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AFTER hours of study in the woods, I passed the long twilight on the piazza, where I had a feast of daisies. Of these flowers I never tired. In a light breeze they looked all alive, as if nodding and laughing together like a party of jolly children. When the wind died away, all were perfectly still, then a ripple would start one side, go on to the neighbors, who began to stir, and in ten seconds the whole field would be laughing and nodding in glee, always reminding me of Wordsworth's daffodils, —
Later, when daisies had dropped their white draperies and stood silent, with dull yellow heads, in the place which late they had glorified, wild roses took their place and beautified the ground, while concealed among the tall grass grew the most wonderful clover, the utmost possibilities of that humble plant, — stems more than a foot long with great red globes an inch and a quarter in diameter, of several shades of color. A handful of them made a rich and truly beautiful bouquet; and in lower spots among the rocks, white clover like small snowballs, perfect as they, swinging lightly on their foot-long stems.
Beyond this intervale was a rocky ledge crowned with a belt of "pointed firs" that hid the ocean, —
"Where land and sea touch hand, and greet."
On the right side was first a dwarf pear-tree, on which, sooner or later, alighted every bird of the neighborhood; farther on, a ledge where blackberries flourished, and a hidden swampy nook where yellow loose-strife and tall meadow-rue were found, and beyond all a bit of the sea, with "Half-Way Light" flashing its red and white at night. On the left were more evergreens, with here and there a roof, and the road to the village.
Seated there in comfortable easy-chair I watched the strangers who used the old pear-tree as a rest-station between the woods each side; saw the robins and song-sparrows who foraged on the close-cut grass about the house; studied the varied wonderful effects of cloud and ocean; watched the reflection in the east of the sunset, sometimes more beautiful than the original in the west, and at all times the swallows, who, as Michelet says, "sing little, but talk much."
Swallows were constantly flying about over the grass in their graceful way, making every other bird- flight appear stiff and clumsy, chirruping and calling socially to one another, perfectly willing — as it appeared — that all the world should hear what they have to say.
Now and then several of them would collect on the ground, in a path free from grass, chattering at the top of their sweet voices, occasionally picking at the earth as if eating something, but in general simply talking, moving about this way and that without apparent object, and ludicrously suggesting that human gathering known as a "tea."
I have long known the fondness of these birds for a joke, and here I received fresh proofs of it. While I was one evening watching a party circling about over the lawn as usual, a bird left the group and swooped down at a solemn robin pursuing his food-hunt on the lawn and in no way interfering with the swallow. The robin flew up with indignant outcry, ready to fight, but the aggressor "flit in his glee."
Again, some hens were turned out into a field over which these birds were flying. At once the swallows began dashing down at the hens, almost touching them, and making them dodge and run. They did not cease till the hens retired to a rocky ledge, when the swallows resumed their sailing over the meadow. Swallows also came down threateningly at a kingbird, but though he dodged, he did not go, and they did not repeat it.
It was a common thing to see them mob the cat, and they did it so successfully, sweeping down one after another in close succession and so near her that she was glad to run and hide.
Once, in another place, I saw them drive a kingfisher from a fence-post where he had established himself to watch the water below. They attacked him so energetically that two or three times he lost his balance and would have fallen but for wings. At last he departed, when some young swallows came to the fence and the parents went to feeding. The kingfisher had been too near to please them.
It was charming to see the swallows bathe. One would skim along just over the water, as a flat stone thrown by a skillful hand will "skip," now and then touching the water. After two or three of these dainty dips, he would describe a large circle in the air, then return and dip two or three times more, repeating this two or three times before he would alight and dress his plumage.
The summer of this story I had still further insight into swallow idiosyncrasies — I saw a swallow-wooing, and a case of conjugal discipline edifying to behold. For some reason which I could not discover a pair of barn-swallows began to frequent the beam supporting the roof of the piazza where I sat.
The lawn in front — as I have said — was common hunting-ground for a large party of swallows, but they had never been in the habit of coming under the piazza roof. The ends of the rafters divided the supporting beam into spaces of fifteen to eighteen inches. These cozy nooks seemed to strike the two birds as very attractive, and here they came for their love-making early in June, for it was a late season in that cool island off the coast of Maine.
The courtship of the barn-swallow appears to be conducted in the "good old-fashioned way." The little swain goes down on his knees, as it were, certainly as nearly as possible with his anatomy. This bird took the most humble position in the presence of the "beloved object," often with his head thrust into the corner like a "naughty boy" under punishment. He held head and tail depressed, and altogether looked as if he were trying to sink through the floor. In this attitude he sometimes uttered his song, but more frequently a sort of "b-r-r," loud and long continued. Sometimes he moved about, turning round and round like a top, or running with mincing steps across his narrow floor between the rafters.
Meantime the damsel didn't approve in the least of the demonstrations in her honor, for she flew at him with a sharp "phit!" Usually he vanished before her wrath, but if he lingered, she hurried him with a touch of her beak. Occasionally she flew away in the midst of his rhapsody as if to show her disdain, upon which he changed his tone, uttered some low conversational notes in a plaintive tone, or became silent.
