the butternut which had divided itself in early youth, and now supported upon one root three tall and far-spreading trees. I had not heard the wren; and indeed the birds seemed unusually silent, the squirrels appeared to be asleep in their nests, and not a leaf was stirring. Wordsworth's admonition came into my mind:—

"Move along these shades In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand Touch—for there is a spirit in the woods."

Suddenly something sprang out from under a tree, as I passed, jerked at my gown, and ran after with noisy footsteps. I started, and quickly turned to face my assailant, expecting to see a bear at least. I found instead—a dead branch which had caught in my dress and was dragging behind me. I loosened the branch from its hold, and went on. But though I laughed at the absurdity, I found my nerves a little shaken. Just as I reached the wren corner a shriek arose, as if I had stepped on a whole family of birdlings. Again I started, when a saucy squirrel ran out on the branch of a tree, scolding me in good round terms.

It is impossible to discourage or tire out a squirrel; his business is never pressing, and if it were he considers it an important part of his duties to see that no one interferes with the nests he depends on for fresh eggs. He is sure to keep up a chatter which puts all the birds of the neighborhood on their guard; and as I was particularly desirous not to reveal to him the position of the wrens' nest, I stayed only long enough to assure myself that the little birds had not flown, and the parents were attending strictly to domestic affairs.

The next day I succeeded in reaching the wren quarter without arousing the ire of the squirrels, and I placed my seat very near the nest to see if the bird had learned not to fear me. Fixing my eyes on the place she must enter, I waited, motionless. Some time passed, and though I heard many bird notes about me, and the wren song itself afar off, there was no flit of wing nor faintest wren note near me. But suddenly a shadowy form passed in directly from the front, stayed an instant, and left in the same way. It was perfectly silent, not the slightest rustle of a feather, and it was so near the ground I could not tell whether it flew or ran; it appeared to glide. Brave little creature! I was heartily ashamed of annoying her. I moved my seat to a more respectful distance, and she went in and out as usual.


It was much more satisfactory watching the little mother about her daily cares than trying to keep track of her mate. He was one of the most baffling birds I ever tried to spy upon. Often I heard his delightful song so near that I was sure in a moment I should see him. Then I peered through the low bushes, without moving so much as an eyelash, expecting every instant that my eyes would fall upon him, and certain that not a leaf had rustled nor a twig sprung back, when all at once I heard him on the other side. He had flitted through the underbrush, not flying much, but hopping on or very near the ground, without a breath to betray him. The wren mother could not hide herself so completely from me, there being one spot on earth she could not desert,—the charming nook that held her babies; and yet, be as motionless as I might, I could not deceive her. She never could be convinced that I was a queer-shaped bush, not even when I held a maple bough before my face, and my garments harmonized perfectly with my surroundings. She always came near and bowed to me, jerked herself up, and flirted her wings and tail, as if to say, "I know you. You needn't try to hide." When I went too near, as on the occasion spoken of, while she was much more wary she was not afraid, and I had no compunctions about studying her quaint ways.

We were exceedingly desirous of seeing that family start out in life, and we did, in a way that startled us as much as it must have surprised them. "I wonder if they're gone," was our anxious thought every morning as we approached; and one day, not seeing either parent, we feared they had made their debut without our assistance, in the magical morning hours when so many things take place in the bird-world.

"I mean to see if they are still there," said my comrade, creeping up to the mass of roots, leaning far under, and carefully thrusting one finger into the nest.

A dynamite bomb could not have been more effective, nor more shocking to us, for lo! in sudden panic five baby wrens took flight in five different directions. The cause of the disturbance rose, with a look of discomfiture on her face, as if she had been caught robbing a nest. She seemed so dismayed that I laughed, while those wrenlings made the air fairly hum about her head.


That they were ready to fly, and only waiting for "the Discourager of Hesitancy" to start them, was plain, for every one used his little wings manfully,—perhaps I should say wren-fully,—and flew from fifteen to twenty feet before he came down. In less than a minute the air was filled with wren-baby chirps, and we seated ourselves to await the mother's return and witness the next act in the wren drama. The mother took it philosophically, recognizing the chirps, and locating them with an ease and precision that aroused envy in us bird-lovers, to whom young-bird calls seem to come from every direction at once. She immediately began to feed, and to collect them into a little flock. With her help we also found them, and watched them a long time: their pretty baby ways, their eager interest in the big world, their drawing together as they heard one another's voices, and their cozy cuddling up together on a log.

Feeling that we had made disturbance enough for one day, we finally went home; but the next day, and several days thereafter, we hunted up the little family as it wandered here and there in the woods, noting the putting on of pert wren ways, and the growth of confidence and helpfulness. We identified them fully as the family of our beautiful singer, for we saw him feed them, then mount a projecting root and sing his perfect rhapsody, not fifteen feet from us.

I must explain the name I have used, "the Discourager of Hesitancy." It is the invention of Mr. Frank Stockton, as every one knows, but I applied it to my fellow-student because of her conduct in the case of the wrens; and a day or two later she proved her right to it by her treatment of a chipping-sparrow family near the house. She took hold of the tip end of a branch and drew it down to look at the nest full of young chippies. "They're about ready to fly," she remarked calmly; and at that instant the branch was released, sprang up, and four young birds were suddenly tossed out upon the world. They sailed through the air, too much surprised to use their wings, and dropped back into the tree, which fortunately was a thick evergreen. The "Discourager's" face displayed a mixture of horror and shame that was very droll. She said the twig broke, but in the light of her behavior to the wrens, and her avowed pleasure in stirring birds up to see what they would do, I must say I have my suspicions, especially when I remember that that was the second family whose minds she had made up for them that week.

[Sidenote: THE WOODS EMPTY.]

After about ten days of watching the wren family, we lost their lively chirpings, the witching song ceased, the place seemed empty of wren life, and our charming acquaintance with them a thing to be remembered only. At least so we sadly thought, till nearly the end of July, when, on sauntering through the old paths for almost the last time (for me), we heard once more the familiar music, as full, as fresh, as bewitching, as in the spring. We sought the singer, eager to see as well as hear. After a tramp over underbrush and through a swamp, we saw him,—the same delightful bird, so far as we could tell; certainly he had sung the exact song that charmed us in early June. He had probably trained and started out in life his five babies, and now had time as well as inclination to sing again.

During the three days that were left of my stay I heard the enchanting voice every time I went into the woods,

"Chaunting his low impassioned vesper-hymn, Clear as the silver treble of a stream."



"O irritant, iterant, maddening bird!"

One lovely evening in May, I was walking down a quiet road, looking, as usual, for birds, when all at once there burst upon the sweet silence a loud alarm. "Chack! chack! chack! too! too! t-t-t! quawk! quawk!" at the top of somebody's loud resonant voice, as if the whole bird-world had suddenly gone mad. I looked about, expecting to see a general rush to the spot; but, to my surprise, no one seemed to notice it. A catbird on the fence went on with his bewitching song, and a wood thrush in the shrubbery dropped not a note of his heavenly melody.

"They have heard it before; it must be a chat," I said; and lo! on the top twig of a tall tree, brilliant in the setting sun, stood the singer. Never before had I seen one of the family show himself freely; and while I gazed he proceeded to exhibit another phase of chat manners, new to me,—wing antics, of which I had read. He flew out toward another tree-top, going very slowly, with his legs hanging awkwardly straight down. At every beat of the wings he threw them up over his back till they seemed to meet, jerked his expressive tail downward, and uttered a harsh "chack," almost pausing as he did so. "Not only a chat, but a character," was my verdict, as I turned back from my stroll.


For several years I had been trying to know the most eccentric bird in North America,—the yellow-breasted chat. Two or three times I had been able to study him a little, but never with satisfaction, and I was charmed to discover one of his kind so near the pleasant old family mansion in which I had established myself for the summer. This house, which had been grand in its day, but, like the whole place, was now tottering with age, was an ideal spot for a bird-lover, being delightfully neglected and gone to seed. Berry patches run wild offered fascinating sites for nests; moss-covered apple-trees supplied dead branches for perching; great elms and chestnuts, pines and poplars, scattered over the grounds, untrimmed and untrained, presented something to suit all tastes; and above all, there existed no nice care-taker to disturb the paradise into which Mother Nature had turned it for her darlings.

It was a month later than this before I discovered where the chat and his mate, the image of himself, had taken up their abode for the season, and then I was drawn by his calls to another old tangle of blackberry bramble at the upper edge of the orchard. "Quoik!" he began, very low, and then quickly added, "Whe-up! ch'k! ch'k! toot! toot! too! t-t-t-t-t!" concluding with a very good imitation of a watchman's rattle. I hastened toward the spot, and was again treated to that most absurd wing performance, followed by an exhibition of himself in plain sight, and then a circling around my head, till, tired of pranks or satisfied with his survey, he dropped out of sight in the bushes.

