Here to return to
As I was crossing Boston Common, some years ago, my attention was caught by the unusual behavior of a robin, who was standing on the lawn, absolutely motionless, and every few seconds making a faint hissing noise. So much engaged was he that, even when a dog ran near him, he only started slightly, and on the instant resumed his statue-like attitude. Wondering what this could mean, and not knowing how else to satisfy my curiosity, I bethought myself of a man whose letters about birds I had now and then noticed in the daily press. So, looking up his name in the City Directory, and finding that he lived at such a number, Beacon Street, I wrote him a note of inquiry. He must have been amused as he read it; for I remember giving him the title of “Esquire,” and speaking of his communications to the newspapers as the ground of my application to him. “Such is fame!” he likely enough said to himself. “Here is a man with eyes in his head, a man, moreover, who has probably been at school in his time, — for most of his words are spelled correctly, — and yet he knows my name only as he has seen it signed once in a while to a few lines in a newspaper.” Thoughts like these, however, did not prevent his replying to the note (my “valued favor”) with all politeness, although he confessed himself unable to answer my question; and by the time I had occasion to trouble him again I had learned that he was to be addressed as Doctor, and, furthermore, was an ornithologist of world-wide reputation, being, in fact, one of the three joint-authors of the most important work so far issued on the birds of North America.
Certainly I was and am grateful to him (he is now dead) for his generous treatment of my ignorance; but even warmer is my feeling toward that city thrush, who, all unconscious of what he was doing, started me that day on a line of study which has been ever since a continual delight. Most gladly would I do him any kindness in my power; but I have little doubt that, long ere this, he, too, has gone the way of all the earth. As to what he was thinking about on that memorable May morning, I am as much in the dark as ever. But there is no law against a bird’s behaving mysteriously, I suppose. Most of us, I am sure, often do things which are inexplicable to ourselves, and once in a very great while, perhaps, it would puzzle even our next-door neighbors to render a complete account of our motives.
Whatever the robin meant, however, and no doubt there was some good reason for his conduct, he had given my curiosity the needed jog. Now, at last, I would do what I had often dreamed of doing, — learn something about the birds of my own region, and be able to recognize at least the more common ones when I saw them.
The interest of the study proved to be the greater for my ignorance, which, to speak within bounds, was nothing short of wonderful; perhaps I might appropriately use a more fashionable word, and call it phenomenal. All my life long I had had a kind of passion for being out-of-doors; and, to tell the truth, I had been so often seen wandering by myself in out-of-the-way wood-paths, or sitting idly about on stone walls in lonesome pastures, that some of my Philistine townsmen had most likely come to look upon me as no better than a vagabond. Yet I was not a vagabond, for all that. I liked work, perhaps, as well as the generality of people. But I was unfortunate in this respect: while I enjoyed in-door work, I hated to be in the house; and, on the other hand, while I enjoyed being out-of-doors, I hated all manner of out-door employment. I was not lazy, but I possessed — well, let us call it the true aboriginal temperament; though I fear that this distinction will be found too subtle, even for the well-educated, unless, along with their education, they have a certain sympathetic bias, which, after all, is the main thing to be depended on in such nice psychological discriminations.
With all my rovings in wood and field, however, I knew nothing of any open-air study. Study was a thing of books. At school we were never taught to look elsewhere for knowledge. Reading and spelling, geography and grammar, arithmetic and algebra, geometry and trigonometry,—these were studied, of course, as also were Latin and Greek. But none of our lessons took us out of the school-room, unless it was astronomy, the study of which I had nearly forgotten; and that we pursued in the night-time, when birds and plants were as though they were not. I cannot recollect that any one of my teachers ever called my attention to a natural object. It seems incredible, but, so far as my memory serves, I was never in the habit of observing the return of the birds in the spring or their departure in the autumn; except, to be sure, that the semi-annual flight of the ducks and geese was always a pleasant excitement, more especially because there were several lakes (invariably spoken of as ponds) in our vicinity, on the borders of which the village “gunners” built pine-branch booths in the season.
