Here to return to
MOBBED IN ARIZONA
I HAVE never known a city more orderly seeming, more evidently peaceful and law-abiding than Tucson. Nowhere have I felt safer in wandering about by myself in all sorts of places, whether within the city proper or in the surrounding country. Here is a town, I have said to myself, where the citizen has small need of the policeman. And yet I know a man, most discreet and inoffensive (not to be shame-faced about it, let me admit that I speak of the bird-gazer himself), who a few days ago, for no assignable reason, was violently set upon, or, to speak plainly, mobbed, just outside the city limits.
Tucson, it should be premised, is a thriving, rapidly growing, modern city — though it has an antiquity to boast of, as well — in the midst of a desert. Its own site was originally part of the desert. The nearest large city is Los Angeles, California, five hundred miles distant; the nearest village, from what I hear, must be fifty or sixty miles away. Many roads run out of the town, but only to ranches scattered here and there along the two watercourses, or to mining camps farther off in the mountains. How a city ever came to grow up in a place so isolated, so seemingly destitute of anything like local advantages, is a riddle beyond my reading; but here it is, a city in the desert. North, south, east, or west, you may start where you will and go in what direction you please, and in fifteen minutes you will be out among the creosote bushes and the cacti, with nothing but a world of creosote and cactus — with perhaps a windmill and a roof rising above them somewhere in the distance — between you and the mountain range that bounds the horizon.
Well, this was exactly what I myself did one fine morning a week ago. I walked up the main street of the city, turned to the right, passed the territorial university buildings, and, taking a course northward toward the Santa Catalinas, sauntered carelessly forward, field-glass in hand, to see what might be stirring in the chaparral.
There would not be much, I knew. By daylight, at least, and in the winter season, the desert is not a stirring place. In the tracts where the creosote occupies the ground alone there proved, as usual, to be nothing; but presently I came to a place where two or three kinds of cactus were sprinkled among the creosote bushes, and newly sprung bluish-green grass (I call it grass, provisionally, although, like almost everything else hereabout, it has an unaccustomed look) carpeted or half-carpeted the ground. Here were the almost inevitable two cactus wrens (how overjoyed I was at the unexpected sight of my first one, at San Antonio, only three weeks ago, and how soon they have become an old story!) perched, one here, one there, at the top of branching cactus trees five or six feet high, calling antiphonally, as their habit is, in a coarse, unmusical, wearisome voice — the same churlish phrase over and over and over. Nothing but the lonesomeness of the desert, surely, could ever make that grating, repetitive monotony a pleasure-giving sound. What the birds will do in the way of song when their musical season arrives, if it ever does,1 is more than I know; but, belonging to so musical a family, they ought to be capable of something better than this, for music, of all gifts, is a thing that runs in the blood. It would be a strange wren that could not express his happiness in some really lyrical manner.
In the same neighborhood, as has happened on several occasions, were a group of five or six sage thrashers. It was in this very place, indeed, that I first formed their acquaintance; and a sorely puzzled novelty-seeker I was on that eventful afternoon. The whole desert had seemed to be devoid of animal existence, I remember, when of a sudden there stood those strange birds on the ground before me. At the first instant they gave me an impression of overgrown titlarks. Then, when I watched them running at full speed over the grass, all at once pulling themselves up and standing erect with a snap of the tail, I said: “Why, they must be thrushes of some sort.” In attitude and action they were almost exactly like so many robins. The only striking characteristic of their plumage was the peculiarly dense streaking of the under parts.
The mystery was heightened for me by the fact that they maintained an absolute silence. Indeed, although I have seen them many times since then, I have yet to hear them utter the first syllable. For aught I can positively affirm, they may every one be mutes. I chased them about for half an hour, scrutinizing the least detail of their dress, all the while wondering what on earth to call them, till finally it came over me, I could never tell how, that they must be sage thrashers.
“Yes,” I said, “Oroscoptes! I remember that that bird is described as having a short bill.”
It was a true guess; and in a strange country a man makes so many poor guesses that he may reasonably boast a little over every good one. To this day, I am bound to add, the birds, with their short bills, their extraordinary quickness upon their feet, and their upright carriage, have to my eye very little the appearance of thrashers. Perhaps when I hear them sing, my feeling may alter.
