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THE WILES OF A WARBLER
ONE morning soon after reaching the pleasant nook described in the preceding chapter, with its delicious odors of the woods, I was greeted by an unfamiliar note. It was the inconsequent song of a warbler, but neither the jerked-out carol of the redstart, nor the aristocratic drawl of the black-throated green. It was in a hoarse or husky tone, a short, sharp "zee-zee-zee-zip!" the last note higher and snapped off.
I hastened to get my glass upon the stranger, when I found him a beauty in blue and white, a parula warbler, the first I had ever seen. He stayed but a few minutes, and I turned again to watch the redstart family: the little singer in gorgeous coat, as conspicuous as a spark of fire in the dark, and his mate hardly less gay in bright yellow and brown. She was at the moment making her way up an old spruce-tree, flying and hopping daintily from step to step of the ladder left by fallen branches. Round and round the trunk she went, now this side, now that, tail wide spread and showing the great yellow patch upon the brown, her tiny body all life and animation and never pausing for one second.
Suddenly there burst out on one side a perfect fusillade of "smacks" delivered with an energy that instantly aroused me, and I turned hastily. There on a battered old tree, one of the outposts of the woods, appeared a very much excited individual about as big as one's thumb. She was hopping in jerky warbler fashion over the lower branches and evidently addressing me, protesting anxiously, no doubt, against my presence in her vicinity. While I looked, noticing the yellow throat and breast, and trying to get further indications of her identity, she slipped behind a tuft of moss and was silent.
"Ah, a nest!" I thought, and she must be that moss-loving warbler, the parula, perhaps the mate of the one I had seen.
Redstart affairs faded into insignificance. I could see redstarts any day. I turned my seat to face the stranger. Fifteen or twenty minutes of closest attention, with eyes glued to that tuft of moss, dragged slowly by before the shy birdling appeared for half a second, darting away like a flash of light.
Having spent several years among the moss-hung trees on the Maine coast, I had many times looked for the nest of this bird, whose chosen home it is. Hours at a time I had passed with eyes fixed upon some tall, heavily draped tree, showing a hundred desirable nesting-places, but never a sign of life had I seen. And at this tree I should never have thought of looking, for it had but one small bunch of moss, and that on its lower branch. Perhaps it was chosen because it was a living branch. Possibly the bird is wise enough not to build on a dead tree.
The quantity of usnea in these woods was wonderful. The oldest trees were fairly fringed with it, from root to top twig, and one might often see half a dozen in a group together stone dead and swathed in the gray moss like a winding-sheet. Young trees also, strong and vigorous, some even less than a foot high, had here and there a bit of this strange plant which looked as if it had fallen there. But on trying to take it off, it seemed to cling with claws of steel, and was torn before it could be removed. It had already fastened itself for life.
That my coy little moss-dweller was a parula I felt sure; it was only necessary to identify her positively. That sounds like an easy task, and so I expected to find it, but it required days of hard work, of patient, tireless watching to accomplish. The breast of the bird was all I could see distinctly, for the nest was fifteen feet from the ground, but that lacked the band across which is usually to be found on the parula, or if there it was so faint in color that I could not see it in the hasty glimpses I could get.
I was particularly careful about identification, because when she stood half in the nest she looked purely black and white mottled, the effect on her white sides and dark back of the shade of the mossy veil behind which she stood. One needs always to see in more than one light, when identification is doubtful. The bird had to go behind a veil every time she went into her nest, but she did it so deftly and daintily that this delicate portiere was at the end as fresh as when she began to use it.
Determined to solve my puzzle, and in my own way, without disturbing her, I settled myself to watching that baby-house in the moss. Hours every day I spent with eyes fixed upon it. And this literally, for the movements of the over-modest owner were so silent and so rapid that it was only thus I could be sure of seeing her.
It may seem strange that a person accustomed to studying birds, and familiar with their ways, could not easily identify one who passed in and out before her eyes fifty times a day. But her movements were so irregular I could not calculate on them. She shot out of her nest as if sent from a catapult, plunging instantly into the thickest group of young trees, while she returned in silence, flitting like a shadow without a sound, from which side I could never discover. Even after she began to feed her nestlings, which she did in a day or two, she still managed to avoid giving me a satisfactory view.
From the position of the nest I should have been certain it was the work and the home of a parula warbler but for one remarkable circumstance. The tree was claimed and guarded by a redstart, while never once, except for a moment, and on another tree, on that first morning, was a male parula seen or heard in the neighborhood.
The redstart who caused this complication spent nearly all his time on the nest-tree in silence, and a redstart silent is a redstart with important business in hand. He watched me constantly, drove off strange birds who alighted on the branches, and though he did not actually go to the nest, he showed his anxiety and concern every moment.