But now, as I have said, my ignorance was converted all at once into a kind of blessing; for no sooner had I begun to read bird books, and consult a cabinet of mounted specimens, than every turn out-of-doors became full of all manner of delightful surprises. Could it be that what I now beheld with so much wonder was only the same as had been going on year after year in these my own familiar lanes and woods? Truly the human eye is nothing more than a window, of no use unless the man looks out of it.
Some of the experiences of that period seem ludicrous enough in the retrospect. Only two or three days after my eyes were first opened I was out with a friend in search of wild-flowers (I was piloting him to a favorite station for Viola pubescens), when I saw a most elegant little creature, mainly black and white, but with brilliant orange markings. He was darting hither and thither among the branches of some low trees, while I stared at him in amazement, calling on my comrade, who was as ignorant as myself, but less excited, to behold the prodigy. Half trembling lest the bird should prove to be some straggler from the tropics, the like of which would not be found in the cabinet before mentioned, I went thither that very evening. Alas, my silly fears! there stood the little beauty’s exact counterpart, labeled Setophaga ruticilla, the American redstart, — a bird which the manual assured me was very common in my neighborhood.
But it was not my eyes only that were opened, my ears also were touched. It was as if all the birds had heretofore been silent, and now, under some sudden impulse, had broken out in universal concert. What a glorious chorus it was; and every voice a stranger! For a week or more I was puzzled by a song which I heard without fail whenever I went into the woods, but the author of which I could never set eyes on, — a song so exceptionally loud and shrill, and marked by such a vehement crescendo, that, even to my new-found ears, it stood out from the general medley a thing by itself. Many times I struck into the woods in the direction whence it came, but without getting so much as a flying glimpse of the musician. Very mysterious, surely! Finally, by accident I believe, I caught the fellow in the very act of singing, as he stood on a dead pine-limb; and a few minutes later he was on the ground, walking about (not hopping) with the primmest possible gait, — a small olive-brown bird, with an orange crown and a speckled breast. Then I knew him for the golden-crowned thrush’; but it was not for some time after this that I heard his famous evening song, and it was longer still before I found his curious roofed nest.
“Happy those early days,” those days of childish innocence, — though I was a man grown, — when every bird seemed newly created, and even the redstart and the wood wag. tail were like rarities from the ends of the earth. Verily, my case was like unto Adam’s, when every fowl of the air was brought before him for a name.
One evening, on my way back to the city after an afternoon ramble, I stopped just at dusk in a grove of hemlocks, and soon out of the tree-top overhead came a song, — a brief strain of about six notes, in a musical but rather rough voice, and in exquisite accord with the quiet solemnity of the hour. Again and again the sounds fell on my ear, and as often I endeavored to obtain a view of the singer; but he was in the thick of the upper branches, and I looked for him in vain. How delicious the music was! a perfect lullaby, drowsy and restful; like the benediction of the wood on the spirit of a tired city-dweller. I blessed the unknown songster in return; and even now I have a feeling that the peculiar enjoyment which the song of the black-throated green warbler never fails to afford me may perhaps be due in some measure to its association with that twilight hour.
To this same hemlock grove I was in the habit, in those days, of going now and then to listen to the evening hymn of the veery, or Wilson thrush. Here, if nowhere else, might be heard music fit to be called sacred. Nor did it seem a disadvantage, but rather the contrary, when, as sometimes happened, I was compelled to take my seat in the edge of the wood, and wait quietly, in the gathering darkness, for vespers to begin. The veery’s mood is not so lofty as the hermit’s, nor is his music to be compared for brilliancy and fullness with that of the wood thrush; but, more than any other bird-song known to me, the veery’s has, if I may say so, the accent of sanctity. Nothing is here of self-consciousness; nothing of earthly pride or passion. If we chance to overhear it and laud the singer, that is our affair. Simple-hearted worshiper that he is, he has never dreamed of winning praise for himself by the excellent manner in which he praises his Creator, — an absence of thrift, which is very becoming in thrushes, though, I suppose, it is hardly to be looked for in human choirs.
