Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
EARLY April sees the last contest which winter wages for supremacy, and often it is a half-hearted attempt; but after the army of the North has retreated, with its icicles and snowdrifts, spring seems dazed for a while. Victory has been dearly bought, and April is the season when, for a time, the trees and insects hang fire-paralysed — while the chill is thawing from their marrow. Our northern visitors of the bird world slip quietly away. There is no great gathering of clans like that of the tree swallows in the fall, bat silently, one by one, they depart, following the last moan of the north wind, covering winter's disordered retreat with warbles and songs.
One evening we notice the juncos and tree sparrows in the tangled, frost-burned stubble, and the next day, although our eye catches glints of white from sparrow tails, it is from vesper finches, not from juncos, and the weed spray which a few hours before bent beneath a white-throat's weight, now vibrates with the energy which a field sparrow puts into his song. Field and chipping sparrows, which now come in numbers, are somewhat alike, but by their beaks and songs you may know them. The mandibles of the former are flesh-coloured, those of the latter black. The sharp chip! chip! is characteristic of the "chippy," but the sweet, dripping song of the field sparrow is charming. No elaborate performance this, but a succession of sweet, high notes, accelerating toward the end, like a coin of silver settling to rest on a marble table — a simple, chaste vespers which rises to the setting sun and endears the little, brown singer to us.
We may learn much by studying these homely little frequenters of our orchards and pastures; each has a hundred secrets which await patient and careful watching by their human lovers. In the chipping sparrow we may notice a hint of the spring change of dress which warblers and tanagers carry to such an extreme. When he left us in the fall he wore a dull-streaked cap, but now he comes from the South attired in a smart head-covering of bright chestnut. Poor little fellow, this is the very best he can do in the way of especial ornament to bewitch his lady love, but it suffices. Can the peacock's train do more?
This is the time to watch for the lines of ducks crossing the sky, and be ready to find black ducks in the oddest places — even in insignificant rain pools deep in the woods. In the early spring the great flocks of grackles and redwings return, among the first to arrive as they were the last to leave for the South.
Before the last fox sparrow goes, the hermit thrush comes, and these birds, alike in certain superficialities, but so actually unrelated, for a time seek their food in the same grove.
The hardier of the warblers pass us in April, stopping a few days before continuing to the northward. We should make haste to identify them and to learn all we can of their notes and habits, not only because of the short stay which most of them make, but on account of the vast assemblage of warbler species already on the move in the Southern States, which soon, in panoply of rainbow hues, will crowd our groves and wear thin the warbler pages of our bird books.
These April days we are sure to see flocks of myrtle, or yellow-ramped warblers, and yellow palm warblers in their olive-green coats and chestnut caps. The black-and-white creeper will always show himself true to his name — a creeping bundle of black and white streaks. When we hear of the parula warbler or of the Cape May warbler we get no idea of the appearance of the bird, but when we know that the black-throated green warblers begin to appear in April, the first good view of one of this species will proclaim him as such.
We have marked the fox sparrow as being a great scratcher among dead leaves. His habit is continued in the spring by the towhee, or chewink, who uses the same methods, throwing both feet backward simultaneously. The ordinary call note of this bird is a good example of how difficult it is to translate bird songs into human words. Listen to the quick, double note coming from the underbrush. Now he says "towhee'!" the next time "chewink'!" You may change about at will, and the notes will always correspond. Whatever is in our mind at the instant, that will seem to be what the bird says. This should warn us of the danger of reading our thoughts and theories too much into the minds and actions of birds. Their mental processes, in many ways, correspond to ours. When a bird expresses fear, hate, bravery, pain or pleasure, we can sympathise thoroughly with it, but in studying their more complex actions we should endeavour to exclude the thousand and one human attributes with which we are prone to colour the bird's mental environment.
John Burroughs has rendered the song of the black-throated green warbler in an inimitable way, as follows: " — V — !" When we have once heard the bird we will instantly recognise the aptness of these symbolic lines. The least flycatcher, called minimus by the scientists, well deserves his name, for of all those members of his family which make their home with us, he is the smallest. These miniature flycatchers have a way of hunting which is all their own. They sit perched on some exposed twig or branch, motionless until some small insect flies in sight. Then they will launch out into the air, and, catching the insect with a snap of their beaks, fly back to the same perch. They are garbed in subdued grays, olives, and yellows. The least flycatcher has another name which at once distinguishes him — 'chebec'. As he sits on a limb, his whole body trembles when he jerks out these syllables, and his tail snaps as if it played some important part in the mechanism of his vocal effort.
