Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE GRAY DAYS OF BIRDS
THE temptation is great, if we love flowers, to pass over the seed time, when stalks are dried and leaves are shrivelled, no matter how beautiful may be the adaptation for scattering or preserving the seed or how wonderful the protective coats guarding against cold or wet. Or if insects attract us by their many varied interests, we are more enthusiastic over the glories of the full-winged imago than the less conspicuous, though no less interesting, eggs and chrysalides hidden away in crevices throughout the long winter.
Thus there seems always a time when we hesitate to talk or write of our favourite theme, especially if this be some class of life on the earth, because, perchance, it is not at its best.
Even birds have their gray days, when in the autumn the glory of their plumage and song has diminished. At this time few of their human admirers intrude upon them and the birds themselves are only too glad to escape observation. Collectors of skins disdain to ply their trade, as the ragged, pin-feathery coats of the birds now make sorry-looking specimens. But we can find something of interest in birddom, even in this interim.
Nesting is over, say you, when you start out on your tramps in late summer or early autumn; but do not be too sure. The gray purse of the oriole has begun to ravel at the edges and the haircloth cup of the chipping sparrow is already wind-distorted, but we shall find some housekeeping just began.
The goldfinch is one of these late nesters. Long after his northern cousins, the pine siskins and snowflakes, have laid their eggs and reared their young, the goldfinch begins to focus the aerial loops of his flight about some selected spot and to collect beakfuls of thistledown. And here, perhaps, we have his fastidious reason for delaying. Thistles seed with the goldenrod, and not until this fleecy substance is gray and floating does he consider that a suitable nesting material is available.
When the young birds are fully fledged one would think the goldfinch a polygamist, as we see him in shining yellow and black, leading his family quintet, all sombre hued, his patient wife being to our eyes indistinguishable from the youngsters.
But in the case of most of the birds the cares of nesting are past, and the woods abound with full-sized but awkward young birds, blundering through their first month of insect-hunting and fly-catching, tumbling into the pools from which they try to drink, and shrieking with the very joy of life, when it would be far safer for that very life if they remained quiet.
It is a delightful period this, a transition as interesting as evanescent. This is the time when instinct begins to be aided by intelligence, when every hour accumulates fact upon fact, all helping to co-ordinate action and desire on the part of the young birds.
No hint of migration has yet passed over the land, and the quiet of summer still reigns; but even as we say this a confused chuckling is heard; this rises into a clatter of harsh voices, and a small flock of blackbirds — two or three families — pass overhead. The die is cast! No matter how hot may be the sunshine during succeeding days, or how contented and thoughtless of the future the birds may appear, there is a something which has gone, and which can never return until another cycle of seasons has passed.
During this transition time some of our friends are hardly recognisable; we may surprise the scarlet tanager in a plumage which seems more befitting a nonpareil bunting, — a regular "Joseph's coat." The red of his head is half replaced with a ring of green, and perhaps a splash of the latter decorates the middle of his back. When he flies the light shows through his wings in two long narrow slits, where a pair of primaries are lacking. It is a wise provision of Nature which regulates the moulting sequence of his flight feathers, so that only a pair shall fall out at one time, and the adjoining pair not before the new feathers are large and strong. A sparrow or oriole hopping along the ground with angular, half-naked wings would be indeed a pitiful sight, except to marauding weasels and cats, who would find meals in abundance on every hand.
Let us take our way to some pond or lake, thick with duckweed and beloved of wild fowl, and we shall find a different state of affairs. We surprise a group of mallard ducks, which rush out from the overhanging bank and dive for safety among the sheltering green arrowheads. But their outspread wings are a mockery, the flight feathers showing as a mere fringe of quill sticks, which beat the water helplessly.