And yet, for all the unstudied ease and simplicity of the veery’s strain, he is .a great master of technique. In his own artless way he does what I have never heard any other bird attempt: he gives to his melody all the force of harmony. How this unique and curious effect, this vocal double-stopping, as a violinist might term it, is produced, is not certainly known; but it would seem that it must be by an arpeggio, struck with such consummate quickness and precision that the ear is unable to follow it, and is conscious of nothing but the resultant chord. At any rate, the thing itself is indisputable, and has often been commented on.
Moreover, this is only half the veery’s technical proficiency. Once in a while, at least, he will favor you with a delightful feat of ventriloquism; beginning to sing in single voice, as usual, and anon, without any noticeable increase in the loudness of the tones, diffusing the music throughout the wood, as if there were a bird in every tree, all singing together in the strictest time. I am not sure that all members of the species possess this power, and I have never seen the performance alluded to in print; but I have heard it when the illusion was complete, and the effect most beautiful.
Music so devout and unostentatious as the veery’s does not appeal to the hurried or the preoccupied. If you would enjoy it you must bring an ear to hear. I have sometimes pleased myself with imagining a resemblance between it and the poetry of George Herbert, — both uncared for by the world, but both, on that very account, prized all the more dearly by the few in every generation whose spirits are in tune with theirs.
This bird is one of a group of small thrushes called the Hylocichlæ, of which group we have five representatives in the Atlantic States: the wood thrush; the Wilson, or tawny thrush; the hermit; the olive-backed, or Swainson; and the gray-cheeked, or Alice’s thrush. To the unpracticed eye the five all look alike. All of them, too, have the same glorious voice, so that the young student is pretty sure to find it a matter of some difficulty to tell them apart. Yet there are differences of coloration which may be trusted as constant, and to which, after a while, the eye becomes habituated; and, at the same time, each species has a song and call-notes peculiar to itself. One cannot help wishing, indeed, that he might hear the five singing by turns in the same wood. Then he could fix the distinguishing peculiarities of the different songs in his mind so as never to confuse them again. But this is more than can be hoped for; the listener must be content with hearing two, or at the most three, of the species singing together, and trust his memory to make the necessary comparison.
The song of the wood thrush is perhaps the most easily set apart from the rest, because of its greater compass of voice and bravery of execution. The Wilson’s song, as you hear it by itself, seems so perfectly characteristic that you fancy you can never mistake any other for it; and yet, if you are in northern New England only a week afterwards, you may possibly hear a Swainson (especially if he happens to be one of the best singers of his species, and, more especially still, if he happens to be at just the right distance away), who you will say, at first thought, is surely a Wilson. The difficulty of distinguishing the voices is naturally greatest in the spring, when they have not been heard for eight or nine months. Here, as elsewhere, the student must be willing to learn the same lesson over and over, letting patience have her perfect work. That the five songs are really distinguishable is well illustrated by the fact (which I have before mentioned), that the presence of the Alice thrush in New England during the breeding season was announced as probable by myself, simply on the strength of a song which I had heard in the White Mountains, and which, as I believed, must be his, notwithstanding I was entirely unacquainted with it, and though all our books affirmed that the Alice thrush was not a summer resident of any part of the United States.
It is worth remarking, also, in this connection, that the Hylocichlæ differ more decidedly in their notes of alarm than in their songs. The wood thrush’s call is extremely sharp and brusque, and is usually fired off in a little volley; that of the Wilson is a sort of whine, or snarl, in distressing contrast with his song; the hermit’s is a quick, sotto voce, sometimes almost inaudible chuck; the Swainson’s is a mellow whistle; while that of the Alice is something between the Swainson’s and the Wilson’s, — not so gentle and refined as the former, nor so outrageously vulgar as the latter.