There is at least one real thrasher in the desert, however, and usually in the same places that Oroscoptes affects, places such as I have mentioned, where cacti are mingled with the omnipresent creosote. This is Palmer’s thrasher, so called, a grayish-brown bird, with the characteristic thrasher make-up — long bill, long body, and long tail. He is one of the common birds about Tucson, both in the river valley and on the desert, and one of the few that are already in song. Even he, I suspect, is not really letting himself go as yet, but he is in tune daily; not so versatile a performer, seemingly, as our Eastern reddish-brown bird; with much less range of voice, and more given to repeating the same phrase half a dozen times in succession, so that his music has less the air of a strict improvisation; but a genuine thrasher, nevertheless, with a thrasher’s song. As the season progresses he will probably grow more ecstatic, though to hear him now, one would not expect him ever to become so mad a rhapsodist as the crazy bird that we admire, and sometimes smile at, in the Eastern country.
Whether the thrasher was seen on the day I am supposed to be describing, I do not now remember, but in all probability he was, for I never walk far in the desert without seeing or hearing him. If he does not sing, he salutes me with volleys of sharp, whip-snapping whistles in the style of the wood thrush and the robin. Like the wren, he prefers a perch at the top of a cactus. He prefers it, I say; but in truth it is almost Hobson’s choice with him, since the topmost spray of a creosote bush, the only other thing he could perch on, would hardly support his weight. There he stands, at all events, perfectly at his ease among the closely set spines, sharp as the sharpest needles, though how he manages the ticklish feat so adroitly is more than I can imagine.
I may have seen two or three desert sparrows, also; the black-throated sparrow, that is, with some slight variations, imperceptible in the bush, that make him, in the language of science, Amphispiza bilineata deserticola; and possibly, though this is somewhat less to be taken for granted, his long-tailed relative, the sage sparrow (Amphispiza belli nevadensis), may have teased me by his shyness. Both these birds are said to be famous enliveners of the desert, — though neither of them in their present silent state quite lives up to his reputation, — and will doubtless become prime favorites with me if I remain here long enough really to know them. Where should simple, hearty melodies find appreciation, if not in the desert?
I am slow in coming to the point of my story; and with reason. It is not pleasant to be mobbed; there is nothing to boast of in such an adventure; nothing to flatter one’s sense of personal importance; one is not apt to speak of it con amore, as we say. Some things are best slipped over in silence. So I have noticed that men who have served their country in prison will always contrive by one path or another to go round the name of that unpopular institution. But I have begun, and there is nothing for it but to finish.
Well, then, I had walked perhaps a mile and a half beyond the university buildings, which is the same as to say beyond the limits of the town, and found myself approaching a lonely ranch, when a flock of ravens, white-necked ravens, which abound hereabout — “the multitudinous raven,” I have caught myself saying 2 — rose from the scrub not far in advance, with the invariable hoarse chorus of quark, quark. I thought nothing of it, the sight being so much an everyday matter, till after a little I began to be aware that the whole flock seemed to be concentrating its attention upon my unsuspecting, inoffensive self. There must have been fifty of the big black birds. Round and round they went in circles, just above my head, moving forward as I moved, vociferating every one as he came near, “quark, quark.”
At first I was amused; it was something new and interesting. I recalled the time when I walked miles on miles over the North Carolina mountains in hope of seeing one raven, and here were half a hundred almost within hand’s reach; I chaffed them as they passed, calling them names and quarking back to them in derision. But before very long the novelty of the thing wore off; the persecution grew tiresome. Enough is as good as a feast; and I had had enough. “Quark, quark,” they yelled, all the while settling nearer, — or so I fancied, — till it seemed as if they actually meant violence. They were doing precisely what a flock of crows does to an owl or a hawk: they were mobbing me. “Quark, quark! Hit him, there! Hit him! Pick his eyes out!”
The commotion lasted for at least half a mile. Then the birds wearied of it, and went off about their business. All but one of them, I mean to say. He had no such notion. For ten minutes longer he stayed by. His persistency was devilish. It became almost unbearable. The single voice was more exasperating even than the chorus. If the famous albatross carried on after any such outrageous fashion, I have no stones to throw at the Ancient Mariner. He acted well within his rights. If I had had a crossbow, and had been as good a marksman as he was, — with “his glittering eye,” — there would have been one less raven in Arizona, and no questions asked. If a dead calm had succeeded, so much the better. “Quark, quark!” the black villain cried, wagging his impish head, and swooping low to spit the insult into my ear.
But all things have an end, as leaves have their time to fall, and even a raven’s perseverance will wear out at last. Perhaps the bird grew hungry. At all events he gave over the assault, stillness fell upon the desert, and an innocent foot-passenger went on his way in peace.
And this is how I was mobbed in Arizona. I could never have believed it.____________________
1 Alas, it never does.
2 There is another raven in Arizona, rarer and larger, — a real raven, so to speak, — but I saw it only a few times, always high in air, as if it were passing from one mountain range to another.