Another thing we notice. Where are the resplendent drakes? Have they flown elsewhere and left their mates to endure the dangers of moulting alone? Let us come here a week later and see what a transformation is taking place. When most birds moult it is for a period of several months, but these ducks have a partial fall moult which is of the greatest importance to them. When the wing feathers begin to loosen in their sockets an unfailing instinct leads these birds to seek out some secluded pond, where they patiently await the moult. The sprouting, blood-filled quills force out the old feathers, and the bird becomes a thing of the water, to swim and to dive, with no more power of flight than its pond companions, the turtles.
If, however, the drake should retain his iridescent head and snowy collar, some sharp-eyed danger would spy out his helplessness and death would swoop upon him. So for a time his bright feathers fall out and a quick makeshift disguise closes over him — the reed-hued browns and grays of his mate — and for a time the pair are hardly distinguishable. With the return of his power of flight comes renewed brightness, and the wild drake emerges from his seclusion on strong-feathered, whistling wings. All this we should miss, did we not seek him out at this season; otherwise the few weeks would pass and we should notice no change from summer to winter plumage, and attribute his temporary absence to a whim of wandering on distant feeding grounds.
Another glance at our goldfinch shows a curious sight. Mottled with spots and streaks, yellow alternating with greenish, he is an anomaly indeed, and in fact all of our birds which undergo a radical colour change will show remarkable combinations during the actual process.
It is during the gray days that the secret to a great problem may be looked for — the why of migration.
A young duck of the year, whose wings are at last strong and fit, waves them in ecstasy, vibrating from side to side and end to end of his natal pond. Then one day we follow his upward glances to where a thin, black arrow is throbbing southward, so high in the blue sky that the individual ducks are merged into a single long thread. The young bird, calling again and again, spurns the water with feet and wings, finally rising in a slowly ascending arc. Somewhere, miles to the southward, another segment approaches — touches — merges.
But what of our smaller birds? When the gray days begin to chill we may watch them hopping among the branches all day in their search for insects — a keener search now that so many of the more delicate flies and bugs have fallen chilled to the earth. Toward night the birds become more restless, feed less, wander aimlessly about, but, as we can tell by their chirps, remain near us until night has settled down. Then the irresistible maelstrom of migration instinct draws them upward, — upward, — climbing on fluttering wings, a mile or even higher into the thin air, and in company with thousands and tens of thousands they drift southward, sending vague notes down, but themselves invisible to us, save when now and then a tiny black mote floats across the face of the moon — an army of feathered mites, passing from tundra and spruce to bayou and palm.
In the morning, instead of the half-hearted warble of an insect eater, there sounds in our ears, like the ring of skates on ice, the metallic, whiplike chirp of a snowbird, confident of his winter's seed feast.
TO all wild creatures fire is an unknown and hated thing, although it is often so fascinating to them that they will stand transfixed gazing at its mysterious light, while a hunter, unnoticed, creeps up behind and shoots them.
In the depth of the sea, where the sun is powerless to send a single ray of light and warmth, there live many strange beings, fish and worms, which, by means of phosphorescent spots and patches, may light their own way. Of these strange sea folk we know nothing except from the fragments which are brought to the surface by the dredge; but over our fields and hedges, throughout the summer nights, we may see and study most interesting examples of creatures which produce their own light. Heedless of whether the moon shines brightly, or whether an overcast sky cloaks the blackest of nights, the fireflies blaze their sinuous path through life. These little yellow and black beetles, which illumine our way like a cloud of tiny meteors, have indeed a wonderful power, for the light which they produce within their own bodies is a cold glow, totally different from any fire of human agency.
In some species there seems to be a most romantic reason for their brilliance. Down among the grass blades are lowly, wingless creatures — the female fireflies, which, as twilight falls, leave their earthen burrows in the turf and, crawling slowly to the summit of some plant, they display the tiny lanterns which Nature has kindled within their bodies.
Far overhead shoot the strong-winged males, searching for their minute insect food, weaving glowing lines over all the shadowy landscape, and apparently heedless of all beneath them. Yet when the dim little beacon, hung out with the hopefulness of instinct upon the grass blade, is seen, all else is forgotten and the beetle descends to pay court to the poor, worm-like creature, so unlike him in appearance, but whose little illumination is her badge of nobility. The gallant suitor is as devoted as if the object of his affection were clad in all the gay colours of a butterfly; and he is fortunate if, when he has reached the signal among the grasses, he does not find a half-dozen firefly rivals before him.
