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when the shining sun laugheth once,
You deemen the spring cometh at once."
WHAT a peculiar pleasure there is in finding the very first signs of life in all its forms, as they appear after the coldness, the barrenness, and the silence of the long winter! How fair and sweet looks the newly discovered anemone amid its coarse surroundings, and the earliest robin-song has a glorified sound.
It is indeed a thoughtful provision of nature that periodically the current of life should so generally stop its flow, or at least be lost to sight, so that with each new year the earth's reinvigoration shall appeal with fresh force and delight to our senses. How monotonous the choicest plant and bird would ultimately become, if they were always blossoming and singing. The spice of infrequency is nature's great seasoner. Who would hunt so eagerly at each return of spring for the hepatica and arbutus, or listen so intently for the song sparrow and bluebird, if he were not seeking long-lost favorites? With the current of life ever full and steady in its flow, all of the exhilaration of spring, its exultation and enthusiasm, would disappear, for spring itself would cease to be. As Shakespeare puts it —
To their right praise and true perfection!"
In his periodical regret at losing his wood land friends, the ornithologist or botanist is forgetting that if they did not go away they could not come again. Nature's plans are formed, not for the best effect of a single year, but for the greatest aggregate of effect for all time. Even music itself is permeated through and through with discord; not because of itself can it ever please, but for its power in contrast to enhance the concord. Discord is as hateful to the ear as darkness to the eye, but they are the necessary foils of harmony and light, as winter is of spring.
We shall have to be very differently constituted before we shall be satisfied to live under the constant blaze of the poet's "high, eternal noon." Nor yet — not to be too particular — do I think that any one is quite willing to go to that equally monotonous place where we are told that "everlasting spring abides," at least in any mundane interpretation of the phrase. Our spirits are constitutionally in harmony with nature's law of regular variation in our surroundings, and immutability and monotony axe closely associated in our minds. However admirable in many ways the pines, spruces, and cedars are, every one must feel, as compared with the deciduous trees, how remote they are from human sympathy, in an immobility that suppresses all impulsiveness. The several successive aspects of deciduous growth — the bud and blossom, fruitage and decay — are types of man's development that cannot fail to win regard. That commonest of all weeds, the dandelion — "composite" parable — in one short month how it epitomizes the bounds of human life — its glittering youth, and hoary-headed age.
Another advantage in the alternation of seasons is, as one has expressed it, that "this charming renewal every spring deceives us as to ourselves. We think ourselves every year as the oak which is in leaf, and set out again with it." As glad as the child is to grow old, so eager are the old to be young again.
Although an occasional balmy day turns our thoughts to the glad coming time, the birds are not so easily deceived as man, and the winter species are still here in full force, while the migrants linger in the south.
Early in the month I found a small flock of an interesting sort in a group of evergreens, called red crossbills. They are about six inches long (the size of the familiar English sparrow), the male of a brick-red color, with dark wings and tail, while the female is olive-green with a yellowish suffusion. The sexes are often thus differently colored, sometimes so much so that it would not seem that they could belong to the same species. Throughout the feathered tribe, with (it is said) only one exception as far as known, wherever the sexes differ in plumage it is the male that makes the finest appearance.
Although not especially handsome, the cross-bills are very graceful in motion and attitude, as they cling to the swaying evergreen branches, and skilfully extract the food from the cones. In this operation they are doubtless aided, though at first sight one would suppose them to be seriously hindered, by that peculiarity of anatomy from which they receive the name of crossbill; for it looks as if the lower half of the bill (called mandible) were twisted out of position, and thus the two mandibles, instead of matching each other, as in other species, overlap. Both parts being rather long and curved at the end, it has an awkward appearance; but the bird is thus provided with a doubly hooked apparatus that is very ingenious. Mankind is a very superficial critic as to the wisdom and utility of nature's manifold devices.