Here, I said to myself, is a chat of an unfamiliar sort; just as eccentric as any of his race, and not at all averse to being seen; wary, but not shy; and at once I was eager to know him, for the great and undying charm of bird study lies in the individuality of these lovely fellow-creatures, and the study of each one is the study of a unique personality, with characteristics, habits, and a song belonging exclusively to itself. Not even in externals are birds counter-parts of one another. Close acquaintance with one differentiates him decidedly from all his fellows; should his plumage resemble that of his brethren,—which it rarely does,—his manners, expressions, attitudes, and specific "ways" are peculiarly his own.


The blackberry patch pointed out by the chat occupied the whole length of a steep little slope between a meadow and the orchard, and at the lower edge rested against a fence in the last stages of decrepitude. During many years of neglect it had almost returned to a state of wildness. Long, briery runners had bound the whole into an impenetrable mass, forbidding alike to man and beast, and neighboring trees had sprinkled it with a promising crop of seedlings; or, as Lowell pictures it,—

"The tangled blackberry, crossed and recrossed, weaves A prickly network of ensanguined leaves."

As if planned for the use of birds, at one end stood a delectable watch-tower in the shape of a great elm, and at the other a cluster of smaller trees,—apple, ash, and maple. These advantages had not escaped the keen eyes of our clever little brothers, and it was a centre of busy life during the nesting season.

The first time I attempted to find the chat's nest, the bird himself accompanied me up and down the borders of this well-fortified blackberry thicket, mocking at me, and uttering his characteristic call, a sort of mew, different from that of the catbird or the cat, at the same time carefully keeping his precious body entirely screened by the foliage. Well he knew that no clumsy, garmented human creature however inquisitive, could penetrate his thorny jungle, and doubtless the remarks so glibly poured out were sarcastic or exultant over my failure; for though I walked the whole length, and at every step peered into the bushes, no nest could I discover.

Somewhat later I made the acquaintance of the domestic partner of the chat family. She was less talkative than her spouse, as are most feathered dames—a wise arrangement in the bird-world, for what would become of the nest and nestlings, if the home-keepers had as much to say as their mates? She sat calmly on the fence, as I passed, or dressed her plumage on the branch of a tree, uttering no sound except, rarely, the common mewing call. She was a wise little thing, too. When I caught her carrying a locust, and at once concluded she had young to feed, as quickly as if she had read my thoughts she let her prey drop, looking at me, as who should say, "You see I am not carrying food." But though I admired her quick wit and respected her motive, I did not believe the little mother, and despite the attractiveness of the head of the household I kept close watch upon her, hoping to track her home. I soon observed that she always rose from the tangle at one spot near the elm; but vainly did I creep through what once might have been a path between the blackberries, though I did have the satisfaction of seeing the singer uneasy, and of feeling sure that, as the children say, I was "very warm."

[Sidenote: A CUNNING DAME.]

Day after day, in fair weather or foul, in cold or heat, I took my way down the lane, and seated myself as comfortably as circumstances would admit, to spy upon the brown-and-gold family; and day after day I was watched in turn,—sometimes by the singer, restlessly flying from tree to tree, peering down to study me from all sides, and amusing me with all his varied eccentricities of movement and song, if one may thus name his vocal performances. Occasionally madam condescended to entertain, or, what is more probable, tried to perplex me by her tactics. She scorned the transparent device of drawing me away from the dangerous vicinity by pretending to be hurt, or by grotesque exhibitions. Her plan was far more cunning than these: it was to point out to the eager seeker after forbidden knowledge, convenient places where the nest might be—but certainly was not,—and so to bewilder the spy, by many hints, that she would not realize it when the real passage to the waiting nestlings was made. The wise little matron would alight on the fence and look anxiously down, seemingly about to drop into the nest; then, as if she really could not make up her mind to do so while I looked on, fly to a blackberry spray and do it all over again. In a moment she would repeat the performance from an elm sapling, and again turn anxious and lingering glances in still another direction. Then, as if now she surely must go home, she would slip in among the bushes, apparently trying to keep out of sight. At last, having thoroughly mystified me, and confused my ideas past clearing up, with a dozen or more hints, she would fly over the small elm and disappear, in a different direction from any one of the places she had with such pretended reluctance pointed out. Nor was the nest to be found by following any of her hints.

One day, when the beguiling little dame had exasperated me beyond endurance, I suddenly resolved to track her to the nest, if it took the whole day. So when she flung herself, in her usual way, over the small elm, I instantly followed, in my humbler fashion. Under the fence I crept, through the patched-up opening the cows had broken through, and up the path they had attempted to make. Now I fully appreciated the wisdom of the bird in the choice of a nesting-site. The very blackberry bushes appeared to league themselves together for her protection, stretching long, detaining arms, and clutching my garments in all sorts of unexpected and impossible ways; and while I carefully disengaged one, half a dozen others snatched at me in new quarters, till, in despair, I jerked away, leaving a portion of my gown in their grasp. Thus fighting my way, inch by inch, I progressed slowly, until the chat's becoming silent encouraged me to fling prudence to the winds, and pull aside every bush at the risk of tearing the flesh off my hands on the briers.

[Sidenote: A NEST AT LAST!]

At last a nest! My heart beat high. I struggled nearer, cautiously, not to alarm the owner; for though I must see the nest, I had no desire to disturb it. I parted the vines and looked in. Empty, and plainly a year old!

Forgetting the brambles in my disappointment, I turned hastily away, when the bush, as if in revenge for my discovery of its secret, seized my garments in a dozen places; and suffering in gown and temper, I tore myself away from the birds' too zealous guardians and wandered up the lane.

The lane was an enticing spot, with young blackberry runners stretching out tender green bloom toward whom they might reach, and clematis rioting over and binding together in flowery chains all the shrubs and weeds and young trees. What happiness to dwell in the grounds of the "shiftless" farmer! Since tidiness, with most cultivators, means the destruction of all natural beauty, and especially the cutting down of everything that interferes with the prosperity of cabbages and potatoes, blessed is untidiness to the lover of Nature. So long as I study birds I shall carefully seek out the farmer who has lost his energy, and allows Nature her own inimitable way in his fields and lanes. The fascinations of that neglected corner cannot be put into words. The whole railroad embankment which bordered it on one side, stretching far above my head, was a mad and joyous tangle of wild-grape vines. In the shade of a cluster of slender trees was a spot enriched by springs, where flourished the greenest of ferns, sprinkled with Jack-in-the-pulpits and forget-me-nots. This was the delight of my heart, and my consolation for the trials connected with chat affairs.

Alas that the usual fate of Nature's divine work should overtake it; that into a "shiftless" head should come the thought that railroad ties and fallen trees make good firewood, and without too much trouble can be dragged out by horses! As a preliminary calamity, half-starved cows were turned in to nibble the grass, and incidentally to trample and crush flowers and ferns into one ghastly ruin. And at the same moment, as if inspired by the same spirit of destruction, some idle railroad "hand," with a scythe, laid low the whole bank of grapevines. Ruthless was the ruin, and wrecked beyond repair the spot, after man's desolating hand passed over it; a scene of violence, of dead and dying scattered over the trampled and torn-up sod; "murder most foul" in the eyes of a Nature-lover. I could not bear to look upon it. I shunned it, lest I should hate my fellow-man, who can, unnecessarily and in pure wantonness, destroy in one hour what he cannot replace in a lifetime.


Nor was that the full measure of sufferings inflicted on the lane—and me. That beautiful green passageway happened to be a short cut from the meadow, and horse-rake and hay-wagon made the ravage complete. The one crushed and dragged out every sweet-growing thing spared by the previous devastators, and the other defiled with wisps of dead grass every branch that reached over its grateful shade. It was pitiful, as much for the exhibition thus made of a man's insensible and sordid existence, as for the laceration of my feelings and the actual ruin wrought.

A pleasanter theme is the love-making in which I chanced to catch the beautiful but bewildering pair in the blackberry bushes. Madam, hopping about an old apple-tree, was apparently not in the least interested in her lover, who followed after, in comical fashion, with ludicrous and truly chat-like antics, every feather raised, crouching, with head turned this way and that, and neck stretched out, and changing his position at every hop with the most dramatic action. If modern theories are true, and bird eccentricities of dress and behavior are assumed to please and win the mate, what must we think of the taste of our demure little sisters in feathers?

