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HAPS IN THE FIELD
WHEN I desired a change from the bird-life allowed to me by my autocratic neighbor chebec, I betook myself to an old pasture overgrown with bushes and scattering trees, and found a comfortable seat under a tree.
This place was always attractive, but was especially beautiful at the time the evergreens balsam firs and spruces were putting on their new foliage, every branch and twig decorated with light new tips, looking as if covered with blossoms; thus showing, as Emerson says,
Even the juniper was frosted over with freshness, and the bayberry looked sweet enough to eat. I tried Thoreau's plan of "browsing," but I did not like it.
In the pasture I found many birds. The most delightful was the goldfinch, "in amber plumage freaked with jet." No bird more fully than this small fellow creature expresses the joy of living. His flight, as he goes bounding through the air uttering a gleesome note with every wing-beat, is pure ecstasy. Often, when he has apparently no desire to get anywhere, he will fling himself upon the air with vehemence, make a wide circle, and return to his perch, or bound straight up ten feet or more, and then drop back, pouring out his delicious notes, evidently because he is so brimful of bliss,
The wooing of this dainty little creature is comically like human society manners on similar occasions. There is a whirl of excitement, everybody puts on his best airs, sings, if he can sing, talks, if he can only talk. They indulge in dances and plays, take excursions together, and fill the air with noise and song, α la young man and maiden. His wooing-song is rapture itself.
The goldfinch has a wonderful variety of songs and calls, and with his mate an apparently endless number of conversational notes, all in the same sweet voice. He is one of the most voluble of birds, and I am constantly hearing new utterances of various kinds from him.
The domestic life of the pair is bewitching, the little matron so timid and clinging, with such an appealing call, and the small spouse so tender and devoted, sobered from his usual jolly mood, and fully impressed with his responsibility as head of the family. They always remind me of a boy-and-girl play-marriage, a sort of Dora and David Copperfield affair. When he approaches the nest and gives his coaxing call, she is generally unable to resist it, but leaving nest or eggs, or whatever engages her, flies out to join him, and away they go, bounding through the air, shining like atoms of sunshine against the sombre spruces, and in a moment returning to the point they started from.
I have elsewhere told the story of a young goldfinch having been cared for by a canary. Well-authenticated cases of similar kindness to others are not uncommon among birds. The subject has been treated from a scientific standpoint, it is said, by a French writer, who asserts boldly that the animal is superior to man in altruism. "Animal Societies," he says, "are less polished, but, all things being equal, are more humane than ours." This doubtless sounds absurd to most people, but one who has closely studied living birds, free, and under natural conditions, finds much in their lives which makes him at least consider.
An incident bearing on this point occurred not long ago in a Western city. It caused surprise and aroused great interest in those who saw it, and it is fully vouched for by unimpeachable witnesses. This is the story: A nestling of the red-headed woodpecker species was found on the ground, injured so that he could not fly, nor even hold on to a branch when placed there by a sympathetic friend; and by the way, I once had personal experience with a bird of the same species afflicted in the same way.
The little unfortunate remained on the ground, hopping about in disconsolate fashion, assiduously attended by his distracted parents. Other woodpeckers came around and added their assistance, but none of them could restore him to safety on a tree.
While in this unhappy position, he attracted the attention of a robin. Now this bird is not very hospitable to strangers; indeed, he is conspicuously otherwise, but no bird that I ever watched is unfriendly to the young. A baby seems to make the same demand upon the tenderness of its elders in the bird-world that it does in the human. The robin recognized the needs of the youngster, and bustled about till he secured a lively earthworm, which he stuffed into the throat of the sufferer.