These birds seem to subsist largely upon the seeds of cones, and are therefore commonly seen in the evergreens, although they sometimes eat berries, and in the spring do some injury by attacking the buds of various trees. They breed far to the north, and are reported to have done so in rare instances in northern New England. In this region they are not seen with the regularity of most of the winter species, although perhaps not to be called rare. As they hovered about the trees they indulged in a peculiar and innocent twitter, which attracted my attention, as being unusual, and uttered much louder chirps as they flew away. They lingered about the Park for some weeks, and there were evidently two pairs of them.
There is another species of crossbill, called the white-winged, which any one is fortunate to see, not for its greater beauty, but for the rather questionable value of rarity. Its habits are the same as those of the common crossbill, except that its range is more northerly, and differs in appearance only in having white wing-bars.
If a bird has any ambition to be duly admired and appreciated, it should be wise enough to put in an appearance in winter or early spring, when it will receive the warmest welcome and full measure of praise.
There are some scenes in nature that make a peculiarly vivid impression, and linger for years in the memory. An experience of this sort came in a morning's walk early in March, after a fall of damp snow that clung to every trunk and branch and tiniest twig in the thickly wooded Ramble, presenting a spectacle that far surpassed all the luxuriant beauty of foliage and bloom that a few weeks afterward replaced this momentary shroud.
Beneath a leaden sky the woods yet glowed with a soft, almost unearthly light, and in the utter stillness and solitude the long paths, overarched with sweeping whitened elms, seemed like long aisles in a vast cathedral whose massive marble pillars sustained a roof elaborate with richest traceries.
For the nonce it was veritably nature's temple. No wealth of vegetation could equal the cold grandeur of the display which in a brief hour melted away as silently as it came, but left an impression as abiding as it was unique.
My diary for March 2d mentions the finding of three robins in fine plumage, and at this season a little life and a little bright color go a great way. A few days after comes the longer record of chickadees, nuthatches, white-throats, cardinals, a flicker, a downy woodpecker (its crimson patch showing it to be the male), a European goldfinch in song, and the crossbills.
Spring — the rosy promise of an unknown year — is clearly in the air! The quiet of winter's low-tide is at an end. One has no longer to strengthen suspicion with imagination. The song sparrow, that faithful harbinger, is proclaiming the vernal fact on every side in its simple hearty strain, seeming to voice the salutation of Spring herself, as expressed in the lines of the poet —
I come o'er the mountains with light and song!"
A bird's instinct in these matters is fully as trustworthy as farmers' almanacs and astronomical data.
March is a transition month, a sort of composite photograph of winter and spring, when nature is in that uneasy stir that betokens the end of her long slumber. To call such a gruff and blustering old fellow as March a coquet seems incongruous; yet he has a grim and fickle humor that is a sort of masculine counterpart to the more dainty trick of the feminine mind. This characteristic and prevalent mood of the month is quaintly suggested in the couplet that heads the month's record. March is alluring and provoking. One instant he will graciously present the most beguiling token of benignant spring, which in the next he rudely blows away with boisterous winds.
The first sound of the song sparrow falls on the senses like a bit of unexpected sunshine in a stormy day, and raises the temperature of one's feelings many degrees, for in a twinkling it breaks the spell of winter. To be sure, the enthusiasm of this jubilant herald always makes it a little premature in its first outburst; but in the occasional snow-storms still to come, though perplexed, it is not cast down. This is one way of interpreting its announcement; perhaps we should do more justice to the bird, leaving its instinct free from the taint of fallibility, by regarding it as a prophet, to whose vision the future is so clear that he regards it as already present.
