Nearly down to the spring, I seated myself under the bushes and waited. At first, until the bustle of my coming was hushed, all was silent; but soon bird notes began,—soft little "pips" and "chur-r-r's," and other sounds I could not trace to their authors, but plainly expressing disapproval of a spy among them. Catbirds complained with a soft liquid "chuck" or their more decided "mew;" kingbirds peeped out to see what was the excitement, and then settled in the bushes in plain sight, at leisure now since their decorous little folk were educated and taking care of themselves; and other birds came whispering about behind my back, while I dared not turn to see, lest I send everybody off in a panic. An oriole,
"Like an orange tulip flaked with black,"
dropped in as he passed, but left in haste, as if averse to company, with his customary shyness while training the young; for this brilliant bird, during nesting so fearless everywhere, manages to disappear completely after the young leave the nest. Now and then he may be seen going about near the ground, silent, and absorbed in his arduous task of teaching those clamorous urchins to get their own living; or in the early morning, engaged in picking open the hideous nests of the tent-caterpillars and quietly taking his breakfast therefrom. Later, when bantlings are off his mind, he reappears in his favorite haunts, and sings a little before bidding us adieu for the season; although occasionally this supplementary song is a dismal failure, and the oriole discovers, as have other singers before him, that one cannot neglect his music, even for the best of reasons, and take it up again where he left off.
[Sidenote: EXCITEMENT AMONG THE ORIOLES.]
As I passed under an apple-tree, one morning, on my way to the ferny path, I heard the domestic cry of the oriole, uttered, I think, only when rearing the young, a tender "yeap." I paused instantly, and soon heard a very low baby cry, a soft "chur-r-r" exactly like the first note of the young oriole when he comes up to the edge of the nest, only subdued almost to a whisper, showing that education had progressed, and this little one had learned to control his infantile eagerness. All at once there arose a great commotion over my head; an oriole fled precipitately to another tree and stood there watching me, scolding his harshest, flirting his wings and jerking his body in great excitement. In a moment his mate joined him, and both began to call, though she held a worm in her beak. This not seeming to effect their purpose, the singer suddenly uttered a loud, clear whistle of two notes, startlingly like a man's whistle to a dog, when instantly a young oriole flew out of the apple-tree and joined his parents. Then the low note began again, and the family departed.
The infant who receives such devoted care is a pretty little creature in dull yellow, and the most persistent cry-baby I know in the bird-world, though several are not far behind him in this accomplishment. His plaint begins when he mounts the edge of the nest preparatory to his debut, and ceases hardly a minute for days, a long-drawn shuddering wail, that suggests nothing less than great suffering, starvation, or some other affliction hard to be borne. What makes the case still worse, the nursery is high, and each nestling chooses for himself the direction in which he will depart. East and west, north and south, they scatter; and where one lands, there he will stay for hours, if not days, drawn down into a little heap, looking lonely and miserable, and apparently impressed with the sole idea that he must keep himself before the world by his voice, or he will be lost and forgotten. It is no wonder that, between the labor of collecting food and following up the family to administer it, the mother becomes faded and draggled, and the father abandons his music, and goes about near the ground, grubbing like any ditch-digger.
[Sidenote: HE CLIMBED THE TREE.]
The young oriole, however, does not lack intelligence. A correspondent tells me of one who, starting out too ambitiously in his first flight, landed on the ground instead of on the tree he had selected, and, looking about for a place of safety, saw a single leaf growing a few feet up on the trunk of a tree. That so inexperienced an infant should notice it was surprising, but that he should at once start for it showed remarkable "mother wit." To reach this haven of refuge, he ascended the tree-trunk a few inches, half flying and half climbing, clinging with his claws to the bark to rest, then scrambling upward a few inches farther, and so on till he reached the leaf, when he perched on its tiny stem, and remained there as long as he was watched.
But to return to my place among the ferns. When I had been there some time, silent and motionless, a catbird at my back, too happy to be long still, would take courage and charm me with his wonderful whisper song, an ecstatic performance which should disarm the most prejudiced of his detractors. Occasionally, his mate, as I supposed, uttered warning cries, and in deference to her feelings, as it appeared, his notes dropped lower and lower, till I could scarcely hear them, though he was not ten feet away. The song of the catbird is rarely appreciated; probably because he seldom gives a "stage performance," but sings as he goes about his work. In any momentary pause a few liquid notes bubble out; on his way for food, a convenient fence post is a temptation to stop a moment and utter a snatch of song. His manner is of itself a charm, but there is really a wonderful variety in his strains. He has not perhaps so fine an organ as his more celebrated relative, the thrasher; he cannot, or at least he does not, usually produce so clear and ringing a tone. Nor is his method the same; he does not so often repeat himself, but varies as he sings, so that his aria is full of surprises and unexpected turns. Doubtless, persons expert at finding imitations of other birds' notes would discover some in his. But I am a little skeptical on the subject of conscious "mocking." When the catbird sings I hear only the catbird, and in the same way I take pleasure in the song of thrasher or mockingbird, nor care whether any other may have hit upon his exact combinations.
After the catbird, silence, broken only by the soft, indescribable utterances that are at the same time the delight and the despair of the bird-student. Some birds, upon entering this solitary retreat, announced themselves by a single note, or call, as effectually as if they had sent in a card, while others stole in, took quick and close observation, and departed as quietly as they had come, unseen and unheard by clumsy human senses. Often, indeed, have I wished for eyes to look behind me, where it sometimes seems that everything most interesting takes place.
[Sidenote: ANXIOUS DAYS IN CROWLAND.]
This secluded corner of the pasture proved to be a very popular nursery with the feathered world. Catbirds came about bearing food, and all sorts of catbird talk went on within hearing: the soft liquid "chuck" and "mew" (so called, though it is more like "ma-a") in all tones and inflections, complaining, admonishing, warning, and caressing. There was evidently a whole family among the bushes. A vireo baby, plainly just out of the cradle, stared at me, and addressed me with a sort of husky squawk, an indescribable sound, which, until I became familiar with it, brought me out in hot haste to see what terrible tragedy was going on. For it is really a distressful cry, although it often proclaims nothing more serious than that the young vireo wants his dinner; as some infants of the human family scream at the top of their voices under similar circumstances.
Beyond the close-growing bushes I heard the crow baby's quavering cry; and these seemed indeed anxious days in crowland. All the little folk were crying at once, in their loudest and most urgent tones, enough to distract the hard-working parents who hurried back and forth overhead, at their best speed, trying to stop the mouths of their ill-bred brood. On one occasion I saw an old crow flying over, calling in a decided, "stern parent" style, followed by a youngster not yet expert on the wing, who answered with his droll baby "ma-a-a" in a much higher key. She was conducting him over the pasture to the salt marsh, where much crow-baby food came from in those days, and he was doing his best to keep up with her stronger flight. Sometimes another sound from the nursery came to my ears,—the caw of an adult, drawn out into a long, earnest "aw-w-w," like admonishing or instructing the now silent olive branches. It was many times repeated, and occasionally interrupted by a baby voice, showing that the little ones were not asleep. I suspect, from what I have seen of crow ways, that the sable mamma is a strict disciplinarian who will tolerate no liberties and no delinquencies on the part of her dusky brood, and although this particular Young American may complain, he dare not rebel. Poor crowling! he needs perhaps a Spartan training to fit him for his hard life in the world. With every man's hand against him, and danger lurking on all sides, he must be wary and sharp and have all his wits about him to live.
[Sidenote: THE HEAVENLY SONG.]
When I could tear myself away from this domestic corner of the pasture, I passed on to the riverside nook I have mentioned. Here my seat was on the edge of the bank, high above the stream, shaded by a group of black and battered old spruces that looked as if they had faced the storms of a hundred stern Maine winters, as probably they had. Pine-trees at my back filled the air with odors; a thicket beloved of small birds stretched away at one side. Across the river spread a sunny knoll, on which stood a huge old apple-tree, contemporary perhaps with the spruces, having one attractive dead branch, and surrounded at a little distance with a semi-circle of shrubs and low trees. It was a tempting theatre for bird dramas, which the solitary student, half hidden on the bank above, could overlook and bring to clear vision with a glass, while not herself conspicuous enough to startle the actors. In this lovely spot many mornings of that happy July passed delightfully away.
In the leafy background to the apple-tree dwelt the veery. From its apparently impenetrable depths came his warning calls, and on rare and blessed occasions his heavenly song; for it was July, and it is only in June that
"New England woods at close of day, With that clear chant are ringing."
For, with all the rhapsody in his soul, this thrush is a devoted parent, and notwithstanding the fact that he is one of the kings of song, he comes down like the humblest sparrow of the fields, to help feed and train his lovely tawny brood. Without exception that I know, he is the most utterly heartbroken of birds when the nest is discovered. So pathetic are the wails of both parents that I never could bear to study a nest, and I had to harden my heart against the bleating, despairing cries of the mother before I could secure even a look at a youngster just out of the nest. This scion of the charming thrush family is a patient little soul, with all the dignity and reserve as well as the gentleness of his race; no human child could be more winning.