The conduct of the robin was surprising to people not well acquainted with the ways of birds, but still more strange was the effect of the baby's appeal on the family cat. This cat was a great hunter, and when he saw a bird on the ground he started for it with the obvious intention of eating it. On reaching it and seeing its helpless condition, he seemed to appreciate the case, and instead of seizing what was to him a tempting morsel, he began to play with the bird, as a cat plays with a kitten. Several times this little drama was enacted, to the amazement of the observers, who, let me say, were intelligent, trustworthy people. The cedar-bird, or cedar-waxwing, was another tenant of the old field, and I saw him that season for the first time in the position of head of a family. Through apple-blossom time the year before I had watched a small party of cedar-birds who spent much time in the orchard. They appeared to be very busy among the blossoms, and I brought my strongest field-glass to see what they were doing. I found that they were pulling off the white petals, dropping a part, but, to my surprise, eating a part of them. I could see them very distinctly take a petal in the beak and draw it in, crumpling as it disappeared. No doubt they were primarily seeking insects among the blossoms, but they certainly added an occasional petal to their bill of fare. That they did no harm to the fruit became evident when apples appeared, which I noted carefully, as I remained there till October. I never saw apple-trees so loaded. Branches were borne to the ground, and even broken by their burden, while only one tree in the whole orchard showed any signs of insects.
The cedar-bird as every one knows is a pattern of propriety, a feathered "Turvey-drop," without the faults of that apostle of "deportment." In every-day life his plumage is never ruffled. He shows no excitement, has no restless, fidgety ways, and his voice is never raised above the low tones of good breeding. He will sit an hour at a time motionless, with an elegant repose of manner unequaled by any bird of my acquaintance. One can almost believe that as some one says a cedar-bird will die of nervous shock if his plumage is soiled. Though he so much dislikes disorder, however, he does not mind wet, no rain disturbs his beautiful equanimity. He will sit during a heavy shower with perfect composure, only laying his crest back flat upon his head, and occasionally shaking out his plumage.
Even through the agitations of courtship, that time that tries man's (and bird's) soul, he abates not a jot of his reserve and dignity.
There is, however, one period in the life of this interesting fellow creature when he no longer sits by the hour silent and motionless on a twig as if glued to the perch, but is all life and animation, arriving in a bustle, with feathers awry, and immaculate plumage in slight disorder; when he forgets to be dignified, taking no stiff attitude, but bending over, jerking about, and staying but a second in a place; when he resents the appearance of the bird-student, and even swoops down towards her in threatening manner; when one would think he must long for a voice to shriek out his anxiety and distress. That time is during his parental cares, while he is feeding and training his little family, especially after they have left the nest and begin to show the reckless independence characteristic of the young bird as well as human.
Nothing can be more lovely than the young cedar-bird in his soft, fluffy, gray-spotted coat and yellow-tipped tail, looking straight into one's eyes with innocent, babyish expression, and confiding ways that win the heart, or sitting beside his brothers of the nest, hour after hour, with the composure of his race.
One summer a young cedar-bird alighted on the shoulder of a man passing down a rather wide intervale, doubtless tired with the long flight across. He was brought in and remained in the house a day, giving opportunity for a close examination of his plumage. I was surprised to see the "sealing-wax" tips to his wing-feathers already assumed, being like very fine threads, not more than one sixteenth of an inch long, though of the regular sealing-wax color. The little fellow showed no fear or dread of the human species, painfully reminding us that it is only in ignorant infancy that a bird dares to trust us. Finding that the waif could fly well, he was set free in a place frequented by the little group to which it was supposed he belonged.
On another occasion I have seen a young bird of this species come onto a piazza where people were sitting, fly about among them, and almost alight on one. They seem to be unusually confiding youngsters.
That summer also I had another experience with the cedar-waxwing, as intimated above I saw him in his domestic rτle. I first noticed one trying to secure a bit of string which was tangled in an apple-tree. This, of course, aroused my suspicions, for when a bird becomes interested in strings it is time to watch him. After tugging a long time in vain, he went away, and in a moment returned with another, presumably his mate, and both worked at the obdurate string. Several times during the day the pair returned and struggled with that much-desired string.
I watched, and saw the birds go to a maple a little way off, where I soon found the nest, and a great deal of soft chattering going on about it. I was pleased to see that the cedarbird can be talkative in his subdued way.
As head of the family this bird was most devoted. He brought food constantly to the sitting bird, who left the nest to receive it, fluttering her wings like a nestling, and chatting volubly.
The cedar-bird is under a ban as a cherry-eater. No doubt he is fond of that fruit and eats some, though not so much as is supposed. But I want to protest against the common fashion of speaking of a bird taking fruit as "stealing." To the bird, with no knowledge of human decrees, it is perfectly right to "take my own wherever I find it," and the act has no moral significance whatever, while that epithet, constantly applied, creates a prejudice against a most useful bird.