I should not have been disturbed about the absence of the male parula, that is, I should not think that conclusive as to the identity, although I knew of a nest of a parula about which the male was most attentive, bringing food and hovering around his sitting mate devotedly. For birds differ in their domestic, as in their other habits. Besides, have we not the example of the ruby-throat to prove that some males are conspicuous by their absence at this important time? It has been thought that these absentees have no interest and no knowledge of nest affairs, but doubt is thrown on this conclusion by the fact observed by Mabel Osgood Wright, that when a mother humming-bird was accidentally killed, the father at once appeared and took tender care of the little family.
I tried to make my glimpses of the nesting-bird suit my knowledge of the female redstart, but in vain. If she belonged to that family she differed from any redstart I had seen. As I know her, this special little dame is always on dress parade, all airs and graces, scrambling madly about, not afraid of being seen, and in every way different from the elusive little owner of that nest.
Moreover, who ever heard of a bird of that species building in, or even behind, a tuft of hanging moss? Yet it is just as unprecedented that a bird should claim a tree and nest not his own, and early in the study I had satisfied myself that there was no second nest on that tree. But then again, where was the mate of the nesting-bird, if the redstart were not he? I was completely baffled for several days, and I had almost begun to entertain the idea of the redstart's proprietorship and to wonder if this could be a progressive, "end-of-the-century" affair, or if the redstart had "married out of meeting," as the Friends say not very seriously, however.
Here once more I had opportunity to reflect how wise are the birds not to disturb their surroundings. Scarcely ever does any litter of discarded material or any disarranging of branches or leaves proclaim their presence. They slip in and select a place, leaving everything exactly as Nature has arranged it, and when they are sitting or absent after food there is nothing to betray the bird's secret. One day while I was watching this warbler nursery, three or four people came along, and I feared that seeing me they would look for birds. Then I noticed how perfectly solitary the bower of the unknown was left. There was absolutely nothing to point out the home of the little family. The tuft of moss which hid it was not nearly so thick as many others; its long veil swung idly in the wind, the picture of desolation. One would never dream that it was occupied.
How different our way! We cannot put up even a tent without changing the whole neighborhood, beginning at once to deface and destroy. Nay, we cannot even walk through the woods without leaving it strewn with our wreckage, flowers plucked and left to die, twigs snapped off from pure thoughtlessness, leaves carelessly picked and scattered far and wide. Some of us, indeed, have not outgrown the vandalism of marking our path through the beautiful works of Nature with paper bags and tin cans. It seems impossible for a human being except perhaps an American Indian to pass along any part of the earth's surface without marring or defacing it.
It is no matter of surprise that some people complain they never see the interesting things that others do. It is simply because they make themselves so obvious in their usual noisy progress through the woods. They are heard a long way off, and every bird silently withdraws, the spirit of the woods retreats to its deepest fastnesses; "The very trees would run away if they could," says John Muir.
It is interesting to see how our little neighbors have learned to understand us. Birds near houses know exactly how to take the average person who goes laughing and talking or hurrying by, seeing nothing and hearing nothing. They go right on about their business, and sing and call and carry on their domestic concerns as if the blind and deaf person down below did not exist. But the individual who goes quietly, stops and looks at them, shows interest in their doings that is a new variety and must be watched. They are at once on guard, become shy, and try to slip out of sight.
I had watched and puzzled over affairs in the moss for several days before my doubts were set at rest by the appearance of the rightful lord and master, eager and busy enough to atone for his strange desertion of his family. On my approach to the tree I saw him, an undoubted parula warbler, making up for lost time by feeding the nestlings industriously. Every few minutes he appeared with mouth full of goodies, a tiny worm dangling from his beak, or small wings sticking out each side, suggestive of dainties within.
He was awkward in getting to the family, looking this side and that before he saw just how to reach them, and sometimes going in from the back, which the mother never did.
The parulas never concerned themselves about birds who alighted on their tree, all the feathered neighborhood were welcome to use it as a perch.
I could not rest until I had settled the question of the redstart's extraordinary conduct. I instituted a close search in the surrounding trees, and I found, directly behind the one I had been watching, another tree with a nest, about which a female redstart scrambled and rushed redstart fashion. That explained and excused the behavior of her mate. He could not keep in sight of me from his own tree, so he established his watch-tower on the next one.
Nine days after the discovery of the parula quarters, and six or perhaps eight after feeding began, the little family took flight one morning before I arrived on the scene, and a chorus of fine thread-like "pip's" came down to me from the roof of the nook. I suppose they were parula baby-cries, but when warblers take their young folk into the tops of tall spruces, they are as much lost as if they had gone into the next state, and I sought them no more.
