Here to return to
BIRDS AND BRIGHT LEAVES
AFTER the red maple trees and the yellow birches are mostly bare, and the greater part of the sugar groves have passed the zenith of their brilliancy, then the poplars come to the rescue. The hills are all at once bright again with a second crop of color, an aftermath of splendid sun-bright yellow. I knew nothing about this beforehand, and am delighted over the discovery. From my Franconia window I am looking at as pretty an autumnal wood as any man need wish to see, and it is a wood the seasonable glories of which were ended, I thought, more than a week ago. As I look at it I feel sorry for my last week’s companion, who went home too soon. Since his departure the days have been outdoing one another in the softness of their airs and the beauty of their lights. Mother Earth has been in her most amiable mood. Nothing is too good for her children. I have never seen fairer weather; though some, I dare say, might criticise it as a few degrees too warm. It is hard, I admit, for a walker to keep a coat on his back, far along as the season is getting, when the sun wrestles with him for it.
An interesting thing to me has been the tardy brightening of individual maple trees. It is one more manifestation, I assume, of Nature’s gift of versatility, her faculty of variation, to which, all but universal as it is, scientific men attribute so much potency in the evolving of so-called species. What I notice just now is that, as some bushes and trees mature their fruit later than others of the same kind, living apparently under the same conditions, so some maple trees are a week or two behind their immediate neighbors in ripening their foliage. I have passed within a day or two both sugar maples and red maples that were just donning their gay robes. Well done, I am moved to say, as my eye lights on them. They and the poplars, together with certain extensive maple groves on the higher levels, still keep the world arrayed in a really barbaric splendor. Two weeks ago I should have prophesied that before this time the landscape would be stripped for winter; and so it would have been, perhaps, if a cold storm had supervened instead of this period of summery brightness and calm. Great is weather. There is nothing like it. It makes a man — and a tree, too, for aught I know — glad to be alive.
That it makes the birds happy is beyond dispute. You can see it with half an eye. Many of them are gone, it is true, but many others are left; and wherever you take your walk you may have joy of them. You will need to be blind and deaf, or of a hopelessly sour temper, not to catch a little of their cheeriness. Three days ago (it was an anniversary with me, and I was early abroad) I went into the kitchen garden before breakfast, as I have been doing frequently of late, to see what birds might be there. For a month and more, as the coarse grasses and weeds have ripened their crop (the garden, luckily for me, having been allowed to go untended), the place has been a favorite resort of sparrows. There I saw the Lincoln finches in their time, — on September 5 and subsequently, — and there for a fortnight past I have always been able to begin the day with a few white-crowns.
Well, on the morning in question one of the first things I heard was a brief, uncharacteristic, autumnal-sounding ditty which, being too short for a song sparrow’s work, I at once credited to a white-crown; and, to be sure, when I looked that way, there the bird stood on a top stone of the wall, a young fellow, not yet “crowned,” practicing his first musical exercises. The morning was cool, — the ground had stiffened overnight, — and every time he opened his mouth to sing, a tiny cloud of vapor could be seen rising from it. It was visible music. Again and again I watched him. The dear little chorister! Nobody’s birthday was ever more prettily honored. He “sang to my eye” indeed— in a daintily literal sense such as the poet never thought of. I wonder if any one, anywhere, ever saw and heard the like.
The white-crowns have been surprisingly musical (the weather, no doubt, being a provocation), but I have not once heard their spring song, or anything which to my ear — none too well accustomed to it — has seemed to bear any relation thereto. Song sparrows, on the other hand, while mostly contenting themselves with incoherent, sotto-voce twitterings, have now and then — almost daily, I think — varied the programme with more or less successful attempts at a fuller-voiced and more formal melody. As for the vesper sparrows, they have mainly kept silence, but on one or two bright mornings have sung as sweetly as ever they do in May. Indeed, I might truthfully say more than that; for at this season, when all bright things are taking leave, a strain of wild music is more grateful to the ear than by any possibility it can be when every newly green bush is part of the universal choir gallery.