It has been proved many times over that the cedar-bird prefers to fruit canker-worms and other insects, of which he eats enormous numbers, and even of fruit he chooses the wild instead of the cultivated, when both are at hand. I have seen them, when low-bush blueberries were ripe, bring their young family and spend nearly all day "blueber'n," as the natives say.
In the fateful summer of which I write, I saw what I had never seen before a flock of purple finches. There were fifteen or twenty of them, and the singing was simply ecstatic. One purple finch song is a delight, but when it is reinforced by eight or ten other voices as bewitching as itself, the effect is bewildering. This little flock were in the wildest spirits. They sang, and sang, and sang, as if they were drunk with music, or had fairly gone mad. Even some of the demure sparrow-garbed females (as I suppose) sang. Now and then I heard one alone on a tree apparently singing to herself. It was a distinctly purple finch voice, but it differed in arrangement, and was softer than any of the family I had heard. I judged therefore that it was a female and not the young of the previous year, although their plumage is so similar.
The variety in dress of the same species, as seen in this flock, was remarkable. Not only was the crimson of the various individuals of different intensity and depth of coloring, but it differed in extent. The breast, too, in some was of a muddy white or grayish hue, while the finer specimens sported a breast of snowy white. The little party were charmingly social. Sometimes they would fly out from a tall elm, all chattering like a party of school-girls.
From my seat I could see the dead branch watch-tower the kingbird is so fond of having over his nest. I soon found his nest in the top of an apple-tree, and saw that in this case he had two dead branch outlooks on the world. The lower one curved up about a foot above the nest, and was the one usually occupied by the mother, while the other reached up fully two feet above the foliage, giving him a wide view over the neighborhood.
This person of the royal name I found just as courteous to his mate as I have always found his species. He greeted her with a few notes and slight lifting, of wings when she came, and when he brought food after the young were out he alighted near and announced himself, upon which she scrambled out of the nest and he administered the provision to the nestlings, then retired to his watch-tower to guard them, while the mother went off to feed.
There was much low talk between the kingbird pair, and some especially interesting over the youngsters when one parent was alone. Both of the pair talked this baby-talk, which was very low. I could scarcely hear it, although I was within six feet of the nest, and perfectly silent.
As usual, I found the young kingbirds exceedingly interesting. When their heads began to show above the edge of the nest they looked exactly like little old men with gray fur caps on, and they began to show individuality as soon as they were out of the cradle. The day they appeared on the branches of the apple-tree there came up a sudden shower. Three of the four newly emancipated began to shake and plume themselves, one of them indeed so frantically that he nearly lost his hold of the branch time and again. Two worked with vigor, but less violence; but the fourth sat there like a veteran without stirring a feather. This one always sat a little apart from the other three, who crowded together as I have seen young kingbirds before.
At another time, in another place, I was much interested in an exhibition of kingbird character. It was during a severe northeast storm which lasted six days. There were two days of strong, damp wind with heavy clouds, followed by three days' steady cold rain, and another of wind. I noticed the kingbirds on the first day of the rain. There was a little party of them nine or ten and they had possession of a chestnut-tree and a willow beside it, both trees much larger than any other in the vicinity. On these two trees they spent the day, often without moving for an hour at a time, sitting upright as usual, making not the slightest effort to get food. They did not fly out after insects; indeed, no insect could be abroad in the steady rain. They did not attempt to take anything from the tree, and they never went to the ground.
I sat on the piazza for several consecutive hours every day, and watched them constantly, for there was nothing else to watch. Not only did they seek no food, they also appeared to scorn to protect themselves from the rain. They took the most exposed positions, outside dead twigs which these birds always like to perch on, and sat there like philosophers, without moving a muscle, so far as could be seen. They might have been wooden birds, for all the life they exhibited. On the third day of constant rain the kingbirds did not appear.