Did I ever assert that the chat is shy? Then am I properly punished for not appreciating his individuality, by having to admit that this pair possessed not a trace of the quality. The singer seemed to be always on exhibition; and as for his spouse, though she performed no evolutions, she came boldly into sight, postured in the most approved Delsartian style, uttered a harsh purr or jerked out a "mew," with a sidewise fling of her head which showed the inside of her mouth to be black,—all for my benefit, and without the slightest embarrassment. She made it obvious to the dullest understanding, that while she did not like spies, nor approve of human curiosity in neighborhood matters, she was not in the least afraid.

As the days passed on, a change crept over the chat family; they became more retiring. In my daily walk they were not so easily found; indeed, sometimes they were not to be seen at all. When I did discover them, they seemed very much engaged in private affairs, with no time for displays of any sort. No more droll performances on the tree-top, no more misleading antics in the blackberries; the days of frolic were over, the sober duties of life claimed all their energies, and they went about silently and stealthily. Of course I was sure something had happened to induce this change,—no doubt nestlings,—and a great and absorbing determination grew in my mind to find that nest, if I suffered in body and estate from every bush in the patch.


Let the story of my encounter be veiled in oblivion. Suffice it to say that perseverance under such difficulties deserved, and met, reward. In due time I saw the bird flit away, and my eyes fell upon the nest. No birds, but four pearls of promise within.

"Think on the speed, and the strength, and the glory, The wings to be, and the joyous life, Shut in those exquisite secrets, she brooded."

I looked, but did not touch; and I departed content. A few days later I made another call. Again I flushed the mother from the nest, and this time looked upon a brown mass of wriggling baby chats. Meanwhile, since life had become so serious, the chat sobered down into the dignified head of a family, and joined his mate in hard work from morning till night.

But summer days were passing. Dandelion ghosts lined the paths, wild roses dropped their rosy pink and appeared in sombre green, and meadow lilies peeped out from every fence corner. A few days after my grand discovery, I went one evening to the blackberry tangle, and was greeted by gleeful shouts and calls from the bird of late so silent. There he was, his old self, his recent reserve all gone. My heart fell; I suspected, and in a moment I knew the reason. The nest was empty. Where, then, could be those youngsters, less than a week old, who four days before were blind and bare of feathers? They could not have flown; they must have been hurried out of the nest as soon as they could stand. Could it be because I knew their secret? I felt myself a monster, and I tried to make amends by hunting them up and replacing them. But the canny parents, as usual, outwitted me. Not only had they removed their infants, but they had hidden them so securely that I could not find them, and I was sure, from their movements, that they were not bereaved.


I began my search by trying to follow the wily singer, who appeared to understand, and regard it as a joke. First he led me up the lane, then I had to follow down the lane; the next minute he shouted from the blackberry patch, and I had to go around the wall to reach him. Alas, the race between wings and feet is hopeless! I abandoned that plan, and resolved to go to a grove not heretofore invaded, being absolutely impenetrable from undergrowth. My way led across a cornfield, over stone walls, through thickets and bushes everywhere. Many other birds I startled, and at last came a chat's "mew" from a wild jungle of ailantus and brambles, which nothing less effective than an axe could pass through. But on I went around the edge, the chat's call accompanying me, and at the point where it sounded loudest I dropped to a humble position, hoping that eyes might enter further than feet. Nothing to be seen or heard but a flit of wings. The singer tried to lead me away, but I was serious and not to be coaxed, and all his man[oe]uvres failed. I seated myself on the ground, for now I heard low, soft baby calls, and determined to stay there till the crack of doom, or till I had solved the mystery of those calls.

But I did not stay so long, and I did not see the babies. An hour or two of watching weakened my determination, and slowly and sadly I wended my way homeward; admiring, while I execrated, the too, too clever tactics of the chat. But I did make one discovery,—that a sound which had puzzled me, like the distant blow of an axe against a tree, must be added to the repertoire of the chat mother. I saw her utter it, and saw the strange movement of the throat in doing so. The sound seemed to come up in bubbles, which distended her throat on the outside exactly as if they had been beads as big as shoe buttons.

I was not to be wholly disappointed. Fate had one crumb of consolation for me, for I saw at last a chat baby. He was a quiet, well-behaved little fellow, with streaks on throat and breast, and dull yellow underparts. His manners were subdued, and gave no hint of the bumptious acrobat he might live to be.

While the vagaries of chat life had been drawing me down toward the lane, the feathered world on the other side of the house had not been idle; and glad now to avoid the ruined lane and the deserted berry patch, I turned my attention to a bird drama nearer home, the story of which must have a chapter to itself.



Mr. Bradford Torrey has started an inquiry into the conduct of the ruby-throated hummingbird, who is said, contrary to the habits of the feathered world in general, to absent himself from his family during the time that his mate is brooding and rearing the young. The question of interest to settle is his motive in so doing. Does he consider his brilliant ruby dangerous to the safety of the nest, and so deny himself the pleasure as well as the pain of family life? Does he selfishly desert outright, and return to bachelor ways, when his mate settles herself to her domestic duties? Or does the pugnacious little creature herself decline not only his advice and counsel, but even his presence?

This problem in the life of the bird has lent new interest to its study, and I was greatly pleased, last summer, when the bursting into bloom of a trumpet creeper, which clad with beauty the branches of an old locust-tree, attracted to the door of my temporary home this

"Rare little bird of the bower, Bird of the musical wing."

No sooner did the great red trumpets begin to open than their winged admirers appeared, and the special object of my interest—whether by right of discovery or by force of will I could not determine—asserted her claim to the vine and its vicinity, and at once proceeded to evict every pretender to any share of the treasure. Nor was it a difficult task; for though the smallest of our birds, the ruby-throat is perhaps the most spirited. No bird, not even the mighty eagle, standard-bearer of the republic, is too big for this midget to attack, and none fails to retire before his rapier-like beak. Madam of the vine lacked none of the courage and self-assertion of her race, and a few lively skirmishes convinced the neighbors, with one exception, that this particular crop of blossoms was preempted and no trespassing allowed. That matter happily arranged, she settled down in peace to enjoy her estate, and I followed her example.

July was nearly half gone when blossoms began to unclose on the vine and my lady took possession. The world about the house and orchard was full of melody, for goldfinches were just celebrating their nuptials, and birds have to furnish their own wedding music. Though a march may express the pomp and ceremony of human marriage, a rhapsody is more in harmony with joyous bird unions, and the air rang with their raptures. The marriage hymn of the hummingbird—if any there were—was not for human ears; indeed, most of the life, certainly all of the wedded life of this bird, is shrouded in mystery, perhaps never to be unraveled till we understand bird language, and can subject him to an "interview."


The first thing that surprised me in my little neighbor was her volubility, for I had never found her kin talkative. She made remarks to herself, doubtless both witty and wise, but sounding to her dull-eared hearers, it must be confessed, like squeaky twitters; and somewhat later, when she recognized me as an admirer, as I fully believe she did, she even addressed some conversation to me, going out of her way to fly over my head as she did so.

Nothing could be more dainty than her way of exploring the flowers on her vine. Poising herself on wing before a blossom, she first gazed earnestly into its rosy depths, to judge of its quality,—or possibly of its tenants; for it was not nectar alone that she sought. If it pleased her, she dashed upon it, seized the lower rim with her tiny claws, and folded her wings. Then drawing her head far back, she thrust her beak, her head, and sometimes her whole body into the flower tube, her plump little form completely filling it; and there she hung motionless for a few seconds, while I struggled with the temptation to inclose blossom and bird in my hand. If the flower chanced to be an old one, her roughness sometimes detached it, when she hastily backed out, protesting indignantly, and looking over to see it fall.

Atom though the hummer was, hardly more than a pinch of feathers, she was a decided character, with notions and ways of her own. One of her fancies was to open the honey-pots for herself. When she found a bud beginning to unclose, a lobe or two unfolded, she at once took it in hand and vigorously proceeded to aid the process with her needle-like beak, and the instant it was accomplished rushed in to secure her spoils in their first freshness. She never appeared to have patience to wait for anything, and sometimes even tried to hurry up dilatory buds. She did succeed, as such vehemence must, in breaking in the back way, as it were, through a hole in the corolla tube, and rifling the bud before it had a chance to become a blossom. I could not decide positively whether she pierced the tubes, or availed herself of the labors of an oriole I had seen splitting them by inserting his beak and then opening it wide to enlarge the hole.


