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LAST night the world was all soft with mist. Over on the brow of Cemetery Hill you looked off into an illimitable distance of it. Horizon after horizon loomed over the shoulder of its fellows as the gray-draped hills rose one beyond the other and tiptoed softly away into the yonder world, — so softly that you could not tell where the earth ended and the heavens began.
The landscape passed like an elder saint from this world to the next, you could scarce tell when, only that you were awed and soothed with the soft serenity of the going. In the hush that followed the soft blue mists changed their draperies for black, in mourning for the passing of the twilight saint, and thus night came.
Last summer night on this hilltop was filled with voices. A million insects chirped and sang. Tree toads trilled, amorous toads played bagpipes all along the margin of the swamp below, and in deeper water a thousand frogs shouted one to another in guttural diapason. A little screech owl used to sit in the darker corner of the pines and ululate all to himself far into the night, and here and there a songbird, stirring in his sleep, would pipe a mellow note. A coon would whinny or a fox would yap, and there were many other sounds whose source you might not surely define. The forefathers who wait serenely beneath their slate headstones all along the brow of the hill had much and pleasant company when the year was in its prime. Now their nights are as silent as if the world itself were dead, their company ghosts of mist as tenuous as their own.
The morning after such a night does not break from above; it grows. It rises out of the earth like a soft tide, as if the mists that went to sleep in it last night were the first of all creatures up, making all things gray again. These tiptoe up, tangling their soft garments in the trees and roof tops till they slip from them and pass on into the upper spaces, where their unclothed spirits become the morning light. The garments, clinging still to all things, remain behind as hoar frost.
That is the way it was this morning. All the trees had white baby leaves of infinite daintiness and ghosts of blossoms that were not real enough for a promise. I might better call them remembrance, touched with hope. Hardly was the touch of hope there at the earliest light. It was just white and delicate remembrance. Then, with the thought of the sun, only the thought for the sun himself was not to come for long, there came a slender opalescence welling through these white garments, an iridescent presence that you felt rather than saw, till I knew without looking to the east that the dawn had grown out of the earth into the high heavens and the miracle was complete.
Out of this miracle of the birth of morning light came two pleasant things. One was the red sun, peeping robustly in among the pines, adding his glow to the warmth of their shelter; the other was a bustle of merry company heralded by a salvo of elfin trumpets. A company of chickadees came breakfasting, and with them were nuthatches, I think no one has ever see the trumpet which 'the nut hatch blows, but its tiny, tin toot is a familiar sound in the pine woods at this time of year.
If some fay of the fairy orchestra, returning in haste from revels which lasted till the gray of the morning, did not drop it, I cannot tell where the nuthatch did pick it up, Its note is certainly more elfin than bird-like and always seems to add a tiny touch of romantic mystery to the day.
Such a November morning is fine for birds'-nesting. You may go hunting birds' nests in June if you wish to, but you will not find very many, half so many in a day as I can find now almost in a glance. Down stream there is a little island crowded with alder and elder, milkweed and joe-pye weed, and garlanded with virgin's bower, where I called many days last summer to watch the insect life that rioted about it. A bed of milkweed bloom was each day a busy and cosmopolitan community.
Right at my elbow as I stood in July watching this was a blackbird's nest, I must have brushed it more than once, but I never saw it until to-day. To be sure, when I first went there the young blackbirds were grown up and gone, for the nesting season with these birds is short, and by July the young are flying about with the flock, learning to sing "tchk, tchk, conkaree," Had there been young or eggs in the nest the distress of the parent birds would have warned me of its presence. Lacking that, so cleverly was it placed for safety and concealment, I never noticed it till the passing of the leaves left it bare.
Ten feet away was another, a replica of the first. Among blackbirds good form in house-building has but one accepted style. The nest is rather deep, loosely woven of rough grass, lined with finer grasses. Standing on the little island to-day I could not help seeing these two nests which before I had passed a score of times without seeing, for if June is the time of year to hunt for birds' nests, this is the time of year to find them.