The kingbird is constantly called belligerent, and I have always watched closely to see his treatment of other birds. I never saw a kingbird object to any one except a robin alighting on his nest-tree, the spot above all others a bird regards as private property, and protects almost with his life. I have often seen flycatchers, warblers, swallows, and even that shy fellow, the cuckoo, alight on the kingbird's nest-tree when the so-called belligerent bird was on guard, but he took not the slightest notice of any one of them.
At the farther end of this delightful half-wild pasture a rose-breasted grosbeak had set up her home. I had not been able to find the nest, though I was sure it was there, for the bird was so madly afraid of her human neighbors that I had n't the heart to annoy her. I saw the head of the family very often, making himself useful in a potato-field close by, and I waited with what patience I might for the advent of the youngsters, whom I was sure no mother, however wary, could keep out of sight.
One afternoon I heard the peculiar baby-cry of the grosbeak, and set out to find it. At the edge of the thicket I was met by mamma, whose anxious salute assured me I was on the right track. I paid no attention to her, but sat down quietly and waited. After circling around me on all sides, repeating her sharp, metallic "klink," she was irresistibly moved as I hoped she would be to look upon her little folks, to see how they fared; and thus she pointed them out to me.
There they stood, two of them, on the top branch of a tall maple, like silhouettes against the sky. They were not much to look at, with beaks almost as big as their heads, and dressed in brown and white, like the mother, but I was glad to see them. Hardly had I taken a good look, however, when the mother discovered that my glass was leveled at her young family, and instantly proceeded to remove her darlings in a way I have seen other mothers do. She dashed past them, just over their heads, almost but not quite touching them. This acted on the young grosbeaks with the power of magic; they followed at once, as though unable to resist. (The first time I saw this done, I thought the mother had knocked her baby off.) All three disappeared in the trees beyond.
One of my favorite seats was in a bit of woods just beyond the pasture, beside a brook. There were others who liked this particular nook as well. Among the rest a small party, perhaps half a dozen, young cattle, "yearlings," as they were called. They had a wide expanse of woods and clearings over which to roam, but their invariable choice was an open spot across the brook from my seat. Here they would sometimes lie, staring at me and chewing gum with the enthusiasm of a backwoods school-girl, and sometimes stand about in a waiting attitude, doing nothing in particular. If I moved, their ears pricked up, and when I rose, they turned as one beast and fled in a panic, burying themselves in the deepest woods. This would be funny if it were not somewhat mortifying to find oneself a bugaboo to creatures so domesticated as barnyard cattle.
The movement that had so alarmed the beasts was to see who was stirring the ferns across the brook. As I approached, a pair of juncoes flew up with easy, loitering flight. Surely, I thought, their nest must be there, and I sought carefully among the ferns which grew up around an old log, but no nest was there.
I returned to my seat, hoping the birds would themselves point it out, for they had not gone far, but were hopping and flying about in the tree over my head, uttering their low "tick," which became a sharp "smack" as they grew bolder. At last one, and then the other, went to the ground at the foot of a tree across the brook. Each went in behind a projecting root, stayed a few seconds, and then flew to a branch and was quiet.
Surely the nest must be there, I said. Shall I go over and find it? But perhaps it is not there; then why with rash fingers destroy my own hopes? Let me please myself with the fancy that junco has chosen that snug spot for a nursery.
Again, if it is there, why should I draw the veil from his secret? By and by, when the babies are of age to be presented, junco himself will bring them forward in their charming speckled coats, and I shall see their innocent baby eyes and their unconventional manners much more agreeably than by thrusting myself rudely upon them in their nursery, while they are only scrawny, featherless youngsters, and letting the poor little parents know they are discovered and their sweet privacy is liable to invasion at any moment.
No! I am not preparing a "Scientific Report." I will assume for my own pleasure that the junco family live across the brook under that convenient root. This assumption gave me the pleasure of fancying the spot peopled with an interesting pair of neighbors, and I enjoyed it, though, to whisper the truth, I never saw the birds go there again.
One resident of that pleasant nook was not so welcome. Indeed, I have found him everywhere a serious trial. It is a personage small in size, but great in his own opinion the common chipmunk. Wherever one goes, however secluded the spot, or however difficult of access, the chipmunk is sure to be there first, perfectly at home. He is what our Western brothers call a "sooner," only his way is more simple than that of the human individual so named. He does not stake out a claim. He claims the whole, and is prepared to defend his right against all trespassers, which he does effectually by protesting so vehemently that all birds are driven out of the vicinity. What should the student do, if he were as big in body as he is in spirit?