One quality that my little friend most woefully lacked was repose. Not only were her motions jerky and exasperating in the extreme, but during my whole acquaintance with her I never saw her for a moment absolutely still. On the rare occasions when her body was at rest, her head turned from side to side as though moved by machinery, like the mandarin dolls of the toy-shops, and I had doubts whether she ever slept. I was really concerned about her. Nervous prostration seemed the only thing she could look forward to; and later I found that Bradford Torrey had suffered similar anxiety about one of her kind, as related in his charming story, "A Widow and Twins."

There was one exception, as I said, to the complete success of the little lady in green, in establishing her claim to the vine. The individual who refused to be convinced interested me greatly. He looked a guileless and innocent youth; his tender age being indicated by a purer white on the breast and a not fully grown tail. Moreover, he was not so deft in movement as the experienced matron he defied; he was almost clumsy, in fact, having some difficulty in man[oe]uvring his unwieldy beak and getting his head into the tube, and being much disconcerted by the swaying of the blossoms in the breeze. Youth and innocence were shown, too, in the manner of the little stranger toward my lady. He approached her in a confiding way, as if expecting a welcome, and was plainly astonished at being attacked instead. Indeed, he apparently could not believe his repulse was serious, for he soon returned in the most friendly spirit, and utterly refused to be driven away.

After making myself well acquainted with the manners and ways of Madam Ruby-throat, and noting that she always took her departure in exactly the same direction and at quite regular intervals, I began to suspect that she had important business somewhere; probably a nest, possibly a pair of twin babies. Should I undertake the hopeless task of seeking that tiny lichen-covered cradle, so nearly resembling a thousand knots and other protuberances that one might as easily find the proverbial needle in a hay-stack, or should I turn my attention to other inviting quarters on the place? While I hesitated, balancing the attractions, madam herself chanced to give me a hint. One morning, as I was watching her steady flight across the lawn, I caught a decided upward swerve of the gleaming line, and instantly resolved to take the hint, if such it were. I went quietly to a pear-tree on her course, and waited for the next point, if she chose to give it. She did; she was most obliging,—may I venture to say friendly? Almost immediately she passed me, and alighted on one of a row of tall trees that lined the road. There she hovered for a moment, giving sharp digs at one spot, as though detaching something, and then flew straight along the line to an immense silver poplar.


Here at last the bird settled, and a wild hope sprang up in my heart. Stealing nearer to the tree without taking my eyes from the spot; ignoring the danger of pitfalls in my path, of holes to fall into and rocks to fall over, of briers to scratch and snakes to bite, I drew as near as I dared, and then cautiously raised my glass to my eyes, and behold! the nest with my lady upon it! The thrill of that moment none but a fellow bird-lover can understand. What now was the most beguiling of chats; what the danger of dislocating my neck; what the dread of neighborhood wonder; what the annoyance of mosquitoes, or dogs, or small boys, or loose cattle, or anything? There was the nest. (I am obliged to admit, parenthetically, that nearly all these calamities befell me during my devotion to that nest, but I never faltered in my attentions, and I never regretted.)

At the moment of discovery, however, I was too excited to watch. First carefully locating the tiny object by means of a dead branch,—for I knew I should have to seek it again if I lost it then, and the luck of finding it so easily could not fall to me twice,—I rushed to the house to share my enthusiasm with a sympathizer.

My lady ruby-throat was a canny bird; she had selected her position with judgment. The silver poplar of her choice was covered with knobs so exactly copied by the nest that no one would have suspected it of being anything different. It was on a dead branch, so that foliage could not trouble her, while leafy twigs grew near enough for protection. No large limb afforded rest for a human foe, and it was at the neck-breaking height of twenty feet from the ground. Neck-breaking indeed I found it, after a trial of twenty minutes' duration, which, judging from my sensations, might have been a century.

But whether my head ever recovered its natural pose or not, I was happy; for I saw the hummingbird shaping her snug domicile to her tidy form, turning around and around in it, pressing with breast and bend of the wing, as I was certain, from the similarity of her attitude and motions to those of a robin I had closely watched at the same work. During the time I watched her she made ten trips between the poplar and the vine, and at every visit worked at shaping the nest and adjusting the outside material. She did not care for my distant and inoffensive presence on the earth below, and she probably did not suspect the power of my glass to spy upon her secrets, for she showed no discomfiture at my frequent visits. Indeed, she took pains to let me know that she had her eye upon me, for twice when she left the nest she swerved from her course to swoop down over my head, squeaking most volubly as she passed.

[Sidenote: A CHARMING SPOT.]

While sitting at my post of observation, my neck sometimes refused to retain its unnatural position a moment longer, and then I refreshed myself with other objects around; for after some search I had found a charming place for study. It was beside a rocky ledge which ran through the middle of a bit of meadow-land, and happily defied being cultivated, although it supported a flourishing crop of wildings,—scattering elm, oak, and pine trees, with sumac, goldenrod, and other sweet things to fill up the tangle. Under a low-spreading tree I placed my seat: at my back the screening rocks, in front a strip of meadow waiting for the mower. Along the side where I entered ran a stone wall, but before me was a stretch of delightfully dilapidated old board and pole fence. It had been reinforced and made available for keeping out undesirables by barbed wire, but at my distance that was inconspicuous and did not disturb me. The fence had never been painted, the wind and weather of many years had toned it down to the hue of a tree-trunk, and it was so thoroughly decorated with lichens that it had come to look almost like a bit of nature's work,—if nature could have made anything so ugly. I believe the birds regarded it as a special arrangement for their benefit. Certainly they used it freely.

But beyond the fence was a genuine bit of nature's handiwork in which man had no part: an extended and luxuriant tangle, bordering the river, of alder and other bushes, with here and there a young tree, elm, apple, cedar, or wild cherry; and winding through it a bewitching path, made by cows in their unconventional and meandering style and for their own convenience, penetrating every charming nook in the shrubbery, and so unnoticeable at its entrance that one might pass it and not suspect its presence. In this path bushes met over their heads, often not high enough for ours, wild roses perfumed the air, and meadow-sweet lingered long after it was gone from haunts less cool and shaded. Every turn offered a new and fascinating picture, and a stroll through the irresistible way always began or ended my day's study.


For several days following my happy discovery I spent much time watching domestic affairs in the poplar-tree. The little matron was not a steady sitter. From two to four minutes, at intervals of about the same length, was as long as she could possibly remain in one place; and even then she entertained herself by rearranging the materials composing her nest, till I began to fear she would have it pulled to pieces before the birdlings appeared. Beautiful beyond words was her manner of entering and leaving her snug home. On departing, she simply spread her wings and floated off, as if lifted by the rising tide of an invisible element; and on returning, she sank from a height of ten or twelve inches, as if by the subsidence of the same tide.

This corner of my small world, however enchanting with its rocky ledge, its cow-path, and its nest, did not absorb me entirely. Life about the trumpet-vine was far more stirring and eventful. It was there that madam spent half her time, for at that point, as well as at the nest, were duties to be performed, her larder to be defended, intruders to be banished, and crops to be gathered; there, too, in the intervals, her toilet to be made. That a creature so tiny should make a toilet at all was wonderful to think of, and to see her do it was charming. Each minute feather on gossamer wing or widespread tail was passed carefully through her beak; from all soft plumage, the satin white of the breast and the burnished green of the back, every particle of dust was removed and every disarrangement was set right. Her long white tongue, looking like a bristle, was often thrust out far beyond the beak, and the beak itself received an extra amount of care, being scraped and polished its whole length by a tiny claw, which was used also for combing the head feathers.

At the vine, too, was war; for the youngster already mentioned persisted in denying the matron's right to the whole, and many a sharp tussle they had, when for an hour at a time there would not be a shadow of peace for anybody. Occasionally madam would relax her opposition to the intruder and let him remain on the vine; but with the proverbial ingratitude of beneficiaries, he then assumed to own it himself, and flew at her when she returned from a visit to her nest, as if she had no right there. His advantage lay in having nothing else to do, and thus being able to spend all his time on the ground.

The energy of the little mother was wonderful. In spite of the unrest of her life, of continual struggles, and work over the nest, she frequently indulged in marvelous aerial evolutions, dashing into the air and marking it off into zigzag lines and angles, as if either she did not know her own mind for two seconds at a time, or was forced to take this way to work off surplus vitality. During all this time I was hoping to see her mate. But if he appeared at all, as several times a ruby-throated individual did, she promptly sent him about his business.