In what is here
said about discriminating species it must be understood that I am not speaking
of such identification as will answer a strictly scientific purpose. For that
the bird must be shot. To the maiden
“whose light blue eyes
Are tender over drowning flies,”
this decree will no doubt sound cruel. Men who pass laws of that sort may call themselves ornithologists, if they will; for her part she calls them butchers. We might turn on our fair accuser, it is true, with some inquiry about the two or three bird-skins which adorn her bonnet. But that would be only giving one more proof of our heartlessness; and, besides, unless a man is downright angry he can scarcely feel that he has really cleared himself when he has done nothing more than to point the finger and say, You’re another. However, I am not set for the defence of ornithologists. They are abundantly able to take care of themselves without the help of any outsider. I only declare that, even to my unprofessional eye, this rule of theirs seems wise and necessary. They know, if their critics do not, how easy it is to be deceived; how many times things have been seen and minutely described, which, as was afterwards established, could not by any possibility have been visible. Moreover, regret it as we may, it is clear that in this world nobody can escape giving and taking more or less pain. We of the sterner sex are accustomed to think that even our blue-eyed censors are not entirely innocent in this regard; albeit, for myself, I am bound to believe that generally they are not to blame for the tortures they inflict upon us.
Granting the righteousness of the scientist’s caution, however, we may still find a less rigorous code sufficient for our own non-scientific, though I hope not unscientific, purpose. For it is certain that no great enjoyment of bird study is possible for some of us, if we are never to be allowed to call our gentle friends by name until in every case we have gone through the formality of a post-mortem examination. Practically, and for every-day ends, we may know a robin, or a redstart, or even a hermit thrush, when we see him, without first turning the bird into a specimen.
Probably there are none of our birds which afford more surprise and pleasure to a novice than the family of warblers. A well-known ornithologist has related how one day he wandered into the forest in an idle mood, and accidentally catching a gleam of bright color overhead, raised his gun and brought the bird to his feet; and how excited and charmed he was with the wondrous beauty of his little trophy. Were there other birds in the woods as lovely as this? He would see for himself. And that was the beginning of what bids fair to prove a life-long enthusiasm.
Thirty-eight warblers are credited to New England; but it would be safe to say that not more than three of them are known to the average New-Englander. How should he know them, indeed? They do not come about the flower-garden like the humming-bird, nor about the lawn like the robin; neither can they be hunted with a dog like the grouse and the woodcock. Hence, for all their gorgeous apparel, they are mainly left to students and collectors. Of our common species the most beautiful are, perhaps, the blue yellow-back, the blue golden-wing, the Blackburnian, the black-and-yellow, the Canada flycatcher, and the redstart; with the yellow-rump, the black-throated green, the prairie warbler, the summer yellow-bird, and the Maryland yellow-throat coming not far behind. But all of them are beautiful, and they possess, besides, the charm of great diversity of plumage and habits; while some of them have the further merit, by no means inconsiderable, of being rare.
It was a bright day for me when the blue golden-winged warbler settled in my neighborhood. On my morning walk I detected a new song, and, following it up, found a new bird, — a result which is far from being a thing of course. The spring migration was at its height, and at first I expected to have the pleasure of my new friend’s society for only a day or two; so I made the most of it. But it turned out that he and his companion had come to spend the summer, and before very long I discovered their nest. This was still unfinished when I came upon it; but I knew pretty well whose it was, having several times noticed the birds about the spot, and a few days afterwards the female bravely sat still, while I bent over her, admiring her courage and her handsome dress. I paid my respects to the little mother almost daily, but jealously guarded her secret, sharing it only with a kind-hearted woman, whom I took with me on one of my visits. But, alas! one day I called, only to find the nest empty. Whether the villain who pillaged it traveled on two legs, or on four, I never knew. Possibly he dropped out of the air. But I wished him no good, whoever he was. Next year the birds appeared again, and more than one pair of them; but no nest could I find, though I often looked for it, and, as children say in their games, was sometimes very warm.
Is there any lover of birds in whose mind certain birds and certain places are not indissolubly joined? Most of us, I am sure, could go over the list and name the exact spots where we first saw this one, where we first heard that one sing, and where we found our first nest of the other. There is a piece of swampy woodland in Jefferson, New Hampshire, midway between the hotels and the railway station, which, for me, will always be associated with the song of the winter wren. I had been making an attempt to explore the wood, with a view to its botanical treasures but the mosquitoes had rallied with such spirit that I was glad to beat a retreat to the road. Just then an unseen bird broke out into a song, and by the time he had finished I was saying to myself, A winter wren! Now, if I could only see him in the act, and so be sure of the correctness of my guess! I worked to that end as cautiously as possible, but all to no purpose; and finally I started abruptly toward the spot whence the sound had come, expecting to see the bird fly. But apparently there was no bird there, and I stood still, in a little perplexity. Then, all at once, the wren appeared, hopping about among the dead branches, within a few yards of my feet, and peering at the intruder with evident curiosity; and the next moment he was joined by a hermit thrush, equally inquisitive. Both were silent as dead men, but plainly had no doubt whatever that they were in their own domain, and that it belonged to the other party to move away. I presumed that the thrush, at least, had a nest not far off, but after a little search (the mosquitoes were still active) I concluded not to intrude further on his domestic privacy. I had heard the wren’s famous song, and it had not been overpraised. But then came the inevitable second thought: had I really heard it? True, the music possessed the wren characteristics, and a winter wren was in the brush; but what proof had I that the bird and the song belonged together? No; I must see him in the act of singing. But this, I found, was more easily said than done. In Jefferson, in Gorham, in the Franconia Notch, in short, wherever I went, there was no difficulty about hearing the music, and little about seeing the wren; but it was provoking that eye and ear could never be brought to bear witness to the same bird. However, this difficulty was not insuperable, and after it was once overcome I was in the habit of witnessing the whole performance almost as often as I wished.
Of similar interest to me is a turn in an old Massachusetts road, over which, boy and man, I have traveled hundreds of times; one of those delightful back-roads, half road and half lane, where the grass grows between the horse-track and the wheel-track, while bushes usurp what ought to be the sidewalk. Here, one morning in the time when every day was disclosing two or three new species for my delight, I stopped to listen to some bird of quite unsuspected identity, who was calling and singing and scolding in the Indian brier thicket, making, in truth, a prodigious racket. I twisted and turned, and was not a little astonished when at last I detected the author of all this outcry. From a study of the manual I set him down as probably the white-eyed vireo, — a conjecture which further investigation confirmed. This vireo is the very prince of stump-speakers, — fluent, loud, and sarcastic, — and is well called the politician, though it is a disappointment to learn that the title was given him, not for his eloquence, but on account of his habit of putting pieces of newspaper into his nest. While I stood peering into the thicket, a man whom I knew came along the road, and caught me thus disreputably employed. Without doubt he thought me a lazy good-for-nothing; or possibly (being more charitable) he said to himself, “Poor fellow! he’s losing his mind.”
Take a gun on your shoulder, and go wandering about the woods all day long, and you will be looked upon with respect, no matter though you kill nothing bigger than a chipmunk; or stand by the hour at the end of a fishing-pole, catching nothing but mosquito-bites, and your neighbors will think no ill of you. But to be seen staring at a bird for five minutes together, or picking road-side weeds! — well, it is fortunate there are asylums for the crazy. Not unlikely the malady will grow upon him; and who knows how soon he may become dangerous? Something must be wrong about that to which we are unaccustomed. Blowing out the brains of rabbits and squirrels is an innocent and delightful pastime, as everybody knows; and the delectable excitement of pulling half-grown fishes out of the pond to perish miserably on the bank, that, too, is a recreation easily enough appreciated. But what shall be said of enjoying birds without killing them, or of taking pleasure in plants, which, so far as we know, cannot suffer even if we do kill them?