On one occasion after an hour of vain attempt to tire out a chipmunk, and thus see some of the other residents, I resolved to seek another spot, if possible beyond the range of my noisy neighbor. The place I found somewhat farther into the woods was delightful, but hard to reach, being part way up the end of a rocky ledge which rose abruptly from the ground. The way which apparently no one had trodden before me was exceedingly steep, and slippery from its thick covering of dead leaves. By the help of an alpenstock, and digging out footholds, as mountain-climbers cut them in rocks, I reached the first ledge, and there I sat down to observe, and consider whether I would attempt the next elevation.
This place was most attractive. One side was perpendicular rock partly covered with moss and clumps of ferns, and in some places with big bark-covered roots of trees which had strayed over the rock from above, seeking a more secure foothold. The other side of my shelf looked into thick woods. The floor was in great waves as if the earth's ribs came to the surface.
Surely, I thought, I shall have this place to myself. Alas, while the thought passed through my mind, behold chipmunk himself who came after! Not laboriously hauling himself up, and slipping back at every step, but lightly, easily skipping over every obstacle, with only his four clasping feet to help him. O what discoveries in bird-ways might one make were he but a chipmunk! It is a lesson in nest-finding to watch this knowing little fellow. He goes into every hole, through every tuft of grass or fern, thrusts his sharp nose into every crevice big enough for an egg, peeps into every bush, runs out on every branch, all in perfect silence, and almost as well as if he had wings. What bird indeed could hope to hide the nest from him if he should happen to be fond of eggs!
When his eyes fell upon me, after the first moment of breathless surprise, when he sat upright with his two hands upon his breast as if to still the beating of his heart, he turned and fled, scampering over a fallen branch as if it were a highway, and from that giving a great leap to a stump, where, safely beyond my reach, he sat up in virtuous indignation, and uttered a voluble remonstrance against my presence in his grounds.
His shrieks and calls I knew were as intelligible to the woods-dwellers as to me, and in order to see any of them I must first silence him. I was obliged, therefore, to end his attempts at intimidation, and break the heavenly stillness of the woods, by a stick sent crashing through the branches near him. A hint of this sort is usually enough for Chip. He recognizes the superiority of the human race when it comes to a trial of force, and when one thus indicates that he is ready to take a hand in the fray he generally retires to some safe retreat; while, if the bird-student is meek and uncomplaining, the small autocrat will revile him for half an hour, apparently without once pausing for breath.
For a long time after I had intimated to the chipmunk that his presence was not agreeable to me, there was nothing to break what we call the silence of the deep woods, though it is anything but that, being filled with its own mysterious sounds. The indefinable awe which always steals over one when alone in the solemn woods had taken full possession of me. I could not bear to move or make a sound, and had reached a state of tense expectancy as if anything might happen.
Suddenly on the top of the ledge above my head there began a great crashing among the dry leaves, as if some large beast were rising from his lair. I rose hurriedly, remembering in a flash how far I was from the bars, how hard it would be to descend safely from the rock, and hastily considering what I should do if the unknown monster started down what now looked like a path toward me. The crashing continued: should I flee? could I outrun any malicious beast? Should I spring open my umbrella at him? Should I get out my "pocket-pistol," provided for a last resort, and loaded, neither with powder nor liquor, but with something to give any biped or quadruped wishing to force an acquaintance upon me, something else to think of for the moment?
While I hesitated lo, a shriek that I knew; the saucy chipmunk emerged "full of fight," and I suddenly remembered that one of these small creatures can make as much noise scurrying about among the dry leaves as an elephant crashing through them.
I was relieved but the woods-spirit had departed. This ridiculous anti-climax broke the spell of solitude, and put to flight all my reveries. I gathered up my belongings and prepared to pick my perilous way down the rocks, musing upon my small tormentor. Why did Nature make such a little beast, and endow him with such a big capacity for noise and confusion? and above all, why did she place him in the heart of her most beautiful creation the woods?