A beautiful instance might be seen in that spot of Nature's provident way of looking out for the future. Those battered old spruces had a flourishing colony of young trees growing up all around and under the shade of their wings, and some day when a great wind breaks off the decayed old ones, there will be several vigorous half-grown young, to take their place, so the place will not be left desolate a day. If man would only take this hint in his own treatment of trees, leave the young ones to take the place of those he removes, we should not have to dread the wasteful destruction of our forests.
[Sidenote: A CATBIRD BLUEBERRYING.]
In this corner, one morning, I saw a catbird gathering blueberries for dinner. She came down on a fence post as light as a feather, looked over to where I sat motionless under my tree, hesitated, flirted her tail expressively as who should say, "Can I trust her?" then glanced down to the berry-loaded bushes on the ground, and turned again her soft dark eyes on me. I hardly breathed, and she flew lightly to the first wire of the fence, paused, then to the second, still keeping an eye my way. At that point she bent an earnest gaze on the blueberry patch, turning this way and that, and I believe selecting the very berry she desired; for she suddenly dropped like a shot, seized the berry, and was back on the post, as if the ground were hot. There she rested long enough for me to see what she held in her beak, and then disappeared in the silent way she had come. In a moment she returned; for it was not for herself she was berrying, but for some speckled-breasted beauty shyly hiding in the alder thicket below.
As the babies' month drew near its close, and August stood threateningly on the threshold, sometimes I heard young folk at their lessons. Most charming was a scion of the chewink family learning to ring his silver bell. I could not see him,—he was hidden behind the leafy screen across the river; but happily sounds are not so easily concealed as sights, and the little performance explained itself as clearly as if I had had the added testimony of my eyes (though I longed to see it, too). The instructor was a superior singer, such as I have heard but few times, and the song at its best is one of our most choice, consisting of two short notes followed by a tremolo perhaps an octave higher, in a loud clear ring like a silver-toned bell.
"Was never voice of ours could say Our inmost in the sweetest way Like yonder voice."
For several minutes this rich and inspiring song rang out from the bushes, to my great delight, when suddenly it ceased, and a weak voice piped up. It was neither so loud nor so clear; the introductory notes were given with uncertainty and hesitation, and the tremolo was a slow and very poor imitation. Still, it was plain that the towhee baby was practicing for his entrance into the ranks of our most bewitching singers. The next day, a chewink, I think the same whose music and whose teaching I had admired, honored me with a song and a sight together. He was as spruce as if he had just donned a new suit, his black hood like velvet, his chestnut of the richest, and his white of the whitest, and he sang from the top of a small pine-tree; sometimes, in the restless way of his family, scrambling over the branches, and again shifting his position to a small birch-tree.
[Sidenote: INDIVIDUALITY OF FLOWERS.]
Many other songs and singers I enjoyed in those pleasant mornings beside the river, till the hour for what Thoreau designates as "that whirlpool called a dinner" drew near, and then, unmindful of the philosopher's advice, I started slowly homeward, collecting as I went, materials to fill the vases in my room.
In gathering flowers, one needs to select with discretion, for they, no less than their winged neighbors in the pasture, have an individuality of their own. The wild rose, for example, is most amiable in lending itself to our enjoyment. Not only does it submit to being torn from the parental stem, but it will flourish perfectly, and go on opening bud after bud, so long as it has one to open, as lovely and as fragrant as its sisters on the bush. One needs only to snip off the heads whose petals have dropped, to have a fresh and beautiful bowl of roses every morning. The daisy too adorns our tables and our vases cheerfully, and as long as if it still stood among the grasses, its feet planted in mother earth; and even when it has lived out its allotted time, it neither withers nor droops, but begins to look wild, its petals losing their trim regularity and standing every way.
Different indeed is the disposition of the goldenrod, which, though remaining fresh and bright, when called upon to decorate our homes, obstinately refuses to open a petal after it is gathered; and the fairy-like elder, which sullenly resents being touched, gives up the struggle for existence and droops at once; and the cactus, which promptly draws its satin petals together, and stubbornly declines to open again. The loveliest bouquet of late July on the coast of Maine is this, which I give for the pleasure of other flower-lovers, if haply there be any who have not discovered it. Put in a vase a few stalks of completely opened goldenrod, of the variety that divides into long, finger-like stems. Let there be just enough so that when each blossom is spread out full they shall barely cover the space. Have the stems of equal length, so that the effect shall be flat, and not conical. Into this, between the blossoms, carefully stick the stems of a few fully spread lace flowers (or wild carrot), with stems two or three inches longer than you have allowed the goldenrod stems. Each must have full space to display every tiny floweret, and not to hide the golden glory beneath. When prepared, set the vase or bowl on the floor, before a grate or to light up some gloomy corner. Properly done the effect is a marvel and a joy forever, like lace over sunshine, like some fairy creation too dainty for words to picture.
DOWN THE MEADOW.
The bird-baby world was not bounded by any pasture, however enchanting, and I have not told all the charms of this one. The house where I found bed and board, in the intervals of bird study,—once a farmhouse, now an "inn of rest" for a country-loving-family,—was happily possessed of two attractions: the pasture toward which I turned with the morning sun, and a meadow which drew me when shadows grew long in the afternoon. This meadow began at the road passing in front of the house, and extended to the salt marsh which separated us from the sea. The marsh was always a beautiful picture,
"Stretching off in a pleasant plain To the terminal blue of the main."
It was never twice the same, for it changed with every passing cloud, with every phase of the weather, with every tide; one never tired of it. And it was full of winged life: not only the beautiful gulls,
"Whose twinkling wings half lost amid the blue,"
in a white cloud over the far-off beach, but small birds of several kinds, who never came near enough to dry land to be identified. Sharp-tailed sparrows appeared on the meadow after grass was cut, and their exquisite ringing trill could always be heard from the bank; crows fed upon it every day; blackbirds' wings were always over it; and above all, sandpipers were there,
"Calling dear and sweet from cove to cove."
One afternoon, starting down the meadow on my usual visit to the sandpiper little folk, I heard a low cry of "flick-er! flick-er!" and there on the grass before me were two of the birds face to face. One was an adult, but the other was a nearly grown young one, and I saw in an instant that I had unwittingly intruded upon the breakfast he was about to receive. In the goldenwing family—as perhaps not every one knows—a repast is not over with one poke into an open bill; it is a far more serious affair indeed. The young bird opens his mouth a little, the parent thrusts his—or her—beak down the waiting throat, until one would think the infant must be choked, and then the elder delivers little pokes, as he crams down the mouthfuls, six, eight, even ten I have counted before he stops. Then the heads draw apart, and the grown-up—who has plainly come well provided—makes a sort of spasmodic movement in his own throat, probably raising from some internal reservoir another portion of food, the infant opens his beak again, and the operation is repeated.
[Sidenote: TAKING HIMSELF TOO SERIOUSLY.]
Of course my presence interfered with this elaborate, several-course breakfast, and the elder of the two fell to reproaching me by loud calls and vehement bows in my direction. Seeing that I was not sufficiently impressed, and did not depart, he resorted to stronger measures; he swayed his head from side to side, stretching out his neck like an enraged goose, and presenting a most droll appearance.
At first the youngster seemed to be paralyzed, but suddenly—perhaps realizing what harm my inopportune appearance had done—he also began to bow and sway, exactly as papa was doing. Anything more ludicrous than those two birds standing face to face and performing such antics it is hard to imagine; no one but a flicker could be at the same time so serious and so absurd.
At the edge of the meadow, where it sloped sharply down to the marsh, lived one whose days were full of trouble, which he took care to make known to the world,—a
"Fire-winged blackbird, wearing on his shoulders Red, gold-edged epaulets."
His little family, not yet out of the nest, was settled safely enough behind a clump of bushes that fringed the marsh. But he, in his role of protector, had taken possession of two trees on the high land, where he could overlook the whole neighborhood, and see all the dangers, real and fancied, that might, could, would, or should threaten them, and "borrow trouble" to his heart's content. The trees, this bird's headquarters, were an aged and half-dead cherry and a scraggy and wind-battered elm, standing perhaps a hundred feet apart. On the top twig of one of these, or flying across between them, he was most of the time to be seen, and his various cries of distress, as well as his wild, woodsy song, came plainly up to me in my window.
[Sidenote: THE REDWING WAS FRANTIC.]
