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Birds in the Bush
A MONTH’S MUSIC.
THE morning of May-day was bright and spring-like, and should have been signalized, it seemed to me, by the advent of a goodly number of birds; but the only new-comer to be found was a single black-and-white creeper. Glad as I was to see this lowly acquaintance back again after his seven months’ absence, and natural as he looked on the edge of Warbler Swamp, bobbing along the branches in his own unique, end-for-end fashion, there was no resisting a sensation of disappointment. Why could not the wood thrush have been punctual? He would have made the woods ring with an ode worthy of the festival. Possibly the hermits — who had been with us for several days in silence — divined my thoughts. At all events, one of them presently broke into a song — the first Hylocichla note of the year. Never was voice more beautiful. Like the poet’s dream, it “left my after-morn content.”
It is too much to be expected that the wood thrush should hold himself bound to appear at a given point on a fixed date. How can we know the multitude of reasons, any one of which may detain him for twenty-four hours, or even for a week? It is enough for us to be assured, in general, that the first ten days of the month will bring this master of the choir. The present season he arrived on the 6th — the veery with him; last year he was absent until the 8th; while on the two years preceding he assisted at the observance of May-day.
All in all, I must esteem this thrush our greatest singer; although the hermit might dispute the palm, perhaps, but that he is merely a semiannual visitor in most parts of Massachusetts. If perfection be held to consist in the absence of flaw, the hermit’s is unquestionably the more nearly perfect song of the two. Whatever he attempts is done beyond criticism; but his range and variety are far less than his rival’s, and, for my part, I can forgive the latter if now and then he reaches after a note lying a little beyond his best voice, and withal is too commonly wanting in that absolute simplicity and ease which lend such an ineffable charm to the performance of the hermit and the veery. Shakespeare is not a faultless poet, but in the existing state of public opinion it will hardly do to set Gray above him.
In the course of the month about which I am now writing (May, 1884) I was favored with thrush music to a quite unwonted degree. With the exception of the varied thrush (a New-Englander by accident only) and the mocking-bird, there was not one of our Massachusetts representatives of the family who did not put me in his debt. The robin, the brown thrush, the catbird, the wood thrush, the veery, and even the hermit (what a magnificent sextette!) — so many I counted upon hearing, as a matter of course; but when to these were added the Arctic thrushes — the olive-backed and the gray-cheeked — I gladly confessed surprise. I had never heard either species before, south of the White Mountains; nor, as far as I then knew, had anybody else been more fortunate than myself. Yet the birds themselves were seemingly-unaware of doing anything new or noteworthy. This was especially the case with the olive-backs; and after listening to them for three days in succession I began to suspect that they were doing nothing new, — that they had sung every spring in the same manner, only, in the midst of the grand May medley, my ears had somehow failed to take account of their contribution. Their fourth (and farewell) appearance was on the 23d, when they sang both morning and evening. At that time they were in a bit of swamp, among some tall birches, and as I caught the familiar and characteristic notes — a brief ascending spiral — I was almost ready to believe myself in some primeval New Hampshire forest; an illusion not a little aided by the frequent lisping of black-poll warblers, who chanced just then to be remarkably abundant.
It was on the same day, and within a short distance of the same spot, that the Alice thrushes, or gray-cheeks, were in song. Their music was repeated a good many times, but unhappily it ceased whenever I tried to get near the birds. Then, as Always, it put me in mind of the veery’s effort, notwithstanding a certain part of the strain was quite out of the veery’s manner, and the whole was pitched in decidedly too high a key. It seemed, also, as if what I heard could not be the complete song; but I had been troubled with the same feeling on previous occasions, and a friend whose opportunities have been better than mine reports a similar experience; so that it is perhaps not uncharitable to conclude that the song, even at its best, is more or less broken and amorphous.
In their Northern homes these gray-cheeks are excessively wild and unapproachable; but while traveling they are little if at all worse than their congeners in this respect, — taking short flights when disturbed, and often doing nothing more than to hop upon some low perch to reconnoitre the intruder.