A plain, unpretentious bird is this, but a favorite with all who know it; for what it lacks in beauty it more than makes up in good works. The earliest herald of spring, it is still pouring forth its sprightly chant by the wayside in the fall, after all the other choristers are silent. The old adage, "Fine feathers make fine birds," is a libel on man's discernment, and abundantly disproved in numerous instances. The robin, song sparrow, and bluebird are household names in this country, like robin red-breast, lark, and nightingale in Europe; and the former have sung their way into 'our hearts without being even notable singers, according to the highest standards of bird-vocalization; and so far from the European or the American favorites getting their renown from "fine feathers," they are at best only modestly attired, and the song sparrow and lark are severely plain. A bird's personality — for it has a personality very distinct, however circumscribed — is a complex matter, compounded of many qualities, among which plumage is one of the less important.
The sparrows are the largest subdivision of the largest family of birds — the finch family. This family includes, besides the more typical finches, the sparrows, buntings, linnets, grosbeaks, and crossbills. As a family they may be called rather plain in appearance, although it is a rule that has many exceptions, such as the cardinal and rose-breasted grosbeaks and the goldfinches.
The humblest as well as most numerous section of the family is that of the sparrows, of which, according to the authorities, there are about forty species to be found in the United States, a part of them in the east, and a part exclusively in the west. In the region of New York about a dozen species may be counted, but in the Ramble only about half that number.
The sparrows are conspicuously ground-birds, from which they gather much of their food, often alighting too upon weeds and bushes in search of seeds, but rarely found in trees for that purpose, resorting thither chiefly to rest or sing or to escape danger. They are all small birds, mostly from six to seven inches long, and for the most part in the rather homely garb of grayish-brown streaked with a darker shade. This prevailing color makes them easily distinguishable from all other species, but difficult of identification one from another, a difficulty that is increased by their great uniformity of size.
As songsters many of them are worthless, and some are quite pleasing, but none of them notable (unless it be the fox sparrow, which is quite on the verge of greatness), the best of them being characterized by simplicity rather than depth and magnificence, and perhaps the status of the finest sparrow-vocalists would be correctly defined by calling them "ballad-singers." One of the most pleasing, the song sparrow, certainly wins his universal approval quite as much by his heartiness and enthusiasm as by his vocal ability.
One of the advantages of studying birds in spring is that they are then most intensely themselves — in their most animated mood, and in finest plumage. Some, like the American goldfinch, seem like quite another bird in winter, dressed in sober brown; and where the change is not so remarkable, the colors are noticeably dull and lifeless during the winter months. How spiritless, shabby, and almost contemptible a robin looks in January, skulking among the undergrowth, as if conscious and ashamed of his unkempt and faded appearance. But look at him in March! He is a new creature, proud and self-respecting, with lively eye, quick and eager in movement, conspicuously perching high in the branches, as if courting your gaze, and proud to show his bright chestnut breast and black head, sleek and shapely — a typical thrush. Tennyson knew the vernal change in the birds when he sang —
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove."
In twos and threes the robins are now flitting about, uttering only their call-notes, a genuine thrush-tone, and reserving their song till it is beyond the danger of interruption by a relapse into winter. More stately and self-conscious than the ardent and self-forgetful little song sparrow, he cannot be as artless. There are several points of human contrast between these earliest of the familiar birds.
At about this time a somewhat unusual and in many respects unattractive specimen came upon the scene, known as the northern shrike, or butcher-bird, a sort of miniature vulture in its habits, and by one of the inexplicable mysteries of science classed among the song-birds! It has the unenviable distinction of being the smallest bird of prey, at least in our own fauna, for it is no larger than a robin. Its body is of an ash color, the wings and tail are black with white markings, and the forehead black with a broad black stripe through the eye. All in all it has an ominous look. But it must at least be said in its favor that it sails under no false colors, like the blue jay. Probably it knows that man's approbation is not worth the humiliation of hypocrisy. My attention was first called to it by hearing a harsh, uncouth noise, as unmusical as the creaking of a hinge, which it somewhat resembled, but with a venomous touch of animosity. I never heard anything more barbaric from the throat of any bird, especially a "song-bird;" and according to all reports this was a fair exhibition of its musical ability.
