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I HAVE been night-clerking a bit lately -- social settlement work, you know -- at the Pasture Pines Hotel, paying especial attention to the crow lodgers, and in so doing have come to the conclusion that in the last score or so of years the crows in my town have changed their habits.
It used to be their custom to roost in flocks, winters. Over on the Wheeler place in the big pines you could find a rookery of several hundred of a winter evening, dropping in from all directions and making a perfect uproar of crow talk, or rather crow yells, till darkness sent them all to sleep, sitting together in long rows on the upper limbs, I suppose for mutual warmth. Here, each with head poked deep under his wing, they would remain till dawn, when with more uproar; they would all whirl off together to some common breakfasting place. Later in the day they would become separated, only to drop in at night to the usual roost.
It was not a very safe proceeding, for farm boys, eager to use that new gun, used to go down before sunset and hide beneath the pines, letting go both barrels with great slaughter after the crows had become settled. Perhaps this had something to do with the breaking up of the custom, for now, though many crows roost on the Wheeler place, they do so singly, each in his own room, so to speak.
The same is true of the crow guests at the Pasture Pines Hotel. I had the pleasure of waking them early there this morning, incidentally, and vicariously, waking all crow-town. Last night, just as the last tint of amber was fading from the sunset sky, letting a yellow-green evening star come through, almost like a first daffodil, a crow slipped bat-wise across the amber and dropped into a certain pine to roost.
I noted the tree, and this morning, before hardly a glimmer of dawn had come, slipped along beneath the dark boughs, planning to get just beneath his tree and see him first. But I had planned without the obstructions in the path and the uncertain light. I approached unheard on the needle-carpeted avenue beneath the big trees, but when I started across the field, still twenty rods away from my bird, I kicked a dry, broken branch.
"What? What's that?" It was an unmistakable crow inquiry, fairly shouted from the tree I had marked as the roosting place. There was n't the space of a breath between the snap of that branch and the answer of the bird. Surely a night-clerk in crow-town has an easy task. There need be no prolonged hammering on the door of the guest who would be called early. One tap is sufficient. I had hoped to stand beneath that tree and sight my crow in the gray of dawn, see him yawn with that prodigious black beak after he had withdrawn it from tinder his wing, then stretch one wing and one leg, as birds do, look the world over, catch sight of me and go off at a great pace, shouting a hasty warning to the world in general.
But he did not need to see me. That breaking branch had opened his eyes and ears with one snap. He heard the crisp of my footfall on the frozen grass of the field and immediately there was a great flapping in the marked pine tree and he was off over the tops of its neighbors to a safe place an eighth of a mile away. He said three things, and so plain were they that any listener could have understood them. Languages vary, but emotions and the inflections they cause are the same in all creatures. The veriest tyro in wood-lore could have understood that crow.
His first ejaculation was plainly surprise and query blended. In his sleep he had heard a noise. He thought it, very likely, a fellow calling to him to get up and start the day's work. Then when the answer was a man's footfall he flew to safety, sounding the short, nervous yelp which is always the danger signal. Then when he had again alighted in safety he realized that it was morning again and he was awake and it was time that the gang got together. “Hi-i, hi-i, hi-i-i," it said. It was neither musical nor polite, but it was intended to wake every crow within a half-mile in a spirit of riotous good-fellowship. There was no further need of my services; every crow within a half-mile answered that call. Then I could hear those farther on rousing and taking up the cry, and so it went on, no doubt indefinitely.
I have a feeling that I waked every crow in eastern Massachusetts a full half-hour before his accustomed time, simply by kicking that dead limb. However, I learned one thing, and hereby report it to the Lodging-House Commission: that is, that the crows hereabouts have now given up the dormitory idea and occupy individual rooms after nightfall. They were scattered all through the pasture and woodland but no two were within twenty rods of one another.
Their minds have not yet turned to nest-building and mating, though the time is near, for they still flock in hilarious good-fellowship at sunrise, and you may hear them whooping and hurrahing about in crowds all day long. They may be beginning to "take notice"; I suspect some of the hilarity is over that. But they have not come to the pairing-off stage. When they reach that the flocks will disappear and you would hardly think there was a crow left in the whole wood. You might by stepping softly surprise a pair of them inspecting a likely pine in the pasture, planning for the nest. You might, by listening in secluded places, hear the curious, low-toned, prolonged croak, which is a love-song. I have heard this described as musical, but it is not. It is as if a barn-door hinge should try to sing “O Promise Me." But there will be no more congregations.
Certainly there was not much in the aspect of the night which was just slipping away when I waked my crow that would seem to justify plans of nest-building. The thermometer marked twenty in my sheltered front porch when I stepped out. It must have been some degrees below that in the open. The ground was flint with the frost in it. The old thick ice was gone from the pond, indeed, broken up by the disintegrating insinuation of the sun and the vigorous lashing of northwest gales, but in its place was a skim of new ice formed that night. Standing still, you felt the lance of the north wind still; it was winter. Yet you had but to breathe deep to get the soft assurance of the near presence of spring, and if you walked briskly for a moment the north wind's lances fell clattering to the icy ground and you moved in a new atmosphere of warmth and geniality. Thus point to point are the picket lines of the contending forces.