It was the 19th of July when I decided that sitting had finally begun on the poplar-tree nest, madam controlling her restlessness sometimes for the great space of ten minutes, and working no more on the structure. Now I redoubled my vigilance, going out from the breakfast-table, and spending my day under the rocky ledge, leaving matters at the trumpet-vine to take care of themselves. On the 28th I started out as usual. There had been a heavy fog all night and not a breath of wind stirring, and I found the whole world loaded with waterdrops. When I reached the stone wall which bounded my delightsome field, and slipped through my private gate, I stopped in amazement at the sight before me. The fine meadow-grass was bowed down with its weight of treasure, as if a strong wind had laid it low, and every stem strung its whole length with minute crystals. Purple-flowering grasses turned the infinitesimal gems that adorned every angle into richest amethysts, and looked like jeweled sprays fit for the queen of fairies. Every spider's web was glorified into a net of pearls of many sizes, all threatening, if touched, to mass themselves and run down the tunnel, at the bottom of which, it is to be presumed, sat Madam Arachne waiting for far other prey.

I looked on all this magnificence with admiration and dismay. Should I wade through that sea of gems, which at the touch of my garments would resolve themselves, like the diamonds of the fairy tales, not into harmless dead leaves, but into mere vulgar wet? The hummer flew by to her nest, goldfinches called from the ledge. I hesitated—and went on. Making a path before me with my stick, stepping with care, to disturb no drop unnecessarily, and leaving to every spider her net full of pearls, I reached my usual place, and seated myself in a sea of jewels such as no empress ever wore. And behold, the old fence too was transfigured with strange hieroglyphics, into which dampness had changed the lichens, and one half-dead old tree, under the same subtle influence, had clad its bare and battered branches in royal velvet, of varied tints of green, white, and black.

At last I turned lingeringly from all this beauty to the nest. Ah! something had happened there too! Madam sat on the edge, leaned over, and made some movements within. At my distance I could not be positive, but I could guess—and I did, and subsequent events confirmed me—that birdlings were out. Like other bird mammas, she sat on those infants as steadily as she had sat on the eggs, and it was a day or two later before I saw her feed. This was the murderous-looking fashion in which that dainty sprite administered nourishment to her babies: she clung to the edge of the nest, and appeared to address herself to the task of charging an old-fashioned muzzle-loading gun, using her beak for a ramrod, and sending it well home, violently enough, one would suppose, to disintegrate the nestling on whom she operated. If I had not read Mr. Torrey's description of hummingbird feeding, I should have thought the green-clad dame was destroying her offspring, instead of tenderly ministering to their wants.


Bird babies grow apace. Appetites waxed stronger, and the trumpet-vine had dropped its blossoms. The little mother had to seek new fields, and she settled on a patch of jewel-weed for her supplies. Now, if ever, was needed the help of her mate, but not once did he show himself. Was he loitering—as the books hint—at a distance, and did she go to him now and then, on her many journeys, to tell him how the young folk progressed? I cannot tell; I was busy watching the business partner; I had no time to hunt up absentees. But I have a "theory," which may or may not explain his apparent indifference. It is that the small dame, so intolerant of neighbors even on her feeding-ground, simply cannot endure any one about her, and prefers to do all her building and bringing-up herself, with no one to "bother." Have we not seen her prototype in the human world?

The young hummers had been out of their shells for two weeks before I saw them, and then the sight was unsatisfactory,—only the flutter of a tiny wing, and two sharp beaks thrust up above the edge. But after this day beaks were nearly always to be seen, and sometimes a small round head, or a glistening white tongue, or the point of a wing appeared to encourage me. Baby days were now fast passing away; the mother fed industriously, and the "pair of twins," waxed strong and pert, sat up higher in the nest, and began the unceasing wag of the head from side to side, like their mother. What a fairy-like world was this they were now getting acquainted with! What to them was the presence of human beings, with their interests, their anxieties, and their cares, passing far below on the road, or what even the solitary bird-student, sitting hour after hour by the rocks in silence, turning inquisitive eyes upon them? The green tree was their world, and their mother was queen. Valiantly did this indefatigable personage drive away every intruder, bravely facing the chickadee who happened to alight in passing, even showing fight to the wasps that buzzed about her castle in the air. I shall always think she really knew me, and had a not unfriendly feeling toward me, for when I met her about the place, even away from the nest, she frequently greeted me with what one would not wish to be so disrespectful as to call a squeaking twitter.

[Sidenote: THE BABY FLIES.]

As the end of the three weeks reported to be necessary to fit baby hummers for life drew near, I rarely left the rocky ledge for an hour of daylight, so anxious was I to see a nestling try his wings. The mother herself seemed to be in a state of expectancy, and would often, after feeding, linger about the little home, as if inviting or expecting a youngster to come out to her. At the last I could not stay in my bed in the morning, but rushed out before sunrise, remembering how momentous are the early morning hours in the bird-world. But it was noon of the twenty-first day of his life when the first baby flew. He had just been fed, and he sat on the edge of the nest beating his wings, when all at once away he went, floating off like a bit of thistledown, up and out of sight. Though expecting it and looking for it, I was greatly startled when the moment came.

The last act in the little drama was a pretty scene in the bushes. I was wandering about in the hope of one more interview, when suddenly my lady and a young one alighted on a twig before me. She appeared to feed the youth, hovered about him an instant, and with the tip of her beak touched him gently on the forehead. Then, with a farewell twitter, both flew away over my head, so closely they almost swept me with their wings. And so the pretty story of the nest was ended.



Truly a fairy-like dwelling was that nest on the apple-tree; about the size of a walnut, with one leaf for a shelter. It was placed—I had almost said grew—in a slender crotch of a low-hanging bough. No coarse grass stems or bark fibres bound it to its slight moorings; it seemed to stand by its own fitness, to be a part of the branch itself. Soft, creamy-hued vegetable cotton, pressed and felted into a certain firmness of consistency, formed the structure, and a close covering of lichens held it in shape and completed its beauty, while giving an apple-branch tone that made it almost invisible. An inch in depth and the same in breadth furnished ample quarters for the twin hummingbird babies whose home it was.

But the charm that had drawn me across four States to study it was its situation. For when has one of those airy sprites, with the whole expanse of the tallest trees at command, chosen to come down to the level of mortals, to set up her domestic gods within reach of a human hand, and within hearing of a human ear? What friendly spirit bade her select a scantily leaved branch, backed by the heavy foliage of luxuriant maples, that rendered her fairy-like home conspicuous whatever the weather and wherever the sunlight fell? By what happy thought did she settle upon a low bough with long swaying ends, by which to draw it gently down, and thus let the enraptured bird-lover watch closely day by day the growth and development of her darlings? and so near a house that one could look into it from a window? Long railway trips in dusty August, the hot days and hotter nights of that fiery month, and the various minor discomforts of close summer—boarder quarters were all forgotten in a great joy.

Nothing was ever more bewitching to watch than that atom in feathers, the hummingbird mother. She was so tiny that her life might be crushed out between a thumb and finger, yet she was full of love and anxiety about her birdlings. She was thoughtful in her care of them, and industrious in supplying their wants. In a word, she was a pattern of perfect and beautiful motherhood. Charming it was, beyond expression, to see her come home to her beloved, embroidering angles in the air,—hummingbird fashion,—pausing a dozen times on wing, looking at them from as many points of view, and at length dropping lightly as a feather upon the edge, like a fairy godmother with her gifts of food; and then in a few moments suddenly rise, up—up—up, with body erect as if mounting an invisible ladder, till, at five or six feet above, she shot away so swiftly no eye could follow her.


When startled, as she frequently was in her close proximity to our noisy race, she darted off like a flash, forward or backward, upward or downward, never turning, but dashing in any direction opposite to the quarter from which the disturbance came. On the rare occasions when she was not frightened, she seemed unable to tear herself away. She would hover about her nest, five or six inches from it, this side and that, over and around again, with eyes apparently fixed on her treasures, sometimes daintily touching with the tip of her beak the nest, or one of the nestlings, in a caressing manner.

The small dame too, though wary and easily startled, had a great deal of repose of manner. When settled over her infants, she sat still most of the time, not moving her head from side to side in the restless way of some of her family, but looking straight before her and as quiet as a thrush.

In another way the little mother ignored the traditions; she did not always hum. Until the little ones were ten or twelve days old she came to the nest in perfect silence; after that she began to hum, and by the time they were two weeks old she came with her characteristic note every time.

It is interesting to see how all birds recognize and respect the right of a mother to her own tree, or the part of a tree on which she has set up her home. Big birds like robins and thrashers, even belligerent ones, who will not generally allow themselves to be driven, usually depart speedily before the beak of the least of mothers asserting her ownership of a tree or bush; not because they are afraid of her, but because they appreciate the justice of her title, and demand the same for themselves.