The birds can give you, and I really think they are right about it, many reasons why you should not hunt for their nests in June. Looking at a nestful of young birds, with the mother fluttering solicitously about, I always feel as I think I should if I went into a town where I was not acquainted and went about peeping in at the nursery windows of peoples' houses. My motives might be the best in the world, I might be making a study of nestlings and nests of the human family for scientific purposes; in fact, I might be a veritable "friendly visitor," but I should be fortunate if I did not fall under suspicion, become the object of dislike, and eventually land in the police court.
The mere too frequent inspection of the nests and eggs of some birds will cause abandonment, and those parents who stand by do so with such evident distress that after the briefest possible satisfactory inspection we ought to apologize for the intrusion and step away. Many birds will even attempt to hasten this departure by pretty vigorous means.
None of these objections obtains now. There are no birds in this year's nests, and you may gather them or tear them to pieces in analytical mood without doing harm, at least to the birds. Down stream, ten feet from my second blackbird's nest, was a catbird's. The catbird builds a better nest than the blackbird, at least so far as strength is concerned. Before the winter is over the grasses of the latter's structure will be broken and blown away by the wind or washed back to earth by rain and snow.
The catbird's will surely stand until next fall, and remnants of it may be sometimes seen in the bush the year after that. For the catbird's material is of more rugged quality. His foundation is often of pliant twigs or tough bark of the wild grapevine, though the nest I have before me as I write — the one which I could not see last summer when I passed it at the foot of the little island — has strong, coarse grasses loosely interwoven for its foundation. Then, within this loose, rough cup is a layer of tough oak leaves, the dry ones of the year before, wind-proofing the bottom of the structure. Then conies a layer of fine black roots, I think those of alder, taken where the stream had washed them bare. Then more oak leaves, and finally an inner lining of finer black roots from the same source as those already used.
The whole is firm, sanitary, wind-proof, but not air-proof, and sufficiently cup-shaped to hold the young securely, though not so deep as that of the blackbird. One kick would smash a blackbird's nest to a handful of straw. You might kick a catbird's all about the meadow, and I am quite sure the inner structure would remain interwoven.
I think the reason for the difference in the two is this. Though both often build over water and in similar situations, the blackbird has but one brood a season, and even a frail nest will do for this. The catbird hardly has his first brood off the nest before preparations are in hand for a second; and the nest which can stand two broods of riotous youngsters in succession, even if fixed up a bit, must needs be of fairly firm texture.
A field mouse had appropriated this nest for an autumn storehouse
The strength of the catbird's nest often serves another purpose, though I doubt if this is taken into the calculations when it is planned and built, I found one of the half-dozen which line the brook conspicuously, now that they may be seen at all, half full of wild cherry stones. Evidently a field mouse had appropriated this nest for an autumn storehouse, perhaps planning, before the weather got too cold, to roof it over with a dome of soft grasses, this work of the field mouse being not so very different from that of the red squirrel, only on a smaller scale.
Farther down stream in a rough portion of the pasture, brambly but beautiful with barberries, is the chosen habitat of the yellow warblers of my neighborhood. Always they build in the barberry bushes here, nor have I ever found them anywhere else or in other bushes. It is not difficult to find them when the pasture is in the full leafage of late May, for you have but to go from one barberry bush to another till you have succeeded. But the yellow warbler is a shy bird, and I have known them to desert nest and eggs when these were too often visited.
It is much better to hunt them now, when you have but to stand on a little hillock and count, then pluck the nest that you prefer and take it home with you without abraiding anybody's feelings. The yellow warbler mother bird seems to have a great love for the tender buff wool of the young shoots of the cinnamon fern, which are just about ready to shed these delicate overcoats when nesting begins with the yellow warblers. In fact, her color scheme is perfect.