Its food consists of insects, mice, and the various small winter-birds, and it is accustomed, for some unknown reason, to impale some of its victims upon thorns, or sharp twigs, although it is asserted upon very good evidence that it never feeds upon what it has thus stored up. In these cases its pleasure in cruelty seems to prompt it to capture the prey when not hungry, and, having no use for it, it is disposed of in this manner. It is well that the name of this bird should be a lasting memento of its infamy. But although neither gifted nor handsome, it yet deserves our thanks for its one redeeming feature, viz., that it makes havoc among the English sparrows. Would that it were ten times larger, so that it could obliterate more of them!
Butcher-Bird (Northern Shrike)
Of about two hundred species of the shrike family in the world, there are only two in this country — the northern, which breeds in northern Maine and beyond, and comes down into the more southern States in winter, and the loggerhead shrike, inhabiting chiefly the Southern States. It is rather difficult to distinguish the two species.
Such a bird, if serving little purpose in other respects to the ornithologist, at least accentuates the beauty, grace, and melody of the other species.
On any warm bright day in March I was sure of hearing the luscious, bubbling song of the European goldfinch, which anticipates by many weeks its laggard brother of the Western World. The songs one hears in March are in some respects unrivalled by any others throughout the year — apart from their own merit, so filled with a glow of promise, like the delicate touch of crimson in the early dawn, that is lost in the full blaze of sunrise. There is a mysterious charm in hope that is not found in realization. Full often the blossom is fairer to look upon than the fruit.
If most of the species must be accused of being "fair weather" birds, this cannot be predicated of the chickadee; for any day, be it cold or warm, in sunshine or in storm, you may hear his irrepressible outbreak. All winter long I have found him in overflowing good spirits, and never in gayer mood than in a cold and driving snow-storm. He is the counterpart of the illustrious Mark Tapley, for he "comes out strong" under the most adverse circumstances, a trait of which unfortunately he enjoys almost the exclusive monopoly among his fellows. It is delightful to find a mellow side to that notable and cast-iron moralist, Emerson, and such quick response to the charm of this dainty creature, interpreting his blithesome message
"As if it said, 'Good day, good sir! Fine afternoon, old passenger! Happy to meet you in these places, Where January brings few faces!' "
His jollity is absolutely contagious. The man that can listen to his rollicking outburst and not smile in sympathy, mark my words, that man is a villain.
Even for those who are unacquainted with this light-hearted guest of winter it seems hardly necessary to append a description, for its song is its unfailing badge; but for completeness I will add that it is about five inches long, ashy above, white beneath (in winter tinted with rusty or buff), — crown, nape, and throat clear black.
By the middle of the month the tide of migration sets in a little more strongly. As the stork knoweth her appointed time, in the words of the prophet, so does the purple grackle, or crow-blackbird; and, punctual to its appointment, it arrived in the Park from the south on the 8th. This is a sort of refined crow, about a foot long, with glossy black plumage glistening with metallic tints of blue, purple, violet, and bronze.
Walking among the leafless trees, one hears a cracked and wheezy whistle, and, looking about, discovers, at the summit of a high tree, its form sharply outlined against the sky, this not altogether welcome arrival — the grackle. Its position tallies with its disposition, holding itself aloof in evident dislike and suspicion of mankind, — and mankind warmly reciprocates the sentiment. Its iridescent colors gleam richly in the sunlight; but at close range it is a bit uncanny, with its staring, yellowish eye. It is a very gregarious bird, often found in large flocks, and has a varied diet, which makes it somewhat beneficial, but still more injurious, to husbandry, and it has the crow's disreputable habit of feeding upon the eggs and young of other birds.
