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THE COMING OF THE BIRDS
THE moon in April is an important factor in the progress of that event — the coming of the birds — which makes every spring memorable. While not disposed to wait upon it too long, still, there is little doubt but that the birds that have been wintering afar south travel very largely by its light, and when it happens that the moon fulls between the middle and the twenty-fifth of the month, the flights of thrushes, orioles, wrens, and other migrants reach us a week earlier than when the nights are dark during the same period. Temperature, storms, and general backwardness of the season do not seem to have a like importance in bird economy.
Of course, by the coming of the birds I do not refer to the pioneers that are in advance of every company. Indeed, I have seldom announced the first of the season, but I have been met by the man who was at least one day ahead of me; so firstlings are not favorites.
There is every year the one memorable morning when we can say, in broad terms, "The birds are here." When the oriole whistles from the tallest tree in the lawn; when the wren chatters from the portal of his old-time home; when the indigo-finch sings in the weedy pasture; when lisping warblers throng every tree and shrub; while over all, high in air, the twittering swallows dart in ecstasy; and at last, the day-long concert over, whippoorwills in the woods pipe their monotonous refrain. The Indians were right: when there came such days as this, they had no further fear of frost, and we need have but little. Our climate certainly has changed slightly since their time, but we have in such a bird-full day an assurance that the clinging finger-tips of Winter have at last relaxed and his hold upon our fields and forests is lost.
A word again of the advance guard. The brown thrush came on the seventeenth of the month (April, 1892), when there were no leafy thickets and the maples only were in bloom. What a glorious herald he proved! and so he always proves. Before the sun was up I heard him in my dreams, and later the fancy proved a fact. Perched at the very top of an old walnut-tree, where the wintry world was spread before him, he sang that song peculiarly his own.
The buds are sleeping yet upon the plain,
The blight of dreary winter clingeth still,
The forest weeps where falls the chilly rain.
Scarce hopeful leaf-buds shrink — death's solemn hush
Rests on the field, the meadow brook along,
Till breaks the day, O happy day! the thrush
Foretells the coming summer in a song.
Two days later it was almost summer, and tripping along the river's pebbly beach were spotted sand-pipers. They were ahead of time this year, I thought, but none the less happy because the trees were bare and the water cold; but, stranger still, in the sheltered coves of the mill-pond, that now reflected the gold of the spice-wood and the crimson of the overhanging maples, there were warblers, merry as in midsummer, and a pair, at least, of small thrushes. A bittern, too, stood in the weedy marsh. There they had gathered on that sunny, summery day, as if warm weather was an established fact; but how different the next morning, when a cold north-east storm prevailed! How well it showed that one such sunny day does not make a season! How clearly it proved that birds have no prophetic insight! They were caught and suffered and disappeared. Did they fly above the clouds and go to some distant point, free of chilling rain, or did they hide in the cedar swamps? This problem I did not essay to solve. In the few cedars along the river-shore I found nothing but winter residents, but I made no careful search. A few days later and spring-like conditions again prevailed and every day some new bird was seen, but not until May I could we say, "The birds have come."
These uncertain April days are not disappointing. We are not warranted in expecting much of them, and whatsoever we do meet with is just so much more than we had reason to look for, — an added bit of good luck that increases our love for the year's fourth month; but if no migrant came, there is little likelihood that the pastures and river-shore would be silent. There never was an April that had not its full complement of robins and blithe meadow-larks, of glorious crested tits and gay cardinals, of restless red-wings and stately grakles, and these are quite equal to driving dull care away, and keeping it away, if the migrants did not come at all. Even in March, and early in the month, we often have a foretaste of abundant bird-life; an intimation of what a few weeks will bring us. A bright March morning in 1893 was an instance of this. I walked for miles along the river-bank with a learned German who was enthusiastic about everything but what interested me. This may not seem to be a promising outlook, but we undertook to convert each other. I was to give up my frivolity, he determined. My effort was to get his dry-as-dust whimsies out of him. The great ice-gorge of the past winter was now a torrent of muddy waters and huge cakes of crystal that rushed and roared not only through the river's channel, but over half the meadow-land that bordered it. It was, I admit, an excellent opportunity to study the effects of such occurrences, for to them is due the shaping of the valley, and gravel transportation, and all that; but then there was the effect of light and shade upon the wonderful scene, and beauty like this crowded out my taste for geology. The sky was darkly blue, flecked with great masses of snow white-cloud that drifted between the sun and earth, casting shadows that blackened the ice and brought winter back again; but a moment later a flood of sunshine as promptly changed all, and the bluebirds hinted of spring. Then, too, the gulls and crows screamed above the roar and crunching of the ice as it struck the scattered trees, while in every sheltered nook was a full complement of song-sparrows. Why any one should bother about geology at such a time I could not see; but my companion was intent upon problems of the ice age, and continually remarked, "Now, if" or "Don't you see?" but I always cut him short with "See that crow?" or "Hear that sparrow?" No, he had not seen or heard the birds, and neither had I his particular impressions. At last the sunshine broke upon him, and he laughed aloud when he saw the crows trying to steal a ride on ice-rafts that continually upset. I was hopeful now, and he soon heard the birds that sang, and whistled after a long line of kill-deer plover that hurried by, every one calling to his fellows. It was something to know that the coming of the birds can rouse a German out of his everlasting problems. He had more to say of the springtide so near at hand than had I, and, nosing over the ground, found nine vigorous plants in active growth, and spoke so learnedly of Cyperus, Galium, Allium, and Saponaria that I as glibly thought, in jealous mood, "Confound him!" for now he was taking possession of my province and showing me my littleness; but then I had dragged him out of his problems.