In the west the pale, cold moon, now a few days past the full, was sinking in a blue-black sky that might have been that of the keenest night in December. In the east, out of a low bank of dark clouds that marked the dun spring mists rising from the sea twenty miles away, flashed iris tints of dawn upward into a clear, pale sky that bore dapplings of softest apple-green. On the one hand were night and the winter, on the other dawn and the spring, and down the pine-sheltered path I walked between the two to a point where I stopped in delight. The pine path ended, and the willows let the spring dawn filter through their delicate sprays. Just here I caught the hum of the water rolling over the dam and the prattle of the brook below, and right through it all, clear, mellow, and elated, came the voice of a song sparrow.
"Kolink, kolink, chee chee chee chee chee, tseep seedle, sweet, sweet," he sang and it fitted so well with the rollicking tinkle of the brook that I knew he was down among the alders where he could smell the rich spring odor of the purling water. The two sounds not only complemented one another as do two parts in music, but they were of the same quality, though so distinctly different. It was as if tenor and alto were being sung.
I had gone forth expecting bluebirds; I had half hoped for a robin when it came time for matins, for robins have been about all winter, and here a song sparrow, no doubt the first spray from the northward surging wave of migratory birds, was the first to break the winter stillness. He had hardly piped his first round, though, before the voices of bluebirds murmured in the air above, and two lighted on the willows, caroling in that subdued manner which is the epitome of gentleness. I think these two were migrants, for later in the morning I heard others.
Then in a half minute there was a shrilling of wings that beat the air rapidly and six ducks swung over my head in the rosy dusk. Most ducks make a swishing sound with the wings when in rapid flight, but this was so marked a sibillation that I am quite sure it was a flock of golden-eyes, more commonly called whistlers, because they so excel in wing music. They swung a wide circle over my head and then, dropped back into the pond, where an opening in the young ice gave them opportunity. Curiosity probably brought them up. They wanted to see what that was prowling on the pond shore in the uncertain light, -- a prompting that might have cost them dear had I carried a gun, for they came within easy range; then, having seen, they went back to their fishing. Their presence added a touch of wildness to the scene that was not without its charm, for you can hardly call the bluebird or the song sparrow wild birds. They are almost as domestic as the garden shrubbery.
For the moment the bird songs and the whistling of the ducks' wings through the rosy morning light made me forget the grip of the winter cold that was in all the air, yet when I had crossed the dam and begun to clamber along the other shore of the pond the winter reasserted itself. Here was no promise of changing season. The thick ice in its disintegration had been pushed far ashore by the westerly gales, and here it was frozen in pressure ridges which were not so far different from those one may see on the Arctic shores. To them was cemented the young ice of the night, and I could walk along shore in places on its surface, its structure as elastic as that of early December.
Here, too, was piled high the debris not only of that great battle in which the spring forces had ripped the thick ice from the water, but of the daily skirmishes in which winter and north wind .have set a half-inch of ice all along the surface and spring sunshine has broken it away from its moorings, obliging the very north wind that made it to pile it in long windrows high on shore. To clamber along these pressure ridges and hear the crunching cakes resound under my tread in hollow, frosty tones, to feel the bite of the north wind which drifted across the new ice, was to step out of the spring promise which the birds had given me, back into the Arctic. I was almost ready to look for seal and wonder if I would n't soon hear the wild wolf-howl of Eskimo dogs and round a point onto one of their snow-igloo villages.
The song sparrow was far out of hearing and here we were in mid-winter again. Only in the east was there promise. Through the dark tracery of pond-bordering trees I could see the sky all a soft, unearthly green, like an impressionist lawn, and all through this the sun, now close below the horizon, had forced into bloom red tulips and blue and yellow crocuses of spring dawn. From the ice ridges it was all as unreal as if it were hung in a frozen gallery, and I were an unwilling tourist shivering as I observed it.
Again, I had to go but a short distance to find a new country. Here the warmer waters of a little brook came babbling down the slope and had pushed away all the ice ridges and warmed its own path far out into the new ice. Along its edge the alder catkins hung in grouped tassels of venetian red, and here and there a group had so thrilled to the warmth of the running water that even in the face of the cold wind they had begun to relax a bit and show cracks in the varnished surface that has kept the stamens secure all winter.
It will not be long now before these favored ones will begin to shake the yellow pollen from their curls. Already they are giving the hint of it. A little way upstream, however, was a far more potent reminder of the coming season: I caught a whiff of its fragrance and smiled before I saw it.
I wonder why we always smile at this most beautiful spring flower, -- for it was a spring blossom, the very first of the season, which was growing in the soft green of the brookside grass, its yellow head all swathed in a maroon and green, striped and flecked, pointed hood, lifted bravely above the protecting herbage into the nipping air. The flowering spadix I could not see; only the handsome, protecting spathe which was wound about the tender blooms to protect them from the cold. When the sun is high in the sky this spathe will loosen a bit and let visiting insects enter for the fertilization of the blossom. But in that cold air of early morning it was wrapped tight.
I have seen orchids tenderly nurtured in conservatories that had not half the honest beauty of this flower. Neither to me is the odor of the derided skunk-cabbage more unpleasant than that of many a coddled and admired garden bloom -- a dahlia, for instance. Yet I smiled in derision on catching the first whiff of it, and so do we all. If the symplocarpus cared it would be too bad, but it does not. Unconscious of its caddish critics, it blooms serenely on in the swamps and takes the tiny insects into its confidence and its hood, and adds a bit of rich color to the place when no other blossom dares. And even as I looked at it the sun slipped out of the low band of dark horizon mists and sent a golden good-morning like a benediction right down upon the head of the humble, courageous, sturdy beauty of the brookside. After that approval why should any blossom care?
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