When you are picking cowslips and hepaticas early in the month, keep a lookout for the first barn swallow. Nothing gives us such an impression of the independence and individuality of birds as when a solitary member of some species arrives days before others of his kind. One fork-tailed beauty of last year's nest above the haymow may hawk about for insects day after day alone, before he is joined by other swallows. Did he spend the winter by himself, or did the heimweh smite his heart more sorely and bring him irresistibly to the loved nest in the rafters? This love of home, which is so striking an attribute of birds, is a wonderfully beautiful thing. It brings the oriole back to the branch where still swings her exquisite purse-shaped home of last summer; it leads each pair of fishhawks to their particular cartload of sticks, to which a few more must be added each year; it hastens the wing beats of the sea-swallows northward to the beach which, ten months ago, was flecked with their eggs — the shifting grains of sand their only nest.
This love of home, of birthplace, bridges over a thousand physical differences between these feathered creatures and ourselves. We forget their expressionless masks of horn, their feathered fingers, their scaly toes, and looking deep into their dear, bright eyes, we know and feel a kinship, a sympathy of spirit, which binds us all together, and we are glad.
Yet these sweet sounds of the early season,
And these fair sights of its sunny days,
Are only sweet when we fondly listen,
And only fair when we fondly gaze.
There is no glory in star or blossom
Till looked upon by a loving eye;
There is no fragrance in April breezes
Till breathed with joy as they wander by.
WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT.
THE SIMPLE ART OF SAPSUCKING
THE yellow-bellied sapsucker is, at this time of year, one of our most abundant woodpeckers, and in its life we have an excellent example of that individuality which is ever cropping out in Nature — the trial and acceptance of life under new conditions.
In the spring we tap the sugar maples, and gather great pailfuls of the sap as it rises from its winter resting-place in the roots, and the sapsucker likes to steal from our pails or to tap the trees for himself. But throughout part of the year he is satisfied with an insect diet and chooses the time when the sap begins to flow downward in the autumn for committing his most serious depredations upon the tree. It was formerly thought that this bird, like its near relatives, the downy and hairy woodpeckers, was forever boring for insects; but when we examine the regularity and symmetry of the arrangement of its holes, we realise that they are for a very different purpose than the exposing of an occasional grub.
Besides drinking the sap from the holes, this bird extracts a quantity of the tender inner bark of the tree, and when a tree has been encircled for several feet up and clown its trunk by these numerous little sap wells, the effect becomes apparent in the lessened circulation of the liquid blood of the tree; and before long, death is certain to ensue. So the work of the sapsucker is injurious, while the grub-seeking woodpeckers confer only good upon the trees they frequent.
And how pitiful is the downfall of a doomed tree I Hardly has its vitality been lessened an appreciable amount, when somehow the word is passed to the insect hordes who hover about in waiting, as wolves hang upon the outskirts of a herd of buffalo. In the spring, when the topmost branches have received a little less than their wonted amount of wholesome sap and the leaves are less vigorous, the caterpillars and twig-girdlers attack at once. Ichneumen flies and boring beetles seem to know by signs invisible to us that here is opportunity. Then in the fall come again the sapsuckers to the tree, remorselessly driving hole after hole through the still untouched segments of its circle of life. When the last sap-channel is pierced and no more can pass to the roots, the tree stands helpless, waiting for the end. Swiftly come frost and rain, and when the April suns again quicken all the surrounding vegetation into vigorous life, the victim of the sapsuckers stands lifeless, its branches reaching hopelessly upward, a naked mockery amid the warm green foliage around. Insects and fungi and lightning now set to work unhindered, and the tree falls at last, — dust to dust — ashes to ashes.
A sapsucker has been seen in early morning to sink forty or fifty wells into the bark of a mountain ash tree, and then to spend the rest of the day in sidling from one to another, taking a sip here and a drink there, gradually becoming more and more lethargic and drowsy, as if the sap actually produced some narcotic or intoxicating effect. Strong indeed is the contrast between such a picture and the same bird in the early spring, — then full of life and vigour, drawing musical reverberations from some resonant hollow limb.
Like other idlers, the sapsucker in its deeds of gluttony and harm brings, if anything, more injury to others than to itself. The farmers well know its depredations and detest it accordingly, but unfortunately they are not ornithologists, and a peckerwood is a peckerwood to them; and so while the poor downy, the red-head, and the hairy woodpeckers are seen busily at work cutting the life threads of the injurious borer larvae, the farmer, thinking of his dying trees, slays them all without mercy or distinction. The sapsucker is never as confiding as the downy, and from a safe distance sees others murdered for sins which are his alone.
But we must give sapsucker his due and admit that he devours many hundreds of insects throughout the year, and though we mourn the death of an occasional tree, we cannot but admire his new venture in life, — his cunning in choosing only the dessert served at the woodpeckers' feasts, — the sweets which flow at the tap of a beak, leaving to his fellows the labour of searching and drilling deep for more substantial courses.
THE ides of March see the woodcock back in its northern home, and in early April it prepares for nesting. The question of the nest itself is a very simple matter, being only a cavity, formed by the pressure of the mother's body, among the moss and dead leaves. The formalities of courtship are, however, quite another thing, and the execution of interesting aerial dances entails much effort and time.