At the risk of being thought to reflect upon the acuteness of more competent observers, I am free to express my hope of hearing the music of both these noble visitors again another season. For it is noticeable how common such things tend to become when once they are discovered. An enthusiastic botanical collector told me that for years he searched far and near for the adder’s-tongue fern, till one day he stumbled upon it in a place over which he had long been in the habit of passing. Marking the peculiarities of the spot he straightway wrote to a kindred spirit, whom he knew to have been engaged in the same hunt, suggesting that he would probably find the coveted plants in a particular section of the meadow back of his own house (in Concord); and sure enough, the next day’s mail brought an envelope from his friend, inclosing specimens of Ophioglossum vulgatum, with the laconic but sufficient message, Eureka! There are few naturalists, I suspect, who could not narrate adventures of a like sort.
One such befell me during this same month, in connection with the wood wagtail, or golden-crowned thrush. Not many birds are more abundant than he in my neighborhood, and I fancied myself pretty well acquainted with his habits and manners. Above all, I had paid attention to his celebrated love-song, listening to it almost daily for several summers. Thus far it had invariably been given out in the afternoon, and on the wing. To my mind, indeed, this was by far its most interesting feature (for in itself the song is by no means of surpassing beauty), and I had even been careful to record the earliest hour at which I had heard it — three o’clock P. M. But on the 6th of May aforesaid I detected a bird practicing this very tune in the morning, and from a perch! I set the fact down without hesitation as a wonder, — a purely exceptional occurrence, the repetition of which was not to be looked for. Anything might happen once. Only four days afterwards, however, at half-past six in the morning, I had stooped to gather some peculiarly bright-colored anemones (I can see the patch of rosy blossoms at this moment, although I am writing by a blazing fire while the snow is falling without), when my ear caught the same song again; and keeping my position, I soon descried the fellow stepping through the grass within ten yards of me, caroling as he walked. The hurried warble, with the common Weechee, weechee, weechee interjected in the midst, was reiterated perhaps a dozen times, — the full evening strain, but in a rather subdued tone. He was under no excitement, and appeared to be entirely by himself; in fact, when he had made about half the circuit round me he flew into a low bush and proceeded to dress his feathers listlessly. Probably what I had overheard was nothing more than a rehearsal. Within a week or two he would need to do his very best in winning the fair one of his choice, and for that supreme moment he had already put himself in training. The wise-hearted and obliging little beau! I must have been the veriest churl not to wish him his pick of all the feminine wagtails in the wood. As for the pink anemones, they had done me a double kindness, in requital for which I could only carry them to the city, where, in their modesty, they would have blushed to a downright crimson had they been conscious of one-half the admiration which their loveliness called forth.
Before the end of the month (it was on the morning of the 18th) I once more heard the wagtail’s song from the ground. This time the affair was anything but a rehearsal. There were two birds, — a lover and his lass, — and the wooing waxed fast and furious. For that matter, it looked not so much like love-making as like an aggravated case of assault and battery. But, as I say, the male was warbling, and not improbably (so strange are the ways of the world), if he had been a whit less pugnacious in his addresses, his lady-love, who was plainly well able to take care of herself, would have thought him deficient in earnestness. At any rate, the wood wagtail is not the only bird whose courtship has the appearance of a scrimmage; and I believe there are still tribes of men among whom similar practices prevail, although the greater part of our race have learned, by this time, to take somewhat less literally the old proverb, “None but the brave deserve the fair.” Love, it is true, is still recognized as one of the passions (in theory at least) even among the most highly civilized peoples; but the tendency is more and more to count it a tender passion.
While I am on the subject of marriage I may as well mention the white-eyed vireo. It had come to be the 16th of the month, and as yet I had neither seen nor heard anything of this obstreperous genius; so I made a special pilgrimage to a certain favorite haunt of his — Woodcock Swamp — to ascertain if he had arrived. After fifteen minutes or more of waiting I was beginning to believe him still absent, when he burst out suddenly with his loud and unmistakable Chip-a-weé-o. “Who are you, now?” the saucy fellow seemed to say, “Who are you, now?” Pretty soon a pair of the birds appeared near me, the male protesting his affection at a frantic rate, and the female repelling his advances with a snappish determination which might have driven a timid suitor desperate. He posed before her, puffing out his feathers, spreading his tail, and crying hysterically, Yip, yip, yaah, — the last note a downright whine or snarl, worthy of the cat-bird. Poor soul! he was well-nigh beside himself, and could not take no for an answer, even when the word was emphasized with an ugly dab of his beloved’s beak. The pair shortly disappeared in the swamp, and I was not privileged to witness the upshot of the battle; but I consoled myself with believing that Phyllis knew how far she could prudently carry her resistance, and would have the discretion to yield before her adorer’s heart was irremediably broken.