When insects seek their mates by day, their characteristic colours or forms may be confused with surrounding objects; or those which by night are able in that marvellous way to follow the faintest scent up wind may have difficulties when cross currents of air are encountered; but the female firefly, waiting patiently upon her lowly leaf, has unequalled opportunity for winning her mate, for there is nothing to compare with or eclipse her flame. Except — I wonder if ever a firefly has hastened downward toward the strange glow which we sometimes see in the heart of decayed wood, — mistaking a patch of fox-fire for the love-light of which he was in search!
In other species, including the common one about our homes, the lady lightning-bug is more fortunate in possessing wings and is able to fly abroad like her mate.
Although this phosphorescence has been microscopically examined, it is but slightly understood. We know, however, that it is a wonderful process of combustion, — by which a bright light is produced without heat, smoke, or indeed fuel, except that provided by the life processes in the tiny body of the insect.So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
STARFISH AND A DAISY
DAY after day the forms of horses, dogs, birds, and other creatures pass before our eyes. We look at them and call them by the names which we have given them, and yet — we see them not. That is to say, we say that they have a head, a tail; they run or fly; they are of one colour beneath, another above, but beyond these bare meaningless facts most of us never go.
Let us think of the meaning of form. Take, for example, a flower — a daisy. Now, if we could imagine such an impossible thing as that a daisy blossom should leave its place of growth, creep down the stem and go wandering off through the grass, soon something would probably happen to its shape. It would perhaps get in the habit of creeping with some one ray always in front, and the friction of the grass stems on either side would soon wear and fray the ends of the side rays, while those behind might grow longer and longer. If we further suppose that this strange daisy flower did not like the water, the rays in front might be of service in warning it to turn aside. When their tips touched the surface and were wet by the water of some pool, the ambulatory blossom would draw back and start out in a new direction. Thus a theoretical head (with the beginnings of the organs of sense), and a long-drawn-out tail, would have their origin.
Such a remarkable simile is not as fanciful as it might at first appear; for although we know of no blossom which so sets at naught the sedentary life of the vegetable kingdom, yet among certain of the animals which live their lives beneath the waves of the sea a very similar thing occurs.
Many miles inland, even on high mountains, we may sometimes see thousands of little joints, or bead-like forms, imbedded in great rocky cliffs. They have been given the name of St. Cuthbert's beads. Occasionally in the vicinity of these fossils — for such they are — are found impressions of a graceful, flower-like head, with many delicately divided petals, fixed forever in the hard relief of stone. The name of stone lilies has been applied to them. The beads were once strung together in the form of a long stem, and at the top the strangely beautiful animal-lily nodded its head in the currents of some deep sea, which in the long ago of the earth's age covered the land — millions of years before the first man or beast or bird drew breath.
It was for a long time supposed that these wonderful creatures were extinct, but dredges have brought up from the dark depths of the sea actual living stone lilies, or crinoids, this being their real name. Few of us will probably ever have an opportunity of studying a crinoid alive, although in our museums we may see them preserved in glass jars. That, however, detracts nothing from the marvel of their history and relationship. They send root-like organs deep into the mud, where they coil about some shell and there cling fast. Then the stem grows tall and slender, and upon the summit blooms or is developed the animal-flower. Its nourishment is not drawn from the roots and the air, as is that of the daisy, but is provided by the tiny creatures which swim to its tentacles, or are borne thither by the ocean currents. Some of these crinoids, as if impatient of their plant-like life and asserting their animal kinship, at last tear themselves free from their stem and float off, turn over, and thereafter live happily upon the bottom of the sea, roaming where they will, creeping slowly along and fulfilling the destiny of our imaginary daisy.