It is in the dusk of evening that the male woodcock begins his song, — plaintive notes uttered at regular intervals, and sounding like peent! peent! Then without warning he launches himself on a sharply ascending spiral, his wings whistling through the gloom. Higher and higher he goes, balances a moment, and finally descends abruptly, with zigzag rushes, wings and voice both aiding each other in producing the sounds, to which, let us suppose, his prospective mate listens with ecstasy. It is a weird performance, repeated again and again during the same evening.
So pronounced and loud is the whistling of the wings that we wonder how it can be produced by ordinary feathers. The three outer primaries of the wing, which in most birds are usually like the others, in the woodcock are very stiff, and the vanes are so narrow that when the wing is spread there is a wide space between each one. When the wing beats the air rapidly, the wind rushes through these feather slits, — and we have the accompaniment of the love-song explained.
The feather-covered arms and hands of birds are full of interest; and after studying the wing of a chicken which has been plucked for the table, we shall realise how wonderful a transformation has taken place through the millions of years past. Only three stubby fingers are left and these are stiff and almost immovable, but the rest of the forearm is very like that of our own arm.
See how many facts we can accumulate about wings, by giving special attention to them, when watching birds fly across the sky. How easy it is to identify the steady beats of a crow, or the more rapid strokes of a duck; how distinctive is the frequent looping flight of a goldfinch, or the longer, more direct swings of a woodpecker!
Hardly any two birds have wings exactly similar in shape, every wing being exquisitely adapted to its owner's needs. The gull soars or flaps slowly on his long, narrow, tireless pinions, while the quail rises suddenly before us on short, rounded wings, which carry it like a rocket for a short distance, when it settles quickly to earth again. The gull would fare ill were it compelled to traverse the ocean with such brief spurts of speed, while, on the other hand, the last bob-white would shortly vanish, could it escape from fox or weasel only with the slow flight of a gull. How splendidly the sickle wings of a swift enable it to turn and twist, bat-like, in its pursuit of insects!
You may be able to identify any bird near your home, you may know its nest and eggs, its song and its young; but begin at the beginning again and watch their wings and their feet and their bills and you will find that there are new and wonderful truths at your very doorstep. 'Try bringing home from your walk a list of bill-uses or feet-functions. Remember that a familiar object, looked at from a new point of view, will take to itself unthought-of significance.
Whither midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?
WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT.
THE BIRDS IN THE MOON
THE lover of birds who has spent the day in the field puts away his glasses at nightfall, looking forward to a walk after dark only as a chance to hear the call of nocturnal birds or to catch the whirr of a passing wing. But some bright moonlight night in early May, or again in mid September, unsheath your glasses and tie them, telescope-fashion, to a window-ledge or railing. Seat yourself in an easy position and focus on the moon. Shut out all earthly scenes from your mind and imagine yourself wandering amid those arid wastes. What a scene of cosmic desolation! What vast deserts, and gaping craters of barren rock! The cold, steel-white planet seems of all things most typical of death.
But those specks passing across its surface? At first you imagine they are motes clogging the delicate blood-vessels of the retina; then you wonder if a distant host of falling meteors could have passed. Soon a larger, nearer mote appears; the moon and its craters are forgotten and with a thrill of delight you realise that they are birds — living, flying birds — of all earthly things typical of the most vital life! Migration is at its height, the chirps and twitters which come from the surrounding darkness are tantalising hints telling of the passing legions. Thousands and thousands of birds are every night pouring northward in a swift, invisible, aerial stream.
As a projecting pebble in mid-stream blurs the transparent water with a myriad bubbles, so the narrow path of moon-rays, which our glass reveals, cuts a swath of visibility straight through the host of birds to our eager eyes. How we hate to lose an instant's opportunity! Even a wink may allow a familiar form to pass unseen. If we can use a small telescope, the field of view is much enlarged. Now and then we recognise the flight of some particular species, — the swinging loop of a woodpecker or goldfinch, or the flutter of a sandpiper.
It has been computed that these birds sometimes fly as much as a mile or more above the surface of the earth, and when we think of the tiny, fluttering things at this terrible height, it takes our breath away. What a panorama of dark earth and glistening river and ocean must be spread out beneath them! How the big moon must glow in that rarefied air! How diminutive and puerile must seem the houses and cities of human fashioning!
The instinct of migration is one of the most wonderful in the world. A young bob-white and a bobolink are hatched in the same New England field. The former grows up and during the fall
and winter forms one of the covey which is content to wander a mile or two, here and there, in search of good feeding grounds. Hardly has the bobolink donned his first full dress before an irresistible impulse seizes him. One night he rises up and up, ever higher on fluttering wings, sets his course southward, gives you a glimpse of him across the moon, and keeps on through Virginia to Florida, across seas, over tropical islands, far into South America, never content until he has put the great Amazon between him and his far distant birthplace.
He who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
Win lead my steps aright.
WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT.