Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
The Birds' Calendar
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo

"Autumn beaming o'er the yellow woods."


NO one perhaps realizes as strongly as the naturalist (or he who has the spirit of the naturalist, even if too modest to apply the pretentious title to himself) — no one else, I say, feels so keenly the characteristic mood of the several seasons; a mood and atmosphere so peculiar to itself as to give to each of the seasons much of the dignity of personality.

Autumn has a mellow, ripened glow dis­tinctively its own. The inflection of its cad­ence is downward, as that of spring is upward. The two seasons have all the contrast of youth and maturity: the symbol of the one, inquiry; of the other, assurance. If the jubilant and vi­vacious song sparrow be a type of spring-time, autumn is represented by the rich and noble song of the wood thrush. Spring is silvery; autumn, golden. Even spring's climax, June — queen-month of all the year — is fairly rivalled by Oc­tober's regal splendor — the consummation and fruition of spring's thrilling promises. Spring is the buoyant morn; autumn, the evening hour of a fair summer's day, when level sunbeams here and there sift through the trees, and gild some lower branch; silence begins her nightly reign, and dewy coolness fills the air. And autumn is better than summer, too; for one reason, among others, because more positive: it is culmination, not transition. Its individu­ality is complete. It begins and ends its own story, whereas summer is a sort of second vol­ume of spring, the sequel of a tale that is grow­ing a little prolix.

To be sure, it is ebb-tide, but we have at least passed the dull equipoise of summer, and there is more exhilaration in going, even if going to destruction, than in tamely standing still. A mid-summer landscape burns in an unvaried, noon-tide glare; while florid au­tumn's chiaroscuro is incomparable. The ver­tical sun casts no shadows, and summer must be painted lightly: in water-colors, rather than in oils. The declining sun makes deep contrasts of light and shade, and with its ripened tints of landscape autumn must be painted richly and heavily. Summer is strong in crops, weak in poetry. Perhaps she is the most practical and indispensable of all the seasons, but like many practical and indispensable people, none the less wearisome on that account. Summer is an amiable season, and consequently rather milk-and-watery.

If hope be the watchword of spring, faith, which is the assurance of hope, is that of autumn. Both seasons point forward: spring, into this life; autumn, into the life to come. The voice of spring is a joyous, ringing soprano; that of autumn, a deep, full, and serious contralto. And why should we not say that icy and blustering winter is vigorously masculine, with the tone and temper of a sonor­ous bass?

In the autumnal season a mature and serious air overspreads every natural object. It is a hushed and foreboding time. An expectant stillness pervades the landscape, a waiting look is in the massive, slumberous clouds that hang so fixed and solid in the clear blue sky. An al­most human sense of life finds mute expression in the dark, motionless, and almost contem­plative trees; there are whisperings sadly pleas­ing in the soft winds, that are never heard at other times; and the rustle of the leaves has an ominous, as well as a retrospective sound. It is peculiarly the sunset season, with all the solemn glories of departing day, rich in its own wealth, but richer in its half-revealments of the future. It is in October that the parting rays of sunlight so grandly stream through the western sky's cathedral windows of richly colored clouds, and an unwonted peace comes with the darkness. Spring seems the fittest season where­in to take up the burden of life, and the close of a bright and cool October day the most fe­licitous moment for the soul's apotheosis. The months of autumn are too glorious for spring­time merriment, but whether they are mournful or not, depends on the reflected mood of one's own heart.

There is invigoration even in the memory of those scenes which are re-enacted at each return of harvest time: —

The crisp, pure air, the clear and mellow light;
The deep, cool, shady nooks behind the woods;
The showy fringe upon the hem o' the year
Of purple asters and the golden-rods;
The spicy smell of apples and wild grapes
Along the country-road; the film of sound
Rising from myriad insects in the fields;
The distant chorus of tumultuous crows;
The lowlands white with frost at early morn
Among the yellow, brown, and crimson hills.

Whoever has missed September and October life in the country, among the hills and farms, has lost some of the most delightful and charac­teristic scenes of all the year.

The power of ventriloquism possessed by many birds is often remarked upon. It would seem to be an unconscious effort on their part; at least, we can hardly suppose that its exercise is prompted by any prudential motive, as if to mislead the hearer in order to their own safety, for this purpose would be better served by abso­lute silence. But whatever induces it, the ef­fect is often thoroughly deceptive, and probably every field ornithologist has been amused and aggravated by unsuccessful attempts to locate the origin of bird-notes.

A striking instance of this power, as possessed by the pinnated grouse or prairie hen, is cited by Wilson, who says that its tone, when pro­duced within a few rods of the listener, has the effect of a voice a mile or two distant. A pe­culiar and rather annoying instance of the same sort came under my own observation this sum­mer. In passing along a highway bordered by a fresh clearing where a few trees here and there had been left standing, I was surprised by what seemed to be the responsive notes of two birds apparently perched within a few feet of the road, and some yards distant from each other. The bird on the right uttered two notes (not of the same pitch), and after a slight pause was answered by the bird on the left with two notes quite different from the first. Here was a case of dialogue more pronounced than had ever come within my experience. Fear­ing to frighten them when so near me (as I thought), I stood still for a minute listening to the colloquy, and endeavoring to locate the participants. The effect was always the same, and I could have sworn there were two birds. Failing to find them, I approached cautiously, and the responsive music kept just as far in ad­vance, until after going some hundreds of feet, I discovered the source of the whole performance in a single bird that was still a long distance ahead of me, which instantly darted away as I approached. Although I did not identify the gay deceiver, I had the meagre satisfaction of realizing that I had been most neatly and com­pletely fooled.

On another occasion, when I knew I was within a yard or two of a red-eyed vireo, his notes were thrown back and forth so realistically that I could not possibly tell whether he was behind or before me; and again, when looking for the source of that insect-like tone that proved to come from the black-poll warbler—

"A sound so fine, there's nothing lives
'Twixt it and silence,"

but seeming to emanate from all directions, I went backward and forward and all around, at my wits' end, until by accident I looked up­ward; and there he was, hopping about on a branch directly over my head.

Many birds have what singers call "great carrying power" in their voices, so that until one is familiar with a bird's tone, he is likely to be very much deceived as to its volume and distance.

The record of observations in October is com­monly briefer than that for September, for the most numerous family — the warblers — have most­ly passed south ere this, and some of the other families are only scatteringly represented. The swarms of migrants sailing north and south each spring and fall are much like myriad leaves swept hither and thither by the winds; and the few that we see are only the scattering ones that fall to the ground, to be whirled along by the next gust.

The male ruby-crowned kinglet is here, and his twitterings seem just ready to burst out into that full and delicious song that made him so welcome a visitor in the spring — like a blossom that needs only the warmth and sunshine of one more day to make it burst from its calyx, and fling its petals wide open; so the kinglet's song seems on the verge of ripeness, and struggling to be set free. But it is too late in the season: his lips are sealed till spring. With all the re­semblance of the two kinglets, they are easily distinguished by the head-markings: the golden-crowned having the black and yellow lines in both male and female, whereas in the ruby-crowned the head has either the simple dash of scarlet, or is entirely plain.

I found only four warblers during the month — the yellow-rump, black-throated green, black-throated blue, and the black-and-white creeper. Also the wood thrush, thrasher, and red-eyed vireo finally disappeared. The snow-birds be­gan to be numerous toward the close of the month, and throughout October the song sparrow and white-throat have sung with considera­ble frequency, and (judged by the autumn stand­ard) quite well. With the approach of colder weather the cardinal grosbeaks and goldfinches — the latter more gregarious in winter — are much more abundant than during the summer.

So slight a thing as the manner of a bird's movement when on the ground is worth atten­tion, for it sometimes assists materially in deter­mining the species, if seen only for an instant or at a distance. Birds have three modes of pro­gression on foot — walking, hopping, and run­ning. The smaller birds are mostly hoppers, like the common English sparrow, wherein the tracks of the two feet, if made in the snow, would be found side by side. The larger birds, like crows and grackles, adopt the more digni­fied method of walking, as befits their size; and when frightened into greater speed they take to the wing. Rarely a small bird is seen to walk, like the golden-crowned thrush, and always with ludicrous effect.

In passing along a country-road, notice the gliding motion of the grass finch or vesper spar­row, and of the thrasher, not frightened enough to fly as you approach, but discreet enough to keep well in advance. They are running, and it is surprising with their short legs how fast they can cover the ground. The robin some­times hops and sometimes runs, which is also true of some of the sparrows, but I have never seen any bird that could adopt all three modes of progression. Sandpipers generally show a curious mixture of walking and running, and those birds that are most at home in the water, are the most awkward on their feet.