The birds were so absorbed in their own affairs that they did not usually notice me, sitting, of course, perfectly silent there. Once the bride-elect flew almost in my face, and fairly screamed at me. But I attributed that to nervous excitement, for she was greatly disturbed. At another time she came and looked over at me in a most expressive way, as if to say, "Did you ever see such a silly performance? What would you do with such a fellow?" and then she turned on him with fury in her eye.
Sometimes she would not endure the antics of her lover for a second, and again she would be patient, perhaps a minute, but all the time restless and growing more and more fidgety, till at last she flew furiously at him, and he disappeared before her.
Once there was a droll little scene. They were on opposite sides of the same rafter, the rafter between them, of course. He sidled close up to his side, drew himself down, and was still. He could hardly be seen. After a while he thrust his head forward and peeked around at her, upon which both flew.
Sometimes she came alone and spent a long time dressing the old-gold satin plumage of her breast with its dark necklace.
Matters progressed in this way for a day or two, and I could not see that the bride was any nearer being won, when the wooer suddenly adopted new tactics: he brought the temptation of earthly possessions to bear upon the obdurate fair one — he began to build a house. He chose a certain corner on the beam, and, the first I knew, came with a great mouthful of mud, which he carefully placed and worked over with his beak for some seconds, using great effort, with his whole body jerking.
His "lady-love" did not appear, nor seem to notice what he was doing for some time, but when she did, she fairly raged. Catching him as he appeared with a mouthful, she flew at him and compelled him to leave before he had time to deposit his load. She chased him round and round the lawn. But he held on to his precious mouthful, and returned at last to deposit it safely, and work it in with the rest.
This happened several times before she recognized that more vigilance was demanded, and began flying through very often to see if he were there. Finally she took to sitting on the beam to prevent his coming at all.
It was evident that the little madam was determined to put an end to his building in that place. Whether she thought he was premature and took too much for granted, or whether she preferred to set up housekeeping in the barn, where the rest of the little flock were building, so that she could have society, she did not make clear to me. Whatever the reason, she was resolved to have her own way, and she did, as in the bird-world is the mother's prerogative. She chased him every time he came, often till he dropped his load, and she finally discouraged him. He began two nests, but did not get far with either, and at last they came no more. They doubtless settled in the barn and made part of the lively party ever circling over the grass and looking all alike to me.
Barn-swallows are greater singers than is usually appreciated, their voices being generally soft and low, though I have heard them sing as loud as a bobolink. Those about me in that corner of the world had very interesting songs. One would perch on the roof of an extension and give a long-continued song, twelve or fourteen notes, and constantly repeated, so that he kept it up several minutes at a time, before closing with the open-mouth explosive sound that usually ends it. Often I have surprised one perched on a dead tree singing away for dear life all alone, and one often sang as he flew over.
The barn-swallow is always a talkative bird, and his voice has a wonderfully human quality. A little party of three or four flying leisurely over, not on food intent, will often be chatting sociably together. Even when just out of the nest, the babies are great chatterers, and one whose ears are open to bird-notes will hear their sweet squeaky voices everywhere.
A few weeks after the little idyll of June I had the good fortune to surprise a family party, and note the pretty family feeling. Two young ones sat on a fence as close together as they could get. The parents fed them there, hovering before the little pair in the daintiest way. When all had enough food and the parents wanted to rest, they alighted by the two youngsters, one each side and close to them, making a charming picture.
But the wise elders never forgot that baby swallows must take their regular wing-exercises, so now and then the two would circle around in the air, uttering peculiar cries, which seemed to inspire or excite the youngsters, for they took to their wings and tried to follow. They flew well, but soon tired and dropped to the fence, but far apart. Then it was pleasing to see both of them begin drawing nearer one another, running or creeping along in their pretty way till they were nestled side by side again.
The life of a nestling is most interesting. Nothing is more charming to me than to watch them from the egg up, and see their pretty baby-ways. They are not all made on the same pattern. The robin baby is a masterful fellow, demanding to be fed and comforted, while the Baltimore oriole baby cries constantly in a hopeless, lost sort of a way for days after it has left the nest. The bluebird baby is a darling, with a little speckled bib and the sweetest of voices; the catbird baby is graceful and shy, but not a bit afraid of one; the redwing baby is fussy and restless, never staying two minutes in a place, while the wood-thrush baby will sit in one spot for an hour, waiting with thrash patience for breakfast; the cedar-bird baby is gentle and confiding, without fear of his human neighbors, and the young song-sparrow chirps like an insect for hours together. The droll little nuthatch mamma leads her young folk around in a flock as a hen does her chickens, and a busy time she has stuffing the hungry little mouths. Drollest of all are warbler babies, not much bigger than a walnut, yet restless and uneasy with the true warbler spirit. They seldom stay two seconds in one spot, and the parent who has one to feed spends half her time hunting it up in a new place every time she comes. Swallow babies are very different. They stay in the nest — those I have watched — till they can fly well; for days they stand on the edge and try their powers by beating the wings, till, when at last they do venture, they reach the haven they start for without accident. In a short time after its first flight a little swallow will follow its parents out of doors and make short excursions in the air, and in a few days one can hardly tell the young from the old.
Says a thoughtful observer, — albeit a sportsman, — "The more the habits of any wild animals are known, the greater is our admiration called forth, for we see traits of character developed and intellectuality exhibited that are hidden from the superficial observer."