And here a comparison comes suddenly to mind. How like to a many-rayed starfish is our creeping crinoid! Few of us, unless we had studies about these creatures, could distinguish between a crinoid and one of the frisky little dancing stars, or serpent stars, which are so common in the rocky eaves along our coast. This relationship is no less real than apparent. The hard-skinned "five finger," or common starfish, which we may pick up on any beach, while it never grew upon a stem, yet still preserves the radial symmetry of its stalked ancestors. Pick up your starfish, carry it to the nearest field, and pluck a daisy close to the head. How interesting the comparison becomes, now that the knowledge of its meaning is plain. Anything which grows fast upon a single immovable stem tends to grow equally in all directions. We need not stop here, for we may include sea anemones and corals, those most marvellously coloured flowers of the sea, which grow upon a short, thick stalk and send out their tentacles equally in all directions. And many of the jellyfish which throb along close beneath the surface swells were in their youth each a section of a pile of saucer-like individuals, which were fastened by a single stalk to some shell or piece of coral.
We will remember that it was suggested that the theoretical daisy would soon alter its shape after it entered upon active life. This is plainly seen in the starfish, although at first glance the creature seems as radially symmetrical as a wheel. But at one side of the body, between two of the arms, is a tiny perforated plate, serving to strain the water which enters the body, and thus the circular tendency is broken, and a beginning made toward right and left handedness. In certain sea-urchins, which are really starfishes with the gaps between the arms filled up, the body is elongated, and thus the head and tail conditions of all animals higher in the scale of life are represented.
MANY of us look with longing to the days of Columbus; we chafe at the thought of no more continents to discover; no unknown seas to encompass. But at our very doors is an "undiscovered bourne," from which, while the traveller invariably returns, yet he will have penetrated but slightly into its mysteries. This unexplored region is night.
When the dusk settles down and the creatures of sunlight seek their rest, a new realm of life awakens into being. The flaring colours and loud bustle of the day fade and are lost, and in their place come soft, gray tones and silence. The scarlet tanager seeks some hidden perch and soon from the same tree slips a silent, ghostly owl; the ruby of the hummingbird dies out as the gaudy flowers of day close their petals, and the gray wraiths of sphinx moths appear and sip nectar from the spectral moonflowers.
With feet shod with silence, let us creep near a dense tangle of sweetbrier and woodbine late some summer evening and listen to the sounds of the night-folk. How few there are that our ears can analyse! We huddle close to the ground and shut our eyes. Then little by little we open them and set our senses of sight and hearing at keenest pitch. Even so, how handicapped are we compared to the wild creatures. A tiny voice becomes audible, then dies away, — entering for a moment the narrow range of our coarse hearing, — and finishing its message of invitation or challenge in vibrations too fine for our ears.
Were we crouched by a dense yew hedge, bordering an English country lane, a nightingale might delight us, — a melody of day, softened, adapted, to the night. If the air about us was heavy with the scent of orange blossoms of some covert in our own southland, the glorious harmony of a mocking-bird might surge through the gloom, — assuaging the ear as do the blossoms another sense.
But sitting still in our own home tangle let us listen, — listen. Our eyes have slipped the scales of our listless civilised life and pierce the darkness with the acuteness of our primeval forefathers; our ears tingle and strain.
A slender tongue of sound arises from the bush before us. Again and again it comes, muffled but increasing in volume. A tiny ball of feathers is perched in the centre of the tangle, with beak hidden in the deep, soft plumage, but ever and anon the little body throbs and the song falls gently on the silence of the night: "I beseech you! I beseech you! I beseech you!" A Maryland yellow-throat is asleep and singing in its dreams.
As we look and listen, a shadowless something hovers overhead, and, looking upward, we see a gray screech owl silently hanging on beating wings. His sharp ears have caught the muffled sound; his eyes search out the tangle, but the yellow-throat is out of reach. The little hunter drifts away into the blackness, the song ends and the sharp squeak of a mouse startles us. We rise slowly from our cramped position and quietly leave the mysteries of the night.