In this instance there was no misconceiving the meaning of the action; but whoever watches birds in the pairing season is often at his wit’s end to know what to make of their demonstrations. One morning a linnet chased another past me down the road, flying at the very top of his speed, and singing as he flew; not, to be sure, the full and copious warble such as is heard when the bird hovers, but still a lively tune. I looked on in astonishment. It seemed incredible that any creature could sing while putting forth such tremendous muscular exertions; and yet, as if to show that this was a mere nothing to him, the finch had no sooner struck a perch than he broke forth again in his loudest and most spirited manner, and continued without a pause for two or three times the length of his longest ordinary efforts. “What lungs he must have!” I said to myself; and at once fell to wondering what could have stirred him up to such a pitch of excitement, and whether the bird he had been pursuing was male or female. He would have said, perhaps, if he had said anything, that that was none of my business.
What I have been remarking with regard to the proneness of newly discovered things to become all at once common was well illustrated for me about this time by these same linnets, or purple finches. One rainy morning, while making my accustomed rounds, enveloped in rubber, I stopped to notice a blue-headed vireo, who, as I soon perceived, was sitting lazily in the top of a locust-tree, looking rather disconsolate, and ejaculating with not more than half his customary voice and emphasis, Mary Ware! — Mary Ware! His indolence struck me as very surprising for a vireo; still I had no question about his identity (he sat between me and the sun) till I changed my position, when behold! the vireo was a linnet. A strange performance, indeed! What could have set this fluent vocalist to practicing exercises of such an inferior, disconnected, piecemeal sort? Within the next week or two, however, the same game was played upon me several times, and in different places. No doubt the trick is an old one, familiar to many observers, but to me it had all the charm of novelty.
There are no birds so conservative but that they will now and then indulge in some unexpected stroke of originality. Few are more artless and regular in their musical efforts than the pine warblers; yet I have seen one of these sitting at the tip of a tree, and repeating a trill which toward the close invariably declined by an interval of perhaps three tones. Even the chipping sparrow, whose lay is yet more monotonous and formal than the pine warbler’s, is not absolutely confined to his score. I once heard him when his trill was divided into two portions, the concluding half being mach higher than the other — unless my ear was at fault, exactly an octave higher. This singular refrain was given out six or eight times without the slightest alteration. Such freaks as these, however, are different from the linnet’s Mary Ware, inasmuch as they are certainly the idiosyncrasies of single birds, not a part of the artistic proficiency of the species as a whole.
During this month I was lucky enough to close a little question which I had been holding open for a number of years concerning our very common and familiar black-throated green warbler. This species, as is well known, has two perfectly well-defined tunes of about equal length, entirely distinct from each other. My uncertainty had been as to whether the two are ever used by the same individual. I had listened a good many times, first and last, in hopes to settle the point, but hitherto without success. Now, however, a bird, while under my eye, delivered both songs, and then went on to give further proof of his versatility by repeating one of them minus the final note. This abbreviation, by the way, is not very infrequent with Dendroeca virens; and lie has still another variation, which I hear once in a while every season, consisting of a grace note introduced in the middle of the measure, in such a connection as to form what in musical language is denominated a turn. At my first hearing of this I looked upon it as the private property of the bird to whom I was listening, — an improvement which he had accidentally hit upon. But it is clearly more than that; for besides hearing it in different seasons, I have noticed it in places a good distance apart. Perhaps, after the lapse of ten thousand years, more or less, the whole tribe of black-throated greens will have adopted it; and then, when some ornithologist chances to fall in with an old-fashioned specimen who still clings to the plain song as we now commonly hear it, he will fancy that to be the very latest modern improvement, and proceed forthwith to enlighten the scientific world with a description of the novelty.
Hardly any incident of the month interested me more than a discovery (I must call it such, although I am almost ashamed to allude to it at all) which I made about the black-capped titmouse. For several mornings in succession I was greeted on waking by the trisyllabic minor whistle of a chickadee, who piped again and again not far from my window. There could be little doubt about its being the bird that I knew to be excavating a building site in one of our apple-trees; but I was usually not out-of-doors until about five o’clock, by which time the music always came to an end. So one day I rose half an hour earlier than common on purpose to have a look at my little matutinal serenader. My conjecture proved correct. There sat the tit, within a few feet of his apple-branch door, throwing back his head in the truest lyrical fashion, and calling Hear, hear me, with only a breathing space between the repetitions of the phrase. He was as plainly singing, and as completely absorbed in his work, as any thrasher or hermit thrush could have been. Heretofore I had not realized that these whistled notes were so strictly a song, and as such set apart from all the rest of the chickadee’s repertory of sweet sounds; and I was delighted to find my tiny pet recognizing thus unmistakably the difference between prose and poetry.
But we linger unduly with these lesser lights of song. After the music of the Alice and the Swainson thrushes, the chief distinction of May, 1884, as far as my Melrose woods were concerned, was the entirely unexpected advent of a colony of rose-breasted grosbeaks. For five seasons I had called these hunting-grounds my own, and during that time had seen perhaps about the same number of specimens of this royal species, always in the course of the vernal migration. The present year the first coiner was observed on the 15th — solitary and, except for an occasional monosyllable, silent. Only one more straggler, I assumed. But on the following morning I saw four others, all of them males in full plumage, and two of them in song. To one of these I attended for some time. According to my notes “he sang beautifully, although not with any excitement, nor as if he were doing his best. The tone was purer and smoother than the robin’s, more mellow and sympathetic, and the strain was especially characterized by a dropping to a fine contralto note at the end.” The next day I saw nothing of my new friends till toward night. Then, after tea, I strolled into the chestnut grove, and walking along the path, noticed a robin singing freely, remarking the fact because this noisy bird had been rather quiet of late. Just as I passed under him, however, it flashed upon me that the voice and song were not exactly the robin’s. They must be the rose-breast’s then; and stepping back to look up, I beheld him in gorgeous attire, perched in the top of an oak. He sang and sang, while I stood quietly listening. Pretty soon he repeated the strain once or twice in a softer voice, and I glanced up instinctively to see if a female were with him; but instead, there were two males sitting within a yard of each other. They flew off after a little, and I resumed my saunter. A party of chimney swifts were shooting hither and thither over the trees, a single wood thrush was chanting not far away, and in another direction a tanager was rehearsing his chip-cherr with characteristic assiduity. Presently I began to be puzzled by a note which came now from this side, now from that, and sounded like the squeak of a pair of rusty shears. My first conjecture about the origin of this hic it would hardly serve my reputation to make public; but I was not long in finding out that it was the grosbeaks’ own, and that, instead of three, there were at least twice that number of these brilliant strangers in the grove. Altogether, the half hour was one of very enjoyable excitement; and when, later in the evening, I sat down to my note-book, I started off abruptly in a hortatory vein, — “Always take another walk!”
In the morning, naturally enough, I again turned my steps toward the chestnut grove. The rose-breasts were still there, and one of them earned my thanks by singing on the wing, flying slowly — half-hovering, as it were — and singing the ordinary song, but more continuously than usual. That afternoon one of them was in tune at the same time with a robin, affording me the desired opportunity for a direct comparison. “It is really wonderful,” my record says, “how nearly alike the two songs are; but the robin’s tone is plainly inferior, — less mellow and full. In general, too, his strain is pitched higher; and, what perhaps is the most striking point of difference, it frequently ends with an attempt at a note which is a little out of reach, so that the voice breaks.” (This last defect, by the bye, the robin shares with his cousin the wood thrush, as already remarked.) A few days afterwards, to confirm my own impression about the likeness of the two songs, I called the attention of a friend with whom I was walking, to a grosbeak’s notes, and asked him what bird’s they were. He, having a good ear for matters of this kind, looked somewhat dazed at such an inquiry, but answered promptly,
“Why, a robin’s, of course.” As one day after another passed, however, and I listened to both species in full voice on every hand, I came to feel that I had overestimated the resemblance. With increasing familiarity I discerned more and more clearly the respects in which the songs differed, and each came to have to my ear an individuality strictly its own. They were alike, doubtless, — as the red-eyed vireo’s and the blue-head’s are, — and yet they were not alike. Of one thing I grew better and better assured: the grosbeak is out of all comparison the finer musician of the two. To judge from my last-year’s friends, however, his concert season is very short — the more’s the pity.
I begin to perceive (indeed it has been dawning upon me for some time) that our essay is not to fulfill the promise of its caption. Instead of the glorious fullness and variety of the month’s music (for May, in this latitude, is the musical month of months) the reader has been put off with a few of the more exceptional features of the carnival. He will overlook it, I trust; and as for the great body of the chorus, who have not been honored with so much as a mention, they, I am assured, are far too amiable to take offense at any such unintentional slight. Let me conclude, then, with transcribing from my note-book an evening entry or two. Music is never so sweet as at the twilight hour; and the extracts may serve at least as a convenient and quasi-artistic ending for a paper which, so to speak, has run away with its writer. The first is under date of the 19th:
“Walked, after dinner, in the Old Road, as I have done often of late, and sat for a while at the entrance to Pyrola Grove. A wood thrush was singing not far off, and in the midst a Swainson thrush vouchsafed a few measures. I wished the latter would continue, but was thankful for the little. A tanager called excitedly, Chip-cherr, moving from tree to tree meanwhile, once to a birch in full sight, and then into the pine over my head. As it grew dark the crowd of warblers were still to be seen feeding busily, making the most of the lingering daylight. A small-billed water thrush was teetering along a willow-branch, while his congeners, the oven-birds, were practicing their aerial hymn. One of these went past me as I stood by the roadside, rising very gradually into the air and repeating all the way, Chip, chip, chip, chip, till at last he broke into the warble, which was a full half longer than usual. He was evidently doing his prettiest. No vireos sang after sunset. A Maryland yellow-throat piped once or twice (he is habitually an evening musician), and the black-throated greens were in tune, but the rest of the warblers were otherwise engaged. Finally, just as a distant whippoorwill began to call, a towhee sang once from the woods; and a moment later the stillness was broken by the sudden outburst of a thrasher. ‘Now then,’ he seemed to say, ‘if the rest of you are quite done, I will see what I can do.’ He kept on for two or three minutes in his best manner, and at the same time a pair of catbirds were whispering love together in the thicket. Then an ill-timed carriage came rattling along the road, and when it had passed, every bird’s voice was hushed. The hyla’s tremulous cry was the only musical sound to be heard. As I started away, one of these tree-frogs hopped out of my path, and I picked him up at the second or third attempt. What did he think, I wonder, when I turned him on his back to look at the disks at his finger-tips? Probably he supposed that his hour was come; but I had no evil designs upon him, — he was not to be drowned in alcohol at present. Walking homeward I heard the robin’s scream now and again; but the thrasher’s was the last song, as it deserved to be.”
Two days later I find the following:
“Into the woods by the Old Road. As I approached them, a little after sundown, a chipper was trilling, and song sparrows and golden warblers were singing, — as were the black-throated greens also, and the Maryland yellow-throats. A wood thrush called brusquely, but offered no further salute to the god of day at his departure. Oven-birds were taking to wing on the right and left. Then, as it grew dark, it grew silent, — except for the hylas, — till suddenly a field sparrow gave out his sweet strain once. After that all was quiet for another interval, till a thrasher from the hillside began to sing. He ceased, and once more there was stillness. All at once the tanager broke forth in a strangely excited way, blurting out his phrase two or three times and subsiding as abruptly as he had commenced. Some crisis in his love-making, I imagined. Now the last oven-bird launched into the air and let fall a little shower of melody, and a whippoorwill took up his chant afar off. This should have been the end; but a robin across the meadow thought otherwise, and set at work as if determined to make a night of it. Mr. Early-and-late, the robin’s name ought to be. As I left the wood the whippoorwill followed; coming nearer and nearer, till finally he overpassed me and sang with all his might (while I tried in vain to see him) from a tree or the wall, near the big buttonwood. He too is an early riser, only he rises before nightfall instead of before daylight.”