Small as was the apple-tree dweller, she had managed, before I knew her, to establish her claim to her own vicinity. Goldfinches and yellow warblers, vireos and robins, were about; I heard them on all sides, but not one intruded upon her tree or the neighboring sides of the maples. As the young progressed and waxed bumptious, she became more and more cautious. She made many more angles and observations in the air before alighting, looking at them from every possible side, as if wishing to assure herself that nothing had happened in her absence. She even resented the presence under her tree of a hen and chickens, and flew at them with savage cries. But the barnyard matron was too much absorbed in her own maternal anxieties to pay any heed to the midget buzzing and squeaking around her head; and madam herself seemed to appreciate the absurdity of her proceeding, for in a moment she returned to her duties, and remonstrated no more.

* * * * *

How shall I picture the growth and development of the twins in that cherished home! Where shall I find words delicate and subtle enough to describe the change as I saw it from day to day, from puny atoms the size of a honey-bee to fledged and full-grown hummingbirds! Every morning, watching and waiting till the whole of our little world was at breakfast, I drew down the fateful branch and indulged in a long, close look at them, and no language at my command is adequate to describe the process of unfolding.

At first sight of the two I was lost in amazement. Could those minute, caterpillar-like objects, covered with scanty and scattering hairs, lying side by side in the bottom of their miniature cradle, be the offspring of the winged sprites of the bird-world? Would those short, wide, duck-like beaks ever become the needle-shaped probers of flowers? Would wings ever grow on those grub-like bodies? They were at this time four and five days old; for though they appeared like twins, I learned from previous watchers that there was a day's difference between them.

After I had looked and wondered, and returned to my seat behind the window-blinds to watch, the mother came to feed. It would be pleasant to imagine that the food brought by that dainty dame, and administered to her beloved brood, consisted of the nectar of flowers, drawn from the sweet peas that filled the garden with beauty and perfume, the gay flaunting scarlet beans over the way, or the golden drops of the jewel-weed modestly hiding under their broad leaves, in the hollow down by the bridge. But Science, in her relentless substitution of fact for fancy, does not allow us this agreeable delusion. Something far more substantial, not to say gross, we are informed, is required to build up the muscle and bone of the atoms in the nest. Meat is what they must have, and meat it was, in the shape of tiny spiders and perhaps other minute creatures, that mamma was seeking when she hovered under the maple boughs, now and then touching a twig or the underside of a leaf. Indeed, one might occasionally see her pick off her spider as deftly as one would pick a peach.

[Sidenote: A FEARFUL SIGHT.]

Hummingbird feeding has been graphically described more than once; but when the food-bearer arrived I seized my glass, eager to see it again. This is the way my fairy-like mother administered the staff of life to her tender birdlings. Alighting on the edge of the nest, she leaned over, and with her beak jerked a little head into sight above the edge; then down the baby's throat she thrust her long beak its whole length; and it looked actually longer than the youngster itself. Then she prodded and shook the unfortunate nestling, who seemed to hold on, till I wondered his head did not come off. It was truly fearful to witness. In a moment, shaking off, apparently with difficulty, that one, who dropped out of sight, she jerked up the other, and treated it in the same rough way, shaking her own body from head to tail by her exertion. Thus alternately she fed them, three or four times, before she finished; and then she calmly slipped on to the nest, wriggling and twisting about as if she were pawing them over with her feet. There she sat for five or six minutes before darting away for fresh supplies, while I wondered if the two victims of this Spartan method were lying dead, stabbed to death, or smothered, by their own mother. But I did her tenderness and her motherhood injustice. Regularly every half hour she came and repeated this murderous-looking process, unless, as often happened, she was frightened away by the people about.

Till her little ones were two weeks old, the devoted if apparently ungentle parent continued to feed them at intervals of thirty minutes, the neck-dislocating performance being always as violent as I have described. After that date she came more frequently, every fifteen or twenty minutes, and their development went on more rapidly. At the early age of five and six days, even before their eyes were open, the young birds began to show that they had minds of their own, and knew when they had enough (which some folk bigger than birds never know). When one was sufficiently filled, or sufficiently racked, it would shut its mouth and refuse to open, though mamma touched it gently with her beak.

"The world slipped away and I was in fairyland," wrote my old friend the Enthusiast, while watching, in another part of the country that same summer, the nest-building of a hummingbird. To me, also, the study of the life and affairs of this nest, to which I gave nearly every hour of daylight for weeks, seemed like a glimpse into that land of childhood's dreams, excepting when the outer world obtruded too rudely. For the life that went on under and around that charmed spot was far from fairy-like. The "hard facts" of human existence were ever uppermost, and there were a thousand disturbances between breakfast and bedtime. Indeed, the nest was the neighborhood show; everybody longed to pull down the branch and look at it. Men, women, and boys; master, mistress, and maids; horses, cattle, and birds, conspired to keep up an excitement around the apple-tree. It seemed a magnet to draw to itself all the noise and confusion of that peaceful village.


There was the man who assumed the office of showman, brought a chair out under the tree, pulled down the branch, and invited every passer-by to step up and look, with the comment, "Big business raising such a family as that!" while I sat in terror, dreading lest the branch slip from his careless fingers and fling the little ones out into the universe, an accident I saw befall a chipping sparrow's brood, as already related.

There, too, was the horse who halted under the tree and regaled himself with apples which he gathered for himself, jerking his branch violently; happily not the branch, or there would have been a sudden end to dreams of fairyland.

Above all, there were the summer boarders, to whom in that quiet rural life any object of interest was a godsend and greedily welcomed. Every day, and many times a day, a procession passed on the way to the "Springs" of odorous—not to say odious—memory, equipped with tumblers and cups, pitchers and pails, and every one paused at the little show in front of the house, where, alas! there was no fence. Well dressed city women stopped, and stared, and pointed with parasols, often asking for a look into the nest.

All this hindered the poor little mother in her domestic duties. She would come near, alight on a twig far above, and wait, hoping to reach her darlings, till some laugh or movement startled her away; and usually just before dark, while the village was at supper, she had to feed very often to make up for short commons all day.

There were other dangers too, which I hoped did not worry the "wee birdie" as they did me. Two or three times a strong wind—a November gale out of date, rocked and tossed that tiny cradle all day, while I frequently held my breath, in fear of seeing the twins flung out. But the canny little creatures cuddled down in the nest, which by that time seemed too small to hold them, showing only beaks and, later, immature tails above the edge.

Once, very early in their lives, came a steady rain. All night long the devoted mother received the downpour on her back, and all the next day, with short intervals of food-seeking, she remained at her post, while the water ran off her tail in streams. She kept her younglings warm and dry, but the nest was sadly damaged, the lichen covering was softened and brightened in color, and the whole structure spread and settled, so that I feared it would not hold together till the little ones were grown.


There, too, was the ever-present menace of falling apples, which were constantly dropping from the tree. A well-loaded branch hung over the nest, and one particularly malicious-looking specimen of an angry reddish hue, suspended as it appeared exactly above, had a deep dimple in one side which gave it a sinister expression, and one could not help the suspicion that it might delight in letting go its hold and dashing that frivolous nursery to the ground.

The very leaves themselves appeared to show character. I was never so impressed by their behavior, though I had previously seen some curious performances that looked very much as if leaves have minds of their own. Three inches from the little homestead grew a twig bearing a clump of leaves, perhaps five or six. When I began watching, the largest one hung closely over the nest, on the side toward my window, so that part of the time the whole affair was hidden from sight. In the interest of Science (in whose name, as well as in the name of Liberty, many crimes are committed), I thought it necessary quietly to remove that leaf. Then, although the remainder of the bunch still hung over the nest, two or three inches above, my view was perfect, for I could look under them. Strange to say, however, in a day or two I noticed that another leaf had begun to droop over the tiny homestead. In the morning and again in the afternoon, it held itself well up out of my way, but when the sun was hot in the middle of the day, it fell lower and lower, till it was almost as good a screen as its elder brother had been. Nor was that the end of its vagaries. When a strong wind came up from the south, that leaf drew closer, and actually hugged the nest, so that I could not see it at all. I longed to remove it, but I had not the heart to deprive the nestlings of their shelter. Strangest of all leaf eccentricities, however, was the conduct of another one of the same clump, which during a northwest gale came down at the back, and somehow wedged itself between the nest and branch, so that it formed a perfect shield on that side, so snug indeed that the mother could hardly get under it to feed her little ones. And so it remained all day, during a wind that threatened to blow the whole tree down. I am aware that this will be hard to credit. But I examined it carefully; I know the mother did not arrange it, and I do not exaggerate in the slightest degree.

[Sidenote: GROWING UP.]

Let me picture the apple-tree babies at one week old, or seven and eight days respectively—to be exact. On taking my regular morning observation I noticed white spine-like processes, the beginning of feathers, among the hairs on their bodies. The heads looked as if covered with, in the language of commerce, a "fine mix," minutest possible white specks on a black ground, which, as days went by, increased in size and length till they developed into feathers. Beaks, too, were changing. The broad, flat surface showed inclination to draw into a point at the tip, which would go on stretching up day by day, till by the time the birdlings could fly they would be nearly as well equipped for hummingbird life as the mother herself. On that seventh day, also, I discovered the first voluntary movement; one of the pair lifted his head above the edge of the nest, and changed his position on the bed of cotton.

Now began the restlessness characteristic of our smallest bird. From the age of one week they were rarely for a moment still, excepting when asleep. One moment they would lie side by side, two tiny beaks sticking up close together, and the next, one would struggle and twist about till his beak showed on the opposite side. Occasionally one made himself comfortable by lying across his fellow, but very soon the lower one squirmed out from under. At nine days they filled the nest so full that their bodies showed above the edge, and gave it the appearance from my window of being filled with hairy and very restless caterpillars.

The eighth and the ninth day of their little lives opened their eyes on the beautiful green world about them, and backs began to look ragged, as if feathers were at hand. Character was developing also. When mamma touched a closed beak in invitation to lunch, it would sometimes respond with a quick little jerk, as who should say, "Let me alone!" or "Don't bother me!" and on this day began also the attempt to dress the feathers yet to appear, and the running out of the bristle-like tongue.

A great surprise awaited me on the fifth day of my enchanting study, the tenth of their life. When I paid my morning visit to the bewitching pair, lying, as always now, close up to the edge of their frail cup, they looked at me with clear, calm black eyes, and saluted me in low, plaintive voices. I should hardly have been more startled if they had spoken to me.


They assumed a new attitude also toward mamma, refusing to allow her to crush them down into the nest and sit upon them, as if they were babies still. They would keep their heads up, and sometimes she really had a struggle in taking her old place on the nest. Apparently it is with humming as with some human mothers, hard to realize that their offspring are no longer infants. On one occasion it looked as if the two united in their rebellion and pushed her away, for she actually lost her balance and plunged forward off the nest. She recovered herself almost instantly, but it was a real tumble for the moment. At eleven days began the flutter of wings that should hardly rest in life. Shadowy little things they were, lifted above the nest and waved rapidly a few seconds at a time.

As the interesting nestlings approached the end of their second week, I began to be concerned about the frail walls of their cradle. They had become so lively in movements that it rocked and swayed in its place, and on one side the cotton protruded through its lichen cover. I dreaded to see a little foot thrust out at this point, and wondered if my clumsy fingers could perform the delicate task of replacing it.

On the morning they were two weeks old a strong wind set in from the northwest, and I drew down the branch with dread of finding it empty. The younglings were wide awake, though settled down into the nest. They looked at me and uttered their soft cries. They now resembled bundles of rags, for feathers were breaking out all over them in the well-defined pattern or design I had observed for several days. Tiny tail feathers with white tips showed distinctly, and it was evident that they were fast growing up. The mother plainly accepted the fact, for she made no further effort to sit upon them.

As the day wore on the wind increased to a gale, and my anxiety kept pace with its violence. Surely no August babies could be prepared for such November weather. Would a fall kill the delicate birdlings? Should I have to rescue them? Hardly five minutes at a time did I take my eyes off the nest, tossed on its long swaying branch like a ship in the maddest sea. Even the mother was blown off the edge, and I rejoiced that she had chosen the south side of the tree, for the north side branches were thrown upward and over with a violence that would have shaken off the nest itself.

But the two sturdy youngsters sat all day with heads up, and tails just showing above the edge, looking out on the raging sea of leaves and riding the storm like veterans. Only once did I see one try to change his position, and then for a second I thought he was lost; but he recovered himself and made no more rash attempts.


From this day the twins no longer stayed in the nest, but took their position across the top, resting on the edges. By the sixteenth day tails had attained respectable dimensions, and they were clad in the complete dress of feathers, though, having not as yet learned to manage their garments, individual feathers stood out all over and were blown by every breeze into tiny green ripples. In their new position across the top they of course entirely covered the edge, so that the mother was puzzled to find a place for her feet when she came to feed, until she took to alighting on the backs of her monopolizing offspring.

All through these delightful days I had kept a sharp lookout for the father of this charming family, for, as is well known, there is a charge against the ruby-throat, that he takes no part in the home life, that he never visits the nest. Whether it be that he is too gay a rover to attend to his duties, whether—as is said of the turkey and some other birds—he is possessed of a rage for destroying his own young, whether he keeps out of sight as a measure of prudence for the safety of the nest, or whether that fearless and industrious little mate of his feels capable of managing her own affairs and so drives him away, no one has as yet been rash enough to say. That remains for future observers to find out. The points most interesting to discover at present are, if it is a fact that he never shows himself; if he remains in the neighborhood, and joins his family later, as has been asserted; or if he resumes his care-free bachelor life, and sees them no more.

Only three times was my close watch for visiting hummingbirds rewarded, and those were not at all conclusive. One morning, attracted by the shimmering floor of jewel which Lake Champlain presented under the morning sun, I sat looking out over my neighbor's cornfield, where goldfinch babies were filling the air with their quaint little two-note cries, absorbed in the lovely view, when suddenly I heard a whir of wings and looked up to see a hummer flying about near the nest where madam was sitting. It made two or three jerks, approaching within six inches, and then darted away. Instantly she followed, but not as if in pursuit. There were no cries. It seemed to me a friendly move, an invitation and a response. Alert as she was, she must have seen the stranger, as he—or she—hovered about, yet she did not resent it. In a few minutes she returned and settled herself on her nest.


Soon I heard the familiar sound again, and a bird dashed past the window, not going near the nest. My little dame in the apple-tree paid no attention. An hour later a hummingbird appeared, perhaps the same one, without flying near the apple-tree. Madam left her nest and they had a chase, both passing out of sight. In neither case was there any show of anger, cries, loud hum, or savage rushes, as I have seen when hummingbirds are on the war-path. In neither case, also, could I see the visiting bird plainly enough to determine the sex. It may have been the missing spouse, but then, also, it may not have been.

Nor did it trouble me that I could not solve the mystery. Very early in my study of birds I learned to be content to let many things remain unknown, hoping that some future day would reveal them, and to enjoy what Nature offers me to-day without mourning over things she this time withholds.

August was drawing to an end, and claims from the outer world grew clamorous. It wrung my heart to abandon those babies before they could fly, but relentlessly the days went by. The last one arrived, and I went out for a farewell look at the little ones, now eighteen and nineteen days old. They sat as usual side by side across the nest, and greeted me with their sweet little cries. They were completely feathered, though here and there one of the infantile hairs still stuck up between the plumage, the backs a golden green, and the throat and breast snowy white. They returned my gaze with wide, calm eyes, and did not shrink from the finger which gently stroked their backs. The home which had held them was almost a complete wreck, hardly more than a flattened platform, but they clung to it still, and I knew that I should miss the sight I longed for, the first flight. I stayed all day, putting off the parting till the last possible moment, watching and hoping; but when I started for the night train, I left the pair still sitting on the ruins of their nest. And thus ended the only glimpse into fairyland I shall ever enjoy.

A few days later came to me, several hundred miles away, the word that the elder bird (who was a Sunday baby) had taken flight the day he was three weeks old, and had stayed about his native apple-tree all day, while the younger clung to the wreck for two days more, and no one chanced to see him fly.



"How like are birds and men!" said Emerson, and if he had known nature's loveliest creatures as well as he did his own race, he might have affirmed it more emphatically; for to know birds well is to be astonished at the "human nature" they display.

In our latitude July is distinctly the babies' month. When wild roses give place to sun-kissed meadow lilies, when daisies drop their petals and meadow-sweet whitens the pastures, when blueberries peep out from their glossy coverts and raspberries begin to redden on the hill, then from every side come the baby cries of younglings just out of the nest, and everywhere are anxious parents hurrying about, seeking food to stuff hungry little mouths, or trying to keep too venturesome young folk out of danger. For Young Americans in feathers are wonderfully like Young Americans in lawn in self-confidence and recklessness.