The truth is, I was in something like despair when we started out, for I feared a lecture on physical geography, and, indeed, did not quite escape; but the bitter was well mixed with the sweet, and he in time listened with all my ardor to the birds that braved the boisterous wind and were not afraid of a river wilder than they had ever seen before. The day proved to be of more significance than as regards mere glacial geology. It was a foretaste of what was coming in April. I drew a glowing picture of what our April meant, and pictured a peaceful river and violets and meadow blossoms as bright as they were fragrant. My learned friend smiled, then grew enthusiastic; must come again to see the birds as they arrived, and — must I say it? — spoke of beer. Alas! it was Sunday.
There are two reasons why April birds are particularly attractive. One is, there are fewer of them, and again, there is practically no foliage to conceal them. Better one bird in full view than a dozen half hidden. Their songs, too, have a flavor of novelty, and ring so assuringly through the leafless woods. The ear forever bends graciously to promises, even though we know they will be broken; but birds, unlike men, are not given to lying. When they promise May flowers and green leaves they mean it, and, so far as history records, there has never been a May without them, not even the cold May of 1816, when there was ice and snow. But aside from their singing, April birds offer the opportunity of studying their manners, which is better to know than the number of their tail-feathers or the color of their eggs. The brown thrush that sings so glibly from the bare branch of a lonely tree shows now, by his way of holding himself and pointing his tail, that he is closely akin to the little wrens and their big cousin, the Carolina mocker, so called, which does not mock at all. Of all our April birds, I believe I love best the chewink, or swamp-robin. To be sure, he is no more a feature of April than of June, and many are here all winter; but when he scatters the dead leaves and whistles his bi-syllabic refrain with a vim that rouses an echo, or mounts a bush and sings his few notes of real music, we forget that summer is only on the way, but not yet here. Of all our birds, I always fancied this one was most set in his singing, as he surely is in his ways; but Cheney tells us that "this bird, like many others, can extemporize finely when the spirit moves him. For several successive days one season a chewink gave me very interesting exhibitions of the kind. He fairly revelled in the new song, repeating it times without number. Whether he stole it from the first strain of 'Rock of Ages' or it was stolen from him or some of his family, is a question yet to be decided." Now, the chewink is a bird of character, and, above all things, dislikes interference, and he sings "for his own pleasure, for he frequently lets himself out lustily when he knows he is all alone," as Dr. Placzeck has said of birds in general. I shall never forget a little incident I once witnessed, in which a chewink and a cardinal grosbeak figured. They reached the same bush at the same moment, and both started their songs. The loud whistle of the redbird quite smothered the notes of the chewink, which stopped suddenly before it was through and, with a squeak of impatience, made a dash at the intruder and nearly knocked him off his perch. Such haps and mishaps as these — and they are continually occurring — can only be seen in April or earlier, when we can see through the woods, and not merely the outer branches of the trees when in leaf. In April we can detect, too, the earliest flowers, and they fit well with the songs of the forerunning birds. There is more, I think, for all of us in an April violet than in a June rose; in a sheltered bit of turf with sprouting grass than in the wide pastures a month later. We do not hurry in-doors at the sudden coming of an April shower. The rain-drops that cling to the opening leaf-buds are too near real gems not to be fancied a veritable gift to us, and we toy with the baubles for the brief moment that they are ours. The sunshine that follows such a shower has greater magic in its touch than it possesses later in the year; the buds of the morning now are blossoms in the afternoon, so quickening is the warmth of the first few days of spring. The stain of winter is washed away by an April shower, and the freshest green of the pasture is ever that which is newest. There is at times a subtle element in the atmosphere that the chemist calls "ozone," but a better name is "snap." It dwells in April sunshine and is the inveterate foe of inertia. It moves us, whether we will or not, and we are now in a hurry even when there is no need of haste. The "spring fever" that we hear of as a malady in town never counts as its victim the lover of an April outing. The beauty of novelty is greater than the beauty of abundance. Our recollection of a whole summer is but dim at best, but who forgets the beginnings thereof? We passed by unheeding many a sweet song before the season was over, but can recall, I venture to say, our first glimpse of the returning spring. Though the sky may be gray, the earth brown, and the wind out of the north, let a thrush sing, a kinglet lisp, a crested tit whistle, and a tree-sparrow chirp among the swelling leaf-buds, and you have seen and heard that which is not only a delight in itself, but the more pleasing that it is the prelude announcing the general coming of the birds.