As a songster (for scientifically it is one of the song-birds) it is a most dismal failure. All the ills that ever attacked a singer's larynx seem concentrated in its throat; yet, like many another supposititious and execrable vocalist, it persists in trying to sing. When a large number of them lift up their voices together it certainly makes what someone has aptly called a good wheelbarrow chorus. Wherever they appear they show themselves vulgarly at home until they leave in the fall. Considering what an unmitigated nuisance they have become by their injury to the crops and to the life of other birds, and with no other gift than handsome plumage to commend them, it seems impossible to speak a kinder word for the grackles than to say that, like the butcher-bird, they are chiefly instructive as showing what a bird ought not to be. And yet even a grackle can somewhat quicken the pulse in March.
No sooner does the snow disappear from a sunny and sheltered spot than a flush of green overspreads it, and the typical colors of winter and summer are now alternating, over all the fields and woods, in picturesque patchwork. Snow-birds are becoming numerous, and on the morning of the 16th appeared the first true migrant of the season — a flock of fox sparrows, having evidently arrived during the preceding night. This is the largest and handsomest of all the sparrows, and distinctly different in plumage, which is a rich, rusty-red above, and white beneath streaked with reddish. Being about seven inches long, to the casual observer they are not unlike a diminutive wood thrush, although their figure is not that of a thrush. On the first day after arrival, perhaps being especially hungry, they were searching with unusual vigor for food among the dead leaves, and were less shy than usual at one's approach. It is quite noticeable that in spring birds are much more approachable than at any other time.
The fox sparrow has a peculiar method of scratching the ground, not like a hen, with one foot at a time, but somehow with both at once, in a little spasm. The same trait, in less degree, is observable in the white-throats and probably in other ground-birds. But however absorbed in its occupation, it is keenly alert at the approach of danger, and flies at once to a neighboring tree or bush, as if to have full view of the situation. Not the least important of its prepossessing features is its conspicuous good-nature, a hail-fellow, well met, fraternizing at once with chickadees, snow-birds, white-throats, and any others of peaceable disposition.
Two days after arrival it began singing, not with the long preliminary skirmishings of twitterings and half-voiced effects so common, but lusty and clear. Its musical ability was a glad surprise, although I have heard it so highly commended, far surpassing all other sparrows in fine modulation and a peculiarly full, luscious, and flute-like quality of tone, tinged with a delicious plaintiveness. The song of the fox sparrow is more like a wild spring flower than anything one has heard thus far in the year. If its notes should fall to the ground and take root, they would certainly spring up as hepaticas or something of the sort. These little creatures win admiration too by singing in all weathers; and throughout the year one will seldom hear more spontaneous, rich, and delicate strains than those that come from this passing visitor, amid the leafless trees and under the gloomy clouds of March.
During the remaining days of the month robins became quite abundant, but I did not hear their song till the 26th. By that time the snowbird, a soft-voiced little specimen, was indulging in a variety of fine twitters as it busily moved about over the ground, and in a louder but simple and pleasing strain when perching on a branch. Actual contact with the earth seems to make it impossible for a bird to sing. Its heart is in an upper realm when in song, although the lowest edge of that realm may be a twig not a foot distant from the ground.
Late in the month, outside the Park, was found a flock of those handsome, but villainous birds, the blue jays. Their blue wings gleaming among the trees suggested a heavenly temper; but they were transformed quickly enough into spirits of evil by the malignant yell with which they disappeared.
Near the jays in the adjoining swamps were the earliest red-winged blackbirds. One need never look for these in the Park, for their resort is the marsh, or low and wet open fields. This is a rather fine-looking bird, the male being about as large as a robin, and lustrous black, with the shoulder bright scarlet.
Although these birds are sometimes very injurious to crops, they partially atone for the fault by being also insectivorous, and are innocent of the murderous disposition of the blue jay. The great ornithologist, Wilson, championed their cause by estimating that in his day they devoured during their four months' stay in the United States 16,200,000,000 noxious insects!