The troubles of this Martha-like character began when mowers brought their clattering machine, and with rasping noise and confusion dire laid low the grass which had isolated him from the rest of the world, and that impertinent world poured in. First came crows, from their homes in the woods beyond the pasture, to feast on the numerous hoppers and crawlers left roofless by the mowers, and to procure food for their hungry young, and alighted in the stubble, two or three or half a dozen at a time. By this the soul of the redwing was fired, and with savage war-cries he descended upon them. His manner was to fly laboriously to a great height, and then swoop down at a crow as if to annihilate him. The bird on the ground turned from his insect hunt long enough to snap at his threatening enemy, and then returned to his serious business. So long as the crows stayed the redwing was frantic, his cries filled the air; and as they were almost constantly there, he was kept on the borders of frenzy most of the time.
After the crows came the bird-students, with opera-glasses and spying ways. These also the irascible redwing decided to be foes, flying about their heads threateningly, and never ceasing his doleful cries so long as they were in sight. I hoped his brown-streaked mate down in the marsh knew what a fussy and suspicious personage she had married, and would not be made anxious by his extravagances; but she too distrusted the bird gazers, adding her protests to his, and such an outpouring of "chacks" and other blackbird maledictions one—happily—is not often called upon to encounter.
After the bird-students the haymakers; and every time a man or a horse appeared in that field, the blackbird was thrown into utter despair, and the air rang with his lamentations.
He was evidently a character, a bird of individuality, and I was anxious to know him better; so, although I hated to grieve him, I resolved to go somewhat nearer, hoping that he would appreciate my harmlessness and soon see that he had nothing to fear from me. Not he! Having taken it into his obstinate little head that all who approached the sacred spot he guarded were on mischief bent, he refused to discriminate. The moment I approached the gate, the whole width of the meadow from him, he greeted me with shouts and cries, and did not cease for an instant, though I stayed two hours or more. I always went as modestly and inoffensively as possible through the meadow, far from his two trees, seated myself on the edge of the slope at some distance from him, and remained quiet. But he was never reconciled. His first act, as I started down the field, was to fly out to meet me, as if to drive me away. When he reached me, he would hold himself ten or fifteen feet above my head, perfectly motionless excepting a slight movement of the wings, looking as if he meditated an attack; and indeed I did sometimes fear that he would treat me as he did the crows. As I came nearer, his mate flew up out of the bushes, and added her demonstrations to his. Their movements in the air were beautiful. One would beat himself up quite high, and then hover, or apparently rest at that altitude, as if too light to come down, at last floating earthward, pausing now and then, as if he absolutely could not return to our level.
[Sidenote: WHAT DID IT ALL MEAN?]
Occasionally my presence caused a domestic scene not easy to interpret. Madam, no doubt fully aware of the prying ways of the human family, sometimes hesitated to return to her little ones in the bushes. She flew around uneasily, alighting here and there, anxious and worried, but plainly afraid of exposing her precious secret. Then her "lord and master" took her in hand, flying at her, and following wherever she fled before him, till he almost overtook her, when she dropped into the marsh, and with a low, satisfied chuckle he took a wide circle around and returned to his tree. Scolding all the time, she remained some minutes in the deep grass, then flew up high, and floated down to the alder clump where the nest was placed. Upon this, her observant lord, whose sharp eyes nothing escaped, instantly flew down again, dashed impetuously through the alders, and without pausing returned to his post. Now how should one interpret that little family interlude?
Later, when the young were out of the nest and quite expert on wing, the redwing's relations with them puzzled me also. I often saw the two who appeared to compose the family flying about with their mother, and I knew they were his because he frequently joined the party. But their conduct seemed unnatural, and a doubt stole over me whether this bird—this individual, I mean—could be a domestic tyrant. I knew from previous studies that the love-making manners of the redwing are a little on the "knock-down-and-drag-out" order of some savage tribes of our own species. To chase the beloved until she drops with fatigue seems to be the blackbird idea of a tender attention, and possibly the pursuit of his spouse already spoken of may have been of this sort, merely a loverly demonstration. But with the babies it was a different thing. Heretofore I had seen blackbird fathers devoted attendants on their young, working as hard as the mothers in seeking supplies, and following up the wandering brood to administer them. But this bird, I observed, was avoided by the little folk. When he showed inclination to join the family party on one of its excursions, they shied away from him, and if he came too near they uttered a sort of husky "huff," like the familiar protest of a cat. With the same sound they greeted him and moved away when he approached a bush where they sat. Perhaps this crustiness of demeanor was the natural result of his long weeks of anxiety and trouble as protector during their helpless infancy; perhaps he was tired out and exhausted, and it was not irritability, but nervous prostration, that made him appear so unamiable. Indeed, I do not see how it could be otherwise, after his exciting life. And may that not explain the fact that when the young are grown, the singer shakes off all family ties and joins a flock of his comrades, while mother and young remain together? Since he insists on taking his family responsibilities so hard, he cannot be blamed for desiring a rest for part of the year.
[Sidenote: A PANIC ON THE MARSH.]
Now that the nest was deserted and the young were always going about with their mother, I wondered that the head of the family did not relax his vigilance over the meadow and abandon his two watch-towers; but save that his enticing song came up to me oftener than his cries of distress, his habits were not materially altered. One day, when I thought his summer troubles ought surely to be over, a fresh anxiety came to him. Several women and girls, with a dog, appeared on the marsh, which at low tide was in some parts explorable. The human members of the party amused themselves with bathing and wading in the now shallow stream; but the dog acted like one gone mad, dashing about on those peaceful flats where so many birds were enjoying themselves quietly, rushing full gallop from one group to another, wading or swimming the winding stream every time he came to it, and barking at the top of his voice every instant. Birds rose before him in flocks, sandpipers took to their wings in panic, swallows swooped down over him in anxious clouds, sharp-tailed sparrows and all other winged creatures fled wildly before this "agitator," who seemed to have no aim except to disturb, and reminded me irresistibly of his human prototype. Somewhere in that "league upon league of marsh grass," I suppose, were the blackbird's little folk; for the watcher on the bank was in deepest tribulation, and his outcries quickly brought me down to see what had happened.
The Young Americans of the redwing family are as vivacious and uneasy as might be expected of the scions of that house. No sooner do they get the use of their sturdy legs than they scramble out of the nest and start upon their bustling pilgrimage through life, first climbing over the bushes in their neighborhood, and as they learn the use of their wings becoming more venturesome, till at last, every time a hard-working mother brings a morsel of food, she has to hunt up her straggling offspring before she can dispose of it. Though eager for food as most youngsters, they are altogether too busy investigating this new and interesting world to stay two minutes in one place. So far from waiting, like Mr. Micawber, for something to turn up, they proceed, the moment they can use their limbs, to attack the problem of delay for themselves; to wait is not a blackbird possibility. It is needless to say that such preternaturally sharp and wide-awake Young Americans very soon graduate from the nursery.
[Sidenote: A YELLOW-HEADED MONSTER.]
The last trial that came to the blackbird, and the one, perhaps, that induced him finally to abandon his watch-towers and join his friends on the bank farther down, was the appearance one day in the meadow of a new importation from the city, a boy marked out for notice by a striking yellow-and-black cap. The instant he entered the inclosure afar off, the redwing uttered a shriek of hopeless despair, as who should say, "What horrible yellow-headed monster have we here?" and as long as he remained the bird cried and bewailed his fate and that of his family, as if murder and sudden death were the sure fate of them all. It was the last act in the blackbird drama on the meadow.
Between my morning in the pasture and my afternoon down the meadow, were two or three hours of rest beside my window, and there, too, the drama of life went on. On one side was an orchard—an orchard, alas! without bluebirds, for it was the summer following the dreadful tragedy in Florida, where thousands perished of hunger, and not one of the blue-coated darlings was to be seen where had always been many.
Perhaps, too, even more destructive than the death by hunger that year is the death which I am assured is common in all years about Washington, and doubtless other places; death at the hands of man—for the table. Who could eat a bluebird! It is bad enough to doom the bobolink to the pot after he has changed his coat and become a reedbird, and given some reason for his fate by his unfortunate fondness for rice. But what excuse can there be for bringing the "Darling of the Spring" to this woeful end?
To the deserted orchard came but one bird, a ph[oe]be, and I believe his object was to retire from the world, for he was the most modest bird of his family that I ever saw. He dwelt in an obscure corner, and never so much as tried the peak of the barn, which was temptingly near. When he called it was almost in a whisper. I saw no indications that he had a nest or a family, and I am inclined to think that he was a misanthrope and a hermit.
[Sidenote: A BIRD BABY SHOW.]
Under my window on the other side came a vesper sparrow family. Three youngsters in bright new coats, quite unlike the worn and faded hues of their parents' dress. On the stone wall, or perched on a telegraph pole, close to the solitary insulator on the summit, the singer poured out his sweet little song, ending—in his best moods—in an exquisite trill that resembled the silver bell of the chewink. The family spent their time in the road or the meadow, the mother working hard to supply the hungry little mouths, which gave vent to queer whining cries. One day when it was raining the mother and one infant were out on the usual business, when suddenly they became aware of a chipmunk about eighteen inches from them, and at the same instant he saw them. He sat up very erect to look over the grass, and, holding his funny little hands over his heart, stared at the pair as if he had never seen birds. The baby sparrow flew a foot or two, but the elder ran toward him most valiantly, upon which the brave chipmunk took to his heels, scrambled up the stone wall, and disappeared.