To us who have been in the habit of coming to this valley in bright-leaf time nothing is more characteristic, as nothing is more welcome, than the continual familiar presence of bluebirds. This year, because I have stayed later than usual, it may be, they have seemed uncommonly abundant. Their voices are sure to be among the first to be heard as I step out of the door in the morning, and wherever I walk — in the open country — I find myself surrounded at frequent intervals by a larger or smaller flock. Two days ago I counted forty in sight at once; and a bunch of forty bluebirds — well, there may be pleasanter sights for a bird-lover (a flock of sixty, for example), but it is a sight to raise low spirits, especially for a man who remembers the time — after a cruel winter — when the vision of a single bird was accepted by all of us as an event to talk about.
Myrtle warblers (yellow-rumps) are still more numerous, and if a bluebird quits a perch and takes wing it is almost an even chance that a yellow-rump, who has been sitting near at hand, waiting for this to happen, will be seen dashing in pursuit. You may go down the village street and watch the trick repeated half a dozen times within half a mile. To my walking companion and myself the sight has come to be part of a Franconia autumn. If you are pretty close to the birds you may hear a bill snapping (the warbler’s, I think), as if in anger, but on the whole I am inclined to believe that the thing is no more than an innocent, though one-sided, game of tag. All young creatures must have something to play with, somebody to make game of. So it is with yellow-rumps, I dare say; but why should they so universally pitch upon the inoffensive bluebird, I should like to know. It is to be added, however, to make the story truthful, that if there are no bluebirds handy, the warblers take it out by a free chasing of each other. To watch them, one would think that life, by their apprehension of it, were all a holiday.
And while I am talking of bluebirds I ought to mention their habit of hanging about bird boxes in these last days of their Northern season. Only this forenoon, since the foregoing paragraphs were written, I passed a box perched upon a pole beside a house, and at least six bluebirds were sitting upon its platform, or investigating its different apartments. Sometimes a pair (so they looked, one bright colored, the other dull) sat side by side before a door, like married lovers. Sometimes one would go inside, sometimes both, while out of the next door another bird would be peeping. The box was very unlikely to have been their home; the countryside is overrun with bluebirds, too many by half to have summered hereabout; but evidently the sight of it had suggested family pleasures. Perhaps they were living over the past, perhaps forecasting the future. Bluebirds have their full share of sentiment, or both voice and behavior are rank deceivers. Concerning this aspect of the case, however, the frivolous yellow-rumps cared not a farthing. They sat in a small apple tree conveniently near, and as often as a bluebird ventured upon the wing, one or two of them started instantly in pursuit. If he alighted upon a fence post, down they dropped upon the next rail and waited for him to make another sally. Once I heard a bluebird utter a pretty sharp note of remonstrance, but that, we may guess, only made the fun the greater. Birds will be birds.
My morning stroll (it is October 13, my last day in Franconia) showed me, in addition to the birds already named, one lonesome-mannered hermit thrush, a few robins, two or three ruby-crowned kinglets, one of them running over with his musical twittity, twittity, twittity, a single yellow palm warbler (this and the myrtle have been the only warblers of the month), a red cross-bill, going somewhere, as usual, and leaving word behind him as he went, a small flock of pine siskins, a strangely few song sparrows, one vesper sparrow, one white-crown, a multitude of snowbirds, a purple finch or two, a goldfinch, and a grouse, with the inevitable crows, jays, chickadees, and red-breasted nuthatches. Had my walk been longer and into a more varied country, I should have found gold-crested kinglets, winter wrens, brown creepers, titlarks (perhaps), white-throated sparrows, field sparrows, chippers, tree sparrows (probably), and three or four kinds of woodpeckers.
And speaking of woodpeckers, I must allow myself to boast that within the last few days I have had exceptional luck with the big fellow of them all, known in books as the pileated. On the 9th I saw one and heard the halloo of another, and on the 11th I saw two (together) and heard a third. One of those seen on the 11th shouted at full length, and at the top of his voice while flying.
The pileated woodpecker is a splendid bird. A pity he cannot find himself at home in our Massachusetts country. To see him here in New Hampshire one might imagine that he belonged with the mountains and would be homesick in other company; but if you would see him oftener than anywhere else, you may go to a land where there is scarcely so much as a hillock — to the peninsula of Florida. There or here, he is a great bird. The brightest maple leaf that ever took color was not so bright as his crest.