One evening in a certain July, up on the coast of Maine, I watched the frantic efforts of a pair of Maryland yellow-throats—tiny creatures in brown and gold—to coax their self-willed offspring to a more retired position than he chose to occupy. With genuine "Young America" spirit he scorned the conservatism of his elders. Though both parents hovered about him, coaxing, warning, perhaps threatening, not a feather stirred; stolid and wide-eyed he stood, while the father flitted about the bush in great excitement, jerking his body this way and that, flirting his wings, now perking his tail up like that of a wren, again opening and closing it like a fan in the hands of an embarrassed girl, and the mother added her entreaties to his, darting hither and thither, calling most anxiously,—both, in their distress, rashly exposing themselves to what might, for all they knew, be one of the death-dealing machines we so often turn against them.

Nothing had the slightest effect upon the yellow-throated youngster until his own sensations interested him, and his parents suddenly acquired new importance in his horizon. When hunger assailed him, and, looking about for supplies, he spied his provider on the next bush with a beak full of tempting (and wriggling) dainties, and when he found his wily parent deaf to his cries, and understood that not until he flew behind the leafy screen could he receive the food he craved, then he yielded, and joined his relieved relatives out of my sight.


Many times after that morning did the vagaries of that young yellow-throat give me opportunity to study the ways of his family. Having newly escaped from the nursery, in a thorny bush behind thick-growing alders, his strongest desire apparently was to see the world, and those outlying dead twigs, convenient for the grasp of baby feet, were particularly attractive to him. Every day for nearly a week, as I passed into the quiet old pasture, I stopped to interview the youngster, and always found him inquisitive, and evidently, in his own estimation, far wiser than his elders, who were nearly wild over his conduct.

This pasture of about forty acres, lying behind my temporary home, was the joy of my heart, being delightfully neglected and fast relapsing into the enchanting wildness of nature. In a deep bed fringed with a charming confusion of trees and bushes ran a tiny stream, which in the spring justified its right to the title of river. Scattering clumps of alders and young trees of many kinds made it a birds' paradise, while wild cherries and berries of all sorts, with abundant insect life, offered a spread table the whole summer long.

Of flowers it was the chosen home. From the first anemone to the last goldenrod standing above the snow, there was a bewildering confusion; fragrant with roses in June, gorgeous with meadow lilies in July, and rank upon rank of budded goldenrod promising glory enough for August, with all the floral hosts that accompany them. Great patches of sweet bayberry, yielding perfume if only one's garments swept it, and rich "cushions of juniper" frosted over with new tips, were everywhere, and acres were carpeted with lovely, soft, gray-colored moss, into which one's foot sank as into the richest product of the loom. Here and there was a close grove of young pines, whose cool, dim depths were most alluring on hot days; and indeed in every spot in Maine not fully occupied nature is sure to set a pine-tree.

Every morning, on entering this garden of delights, I hastened across an open space by the gate, and plunged into a thicket of alders sprinkled with young trees,—birch, elm, and wild cherry. Through this ran a path, and in a sheltered nook under a low pine I found a seat, where for many days I spent the forenoon, making acquaintance with the pretty little yellow-throats.


From the first the head of the family adopted me as his particular charge, and I am positive he never lost sight of me for one minute. His was a charming surveillance. He did not, like the robin on similar duty, stand on some conspicuous perch like a statue of horror or dismay, uttering his loudest "peep! peep!" in warning to the whole feathered world; nor did he, after the fashion of the song sparrow, fill the air with distressed "pips" that seemed to hint of mischief dire; neither did he, as does the red squirrel, resent an intrusion into preserves that he considered his own, with a maddening series of choking cries, coughs, and "snickers," till one was almost ready to turn a gun upon him; still less did he, in veery style, utter wails so despairing that one felt herself a monster for remaining. The yellow-throat's guardianship was a pleasure. He remained in sight, not fifteen feet away from me, and did not flinch from the terrible field-glass. Sometimes he stood quite still, uttering his soft and inoffensive "chic;" again he scrambled about in the bushes, collected a mouthful, and disappeared for a moment,—a constant baby call from the bushes reminding him of his duty as provider. Evidently he had succeeded in impressing upon that obstinate offspring of his that he must keep out of sight. I wonder what sort of a bugaboo he made me out to be?

Much of the time the tiny custodian passed away in calling and singing, throwing his head up or holding it still according as he sang loud or low. To all varieties of his pretty little melody he treated me. Never once did he utter the notes given in the books as the family song. From his beak I never heard either "wichita," "witches here," "o-wee-chee," or "I beseech you," all of which, excepting the last, I have heard at different times from other members of the family; which, by the way, confirms my oft-repeated assertion that no two birds of a species sing alike. His ordinary notes resembled "pe-o-we," delivered in lively manner, with strong accent on the first syllable. Sometimes he gave them the regulation three times; again, he added a fourth repetition, and changed this by ending on the first syllable of the fifth utterance. On one occasion he surprised and delighted me by turning from the third "pe-o-we" into a continuous little carol, varied and bewitching. Later in the season, after I had finished my studies in the alder bushes, I heard several times from a yellow-throat in the pasture a similar continuous song, usually delivered on the wing.

[Sidenote: A QUEER SUN-BATH.]

After some days my little watcher became so accustomed to my silent presence under the pine that he did not mind me in the least, though he never forgot me, and if I stirred he was on the alert in an instant. So long as I was motionless he ignored me entirely, and conducted himself as if he were alone; often taking a sunning by crouching on the top twig of a bush, spreading wings and tail and fluffing out his plumage till he looked like a ragged bunch of feathers. It was very droll to see him, while in this attitude, suddenly pull himself together, stand upright, utter his song, and instantly relapse into the spread-eagle position to go on with his sunbath. To my surprise, I found that this warbler, whose song and movements always seem to indicate a constant flitting and scrambling about in warbler fashion, is capable of repose. He frequently stood perfectly still, the black patch which covers his eyes like an old-fashioned face-mask turned toward me, singing his little aria with as much composure as ever thrush sang his.

My pleasing acquaintance with the yellow-throat ended as soon as the young became expert on the wing and could leave their native alder patch. After that the nook was deserted, and unless I heard the song I could not distinguish my little friend among the dozens of his species who lived in the neighborhood.

Toward the north end of my delectable hunting-ground was a second favorite spot, especially attractive on warm, sunny mornings. When I turned my steps that way, I came first upon the feeding-ground of another party of Young Americans,—thrashers. They were a family group, a pair with their two full-grown but still babyish young. Approaching cautiously, I usually found the parents on the ground busily hunting insects, and the youngsters following closely, ready to receive every morsel discovered. They were, however, very well bred, with none of the vulgar manners of those who scream and shout and demand their rations. Later in the day I often found the thrasher singing, a little beyond the alders, on the breezy heights of Raspberry Hill. His chosen place was an almost leafless birch-tree, a favorite perch with all the birds of the pasture, and there he sang for hours.

"'Twas a song that rippled and reveled and ran Ever back to the note whence it began, Rising and falling, and never did stay, Like a fountain that feeds on itself all day."

Sometimes the singing was interrupted, for those canny Young Americans knew their father's song, and though he had doubtless stolen away and left them foraging on the grass by the path, they heard his voice and came after. While he was pouring out his soul in ecstasy, and I was listening with equal joy, those youngsters came by easy stages nearer and nearer, till one after the other alighted on the lower part of the birch, and, hopping upward from branch to branch, suddenly presented themselves before him, begging in pretty baby fashion for something to eat. The singer, embarrassed by their demands, would sometimes dive into the nearest bushes, followed instantly by the persistent beggars, and in a moment fly off, the infants still in his wake. But he always managed in some way to elude them. Perhaps he fed them or conducted them back to their mother, for in a few minutes he appeared again on the birch and resumed his music.

[Sidenote: OUT ALONE.]

On one occasion I met one of these spruce young thrushes, evidently out on his travels alone for the first time. He was in a state of great excitement,—jerked himself about, "huffed" at me, then flew with some difficulty into a tree, where he stood and watched me in a charmingly naive and childlike manner, utterly forgetting that part of his education which bade him beware of a human being.

After passing the home of the thrashers, on my usual morning walk toward the north, my next temptation to linger came from a fern-lined path to the spring, abode of other Young Americans. The path itself was extremely seductive, narrow, zigzagging through a small forest of the greenest and freshest of ferns, so luxuriant that they were brushed aside in passing, and closed behind as if to conceal one's footsteps. Shrubs and trees met overhead; here and there a blooming dogbane or an elder, "foamed o'er with blossoms white as snow," and tall wild roses wherever they could find space to grow.

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