Before the window, too, were always the swallows, for the telegraph wire was a favorite perch. And after the young were out, there was every day a baby show, the eave and tree swallows having adopted the wires as their out-of-door nursery. Nearly all the time might be seen half a dozen or more waiting patiently for a morsel from some of their elders circling about over their heads, and such a chatter as they kept up! They whispered softly among themselves when their parents were away, and called in squeaky little voices with fluttering wings as one of the elders approached. Whether the young in these social nurseries know their particular parents has always been an interesting question with me, and I studied their ways for some clew to the truth. I noticed when one of the parents swooped over them or came near, to alight, not more than one or two of the waiting babies on the wire would flutter and ask for food, and I saw also, on such occasions, that they were usually fed. When somewhat later another parent came near, a different little one would ask and be fed. They did not all, or even any great number, ask every time an old bird came about, which certainly looked as if the little ones knew their own parents.
After a while the swallows came out in great numbers. There were hundreds at a time on the telegraph wires, all, both old and young, talking at once—as it appeared. They had flight exercises, when the whole flock rose at once, filling the air with wings. This gathering continued for three or four days, while all other birds seemed to have disappeared, and then one morning they were gone to the marsh, where we often saw them afterward, and the other birds returned to their usual haunts.
IN A COLORADO NOOK.
The loveliest nook I know is one of nature's wild gardens, on the banks of the "Shining Water," at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. It is forever fresh and green in my memory. Let me picture it for you, dear reader, as I saw it last.
It is June, and we are sitting under a low tree buried up to our shoulders in a luxuriant growth of weeds. Before us towers beautiful Cheyenne, its wonderful red rocks gorgeous in the morning sun; above us stretches the violet-blue sky, while all about us, filling our lungs, and bracing and invigorating our whole being, is the glorious mountain air of Colorado. Outside our shady nook the sunshine glows and burns, but we are cool and comfortable.
The little field between our seat and the mountain is all given up to weeds, with here and there a small oak-tree, and shut in by a hedge of oak saplings and low willows. I say weeds, but think not of an eastern weed-grown spot; imagine neither pigweed, smartweed, burdock, nor sorrel. Rather, picture in your mind a flower-bed, more rich and gay than ever met your admiring eyes. Yellow daisies by thousands turning their shining faces up to the sun; royal purple clusters of a blossoming mint glowing in the brilliant light; larkspurs four feet high, thrusting themselves above the rest like blue banners here and there; while lower down peep out white, and blue, and lavender, and other modest posies, and everywhere our familiar woods flower the wild geranium, whose office it seems to be in Colorado to fill all vacancies, much larger and more luxurious than ours, though quite as dainty and as impatient of handling. Almost within reach of our hand we easily count a dozen varieties of blossoms, while at the back of the little field are masses of a tall plant gone to seed. This departed bloom must have resembled our elder in shape and size, and now it makes a wonderful display of seeds in all shades of green, yellow, and golden brown, according to the various degrees of ripeness. It is very effective, almost more beautiful than blossoms, certainly more harmonious.
Over all this growing glory butterflies flutter, and bees go hither and thither, and still higher zigzag dozens of dragonflies. Behind us, a few steps away, is the brook Minnelowan, whose musical murmur is in our ears, but we will not turn around just yet. Truly it is good to be here; to rest from the world of conventionality; to get into harmony with nature; to steep our souls in the wildness, the freshness, and the eternal youth of the growing world about us.
[Sidenote: CURIOUS BABIES.]
But we are seeking birds; we must control our enthusiasm and listen. Now we become aware of low, sharp, insect-like cries about us. They seem to come from all sides at once; we find it impossible to locate them, till a sudden chorus of loud and excited "smacks" directs our attention to the tree over our heads, and our eyes fall upon a pair of frantic little fellow-creatures in golden yellow, hopping about on the branches, posturing and gesticulating with vehemence, and addressing their remarks most pointedly to us.
We have doubtlessly invaded what they consider their domain. Those insect-like chirps are the voices of their little folk, probably just out of the nest, brand-new, ignorant, and curious babies, who know no better than to stare at us, and make their comments within reach of our hands. They are not yet trained to know and avoid their greatest enemy, which you may not know, dear reader, that you are, not because you are bloodthirsty, but because you belong to a bloodthirsty race.
Now one of the babies comes in sight, in soft olive, with golden suggestions on tail and body; but mamma, horrified that he has exposed himself to our gaze, hurries him away, and soon the chorus of peeps and smacks—the yellow-bird baby talk—grows more distant, and the whole family of golden warblers is gone. It is remarkable how much these little folk know about our ways. If we walk through their territory talking and laughing, the birds will continue their own affairs, singing and calling, and carrying on their domestic concerns as though we were blind and deaf, as indeed most of us are to the abundant life about us. But when they see us quiet, looking at them, showing interest in their ways, they recognize us at once as a suspicious variety of the genus homo, who must be watched. At once they are on guard; they turn shy and try to slip out behind a bush, or—if hampered by an untrained family of little ones—attempt to expostulate with us, or to drive us away.
[Sidenote: A RAPTUROUS SONG.]
All this time you have perhaps been conscious of a delicate little song, like the ringing of a silver bell, over at the edge of our wild garden. Now listen; you will hear a rustle as of dead leaves, a low utterance like a hoarse "mew," then an instant's pause, and the bell song again. Turn your glass toward the thick shrubbery, at a point where you can see the ground at the foot of the bushes. In a moment you catch a glimpse of the mysterious bell-ringer, nearly as big as a robin, modestly dressed in black and white and chestnut, going about very busily on the ground; now giving a little jump that throws a light shower of dirt and leaves into the air, then looking earnestly in the spot thus uncovered, perhaps picking something up, then hopping to the lowest twig of the bush, and flinging out upon the air his joyous song. We are fortunate to see him so soon; he might tantalize us all day with his song, and never give us a glimpse of himself, for he delights in these quiet places, under the thickest shrubs. He is the towhee bunting or chewink, sometimes called ground robin, and in that corner of Colorado he takes the place the robin fills with us, the most common bird about the house.
Keep very still, and we may perhaps hear his most ecstatic song, for remember it is June, the wooing and nesting time of our feathered friends, when their songs and their plumes are in perfection. The love-song of this particular chewink is simply his usual silver-bell peal, with the addition of two rich notes in tremolo; first a note lower in the scale than the bell, then a note higher, each a soft, delicious, rapturous utterance impossible to describe, but enchanting to hear.
The nest is doubtless close by, but it will be lost time to hunt for it in a wilderness of bushes like this, for it is a mere cup in the ground, hidden under the thickest shrubs that the brown-clad spouse of the towhee can find. If we did uncover it we might not recognize it, so perfectly do the colors of the birds, old and young, and even of the eggs, harmonize with the earth in which it is placed.
I once found, in another place a nest full of chewink babies. It was where a patch of sage bushes stretched down the mountain, bordered by a thick clump of oak brush seven or eight feet high. My attention was called to it by the owner himself, who alighted on the oaks with a beak full of food, and at once began to utter his cry of distress, or warning to his mate. The moment he began I heard a rustle of wings behind me, and turning quickly had a glimpse of the shy dame, skulking around a sage bush. A little search revealed the nest, carefully hidden under the largest branch of the shrub. It was a deep cup, sunk into the ground to the brim, and three young birds opened their months to be fed when I parted the leaves above them.
Studying a nest among the sage bushes is not so easy as one might imagine. This was so closely covered by the low-growing branches that I could see it only by holding them one side. Moreover the sage is what is called in the books a social plant; where there is one there may be a thousand, as like each other as so, many peas. The particular bush that hid my chewink babies had to be marked, as one would mark the special tuft of grass that hides a bobolink's nest.
[Sidenote: AMONG THE SAGE BUSHES.]
However, I spent an hour or two every day in the sage patch, watching the wind sweep over it in silvery waves, and getting acquainted with the nesting-birds. All sorts of man[oe]uvres the father of the family tried on me, such as going about carrying food conspicuously in the mouth, then pretending to visit a far-off spot and returning without it; but he always ended by mounting the oak brush, ruffling up his neck feathers till they stood out like a ruff, and uttering his cry; it can hardly be called of distress, it became so evidently perfunctory. His mate never tried deception, but relied upon skulking to and fro, unseen among the bushes.