Of my many pleasant associations of birds with places, one of the pleasantest is connected with the red-headed woodpecker. This showy bird has for a good many years been very rare in Massachusetts; and therefore, when, during the freshness of my ornithological researches, I went to Washington for a month’s visit, it was one of the things which I had especially in mind, to make his acquaintance. But I looked for him without success, till, at the end of a fortnight, I made a pilgrimage to Mount Vernon. Here, after visiting the grave, and going over the house, as every visitor does, I sauntered about the grounds, thinking of the great man who used to do the same so many years before, but all the while keeping my eyes open for the present feathered inhabitants of the sacred spot. Soon a bird dashed by me, and struck against the trunk of an adjacent tree, and glancing up quickly, I beheld my much sought red-headed woodpecker. How appropriately patriotic he looked, at the home of Washington, wearing the national colors, — red, white, and blue! After this he became abundant about the capital, so that I saw him often, and took much pleasure in his frolicsome ways; and, some years later, he suddenly appeared in force in the vicinity of Boston, where he remained through the winter months. To my thought, none the less, he will always suggest Mount Vernon. Indeed, although be is certainly rather jovial, and even giddy, he is to me the bird of Washington much more truly than is the solemn, stupid-seeming eagle, who commonly bears that name.
To go away from home, even if the journey be no longer than from Massachusetts to the District of Columbia, is sure to prove an event of no small interest to a young naturalist; and this visit of mine to the national capital was no exception. On the afternoon of my arrival, walking up Seventh Street, I heard a series of loud, clear, monotonous whistles, which I had then no leisure to investigate, but the author of which I promised myself the satisfaction of meeting at another time. In fact, I think it was at least a fortnight before I learned that these whistles came from the tufted titmouse. I had been seeing him almost daily, but till then he had never chanced to use that particular note while under my eye.
There was a certain tract of country, woodland and pasture, over which I roamed a good many times, and which is still clearly mapped out in my memory. Here I found my first Carolina or mocking wren, who ran in at one side of a woodpile and came out at the other as I drew near, and who, a day or two afterwards, sang so loudly from an oak tree that I ransacked it with my eye in search of some large bird, and was confounded when finally I discovered who the musician really was. Here, every day, were to be heard the glorious song of the cardinal grosbeak, the insect-like effort of the blue-gray gnat-catcher, and the rigmarole of the yellow-breasted chat. On a wooded hillside, where grew a profusion of trailing arbutus, pink azalea, and bird-foot violets, the rowdyish, great-crested flycatchers were screaming in the tree-tops. In this same grove I twice saw the rare red-bellied woodpecker, who, on both occasions, after rapping smartly with his beak, turned his head and laid his ear against the trunk, evidently listening to see whether his alarm had set any grub a-stirring. Near by, in an undergrowth, I fell in with a few worm-eating warblers. They seemed of a peculiarly unsuspicious turn of mind, and certainly wore the quaintest of head-dresses. I must mention also a scarlet tanager, who, all afire as he was, one day alighted in a bush of flowering dogwood, which was completely covered with its large white blossoms. Probably he had no idea how well his perch became him.
Perhaps I ought to be ashamed to confess it, but, though I went several times into the galleries of our honorable Senate and House of Representatives, and heard speeches by some celebrated men, including at least half a dozen candidates for the presidency, yet, after all, the congressmen in feathers interested me most. I thought, indeed, that the chat might well enough have been elected to the lower house. His volubility and waggish manners would have made him quite at home in that assembly, while his orange-colored waistcoat would have given him an agreeable conspicuity. But, to be sure, he would have needed to learn the use of tobacco.
Well, all this was only a few years ago; but the men whose eloquence then drew the crowd to the capitol are, many of them, heard there no longer. Some are dead; some have retired to private life. But the birds never die. Every spring they come trooping back for their all-summer session. The turkey-buzzard still floats majestically over the city; the chat still practices his lofty tumbling in the suburban pastures, snarling and scolding at all comers; the flowing Potomac still yields “a blameless sport” to the fish-crow and the kingfisher; the orchard oriole continues to whistle in front of the Agricultural Department, and the crow blackbird to parade back and forth over the Smithsonian lawns. Presidents and senators may come and go, be praised and vilified, and then in turn forgotten; but the birds are subject to no such mutations. It is a foolish thought, but sometimes their happy carelessness seems the better part.