I quote from the same writer the following brief and interesting account of their winter life in the Southern States. "Sometimes they appeared driving about like an enormous black cloud carried before the wind, varying its shape every moment. Sometimes suddenly rising from the fields around me with a noise like thunder; while the glittering of innumerable wings of the brightest vermilion, amid the black cloud they formed, produced on these occasions a very striking and splendid effect. Then descending like a torrent, and covering the branches of some detached grove, or clump of trees, the whole congregated multitude commenced one general concert or chorus, that I have plainly distinguished at the distance of more than two miles, and when listened to at the intermediate space of a quarter of a mile, with a slight breeze of wind to swell and soften the flow of its cadences, was to me grand and even sublime. The whole season of winter, that with most birds is passed in struggling to sustain life in silent melancholy, is with the red-wings one continued carnival."
As a singer the red-winged blackbird has little worth, and yet there is something very musical in the simple "conk-a-rée" oft repeated, as the bird perches prominently on a bush in the swamp, or beside a stream in the pasture.
At the close of the month various parts of the Park were fairly alive with fox sparrows, song sparrows, robins, snow-birds, and white-throats, all in song except the last. The fiery cardinal, with an air of exclusiveness, gleams here and there through the branches; and the frequent note of the golden-winged woodpecker, nuthatch, chickadee, and goldfinch is heard.
Now too came the phoebe, the earliest representative of another family — the flycatchers — a group quite distinctive in plumage and habits. Perhaps no other family gives the field ornithologist quite so much trouble as this, in the resemblance of many of its species, as the colors are mostly neutral (of an olive tint, and white that is more or less pure), and most of the species differ but little in size. They are aptly called flycatchers, not only as being chiefly (but not exclusively) insectivorous, but from their conspicuous habit of catching their prey on the wing, all having the characteristic of perching on a prominent point of a bush or tree, from which they suddenly dart forth and snap up an insect (sometimes several in succession) that is in the air, and, after more or less manœuvring on the wing, returning to their post of observation to wait for the next, morsel that comes in sight. Many other birds, like vireos and warblers, can be seen at times collecting their food in the same manner.
Tropical America, where insect-life is most abundant, is the home of nearly all the species of flycatchers. Out of nearly three hundred clearly defined varieties in the New World, only thirty are to be found in North America, and most of these the least attractive as regards plumage. Mexico, Central America, and Brazil show many beautiful species, fork-tailed, black and white, yellow and crimson, rivalling the warblers in their brilliant attire; and in their graceful manœuvrings in pursuit of their helpless prey, they are the very daintiest combination of poetry and murder imaginable.
The phoebe, though comparatively small (about seven inches long), is quite a conspicuous object, from its prominent position at the tip-end of a leafless branch, and is most likely to be found in the vicinity of water, where even thus early in the year insects are beginning to fly about.
Science has placed the flycatchers outside the charmed circle of song-birds, and yet many of their notes are distinctly musical. Science and sentiment do not always agree as to what really constitutes a song-bird. When there is any wrangling between these two eminent authorities upon that point, I find that I get less truth but a deal more of satisfaction by taking sides with sentiment.
Life is stirring everywhere, above and below ground. Along the water-courses liliaceous plants are sprouting, and the simplocarpus foetidus — more euphonious than the English of it — has protruded its coarse blossom from the earth. This is the earliest of the rank vegetation, as if Nature, obliged to produce the malodorous object, were minded to do it quickly and have it done.
And now, released from its narrow winter-quarters,
Between her white wings mantling proudly, rows
Her state with oary feet;"
— statuesque and beautiful, and indispensable to lake scenery, but cold and conventional, and suffering greatly, like the peacock, by the invention of cheap prints.
My record for March comprises the following species, all but three of them in the Ramble: chickadee, nuthatch, cardinal, robin, gull, crow, shrike, white-throat, flicker, downy wood-pecker, American and European goldfinches, snow-bird, grackle, blue jay, red-winged blackbird, song sparrow, fox sparrow, crossbill, and phoebe. Those who delay their gloved acquaintance with Nature until May, are quite oblivious that she is already so wakeful in this desolate and repellent month, and giving so excellent a foretaste of the fuller tide of life to follow.