In seven or eight days, as soon, in fact, as they could stand, the nestlings deserted the little home and I saw them no more, but I learned one fact new to me about the singing of the chewink. After the nest was abandoned I sat down in the usual place, hoping to hear the silver tremolo I am so fond of. In a moment my bird began. Securely hidden, as he thought, by the impenetrable oak brush, in the dim seclusion he loves, he poured out his simple yet effective song for some time. Then, to my amazement, with hardly a pause, he began a second song, quite different, and unlike any chewink song I have heard. I had thought this bird more closely confined to one role than most others, for none who have studied birds will agree with the poet that
"Each sings its word or its phrase, and then It has nothing further to sing or to say;"
but I learned on this day, and confirmed it somewhat later, that the chewink can vary his song considerably.
But let us return to our nook. We will now turn around, and the world is totally changed for us. Let us seat ourselves under a tall old pine-tree, whose delicious aroma the hot sun draws out, and the gentle breeze wafts down to refresh and delight us here below.
Before us is the brook, faint-hearted in manner, and only a murmur where last summer it was a roar. Alas! the beautiful stream has seen reverses since first I lingered on its banks with joy and admiration. Far up above, just after it leaves the rocky walls of Cheyenne Canon, it has fallen into the greedy hands of men who have drawn off half of it for their private service. So the sparkling waters which gathered themselves together near the top of Cheyenne, leaped gayly down the seven steps of the falls, and rushed and bounded over the rocks of the canon, now run tamely down between rows of turnips and potatoes, water an alfalfa field, bathe the roots of a row of tired-looking trees, or put a lawn a-soak. The fragment that is left winds on its old way, not half filling its bed, with a subdued babble, suited to its altered fortunes.
[Sidenote: A BEWITCHING BEAUTY.]
Still there is enough to delight a brook-lover, and this spot is the chosen home of the most bewitching little beauty in all Colorado, the Arkansas goldfinch. Clumsy name enough for a tiny sprite of a birdling, not so large as our charming little goldfinch in his black cap. He is exquisite in olive green, with golden yellow breast, and the black cap and wings of his family, and he is most winsome in manner, with every tone in his varied utterances musical and delicious to hear. As he flies over in bounding waves, calling "Swe-eet! swe-eet!" often ending with an entrancing tremolo, your very soul is taken captive. What would you not give to see the dainty cradle of his younglings! Not far away you may see two thistle-blooms pulled to pieces; no doubt the down has gone to make a bed for goldfinch babies, for nothing that grows, except thistledown, is quite soft and delicate enough for the purpose.
We will not try to find the nest. He is the most shy, the most elusive of birds, living in the tops of the tallest trees, and flitting from one to another like a sunbeam, showing only a glint of a golden breast as he goes. One is maddened by the medley of calls and scraps of song, the trills and tremolos in the sweetest and most enticing tones, while not able to catch so much as a glimpse of the bonny bird who utters them. His love-song is utterly captivating, as rapturous as that of the American goldfinch, with a touch of plaintiveness that makes it wonderfully thrilling. It is mostly in tremolo, a sort of indescribable vocal "shake" that is enchanting beyond the power of words to express. When he is not singing, one may often hear his low, earnest chatter and talk with his mate, in the same plaintive and winsome tones.
Ah, how little we can see of what goes on about us, though we are closely watching, and every sense is alert! On one side is a flash of wings, and somebody disappears before he is seen; from the other comes an unfamiliar note, and a rustle of leaves, behind which the author is hidden. Here two bird voices are heard in excited talk, but your hasty glance falls only on the swaying twig that proclaims their flight; and in the tops of tall trees is a whole world of life and action entirely beyond your vision.
[Sidenote: HOW TO BE HAPPY.]
Early in the study of bird-life one must learn to be content with comparatively little, and not set his heart on solving every mystery of sound or glimpse which comes to him. One must be content to let some things remain unknown, and enjoy what he can understand, if he would be happy with nature. And if at some future time—as often happens—the mystery is solved, the joy is great enough to pay for waiting, and much greater than if he had worried and tramped the country over in attempts to settle it.
I have seen it recommended as the best way to know birds, to follow every note heard, till the bird is found and identified. This method requires great activity, and often an hour's search results in the discovery of an unfamiliar note of a familiar bird,—the robin or sparrow, perhaps. Meanwhile one has missed a dozen charming scenes in bird-life, and a chance to make acquaintances worth more than the gratification of that curiosity. The wiser course, it seems to me, is to learn to be content with what comes to you, and not mourn over what eludes you; to be happy with what nature offers you, nor make yourself miserable over what she for the present withholds; to adopt for your motto the grand words of a fellow bird-lover,—
"What is mine shall know my face."
And in spite of such regrets, enough is always left to repay patient waiting. From across the brook comes the unceasing cry of the Maryland yellow-throat, "Witches here! witches here!" and you can readily believe him, especially as with your best efforts you can see scarcely more than a suggestion of his quaint black mask, as a small form dives into the thick bushes.
Nor are birds the only attraction in this most fascinating nook; there are flowers. Through the dead pine leaves on which we sit, here and there thrusts itself up a slender stem, holding upright one of Colorado's matchless blossoms. This is the chosen nook of the rare gilia, which hides itself under the edge of a bush, or close against a low tree, bearing its pink and coral treasures modestly out of sight, until a flower-seeking eye spies it, glowing like a gem in the green world about it. Under the shrubs which hem in our nook on one side grows here and there a rosy cyclamen; out in the sunshine are bunches of bluebells; down the bank beside the water are great masses of golden columbine, while a fragrant veil of blooming clematis is flung over the weeds between. It is a rarely lovely and flowery spot.
[Sidenote: SAUCY LITTLE WRENS.]
We are not far from the world, however; this canon-like valley of the Minnelowan is narrow, and through it passes the road. Moreover, there are many openings that might reveal us to the procession of tourists on their way up the canon. But happily the sun is on our side, and the sun of Colorado is not to be despised: a screen of umbrellas and parasols and carriage curtains shuts us from view as completely as if the passers-by had no eyes on that side. If seen, we should be classed among the "sights," and the legitimate prey of the sight seeker. We should certainly be stared at, perhaps have glasses turned upon us, possibly be kodaked, and without doubt take prominent place in all the newspaper letters that go from here. But we may be sure of solitude till the sun crosses the road.
Yet this is far from solitude. Here comes a whole bevy reviling us, six or seven of them, running up and down the branches of a great bush, all scolding at the top of their voices,—a family of house wrens lately emancipated from their wooden castle in that old stump across the brook,—pert and saucy little parents, and droll babies imitating them with spirit.
The wrens were not the only tenants of that old tree-trunk; I have spent many hours beside it. Such conveniences for bird homes are rare in this country, and that one was well occupied, and offered a problem I was never able to solve. Beside the deserted woodpecker home to which the wrens had succeeded, there were two freshly made woodpecker doors, and both led to homes of the red-shafted woodpecker or western flicker, who differs from our familiar flicker only in having red instead of yellow shafts to his wing and tail feathers, and wearing the red badge of his family on his "mustaches" instead of on his collar, as does our bird.
One day when I was watching the stump, a male flicker came with food, and alighted at the lower door, upon which a young bird put his bill out and was fed in the murderous-looking fashion of the flickers. Papa thrust his long beak down baby's throat, and gave several vicious-looking pokes, as if to hammer something down. While I was musing over this strange way of feeding, the bird left, and a female flicker appeared. She glanced into the open door, and then to my surprise slipped half around the trunk and a foot higher, and stopped before the other hole, which I had not noticed till then. Instantly a head came out, much bigger than the first one, uttered the familiar flicker baby-cry, and was fed.
Then the question that interested me was, Were there two nests, or one of two stories with babies of different ages? Did both belong to one pair, or was that little dame peeping into her neighbor's house? Much time I spent before that castle in the air, but never was able to answer my own questions. No two old birds came at the same time, and no difference could I discover in looks or manners, that answered the query whether there were one or two pairs at work. Now they have all flown, and only the laugh of the flicker and the call of the young ones all around remain to tell that woodpecker babies grew up in the tree.
[Sidenote: THE GLORY OF THE WEST.]
Now let us close our glasses, fold our camp-chairs, and go back to the camp, our present home. As we turn into the gate another voice strikes our ear, louder, richer, more attention-compelling than any we have heard. Listen: It is the wonder and the glory of the West; it is the most intoxicating, the most soul-stirring of bird voices in the land where thrushes are absent; it embodies the solitude, the vastness, the mystery of the mesa; it is the western meadow lark. This is his nesting-time, and we may be treated to his love-song, the exquisite, whispered aria he addresses to his mate. As I have heard it when very close to him, he sings his common strain several times, and then drops to a very low twittering and trilling warble, in which now and then is interpolated a note or two of the usual score, yet the whole altogether different in spirit and execution. He ends by a burst into the loud carol he offers to the world. There is nothing beyond that to hear, even in my beloved nook.
THE IDYL OF AN EMPTY LOT.
A CITY STUDY.