In a day or two I procured a ladder and saw, and a man to use them, and had the branch sawed off and the nest brought down. It was so frail I wondered it could have held little birds. But it was a typical parula structure, merely the strands of moss drawn together to form a cradle, the whole of one side left open almost to the very bottom, so that it was marvelous that eggs or young had not fallen out. There was not a particle of lining of any sort, and the whole was as dainty and fresh as if no living creature had ever entered it. The bunch of moss was not more than six or seven inches long, of a beautiful sage-green color, and it hung from a dead twig smaller than an ordinary lead-pencil.
"All our endeavors or wit cannot so much as reach to represent the nest of the least birdlet, its contexture, beautie, profit and use, no, nor the nest of a seely spider," says Montaigne.
In another part of the island, a year or two later, another parula nest was taken. It was quite different from mine, being as deep as a vireo's nest, and the strands of moss woven together to form a solid bottom almost as firm as the Baltimore oriole's nest, though with no lining. The study differed also in another respect: the birds were not at all shy, and the male took his full share of feeding.
This nest was closely watched by an enthusiastic bird-student, who had the pleasure of seeing the youngsters make their exit from the home cradle. The mother as she reports coaxed the first nestling to try its wings by alighting on the branch and calling again and again, then feeding the little one who stood lingering on the brink. When, after some time, this one flew, the mother departed with it, and the father took his turn with the last nestling. He fed and called, making short flights about the tree, and at last executed a peculiar movement, which could be interpreted only as an object-lesson to the hesitating birdlet in the doorway. He who had always been seen to fly like a flash flew from the tree to the ground very slowly, with wings and tail wide spread, and stood there, waving his wings. The watching youngster waved his also, and at last he flew.
Mrs. Slosson tells in "Bird Lore" a charming story of the attachment of a parula warbler, who, having been stunned by flying against a window, was taken in, revived, and fed upon flies. He attached himself to her in the most loving and fearless way, and refused to leave her when out of doors and perfectly free. At last, when she was obliged to go away from him, she had to deceive him and slip away when he did not see her. Another proof of the friendliness of birds to us if we would only show a like feeling to them.
A few days after the farewell of the parula family I came upon an exciting scene with the redstarts in the next tree, the young just making their first appearance outside their cradle. There were as many minds about the way in which to make their début as there were babies to go; in fact, I long ago discovered that many of these little folk come out of the egg with their minds made up. Papa redstart was distracted trying to keep them together, and went into a panic at my approach, so I took pity on him and left him to manage his unruly family by himself.
The study of warblers as before noted is the most fascinating and at the same time distracting and altogether exasperating of bird-study. So small, so restless, so rapid in movement; one moment alighting on a twig like a feather, then darting a mere flash of color over one's head; now pausing to utter the song, then instantly diving behind a leaf; now hovering daintily a fraction of a second to snatch some infinitesimal atom, then scrambling over the branches in frantic haste, and all the time preferring the tops of the trees for their evolutions. It is impossible to regard them as anything more than frolicsome youngsters, and their small size encourages the feeling. To see a pair of fussy fluttering warblers in charge of a squad of short-tailed little folk is one of the delectable sights of bird-land.
Not only does warbler study require a good stock of patience, but to prosecute it successfully needs a very amiable disposition or a tough skin, for besides the disadvantages mentioned, the woods they love are also the home of mosquitoes, ants, gnats, and other torments. If the birds had not fortunately the habit of introducing themselves by their jerky little songs, we should scarcely ever know they were about.
These small fellow creatures too have that eternal vigilance which the old saying assures us is the price of liberty. However busy they appear to be with their own affairs, they always have an eye to spare for the student; perhaps that is one of the advantages of eyes looking both ways. Let us not forget that all this energy, this fury of work, is for our benefit, for they are the most indefatigable of workers, destroying every second, between their snatchy songs, insect eggs, and insects which are doing their little best, and no insignificant best either, to destroy our trees.
Nor do these small helpers lack spirit, tiny though they are. I know of one, a captive in the room with several birds of much larger size, who simply made himself autocrat of the party. He took possession of the biggest bathing-dish, selected for his own the most desirable food-cup, and drove away any thrush, catbird, or robin who presumed to dispute his claims. He was a black-poll warbler, not much longer than one's thumb.
In August, what with the plumage of the young and the moulting of the old birds, the student who persists in his attentions to these fairy-like creatures may expect to go mad. The young are queer, the elders like bundles of rags, and the variety of plumage resulting is bewildering in the extreme. Moreover, the birds do not act like themselves, and they seem to have totally lost their cheery voices. It is safest to abandon the pursuit until they have all settled the question of costume.
When the month is over, when
"September brings the goldenrod,
"September brings the goldenrod,And maples burn like fire,"
"O happy life, to soar and sway, Above the life by mortals led, And when the Autumn comes to flee
"O happy life, to soar and sway,
Above the life by mortals led,
And when the Autumn comes to fleeWherever sunshine beckons thee."