The nest, when finished, is a symphony of pale buff and silvery grays that shade imperceptibly toward the buff touches on the under parts of the warbler and are lighted as with a gleam of sunlight by the bright yellow of the remaining plumage. Yet this bright yellow has a greenish tint that is deepened in the tender green of the young shoots of the barberry, while the yellow itself is again reproduced in the blossoms. No wonder this lovely little singing-bird loves a barberry bush for its nest, It finds protection and an artistically satisfying color scheme in the same bush.
The silvery grays of the nest are the fine, silky, fibrous inner bark of the milkweed, whose last year's stems are shredded by wind and storm in time for the nest-building. These barberry-bush-building yellow warblers with whom I have been more or less acquainted for a quarter of a century seem to care for little else for material, though sometimes they make the fern fuzz more adhesive with caterpillars' silk and line with a few horse-hairs and soft feathers
Yet though these nests have been invariable in material they have varied otherwise. Some have been so firmly woven and the material so stoutly packed as to defy the storms of a winter or two. Others have been so frail as hardly to be found when the leaves are off. Perhaps these slight nests are made by birds that were nestlings of the previous year and have not yet learned the complete art of nest-building.
Once I found one whose makers were skilled indeed. Instead of placing it firmly in a crotch and building up with the fern wool within a netting of fiber wound from twig to twig, as is the usual method, these had launched boldly into a new architecture. Perhaps they had neighbored the year before with a vireo. Anyway, they took the vireo's plans and built a yellow warbler's nest on them, hanging it from a nearly horizontal barberry fork, and finishing a fine, firm, pensile nest, vireo style, out of yellow warbler material, I never found this nest's successor, and I am not sure whether, having found they could do it, they abandoned the type for the old home style, or whether something happened to the birds, and thus the warbler world lost budding genius.
Only one other nest have I found that seemed to be in any way abnormal, and this, unlike the pensile nest, seems to have had a very definite reason for its abnormality. The hollow part which had contained the eggs and young was in no wise different from that of all other warblers' nests, It was the depth and firmness of the foundation which surprised me. This was built up to the height of an ordinary yellow warbler's nest before the real nest began at all, and (the young had flown) I promptly took it home and dissected it.
Then the murder was out. The extra height had been added to the structure to circumvent the villainy of a cowbird. The cowbird lays her eggs in nests of birds that are smaller than herself and there leaves them to be hatched. She is partial to yellow warblers' nests because the eggs that belong there are much like hers in coloring, though smaller, and the fraud is less likely to be detected. When hatched the young cowbird is so much larger and stronger that it starves out the other nestlings or crowds them out. The nest-builders in the main are foolish enough to bring up this murderous changeling; hence cowbirds are perpetuated. Perhaps these warblers had had one experience.
Anyway, finding the cowbird's egg in their nest, they had promptly roofed it over with fern wool and fiber, built up the sides to correspond to the addition, and gone on with their housekeeping. Here was evidence of prompt action in an emergency in nest-building. I do not think it possible for the birds to have lifted the cowbird's egg over the side of their nest and to have dropped it on the ground, which would have been the quickest way of getting rid of it. A yellow warbler's nest "tumbles home" a bit at the top, as does the hull of a yacht, and I do not think their slender claws could grasp the egg and get it over that lip, Instead, they had done what they could, — imprisoned the intruder egg where it could not hatch.
I found it there, addled and nearly dried up within, and I rejoiced. The cowbird is a light-o'-love and abandons children on other people's doorsteps. All such should be put in a pie. Since English sparrows became so plentiful the cowbird has shown a decided partiality for their nests for its abandoned offspring, I found a cowbird's egg with those of an English sparrow that nested in a crevice right over my front door last spring, If cowbirds must behave in this nefarious manner it is not so bad to find them choosing the English sparrows for their dupes. The surprising part of it is to find the cowbird with sufficient courage to come in under the porch.
I'd like to watch a young cowbird growing up in a nestful of young English sparrows. The tender nestlings of the yellow warbler have no show, but I have an idea that here Greek would meet Greek, and after the tug-of-war the cowbird would be among those not present. Perhaps in the falling out both would fall out, at which most of us who love birds would not grumble.