Opposite my study windows is an empty lot. It is of generous size; six residences facing another street, with high board fences, stretch across the back; a large apartment-house towers above it on the right, and a tight fence defines it on the left. The front is open to the street, but the whole is so given up to weeds, such a tangle of rank vegetation, that few people penetrate it, and it is the great out-of-doors for the animal life of the neighborhood. Looking down upon it as I do, constantly spread out under my windows, I cannot choose but see everything that goes on.
Last summer was the blossoming-time of the empty lot. It had but one summer of romance—just one—between the building of the brick row behind it and the beginning of the new row which shall hide it from the sun for ages, perhaps.
[Sidenote: A RELAPSE INTO BARBARISM.]
It was not attractive in the spring, for man had done what he could to deface it. Here is a curious fact: the human being is capable of a certain amount of civilization under the pressure of the necessities of city life. He—or she—will learn to dispose inoffensively of the waste and rubbish that drag after him like a trail wherever he goes. He—and always likewise she—can be taught to burn his waste paper, to bag his rags, to barrel his ashes, to burn the refuse from his table, to hide the relics of china and glass. In fact, he can live in a modern house with no back yard, no "glory-hole" whatever.
Yet if one would see how superficial his culture, how easy his relapse into barbarism, he need only open his windows upon an empty lot. This tempting space, this unguarded bit of the universe, brings out all the savage within him. Ashes and old boots, broken glass, worn-out tin pans, and newspapers whose moment is over, alike drift naturally into that unfortunate spot. The lot under my window had suffered at the hands of lawless men,—not to say women,—for it offered the eternal oblivion of "over the back fence" to no less than ten kitchens with their presiding genii.
Nor was this all. The lot and all the land about it had belonged to an unsettled estate, and for years had been a dumping-ground for carts, long before the surrounding buildings had begun their additions to its stores.
But last spring a change came to it. Its nearly fenced condition for the first time allowed Mother Nature a chance, and anxious, like other mothers, to hide the evil deeds of her children, she went busily to work,
"With a hand of healing to cover the wounds And strew the artificial mounds And cuttings with underwood and flowers."
We may call them weeds, but forever blessed be the hardy, rapid-growing, ever-ready plants we name so scornfully! What else could so quickly answer the mother's purpose? She had not time to evolve a century-plant, or elaborate an oak-tree, before man would be upon it again. She did the best she could, and the result was wonderful.
When I returned from the country I found, to my delight, in place of the abomination of desolation I have described, a beautiful green oasis in the world of stone and brick. From fence to fence flourished and waved in the breeze an unbroken forest. The unsightly heaps had become a range of hills, sloping gently down to the level on one side, and ending on the other in an abrupt declivity, with the highest peak bare and rocky, overhanging a deep and narrow ravine. The bordering fences were veiled by luxurious ailanthus shoots, chicory blossoms opened their sweet blue eyes to every morning sun, and it was beside
"Rich in wild grasses numberless, and flowers Unnamed save in mute Nature's inventory."
[Sidenote: A NOBLE FOREST.]
In the air above, myriads of dainty white butterflies sported, ever rising in little agitated parties of two or three, climbing gayly the invisible staircase till at an immense height, and then fluttering back to earth no wiser than they went up, so far as the human eye could see.
The forest, as I have called it, was, to be sure, by measurement of man, not more than three or four feet high. But all things are relative, and to the frequenters of that pleasant bit of woodland, far above whose head it towered, it was as the deep woods to us. I chose to look at it from their point of view, and to them it was a noble forest, resembling indeed a tropical jungle, so thickly grown that paths were made under it, where might be enjoyed leisurely walks, given up to quiet and meditation. For there were inhabitants in plenty,—the regulars, the transients, the stragglers,—in furs, in feathers, in wings.
In this nook, secluded from the world which every day swept by without a glance, a constant drama of life went on, which I could see and be myself unseen. I soon became absorbed in the study of it. The actors were of that mysterious race which lives with us, and yet is rarely of us; whose real life is to us mostly a sealed book, and of whom Wordsworth delightfully sings,—
"Think of the beautiful gliding form, The tread that would scarcely crush a worm, And the soothing song by the winter fire Soft as the dying throb of the lyre."
Yes, the cats, whose ways are ever the unexpected, and of whom I am so fond that one of the most touching objects unearthed at Pompeii—to me—is the skeleton of a woman holding in her arms the skeleton of a cat, whom perhaps she gave her life to save.
The builder of the fences at the back of this Cat's Eden very considerately capped them all with a board three inches wide, thus making a highway for the feline race, not only across the back, but from that to each house door. On this private path, above the heads of boys and dogs, they spent much time. This was their Broadway, and at the same time their point of outlook, where they might survey the landscape and decide when and where to enter their secluded domain. How admirable the facility with which these mysterious beasts pass up or down high fences! Ladders or stairs are superfluous. How can one possibly walk several steps down a perpendicular board without falling headlong to the ground? And still more strange,—how can one leap squarely against the same fence, and run right up to the top?
[Sidenote: THREE REGULARS.]
Soon after breakfast on every fair day the houses around began to give up their cats. There were three in whose actions I became specially interested. The most important, and the one to whom I felt the place belonged by right of appreciating it, was a personage of dignified manners, and evidently of rank in his own world, a magnificent silver tabby, the beauty of the neighborhood. Next in interest was a white-and-black cat for whom I had sincere respect because she lived most amicably with two canaries whose cages were always within reach and never disturbed. The third was to my eyes anything but attractive, being a faded-looking gray tabby, who entered the place by a hole under the fence next the apartment-house. She looked ill-used, as if her home life was troubled by bad children, or a frivolous, teasing dog, or a raging housekeeper who left no peace to man or beast.
For whatever cause, when, soon after breakfast, Madam Grey appeared on the scene, she proceeded at once and in silence to the highest bare peak of the hills, a sightly place where she could overlook the thick green forest, with its shady walks and cool retreats, and have timely notice of any approach from the street. On that point she found or made a slight depression, and there she calmly dressed her fur, and then, wrapping her robe around her (so to speak), slept hours at a time.
She never did anything on the lot except sleep, and she seemed totally blind to the attractions of nature. I never saw her notice anything. As soon as she awoke she went back through the humble portal to her flat.
This piece of woods was not merely a pleasure-ground. It was a hunting-field as well, and the denizens of its quiet shades were not at all averse to a little excitement of the chase, nor to a taste now and then of wild game of their own catching. What was there I know not, but I judge from the spasmodic character of the hunt that it was grasshoppers.
The silver tabby and the white-and-black, who were daily visitors to the place, never quarreled with each other, and their intercourse, when they happened to meet on the common highway, was conducted in the courteous and dignified manner of the race.
Cats are popularly supposed to dislike wet, but I have seen two of them in a steady rain conduct an interview with all the gravity and deliberation for which these affairs are celebrated. The slow approach, with frequent pauses to sit down and meditate, or "view the landscape o'er," the earnest and musical—if melancholy—exchange of salutations, the almost imperceptible drawing nearer, with the slightly waving tail the only sign of excitement, and at last the instantaneous dash, the slap or scratch (so rapid one can never tell which), the fiery expletive and retort, and the instant retreat, to sit down again. There seems to be some canon of feline etiquette which forbids two to meet and pass without solemn formalities of this sort, reminding one of the ceremonious greetings of the Orient, where time is of no particular value.
[Sidenote: A WAY OF HIS OWN.]
The silver tabby was an original, and had a way of his own. He seemed impatient of these serious rites, and when within three feet of his vis-a-vis he usually gave one great leap over the intervening space, administered his salute,—whatever it was,—and passed on. This cat was peculiar in other ways. Sometimes he had the whole wood to himself, and it was charming to see him wander in his leisurely way all over it, smelling daintily of this and that, now tasting a leaf, now looking intently at some creeper or crawler on the ground, now sitting down to enjoy the seclusion and the silence of the wood. He was a philosopher, or a lover of nature,
"A lover who knows by heart Each joy the mountain dales impart."
One of the accusations brought against this reserved little beast is that he does not love man. Has he reason to do so? Tragedies I have seen on the lot, which I try to forget and shall not repeat, in which small boys demonstrated in their treatment of the abused race how much more brutal than a brute the human animal can be. Cats show their intelligence by being wary of mankind.
When October at last stripped the woods of their summer glory, and the weather was no longer warm, the heat-loving creatures deserted the empty lot, except the silver tabby, who often came out and sauntered through its lonely paths, smelling of the weeds here and there, seating himself in a bower that was still green, rubbing his face against something he found there, and evidently enjoying sufficient society in his own thoughts, for to him plainly it was still
"A woodland enchanted."
Then came a week of unwonted glory, of distinguished visitors. All the summer birds had hovered over it; toward evening the night hawk circled high in air above it, uttering his wild, quaint cry, collecting food for his little family, no doubt safely reposing on some gravel roof near by.