Even more interesting are the graceful vari­eties of flight on the wing, as illustrated in the long undulations of the goldfinch, the arrow-like course of the spotted sandpiper, the rapid flutter of wings in the perpendicular ascent of the lark, the motionless quivering and flashing departure of the humming-bird, the stately sweep of wing in sea-birds, and the majestic sailing of hawks and eagles.

To the field ornithologist birds will always be of interest chiefly for their powers of song, grace­ful ways, and fine plumage; but the world is coming by degrees to know their immense util­itarian significance: that in the economy of nature they are an indispensable factor for the welfare of vegetation, and scavengers of the most unique and picturesque sort. Not only have the song-birds thus risen above the plane of mere ornament and entertainment, but even the hawks, which as a class have hitherto been regarded as having perhaps the most unjustifiable existence of all the feathered race, have recently, by a systematic and thorough process of investi­gation, been shown to be the victims of an ill-founded prejudice. And in the end, upon the theory which is every year receiving fresh con­firmation, that everything in nature has its use, it will doubtless be found that crows, black­birds, cedar-birds, and the like, which at cer­tain seasons of the year are so annoying to the farmer and the fruit-grower, are yet affording ample atonement in some as yet undiscovered way. The place occupied by the birds in nat­ure's organism is thus of much greater dignity and importance than was formerly supposed, and it is pertinent to remind the bird-student of these facts, which cannot fail to enhance his previous admiration of the creatures.

The variety of service rendered to nature and to man by some of the most familiar of the bird-families, is well expressed by Mr. Samuels in his "Birds of New England," where in the course of his remarks upon this point he says: "The warblers capture the insects that prey on the foliage of the trees; the flycatchers seize these insects as they fly from the trees; the swallows capture those that have escaped all these; the woodpeckers destroy them when in the larva state in the wood; the wrens, nuthatches, titmice, and creepers eat the eggs and young that live on and beneath the bark; but the thrushes subsist on those that destroy the vegetation on the surface of the earth: these seem designed by nature to rid the sur­face of the soil of noxious insects not often pur­sued by most other birds. They destroy near­ly all kinds of grubs, caterpillars, and worms that live upon the greensward and cultivated soil, and large quantities of crickets and grasshoppers, before they have become perfect in­sects. The grubs of locusts, of harvest-flies, and of beetles which are turned up by the plough or the hoe, and their pupa when emerging from the soil; apple-worms, when they leave the fruit, and crawl about in quest of new shel­ter; and those subterranean caterpillars, the cut-worms that come out of the earth to take their food — all these and many others are eagerly devoured by the robin and other thrushes."

On account of a prejudice against the robin, due to his occasional depredations in the or­chard, I venture to quote a passage from an acute observer of the habits of birds, Wilson Flagg, who says, in speaking of the robin: "The more I have studied his habits the more I am convinced of his usefulness. Indeed, I am now fully persuaded that he is valuable beyond all other species of birds, and that his services are absolutely indispensable to the farmer of New England. Some persons believe that the robin is exclusively a frugivorous bird, and that for fruit he will reject all other food that is within his reach. Others believe that his diet consists about equally of fruits and angle­worms, but that he is not a general consumer of insects. The truth is, the robin is almost exclusively insectivorous, and uses fruit, as we do, only as a dessert, and not for his subsist­ence, except in winter, when his insect-food cannot be obtained."

In view of such testimony, which was based upon careful observation, and protracted and painstaking experiments, and much more of the same sort that might be cited, the occasional aversion to the robin is quite discredited, and his general popularity more than ever justified; so that it is no exaggeration to say that this most familiar friend of man is in a peculiar sense a sort of guardian angel of the soil.

Less conspicuous than the robin in its utility, but of inestimable service throughout all the woods, is our little friend, the festive chicka­dee, which presents a very practical claim upon our admiration in the fact that, from a series of careful observations once made at Paris, it has been estimated that a single specimen of this species, at the lowest computation, destroys annually two hundred thousand eggs alone of noxious insects. By what a fairy force of labor­ers is the imminent destruction of our forests stayed.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.