[Sidenote: A RARE VISITOR.]
And there were always the city sparrows. They had taken possession of a vine, which, clambering up the back of one of the houses bordering the lot, had burst into sudden luxuriance when it found itself without further support at the eaves, spreading out each side, and clinging for dear life to the roof, making a delightful screen, as well as a comfortable site for many bird homes. Indeed, there seemed to be a populous bird village behind the green curtain, and great disturbances sometimes occurred, and I could hear the excited voices of the residents till darkness put an end to their discussions. One cool October day, as I sat at my window I heard a strange bird note, and my ready glass in a moment revealed a rare visitor indeed,—a thrasher. He stood on the edge of a roof silhouetted against the sky, tossing his tail in excitement, and peering eagerly into the yards opened out before him. Suddenly he dashed into a tall rosebush leaning on the back fence of the empty lot, and busied himself a few moments, perhaps with the rose hips; then finding that too near the four-footed inhabitants, he retired to the roof, looked to see that no plebeian sparrows were at home in the vine, then plunged into that and disappeared behind its ample foliage. Here he spent some time getting the berries, as I could see, and during his occupancy no sparrow entered, though some flew by. All day he remained in the vicinity; but at night I suppose he resumed his journey southward, for I saw him no more.
One day a pair of juncos appeared on the scene, mingling fraternally with the sparrows, and sharing their usual pickings around back doors and along the back fence, and white-throated sparrows showed themselves on the shrubs and small trees which overhung the division walls.
But the crowning day of the empty lot came still later, when a fairy-like kinglet hunted over the rosebushes, and that shy woods dweller, the hermit thrush, condescended to show his graceful form on the fence, until the silver tabby, seeming to regard their calls as intrusions, took up his station on the cats' highway and I saw the birds no more.
IN THE BIRD-ROOM.
Give sunlight for the lark and robin, Sun and sky, and mead and bloom; But give for this rare throat to throb in, And this lonesome soul to sob in, Wildwoods with their green and gloom.
For three years there lived in my house one of the remarkable birds described in their native land as "invisible, mysterious birds with the heavenly song." I have hesitated to write of him, because I feel unable to do justice either to himself or to his musical abilities; and, moreover, I am certain that what I must say will appear extravagant. Yet when I find grave scientific books indulging in a mild rapture over him; when learned travelers, unsuspected of sentimentality or exaggeration, rave over him; when the literary man, studying the customs, the history, and the government of a nation, goes out of his way to eulogize the song of this bird, I take heart, and dare try to tell of the wonderful song and the life no less noble and beautiful.
Among eight or ten American birds of as many kinds, the solitaire, or, as he is called, the clarin, reminds one of a person of high degree among the common herd. This may sound absurd; but such is the reserve of his manner, the dignity of his bearing, the mystery of his utterances, and the unapproachable beauty of his song, that the comparison is irresistible. The mockingbird is a joyous, rollicking, marvelous songster; the wood thrush moves the very soul with his ecstatic notes; the clarin equals the latter in quality, with a much larger variety. He is an artist of the highest order; he is "God's poet," if any bird deserves the name; he strikes the listener dumb, and transports him with delight.
The solitaires, Myadestes, or fly-catching thrushes, are natives of the West Indies and Mexico, with one branch in the Rocky Mountains. My bird was M. obscurus, and came from Mexico. I found him in a New York bird-store, where he looked about as much at home among the shrieking and singing mob of parrots and canaries as a poet among a howling rabble of the "great unwashed."
[Sidenote: NO DESIRE TO LIVE.]
Upon a casual glance he might be mistaken for a catbird, being about his size, with plumage of the same shade of dark slate, with darker wings and tail and slightly lighter breast; but a moment's examination showed his great difference from that interesting bird. His short, sharp, and wide beak indicated the flycatcher, and his calm dark eyes were surrounded with delicate lines of minute white feathers, a break at each corner just preventing their being perfect rings.
Being a warm admirer of the catbird, I noticed the stranger first for the resemblance; but a few moments' study of his look and manner drew me strongly to himself, and though I desired only our native birds, I could not resist him.
When introduced to his new quarters in my house, the clarin did not flutter; he did not resist. He rested on the bottom of the cage where he was placed, and looked at me with eyes that said, "What are you going to do with me?" He had already accepted his imprisonment; he did not expect to be free, and it was plain that he no longer cared for his life. If he were to be subjected to the indignity of traveling in a box among common birds, as he had been sent from the bird-store where I found him, he had no desire to live. It required much coaxing to make him forget the outrage, and I am glad to say it was the last affront he suffered. From that day he was treated as lie deserved, being always at liberty in the room, and enjoying the distinguished consideration of a houseful of people and birds. Before he came to understand that his life had changed, however, I feared he would die. He did not mope, he simply cared for nothing. For more than twenty-four hours he crouched on the floor of his cage, utterly indifferent even to a comfortable position; food he would not look at. I talked to him; I screened him from noisy neighbors; I made his cage attractive; I spared no effort to win him,—and at last I succeeded. He took up again the burden of life, hopped upon a perch, and began to dress his feathers. Soon he was induced to eat, and then he began to notice the bird voices about him. Like other of the more intelligent birds, once won, he was entirely won. He was never in the least wild with me after that experience; never hesitated to put himself completely in my power, or to avail himself of my help if he needed it in any way. Says another bird-lover, "Let but a bird—that being so free and uncontrolled—be willing to draw near and conclude a friendship with you, and lo, how your heart is moved!"
[Sidenote: A MYSTICAL CALL.]
It is hard to tell in what way this bird impressed every one with a sense of his imperial character, but it is true that he did. He never associated with the other birds, and he selected for his perches those in the darker part of the room, where his fellows did not go. Favorite resting-places were the edge of a hanging map, the top of a gas fixture, and a perch so near my seat that most birds were shy of it. Though extravagantly fond of water, requiring his bath daily, he greatly disliked to bathe in the dishes common to all. Like a royal personage, he preferred his bath in his own quarters.
Moreover, the clarin never added his voice to a medley of music. If moved to sing while others were doing so, he first reduced them to silence by a peculiar mystical call, which had a marked effect not only upon every bird in the room, but upon the human listeners as well. This call cut into the ripple of sweet sounds about him like a knife, loud, sharp, and incisive, instantly silencing every bird. It consisted of two notes exactly one octave apart,—the lower one first,—uttered so nearly together that they produced the effect of one double note. After a pause of a few seconds it was repeated, as clear and distinct as before, with mouth open wide. It was delivered with the deliberation of a thrush; the bird standing motionless except the tail, which hung straight down, and emphasized every note with a slight jerk. This loud call, having been given perhaps twenty times, began to diminish in volume, with longer intervals between, till it became so faint it could scarcely be heard,—a mere murmur with closed bill, yet so remarkable and so effective that for some time not a bird peeped. Occasionally, while the room was quiet, he began to sing; but again it appeared that it was his purpose merely to hush the babble of music, for, having secured his beloved stillness, the beautiful bird remained a long time at rest, sitting closely on his perch, plainly in deep content and happiness. Sometimes, when out in the room, he delivered the call with extraordinary excitement, turning from side to side, posturing, flirting one wing or both, lifting them quite high and bringing them down sharply; but when in the cage at dusk—his favorite time—he stood, as I said, motionless and without agitation.
In another way my bird differed from nearly all the feathered folk, and proved his right to belong to the thrush family; he was not in any degree fussy; he never hopped about aimlessly, or to pass away time. He had not only a beautiful repose of manner, but there was an air of reticence in everything he did. Even in so trivial a matter as eating, he was peculiar. During the season he was always supplied with huckleberries, of which he was exceedingly fond. Any other bird would take his stand beside the dish, and eat till he was satisfied; but quite otherwise did the clarin. He went deliberately to the floor where they were, took one berry daintily in the tip of his beak, returned with it to the upper perch, fixed his eyes upon me, and suddenly, without a movement, let it slip down his throat, his eyes still upon me, with the most comically solemn expression of "Who says I swallowed a berry?" Then he stood with an air of defiant innocence, as if it were a crime to eat berries, not wiping his bill nor moving a feather till he wanted another berry, when he ate it in exactly the same way.
[Sidenote: AT THE MIRROR.]
The clarin defended himself against imposition, but, except to his own reflection in the glass, he never showed warlike inclinations. Upon his first sight of himself he was much excited. His feathers rose, especially on the back, where they looked like a hump; his beak pointed toward the offensive stranger, he uttered a peculiar new war-cry and then flung himself violently upon the enemy. Of course he brought up against the glass, and dropped panting to the bureau. In a moment he rallied, poured out a few unfamiliar notes in a loud strange voice, with wings quivering, body swaying from side to side, and tail wide spread. Then lifting both wings high above his back, he repeated the attack. Finding himself a second time baffled, he remained where he had dropped, silent, a picture of despair.
I hastened to end his trouble by covering the glass. He flew several times around the room, then alighted, reduced the inmates to meek silence by his mysterious calls, then flew to his own cage, retired to the upper perch, and remained quiet and motionless for an hour or more; apparently meditating upon the strange occurrence, and wondering how the elusive stranger had disappeared. During his trouble before the glass, all the birds in the room were excited; they always were close observers of everything he did, and never seemed to regard him as one of themselves.
In the spring, when the room was emptied of all its tenants excepting two or three who could not be set free, the clarin was a very happy bird. He flew freely and joyously about, delighting especially in sweeping just over my head as if he intended to alight, and he sang hours at a time. The only disturbance he had then—the crumpled roseleaf in his lot—was the presence of a saucy blue jay, a new-comer whom he could neither impress by his manner nor silence by his potent calls. So far from that, the jay plainly determined to outshriek him; and when no one was present to impose restraint on the naughty blue-coat (who, as a stranger, was for a time quite modest), he overpowered every effort of his beautiful vis-a-vis by whistles and squawks and cat-calls of the loudest and most plebeian sort. At the first sound of this vulgar tirade the imperial bird was silent, scorning to use his exquisite voice in so low company; while the jay, in no whit abashed, filled the room with the uproar till some one entered, when he instantly ceased.
[Sidenote: WRAPPED IN FUSS.]
The regularity of the clarin's bath has been mentioned; he dried himself, if possible, in the sunshine. Even in this he had his own way, which was to raise every feather on end; the delicate tips rose on his crown, the neck plumage stood out like a ruff, the tail spread, and the wings hung away from the body. In this attitude, he looked as if wrapped in exquisite furs from his small beak to his slender black legs. He shared with all thrushes a strange restlessness on the approach of evening. First he moved back and forth on one perch with a gliding motion, his body crouched till the breast almost touched the perch, tail standing up, and wings quivering. Then he became quiet, and uttered his call for some time, and soon after settled for the night, sleeping well and even dreaming, as was evident from the muffled scraps of song and whispered calls that came from his cage.
This bird has all the sensitiveness of an artistic temperament, and one can readily believe that in freedom he would choose a life so secluded as to merit the popular name, "the invisible bird," inhabiting the wildest and most inaccessible spots on the rough mountain-side, as Mr. Frederic A. Ober found some of his near relations in the West Indies. If, in spite of his reserved manners, any bird was impertinent enough to chase or annoy him, he acted as if his feelings were hurt, went to his cage, and refused to leave it for some time. Yet it was not cowardice, for he could and did defend his cage against intruders, flying at them with cries of rage. Also, if his wishes chanced to interfere with the notions of another bird,—as they did on one or two occasions that I noticed,—he showed no lack of spirit in carrying them out. Once that I remember, he chose to perch on the top of a certain cage next a window, where he had not before cared to go. The particular spot that he occupied was the regular stand of another bird, one also accustomed to having his own way, and quite willing to fight for it,—a Brazilian cardinal. The cardinal, of course, disputed the point with the clarin, but the latter retained his position as long as he desired, running at the enemy with a cry if he ventured to alight near. In general, his tastes were so different from others that he seldom came into collision with them.
[Sidenote: NOT DARING TO LAUGH.]
When, on the approach of spring, some of his room-mates grew belligerent, and there arose occasional jarring between them, my bird showed his dislike of contention and coarse ways by declining to come out of his cage at all. Although the door stood open all day, and he was kept busy driving away visitors, he insisted on remaining a hermit till the restless birds were liberated, when he instantly resumed his usual habits, and came out as before. His sensitiveness was exhibited in another way,—mortification if an accident befell him. For example, when, by loss of feathers in moulting, he was unable to fly well, and fell to the floor instead of reaching the perch he aimed at, he stood as if stunned, motionless where he happened to drop, as if life were no longer worth living. Once he fell in this way upon a table beside a newspaper. As he landed, his feet slid on the polished surface, and he slipped partly under the loose paper, so that only his head appeared above it. There he stood for five minutes looking at me, and bearing a droll resemblance to a bird's head on a newspaper. He was not more than four feet from me, and was obviously deeply chagrined, and in doubt whether he would better ever try to recover himself; and I positively did not dare to laugh, lest I hurt him more.
The first time the clarin fell to the floor, I ventured to offer him the end of a perch which I held. Not in the least startled, he looked at it, then at me, then accepted the civility by stepping upon it, and holding there while I lifted and carried him to the door of the cage. This soon came to be the regular thing, and all through the trying season of moulting he waited for me to bring a perch and restore him to the upper regions where he belonged. He would have been easily tamed. Even with no efforts toward it, he came on my desk freely, talked to me, with quivering wings, and readily ate from my finger. The only show of excitement, as he made these successive advancements, was the rising of some part of his plumage. At one time he lifted the feathers around the base of his head, so that he appeared to have on a cap a little too big, with a fringe on the edge; and on his first alighting on the arm of the chair where I sat, the feathers over his ears stood out like ear-muffs.
[Sidenote: IMITATING THE JAY.]
When at last the clarin and the blue jay were left nearly alone in the room, I noticed that the clarin began watching with interest the movements of the jay. They had never come in collision, except of the voice above mentioned, because the jay preferred the floor, chairs, and desk, and seldom touched the perches, while the clarin nearly lived upon them. But after some study the latter clearly made up his mind to try the places his larger room-mate liked so well. He had already learned to go upon the desk and ask for currants, which in the absence of fresh berries I kept soaking in a little covered dish. If, after asking as plainly as eloquent looks and significant movements of wings could, I did not take the hint and give him some, he flew over my head, just touching it as he passed. But now, having resolved to imitate the jay, he went to the floor, and tried all of his chosen retreats: the lower rounds of the chair, my rockers, my knee, and the back of a chair sacred to the jay. During these excursions into unknown regions he discovered that warm air came out of the register, and apparently thinking he had discovered summer, he perched on the water-cup that hung before it, spread his feathers, and seemed as happy as if he had really found that genial season.
Who can describe the song of a bird? Poets and prose writers alike have lavished epithets on nightingale and mockingbird, wood thrush and veery, yet who, till he heard one, could imagine what its song was like? Yet I must speak of it.
Singing was always a serious matter with my bird; that is, he never sang while eating or flying about, interpolating his exquisite notes between two mouthfuls, or dropping them from the air. He always placed himself deliberately, and waited for the room to be still,—or made it so, as already related. During the first few months of his residence with me he gave one song of perhaps twenty notes, ending in a lovely tremolo. This had great variety of arrangement, but all bore unmistakable resemblance to the original theme. It was in quality totally unlike any bird note I ever heard, and thrilling in an extraordinary degree, though it was uttered with the beak nearly closed. I can readily believe what Mr. Ober and others assert, that it must have a startling effect when poured out freely in his native woods.
This song alone placed the clarin at the head of all songsters that I have heard or heard of, and I have heard all of our own best songsters, and the nightingale and wood lark of Europe. But after nearly a year of this he came out one memorable day with an entirely new melody, much more intricate and more beautiful, which for some time he reserved for very special and particular occasions, still giving the former one ordinarily. Some months later, to my amazement, he added a third chant, part of which so resembled that of the wood thrush that if he had been near one I should have thought it a remarkable mimicry. He delivered this with the exquisite feeling of the native bird, even the delicious quivering tone at the end, which indeed my bird often repeated in a low tone by itself. Sometimes, when the room was very still and he sitting on his perch, feathers puffed out, perfectly happy, he breathed out this most bewitching tremulous sound without opening his beak,—a performance enchanting beyond words to express.
[Sidenote: AN ENCHANTING SINGER.]
These themes the clarin constantly varied, and in the three years of his life with me I often noted down, in a sort of phonetic way, his songs, as he delivered them, and I have six or seven that are perfectly distinct and different. He never mixed them together or united them; he rarely sang two on the same day. All through, too, there seemed so much reserve power that one could not resist the conviction that he could go on and on, and break one's heart with his voice if he chose. The bird's own deep feeling was shown by his conduct; the least movement in the room would shut him up instantly. One could heartily say with another bird-lover across the sea, "If he has not a soul, who will answer to me for the human soul?"
It was reserved for the last weeks of his life for my bird to give me the most genuine surprise. One day I sat quietly at my desk. The bird stood on a perch very near my head,—so near I could not turn to look at him, when, without a moment's hesitation, without an instant's preliminary practice, he burst out into a glorious, heavenly, perfect song that struck me dumb and breathless. Not daring to move hand or foot, yet wanting some record of the wonderful aria, I jotted down, in the page I was writing, a few of the opening notes; I could re-write my page, but I could not bear to lose the music. Three times, at intervals of perhaps one minute, he uttered the same marvelous song, and then I never heard it again. After all, I had not a record of it, for though it was deliberate and distinct, at every repetition I was spellbound, and could not separate it into tones.